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Louisville is right No. 1 — for now
First of all, let me clear your conscience: You are forgiven.
You are forgiven for missing the wildest week yet this college basketball season. You are forgiven because you, like most of America, had your sports brain consumed by the wonderful world of the NFL playoffs this week: the Ravens’ miracle and Peyton’s bumbles, Kaepernick’s coming-out party and the Falcons' just-barely heart-stopper. Oh yeah, and the Patriots are in the AFC title game again. You had other things to focus on. And that’s not even mentioning Alabama’s walloping of Notre Dame in the BCS title game last Monday.
So what did you miss in college basketball? Oh, not much. Just the top team in the country, Duke, suffering its first loss Saturday. And the second-ranked team, Michigan, following suit a day later. And this all came after the fourth-ranked team in the nation, Arizona, went down for the first time on Thursday. Two other top-10 teams, eighth-ranked Minnesota and 10th-ranked Missouri, lost as well — Minnesota in a respectable seven-point loss to fifth-ranked Indiana, Missouri in an ugly loss to Ole Miss in which the formerly high-scoring Mizzou scored only 49 points against a basketball backwater. For good measure, No. 12 Illinois dropped consecutive Big Ten games to Minnesota and Wisconsin after upsetting Ohio State on Jan. 5.
If this were February, you’d be singing the praises of college basketball, how conference season has the feel of March Madness. Instead, it's January, so you looked past these stunning upsets, mostly, keeping your mind on football. You figure things are still shaking themselves out in the basketball rankings, so who sits where doesn’t mean that much. And for the most part, you’re right. You assume unranked powerhouses North Carolina, UCLA and Kentucky (who entered crisis mode on Saturday as the nation’s top recruiting class lost its first home SEC game in the Calipari era) will right their ships. You figure that early-season flashes in the pan — specifically Arizona, which easily could have three more losses so far, with two razor-thin victories against San Diego State and Utah and a third victory against Colorado that was decided by a mistaken call by officials at the end of regulation — will regress to the norm.
But there’s a more pressing question that was answered Monday when the newest AP poll was released: Who’s No. 1?
The Louisville Cardinals took over the top spot. And for my money, that was the right answer — for this week at least.
Louisville is the best team in the country right now. Its only loss, in November, was against Duke. Louisville lost by five, and that was its first game without its intimidating low-post presence Gorgui Dieng. (He’d broken his wrist the night before in a blowout win against Missouri.) Since Dieng returned for the Cardinals’ post-Christmas in-state matchup against Kentucky, a very good Louisville team has looked virtually unbeatable. Dieng has three double-doubles the past four games. Russ-diculous shooting guard Russ Smith is showing why he’s not just the most exciting, unpredictable player in the country, but also becoming more reliable too, averaging 18.9 points a game. Peyton Siva finally has made the transition from a combo guard into a true point guard, coach Rick Pitino told me recently, and he has become the heart of this team.
Other teams could make a case for being the current No. 1. Kansas’ four senior starters have shown a remarkable chemistry along with redshirt freshman Ben McLemore, who is putting together a player-of-year caliber season. Duke and Michigan haven't dropped too far from the top of the rankings, either, as both of their losses were on the road to top-25 conference opponents.
Still, for now it’s hard to argue against the Cardinals. This very well might be Pitino’s best team since he landed in Louisville.
Because this week will bring more shakedowns for the top 25 teams in the country. Louisville is hosting a very good Syracuse team, whose Michael Carter-Williams has shot up draft charts this season as he leads the nation in assists per game. The mid-majors will have their own shakeout this week too, as eighth-ranked Gonzaga heads to Indianapolis on Saturday to face 13th-ranked Butler and 12th-ranked Creighton heads to Wichita to face Wichita State on Saturday.
Sure, the NFL playoffs are continuing. We won’t blame you if you don’t think the college basketball season begins until the day after the Super Bowl. Just know that, unlike last season when Kentucky was so obviously the class of the nation, this season has already shown us a number of surprises, no shortage of furious second-half comebacks and one of the most fluid top-25 rankings in years. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss more than you know.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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