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In year of upsets, rankings don't rate
DES MOINES, Iowa
On any other night, Wednesday’s storyline would have been easy: “Down go the mid-majors!”
Fresh off its miracle-finish weekend upset of Gonzaga, ninth-ranked Butler lost to an as-yet-unheard-of La Salle, while the nation’s sharpest-shooting team, 17th-ranked Creighton, went down to conference opponent Drake and its sub-.500 record.
But Wednesday wasn’t just any other night, just like this college basketball season isn’t just any other college basketball season.
So as I was sitting courtside at Drake, wondering why the National Player of the Year candidate I’d come to see, Creighton’s Doug McDermott, couldn’t buy a 3 (reason: flu-like symptoms that caused him to get sick at halftime), the supposed best team in the country was going through a shellacking of historical proportions.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that top-ranked Duke took its talents to South Beach (OK, to Coral Gables) and suffered the third-worst loss by a No. 1-ranked team in history, falling 90-63 to the No. 25 Miami Hurricanes. That seems to be what happens to top-ranked teams these days — especially when there’s not an obvious cream-of-the-crop like last season's Kentucky team.
Just like top-ranked Louisville last weekend (lost to Syracuse), top-ranked Duke before that (lost to North Carolina State), and top-ranked Indiana before that (lost to Butler). Michigan didn’t even get to taste what it feels like to be called top-ranked, as the day before it would have ascended to the vacated top spot, it lost to Ohio State.
Perhaps the phrase “top-ranked” is another way of saying “probably going to lose.”
There are two ways to look at this: One is that the blessing of the national polls is in fact a curse, as no fewer than 25 top-10 teams have lost so far this season.
The better way to look at it? The constant shuffling atop the polls is the best indication yet that college basketball — more so this season, with no super teams — has the most enviable parity of any American sport, the kind of anybody-can-win reality that makes March Madness so mad (and is making this January pretty wacky, too).
“When you’re ranked, all the sudden 6,000 people show up tonight,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said after his squad lost its second game in a row.
“Drake gets an opportunity to play in an environment they don’t always get an opportunity to play in front of. And they fed off that. ... You’re going to get everybody’s best shot when you’re in the position we’re in right now. Butler’s in that same situation. Duke’s in that same situation every year. You gotta be ready for it.”
There were plenty of similarities between the four big upsets Wednesday (12th-ranked Minnesota also lost, to Northwestern): All of the losses came on the road against conference opponents. Three of the four victories were surprising enough to the home teams that their fans stormed the court. Three of the four ranked teams that lost shot well below their typical field-goal percentage — and for Duke, which made less than 30 percent of its shots, far, far below their average.
These moments are why we love college basketball. It is our most democratic of sports, where we don’t whine about small-market teams unable to compete with big-market teams but instead celebrate the anonymous schools giving the bluebloods a whipping: the times when a Northern Iowa shocks a Kansas, or an NC State knocks off a Houston, or a Norfolk State beats a Mizzou. It is the sport of the underdogs.
Which makes you wonder: Why even try to have rankings in college basketball? The polls are an attempt to make sense and order out of an order-less universe. College basketball is not meant to make sense. There are 347 teams, and you’re going to tell me which one is “The Best”?
Sure, people like Ken Pomeroy on his web site KenPom.com do an excellent job of reading the numbers and putting a semblance of order into that universe. The No. 1 team in the KenPom.com rankings (Florida) will never lose to the No. 347 team (Grambling), unless there were some sort of Tonya Harding moment going on. But on any given night, the 44th-ranked team (Kansas State) can beat No. 1.
Those are the sports moments we live for, when the unexpected becomes real.
“It's the greatest feeling ever,” La Salle’s Ramon Galloway said shortly after making the winning basket with 2.7 seconds left to beat Butler. “It's one of the greatest wins ever in my life.”
They stormed the court in Miami when Duke lost, they stormed the court in Philadelphia when Butler lost, and they stormed the court in Des Moines, too, when Creighton lost.
Drake students were so exuberant that the school’s football team, seated in a group under one basket, stormed the court a bit early — there still was a meaningless half-second left on the clock, and an angry referee had to whistle them back to the stands. When the buzzer did go off, they stormed back onto the court, hundreds of them, players and students jumping together in the middle of the joyful scrum.
A few minutes later, when we turned our focus to the next upset of the night — Minnesota at Northwestern — the students and players cleared the floor. Left behind was the detritus of the unlikely celebration: A missing tennis shoe. A teenager hobbling on an injured ankle. A smashed pair of glasses next to a smashed cell phone.
And among all that, another ritual smashing of the supposed hierarchy of college basketball, the one place where we should all know by now that there’s no hierarchy at all.