College Basketball: Down goes #1...Again

Minnesota takes down #1 - Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana has lost four times this season, and in three of those losses, they have been the nation's #1 ranked team. Is the top of the rankings cursed, or has parity just made this season too difficult to predict? The answer is yes.

I was driving in my car on Tuesday afternoon, when a Sportscenter Update on the radio informed me that #1 Indiana was playing Minnesota in Minneapolis. The anchor then unsheathed the fact that it had been over 20 years since the Gophers had defeated the nation's #1 ranked school. I didn't think much of it at the time, and went about my business for the day.

I still wasn't thinking too much about it when my phone blew up around 9:30 pm that same evening, with a text message informing me that Minnesota had just handed Indiana their fourth defeat of the year. For the third time, the Hoosiers, who are probably still the best team in the country, had ascended to the #1 ranking, only to suffer defeat. They're not the only team to lose with that ranking, and, judging by the nature of this year's incarnation of college basketball, they won't be the last.

And it is positively great.

Think about what we've seen this season in college basketball - not just in Columbus, watching Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft lead a good-but-not-great Buckeye team look like the best and most mediocre team in the Big Ten at different times of the season (which is a whole other ball of wax in and of itself). But nationwide, we're looking at a field that is filled with about a half-dozen teams that could feasibly be picked as odds on favorites to win the NCAA tournament, as well as another dozen or so schools that could easily have that same distinction, depending on the week.

Four notable teams have stood atop college basketball at some point in the season - Indiana, Duke, Louisville and Michigan - and all four have suffered losses, some more so than others, that beg a fairly important question: is it even worth it to be #1 in the regular season?

Indiana was the first number one to fall in that position this year. The Hoosiers ran off nine conseuctive, season starting wins, where they were only challenged once (an overtime win against Georgetown on a neutral court). Over the course of the first nine games of the season, they looked positively unbeatable. Until they ran into a buzzsaw in the shape of the Butler Bulldogs back in mid-December.

From there, Duke would take over the top spot. Already having dispatched Louisville and Ohio State in consecutive games, the Blue Devils then looking nigh unbeatable. That is, until mid-January, when the NC State Wolfpack welcomed their Carolina Triangle brethren to Raleigh. 15 wins, and four weeks on top of the country and that was all she wrote for the Blue Devils.

Enter Louisville, who despite having that early loss to Duke, was playing with the panache and ability that could spell doom in March for everyone else in the college basketball rankings. That is, until Syracuse came into the Yum Center* and beat them by two, which set off a three-game losing streak for Rick Pitino's Cardinals.

*Find an unintentionally funnier nickname for a college basketball arena in the country. Other than "Value City Arena", that is.

The mantle went back to Duke as the nation's best team. This is a title they would hold for a week, before going to Coral Gables and forgetting the need to play a basketball game against the University of Miami. A 27-point curb stomp at the hands of the Hurricanes dropped the Dookies back with the also-good-but-not-great-rans of the nation.

Enter Michigan, the second Big Ten team to top the rankings, even after suffering a blow at Ohio State earlier in the year. The likes of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. looked almost too good, and had a date with the Hoosiers for Big Ten and, seemingly, national supremacy. But Michigan blinked first, losing by eight in Bloomington.

Indiana again took the reigns at the top of the nation. And promptly lost to Illinois, their second loss as the nation's #1 team. But because of the action below them in the AP Poll, they would hold on to their ranking, and sit pretty, running off wins at Ohio State and at Michigan State. Now Indiana was invincible, ready to take on the world and beat them.

Until Tuesday night in Minneapolis.

All together, these four teams mentioned above have owned the #1 spot all year, but a bevy of teams have been right with them in the top ten. Gonzaga is the best team West of the Mississippi (even if their best win is a loss in Hinkle Field House to Butler). The University of Miami had their national coming out party when they beat Duke, and have looked like a powerhouse in the making until recently. Syracuse is ready to kiss the Big East goodbye as a top-10 team. Michigan State has been the Big Ten's most consistent team all year, and are playing with their annual Izzo-led aplomb.

It's a logjam at the top of the rankings, perhaps as crammed as we've seen it in a few years. Parity is a big part of this, to be sure; basketball isn't like football, where the four- and five-star athletes are all going to Ohio State, Michigan and the top half of the SEC. The prep talent pool is going all over the country to play basketball, and it is leaving the landscape wide open heading into the last weeks of the regular season and into conference tournaments.

That fact has all but cursed the top of the polls. No one expects a team to run the table and be the wire-to-wire #1 team all year - that is something that will simply never happen again. And while there have only been four consistent #1 teams, all of them have proven that on any night, they are more than beatable - and some of those teams more than once.

This is not a bad thing, of course. For the first time in years, picking the national champion in your bracket might actually be easier if you go by Relative Strength of Mascot, rather than RPI. But one thing is for certain. In this season, in this nation, being on top now is no guarantee of being on top in April. And if you don't believe me, Coach K is on line one waiting to speak with you, and Tom Crean, Rick Pitino and John Beilein are all on hold to speak next.

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