It's easy to overreact to one loss in college basketball. That's typically how the polls work: Lose one game, slide down a few spots, then move up again when the other teams start losing. One top team, Indiana, actually survived this week, but coaches' No. 1 Duke lost to Maryland. So the Blue Devils will slide down -- but they'll have ample opportunities to creep back up over the next few weeks.
Week after week in 2013 the polls have been in a constant cycle of chaos and instability, as No. 1 teams go down time after time -- or, as happened two weeks ago, four of the top five teams lose -- and nobody has any idea who is actually the best team, less than one month until Selection Sunday.
The reality in college basketball, of course, is that the polls mean nothing. This is a good thing, given how ridiculous it is that college football's championship system has depended on the whims of voters for a century.* Yet the polls still exist, mostly as tools of debate, as measuring sticks for fans, as easy ways for television networks (and writers) to hype games between top-ranked teams. They exist because everyone likes to make lists and rank things. They're harmless in college hoops, and we can all at least be thankful that Nos. 1 and 2 will not meet 47 days after the Big Ten tournament in a single championship event.
*We make fun of how uneducated some voters are, and how coaches don't have time to vote, and how sports information directors cast ballots for coaches, and so on -- but think about how absurd the polls were in the beginning in the 1930s, when it was impossible to see anyone else play.
The current No. 1 ranking seems pretty clear-cut -- congratulations, Indiana -- but as the season has shown, it's all subject to change. Just look at all the teams who have received at least one vote for No. 1 this year (Indiana, Duke, Louisville, Michigan and Kansas are the only teams to actually earn enough votes to take the top spot):
Indiana. The Hoosiers boast arguably the best starting five in college basketball. Like anybody else, they've struggled through bouts of inconsistency, but they opened the season No. 1 and are on top again three months later. Center Cody Zeller and guard Victor Oladipo are both national player of the year candidates, the offense is one of the most efficient in the country. Tom Crean has proven to be a top-notch coach and the Hoosiers have wins against Georgetown, North Carolina, Minnesota, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State, with forgivable losses to Butler, Wisconsin and Illinois. Of course, their remaining schedule includes five tournament-caliber teams, including a home game with Ohio State and trips to Michigan State and Michigan. Throw in the Big Ten tournament gauntlet, and Indiana will likely lose a couple more times before Selection Sunday.
Florida. The SEC is miserable and getting even more miserable, with Missouri and Arkansas unable to win on the road, Ole Miss leveling off after a fast start and Kentucky in disarray. After losing to Arkansas, Florida has gotten back on track, beating everyone it plays by 20 or 30, which has to count for something. The Gators are clearly the class of the SEC, but that's barely better than what Gonzaga can say about its success in the WCC this year. Still, this is a great Florida team on both sides of the ball, led by Kenny Boynton outside and Patric Young inside, and it's flying under the radar because nobody cares about SEC basketball right now.
Miami. The best thing you can say about the surprising upstarts from the ACC: They're undefeated when playing at full strength. In otherwise unforgiveable losses to Florida Gulf Coast and Indiana State, they played without leading scorer Durand Scott and leading rebounder Reggie Johnson, respectively. Good teams still shouldn't lose those games -- and, hey, what do you know, Florida Gulf Coast is potentially in line to be a 16-seed -- but at least there's some kind of explanation. Jim Larranaga's Hurricanes showed they're not invincible Sunday night at Clemson, where they won 45-43, but, well, nobody has actually beaten them in the ACC yet. Please circle the March 2 trip to Duke on your calendar.
Duke. Having to play without third-leading scorer Ryan Kelly has given everyone an easy-to-point-to excuse. They lost two of their first three games without him, to N.C. State and, in embarrassing fashion, at Miami, then won six straight, then dropped a nail-biter at hated Maryland on Saturday, a loss that will knock them from their No. 1 perch in the USA TODAY Sports coaches' poll. Mason Plumlee is a player of the year candidate, but he was thoroughly out-played by Maryland's Alex Len, who out-scored him 19 to 4 and out-rebounded him by six. They could finish out 6-0 or 3-3.
Gonzaga. We're at the annual point in the season where we have no idea how good Gonzaga actually is. This may be Mark Few's best team, and seven-footer Kelly Olynyk may be as good as any big man in the country. The Bulldogs have wins over Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Baylor with losses to Butler and Illinois, and now they're just quietly cruising through the West Coast Conference. If everyone else ahead of them keeps losing, maybe they'll end up No. 1 by default, even if no one on the East Coast ever actually watches them play.
