Monday, January 28, 2013
Poll Thoughts: Michigan is No. 1
By Eamonn Brennan
College hoops polls might be inconsequential noise, but that doesn't make the arguments any less fun. In that spirit, I present the creatively named Poll Thoughts, which you can expect every Monday until the season is over.
The polls don't matter, unless they do.
It all depends on what "matter" means. If it means "has a tangible effect on the rest of the season" or "plays a role in postseason selection or seeding," then no, the polls don't matter. But if it means "allows a long-suffering fan base an immense catharsis after more than two decades of despair," then, well, duh: Of course the polls "matter."
You better believe the polls matter to Michigan fans Monday. For the first time since Nov. 30, 1992, the Wolverines are the No. 1 team in college basketball. ESPN Statistics & Info whiz Jeremy Lundblad cooked up some relevant trivia:
John Beilein was in his first season as a Division I head coach (Canisius)
Bill Clinton was elected president 27 days before
Barack and Michelle Obama had been married for one month
No. 1 song: "I Will Always Love You" by Whitney Houston
No. 1 movie: "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York"
"Home Alone 2" and Whitney Houston. Ahhhh. The '90s.
We all know what's happened since. The Fab Five failed to deliver a national title. The Ed Martin scandal got then-coach Steve Fisher fired, forced Michigan to take down its Final Four banners and dissociate itself from the team until this year and put the program in a deep and depressing hole -- after the 1997-98 season, Michigan didn't return to the NCAA tournament until 2009.
Things couldn't be more different now. Beilein has one of the nation's best teams -- with the most efficient, and arguably most entertaining, offense in the country -- led by one of the game's great players, national player of the year candidate Trey Burke. Beilein's mix of talented freshmen and developed veterans is enviable to all but a few teams in college hoops. The Wolverines no longer play in a drab and dreary concrete slab; the recent Crisler Center renovations have made the building (by all accounts) a clean, modern, well-lit place to see basketball. Fans are back on board. Students pack the courtside seats.
Now, at long last, Wolverines fans have something tangible they can point to -- a symbol of how far this program has come, and what it still has left to accomplish. Oh, that "matters." Does it ever.
Louisville took a dive. I have to admit: Even after three straight losses, I did not expect to see Louisville fall out of the top 10. I'm not panicking: The Cardinals have their offensive issues, like when Russ Smith doesn't shoot the ball well (but still shoots it a LOT), and they may take a few more losses in Big East play (particularly on the road) before the season is out. But as long as Louisville plays that defense, and its offense is merely above average, the Cards are a national title contender. That fact won't change before March. We can't say that about Oregon or Ohio State.
I knocked Kansas State out of my personal power rankings this week not because either of the losses the Wildcats suffered last week were bad (at home versus Kansas, at Iowa State), but merely because I think they're a good team that might be a tad bit overrated. The AP voters took them down a notch, from No. 11 to No. 18, which I suppose is close enough for me. But it's going to be very interesting to see how the rest of the Wildcats' season goes, because when you line up K-State's per-possession performance with its ranking, it's hard to know quite what to think.
The biggest fall of the week was taken by Minnesota, and no surprise there: The Gophers have lost their past four games. That sounds bad, but except for Northwestern, those losses -- at Indiana, versus Michigan, at Wisconsin -- were all completely understandable. Minnesota needs to cut down on the turnovers that make it occasionally vulnerable to teams like Northwestern; if the Gophers turned it over less but rebounded at the same level on the offensive end, they might be a top-five team. In any case, I think they'll be all right.
Marquette snuck in at No. 25, and I am definitely OK with that. But for a two-point OT loss at Cincinnati, the Golden Eagles are unbeaten in Big East play. But they're more than just a pretty record -- they've played the third most efficient offense in the Big East to date, and they're getting to the free throw line more than any other team in the league, because forward Davante Gardner has gone from awkward project to one of the most efficient big men in the country. Gardner draws 7.1 fouls per 40 minutes, and the Golden Eagles really get after it on the offensive end. Massively intriguing team.
The biggest risers of the week were Miami, which moved up 11 spots after the Hurricanes dump-trucked Duke, and Ole Miss, which moved up seven spots to No. 16 after beating Tennessee and Auburn. You have to give it up for Marshall Henderson: The kid may have needlessly taunted Auburn fans (whose response was hilarious; Google the .gif) but he got you to pay attention, didn't he? He got you to recognize that Ole Miss was, in fact, awfully good. That's the best explanation I can think of for ranking a team seven spots higher after it barely beats Tennessee and Auburn. (Big week coming up for Ole Miss: The Rebels host Kentucky on Tuesday and travel to Florida on Saturday. No pressure.)
As I wrote Sunday night, pretty much all of the top 10 -- or at least the top seven, depending on whether you include Louisville -- are essentially interchangeable. I could make what I think would be a pretty convincing argument for Florida to be ranked No. 1, but would that argument be more convincing than the one for Michigan or Kansas or Indiana or Syracuse or Duke? No. Any or all could rightfully assume the mantle "best team in the country," and I don't think that's something we're going to settle anytime soon. I'm sure we'll hear whining and trolling about the college hoops regular season not being very good, and the talent being down, and this deep pool of potential "best teams" will be one of the reasons given. Besides annoying, it will be wrong. We have eight potential national title contenders, and maybe 20 teams who you could see at least theoretically winning the thing. I don't know about you, but that just sounds exciting to me.