No one wants No. 1
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Stressful as his job as Ohio State’s basketball coach may be, Thad Matta is thankful he doesn’t have the added pressure of ranking the nation’s Top 25 teams each week.
Moments after Sunday’s 76-63 loss at Purdue, Matta appeared befuddled when asked to name the program that deserves to sit stop the next Associated Press poll, which will be released Monday.
“Honestly,” Matta said, “I don’t have any idea.”
After the last seven days, neither does anyone else.
Ohio State’s setback against Purdue on Sunday marked the end of a weeklong stretch that saw each of the nation’s top four teams suffer upsets.
Just hours after catapulting into the No. 1 spot in last week’s poll, Kansas was throttled 84-68 by archrival Kansas State on Monday in Manhattan. On Saturday, at the same time No. 3 Texas was tipping off what would be a 70-67 loss at Nebraska, St. John’s was putting the finishing touches on its 60-59 upset of fourth-ranked Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden.
Like its compadres in the losers column, Ohio State’s loss to Purdue occurred on the road. The only difference is that the No. 2 Buckeyes fell to a ranked opponent in No. 11 Purdue, which avenged a 23-point loss to Matta’s squad less than a month ago in Columbus.
E’Twaun Moore scored 38 points for the Boilermakers, who were also fueled by one of the nation’s rowdiest – and most underrated – home court environments at Mackey Arena.
“Purdue could’ve beat anybody in the country today,” Matta said.
Frustrating as things have been for the top teams in the polls, their recent losses aren’t all that surprising. If anything, the last week has mirrored the theme of the entire 2010-11 season: Expect the unexpected.
“There’s no question that there is more parity in college basketball this season,” Kansas coach Bill Self said Sunday night. “I realize coaches say that every year, but this year I truly believe it’s as wide open as it’s ever been.”
And as widespread.
Pac-10 title contender UCLA lost to Montana in December just days after the Bruins came within a point of upsetting Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. In the ACC, previously unbeaten Duke suffered its first loss against a Florida State squad that had dropped a game to SEC doormat Auburn just a few weeks earlier.
Duke lost another game the following month against St. John’s, which is easily one of college basketball’s most perplexing teams. The Red Storm touts victories over four Top 10 opponents but also has defeats against St. Bonaventure and Fordham.
St. John’s, though, finally appears to have turned the corner in a Big East conference that has more parity than any league in the country. Seton Hall over Syracuse, Rutgers over Villanova, Providence over Louisville. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, only first-place Pittsburgh (24-3, 12-2) has avoided an upset of mammoth proportion.
“There are so many good coaches out there, so many good players,” Pittsburgh’s Gilbert Brown said. “That’s why winning a league like the Big East would be such a great accomplishment. To be able to create separation in this conference, where there are so many even teams … people don’t understand how tough that is.”
That was evident Saturday, when the Panthers squandered an opportunity to catapult to the top of the rankings by losing to St. John’s. Or did they?
With four of the supposed top five teams in the country all suffering recent losses, there’s a chance the new No. 1 squad will still have fresh wounds from a recent defeat. More than any time all season, voters in the Associated Press poll will have a difficult time determining which school has the most impressive resume.
When it’s at its best, Kansas looks like the most dominant team in the country. The Jayhawks, though, were manhandled in last week’s 16-point defeat against a Kansas State squad that entered the game with a 4-6 league record and had shot just 30.8 percent in a loss to Colorado 48 hours earlier. Kansas’ flippant demeanor and on-court bickering may have left a sour image in the minds of ballot-casters.
Texas had won all but one of its Big 12 games by double digits before falling to Nebraska, which hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1998. Still, Texas was in the game until the final horn despite an off night from star player Jordan Hamilton, who went just 3-of-16 from the field. And the Longhorns do own a head-to-head victory over Kansas. But can you really move a team from No. 2 to No. 1 two days after a loss? Doubtful.
Pittsburgh lost for just the third time this season against a sizzling St. John’s squad that has all but locked up its first NCAA tournament berth since 2002. And the Panthers – who defeated Texas back in November – have managed to stay in first place in the rigorous Big East despite an injury that sidelined leading scorer Ashton Gibbs for nearly two weeks.
“I guarantee you [Texas coach] Rick Barnes didn’t anticipate running the table in the Big 12. And I know losing to an NCAA-caliber team on their home court isn’t the worst thing that’s ever going to happen to our program,” Matta said. “Those things happen to everyone.”
Including Ohio State, a team that opened the season with 24 straight wins before losing two of its last three games against Purdue and No. 10 Wisconsin. The Buckeyes have the best losses of the bunch but, again, it’s tough to move a team into the No. 1 slot so soon after a defeat.
Matta said he wasn’t discouraged by Sunday’s loss.
“Our guys have done a great job,” he said. “We’re 6-2 in road games in the Big Ten. That’s why I don’t panic at this particular juncture. I think we’ve got to continue to keep our focus. Our guys know they have to play better basketball. I’ve got to continue to get them ready to do that.”
Mike Krzyzewski has been doing a good job of preparing his team at Duke, which hasn’t lost since turning in that dreadful performance in a 93-78 setback to St. John’s on Jan. 30.
Sunday’s 79-57 victory over Georgia Tech at Cameron Indoor Stadium marked the sixth straight win for the Blue Devils, who may very well leapfrog four other teams to reclaim the No. 1 ranking it held from the beginning of the season until early January.
With All-American candidates Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith in the backcourt and Seth Curry emerging off the bench, Duke has as strong of a case as any team to sit atop the standings. Heck, after beating two Top 10 teams in five days, the Purdue Boilermakers may feel that they are worthy of the lofty honor.
Purdue likely would’ve entered the season ranked No. 3 or No. 4, but a season-ending knee injury to Robbie Hummel caused them to plummet to No. 14 in the inaugural Associated Press poll. Coach Matt Painter said Sunday that his players were miffed by the drop.
“They took it personal,” he said.
Now 22-5 overall and 11-3 in the Big Ten, the Boilermakers are just one game behind Ohio State in the conference standings.
“This is satisfying to the guys in that locker room,” point guard Lewis Jackson said, “because we remember in October when everyone was like, ‘It’s over. It’s over for Purdue. They’ve got no chance. They’ll finish in the middle of the pack.’
“[We’re] still not happy. We still want to get a Big Ten championship and we still want to chase our goal for the national championship. We won’t be satisfied until we get there. But this was a great day for us. We’ll sleep great tonight.”
Maybe they’ll even dream of what it would be like to be the top ranked team in America, if only for a day.
“The only time we’ll know who the No. 1 team is is when the NCAA tournament is over in April,” Self said. “Until then, I don’t think it even matters.”