Michigan. The young but supremely talented Wolverines have arguably the best player in America in guard Trey Burke, along with a tremendous supporting cast. Since the start of February, they lost to Indiana by eight, beat Ohio State in overtime, lost to Wisconsin in overtime, lost to Michigan State by 23 and squeaked out a win against the Big Ten's worst team, Penn State, at home. Their three toughest games remaining (Illinois, Michigan State, Indiana) are all at home, so Michigan could wind up on top of the polls by the start of conference tournaments anyway.
Syracuse. Things are finally back to normal. James Southerland is back in the mix at forward, and Jim Boeheim is getting angry at press conferences. The Orange lost to UConn in Southerland's second game back, but they're obviously a much more complete team with his versatility providing another outlet for Michael Carter-Williams. Still, since opening the season 18-1, the Orange are 3-3 in their last six, and four of their final six games are against ranked teams (Georgetown twice, Marquette and Louisville).
Louisville. Arguably the best defensive team in America (and statistically the best according to kenpom.com), the Cardinals have four Big East losses, including the five-OT marathon against Notre Dame in which Russ Smith went 0-for-100 on final possessions. Louisville looks like the type of team that could lose to a 15-seed in the first round or win the national title. The talent is fantastic, but, like their star, the Cardinals are ridiculously unpredictable.
Kansas. You could say this is Bill Self's worst Kansas team. Or maybe by April it will be his best. I don't know, and you don't know either. As soon as the Jayhawks hit No. 1 in the coaches' poll, they lost three straight games -- excusable losses to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma sandwiched around an inexcusable loss to the Big 12's worst team, TCU. They've since rebounded to dominate Kansas State and Texas, setting up Wednesday's showdown rematch with Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State in Stillwater. With potential No. 1 pick Ben McLemore and talented big man Jeff Withey, Kansas is capable of beating anyone, but as the TCU game proves, the Jayhawks are capable of losing to anyone too.
Kentucky. Well, not all blue-chip freshmen are made alike. For most of the season, the Wildcats have gotten the benefit of the doubt because of their name, but they haven't beaten anyone. Now they lost Nerlens Noel and lost to Tennessee by 30. Hello, NIT.
Other teams that have had legitimate claims to No. 1: Michigan State and Arizona. The Spartans, as always under Tom Izzo, have put things together and will be as strong a Final Four contender as any. If they beat Indiana on Tuesday, feel free to rank them No. 1. Arizona, meanwhile, has fallen off a cliff recently, losing to Cal and Colorado and beating Utah by four. The Wildcats no longer have a legitimate claim to No. 1, but that could change by mid-March.
Popular sentiment has been building around this year as the perfect recipe for a No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed for the first time ever. It's certainly not implausible. Last year saw two No. 2 seeds lose, with Lehigh beating Duke and Norfolk State beating Missouri on the same day, so it seems reasonable to give a No. 16 a chance.
Upsets in basketball don't take much: hot three-point shooting from the underdog, sloppy play from the heavyweight, and plenty of luck. Sometimes it doesn't even take that. On Sunday afternoon, No. 4 Michigan got all it could handle on its home floor from Penn State -- winless in the Big Ten, playing without All-Big Ten point guard Tim Frazier and playing the first half with its two leading scorers in foul trouble -- despite turning the ball over only six times and equaling Penn State from three-point range. Anything can happen in a 40-minute game.
Just look at those resumes above. All of those teams have been considered worthy of the No. 1 ranking at some point this season by someone. Four of them will ultimately be considered worthy of a top seed in the tournament. It would be shocking, in the moment, for a No. 1 seed to lose to a 16-seed, but we know it's going to happen sometime. With the possible exceptions of Indiana and Michigan State, any of those above teams appear capable of succumbing to that dreaded fate this year. After all, Miami's on track to be a No. 1 seed, and, with the right breaks, we already know a Florida Gulf Coast is ready and willing to make history.
We have no idea who the best team is, let alone who the four best are. The selection committee will make its best guesses, and this season has shown that there's at least a decent chance one of them will falter like nobody has before.
So, who's it going to be?