And then there were two.
After another thrilling Saturday -- this one highlighted by a handful of impressive road wins -- we've lost another unbeaten team from the college hoops ranks. As you may have heard by now, No. 2 Kansas lost to No. 11 Texas 74-63 Saturday afternoon. The Jayhawks were undone by a brutal second-half scoring drought that allowed the defensively stalwart Texas Longhorns to put together a 36-13 run, overtake KU's 12-point halftime lead, and hold on for the first road win in Allen Fieldhouse in 69 games.
The loss cemented the Longhorns' Big 12 title chances, not to mention its budding reputation as a worthy national contender. It also left No. 1 Ohio State and No. 6 San Diego State as the last two undefeated teams in college basketball.
But Kansas' loss did something else: It revealed the 2010-2011 season's sudden lack of a true national title favorite.
This is not how this season was supposed to go. If you can remember all the way back to October -- or even back to early December -- you can remember when the Duke Blue Devils appeared unbeatable. No, Duke was never going to go undefeated, but with uber-frosh Kyrie Irving playing alongside reigning national champions Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and the rest of Duke's hot-shooting backcourt, the Blue Devils looked like one of those teams -- think North Carolina, circa 2009, or Florida, circa 2007 -- poised to roll to a national title.
Irving got hurt, and Duke suffered accordingly. Despite Smith's brilliant play, the Blue Devils barely survived home challenges from Miami and Maryland and soon suffered their first loss (Jan. 12 at Florida State). Irving's status remains unclear. What's clearer is that Duke, while still one of the top-five teams in the nation without Irving, is an entirely less imposing force without him.
Duke's loss allowed Ohio State to move into the No. 1 spot, a deserving honor for a team this good. But until Monday, there was a fair argument to be had about whether fellow unbeatens Syracuse and Kansas were just as worthy of the top spot. Saturday sealed that argument. Syracuse now has two losses -- at Pittsburgh on Monday, and at home to Villanova on Saturday -- and Kansas, as you know, dropped a home game against Texas.
So that makes Ohio State the obvious No. 1. It doesn't make the Buckeyes the clear national title favorite.
(Hold on, Buckeyes fans. Don't hit "send" on that angry email yet. Stay with me. I'll explain.)
Yes, the Buckeyes are very, very good. Yes, a win at Illinois this season (or any other, really) is never an easy thing to come by. Yes, Jared Sullinger is a beast. Yes, those senior guards are as productive and steady as ever. And yes, freshmen Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft (especially Craft, who has assumed de facto point guard responsibilities already) have been crucial additions to an already loaded team. The Buckeyes are as impressive as any team in the nation to date.
But Ohio State has its weaknesses, too. The Bucks have failed to put away lesser opponents with disconcerting frequency this season. Through Tuesday, OSU had looked far from dominant in the Big Ten, something the Buckeyes' per-possession statistics bore out. Ohio State isn't a particularly deep team, and outside of the five-man group of Sullinger, Craft, William Buford, David Lighty and Jon Diebler, coach Thad Matta doesn't distribute many minutes. The Buckeyes could use a few more trips to the free throw line.
The weaknesses vary, but this is the case with all of the nation's top teams. No one's perfect.
In other words, if there was a clear national title favorite at this point, it would be Ohio State. The point is, we don't have one. And unless someone starts to look really, truly dominant, we won't have one until we crown an actual champion in April.
What do we have instead? A group of favorites. Obviously, Ohio State is one. Duke is another. Kansas, despite its uncharacteristic offensive woes Saturday, is a third. Pittsburgh is a fourth. And if that group is the top tier, then Texas, Villanova, Syracuse and even Washington and Purdue are all right on their heels. Not only does that line up with the current adjusted efficiency picture, it matches what we've seen on the court, too.
All of these teams are good. All of them have scary strengths. All of them have notable weaknesses. All of them -- including Ohio State, most recently against Michigan, Minnesota, and Penn State -- have struggled against vastly inferior teams. All of them will lose again before the season is out. None of them have been truly dominant.
In other words, any member of that seven-to-10 team "elite" seems capable of beating the other on a neutral floor. Does that sound like a wide-open race to you? Because that sounds like a wide-open race to me.
You can argue with that ordering all you want. After all, that's kind of the point. As long as Irving is still doing battle with his strange case of evil uber-turf toe (and that might be the rest of the season, even if he returns) the argument will always be worth having. Whether you want to argue that these teams are all that much better than the rest of the country, or that college hoops lacks singular greatness, or that the one-and-done rule is the reason -- whatever you want to argue -- well, that's your prerogative. The point is, until "One Shining Moment" hits the Reliant Stadium loudspeakers this spring, we'll be arguing.
Ohio State is your current No. 1. The Buckeyes deserve it. They're undefeated, comprehensive and entirely frightening. They are a favorite to win the national title. But in a year that has thus far been so topsy-turvy, and appears to feature so many elite teams, it'd be foolish to make them the favorite. No one is.
Things could change. A favorite could emerge. Ohio State could separate itself from the pack. So could Pittsburgh. Or Duke. Or Kansas. Or Texas. Or, you know, whoever. There's plenty of season left. Everything is on the table.
But until further notice, the national-title picture looks wide open. If you're a college hoops fan, you wouldn't have it any other way.