Sunday, December 7, 2003 Updated: December 8, 5:45 PM ET
Next, in a long line of No. 1s
By Andy Katz ESPN.com
Another week, another new No. 1 team. Don't expect this early trend to end anytime soon.
When the polls were released Monday, a third team in as many weeks resided in the top spot. Kansas was out after losing to Stanford on Saturday. The Jayhawks lasted all of a week in the No. 1 spot, after replacing preseason No. 1 Connecticut Dec. 1 in both the ESPN/USA Today and Associated Press polls.
"I don't consider our (loss to Stanford) an upset," Kansas coach Bill Self said Sunday. "We were favored, but it was two even teams playing."
Let's see, if Stanford was ranked No. 17 and "even" with No. 1 in the mind of its coach, that makes for plenty of worthy candidates to replace the Jayhawks.
But, Florida was next in line.
Florida, ranked No. 2 last week, beat Arizona on a neutral court 10 days ago and is the latest team to rise to the top of a fluid top 10. But its coach Billy Donovan likens his team's rise to the top of the polls to the Tour de France.
"We're probably given the Yellow Jersey to wear right now, but our goal is not to be No. 1 now," Donovan said. "How long we hold the Yellow Jersey is undetermined. There are so many different legs to this race. We'll have to face adversity to keep the No. 1 ranking."
Last season, the Gators were tabbed No. 1 on Feb. 3, the eve of playing at Kentucky. Florida was blown out, 70-55, the next night in Lexington, and needless to say, weren't No. 1 the following week.
"We didn't find out we were No. 1 until we were already in Lexington before that Super Tuesday game against Kentucky," Donovan said. "The playing of Kentucky outweighed the fact that we were No. 1. But it gave Kentucky more incentive."
Maryland and Louisville will have the incentive this week as the Gators host the Terps Wednesday and play at Louisville in the Billy Minardi Classic Saturday -- a game, which is named after Rick Pitino's brother-in-law who perished in the World Trade Center bombings on September 11, 2001. Florida will be favored in both games, but of the two, the matchup in Freedom Hall on Saturday seems to be a No. 1 trap in the making.
Florida and David Lee will likely be No. 1 this week, but not the last No. 1 this season.
So, if Florida falls this week, who'll make a foursome at the top?
Why not Stanford?
Sure, the Cardinal are No. 17 and may finally crack the top 10 this week. But it did beat top-ranked Kansas and has won three of its four games away from Palo Alto. Stanford has also won all four games without its best player -- preseason Wooden All-American candidate Josh Childress, who is out with a stress reaction in his left foot and won't play until he is pain-free.
"They're pretty good," Self said of the Cardinal. "They don't make many mistakes. Matt Lottich (18 points) can really shoot it. They've got good scorers, and (point) Chris Hernandez doesn't make many mistakes. They've got big bodies, a nice team.
"They'll go deep (in March), but I'm not sure they're the best team. But they're definitely a top 10 team."
The Cardinal isn't waiting in line to grab the top spot, either.
"I don't think so," Lottich told ESPN Radio on Saturday night when asked whether Stanford should be No. 1.
"Whoever was No. 2 (Florida) should be No. 1," Lottich opined.
And that's probably the way it will be Monday. But don't look for the Gators to be the last team to occupy the spot. Florida will lose at some point, and whoever is there to replace Florida will, as well. It speaks to the parity this season among the perceived elite teams. The revolving door will continue to spin into 2004.
If the Gators fall this week, SEC rival Kentucky may be there to replace 'em. The Wildcats beat UCLA by two a few hours before Stanford beat Kansas in Anaheim, but looked vulnerable. It was the first of a slate of Saturday tests in the next month, as UK plays Michigan State, Indiana, Louisville and North Carolina. Notre Dame is also on the Wildcats' schedule before the SEC brings unbeatens Florida, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, LSU and Auburn.
Simply put, staying on top, if or when Kentucky does get there, will be much tougher than getting to No. 1.
Duke is certainly another team that can reach No. 1. But, as good as Duke was against Michigan State on Wednesday night in East Lansing, the Blue Devils have the potential to look like they did in Alaska when they went into an offensive funk in a loss to Purdue. Duke still has to play Texas in New York, and there are a few teams -- like say, North Carolina and Wake Forest in the ACC, let alone a visit to Maryland -- that could easily catch the Blue Devils.
Connecticut could return to No. 1 by the end of the month now that it has a complete team with the addition of freshman Charlie Villanueva. But as easy as December looks on paper, the Huskies have a tough January and can't be expected to sail through games against Oklahoma, at North Carolina and the Big East slate.
North Carolina will likely get a few No. 1 votes Monday and is worthy of the top ranking today. But to expect the Tar Heels to hold onto it if they were to get it is unrealistic. The Tar Heels still have the ACC schedule, Connecticut and a game at Kentucky.
Wake Forest? The Demon Deacons have the ACC and still play at Texas and host Cincinnati.
Georgia Tech's climb up the rankings has been among the most impressive in the country, yet Tech's path to the No. 1 spot likely will take until the ACC season starts ... and, well we've already gotten into those hurdles.
And forget about another Big 12 team ripping off 10-12 wins should it find itself in the top spot. Texas, Missouri and Oklahoma are all unbeaten. But they've got to play each other, not to mention tough nonconference games.
Texas plays Arizona on Tuesday in the Jimmy V Classic and also plays Duke in New York later this month. The Longhorns also go to Providence and play Wake Forest. Missouri barely got out of Bloomington unscathed Saturday and still has to go to the Northwest to play Gonzaga in Seattle. The Bragging Rights Game against Illinois awaits the Tigers, as do games at Memphis and against Iowa and Syracuse. Oklahoma has the above-mentioned game at UConn, and also plays unbeaten Purdue. Kansas' road back to the top includes a game against Oregon.
Purdue is making like Syracuse of a year ago, going from unranked to conference contender to possible deep March run. But, a game at Oklahoma comes before the start of the Big Ten schedule, which means tough tests against Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan State ... if the Spartans get their act together.
Arizona? See Stanford.
Stanford? See Arizona.
So, enjoy the competition for No. 1, but realize that the real battle will be waged over getting those valuable No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Yes, March is a long way away, but if the top spot in the polls rotates throughout the season, getting a read on who will be a top seed in March could be just as confounding.
"The No. 1 and No. 2 seeds will be the teams that end up doing great in conference play," Self said. "But the way it looks now, those teams could have four league losses. Just look at our league with us, Texas, OU, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Colorado and Texas Tech."
Self is right when it comes to conference play likely shaking out the handful of teams who'll be No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. But this season's parity, or shall we say balance, will mean more teams will start the New Year with a chance at being a top seed. And, who's No. 1 each week will only be a barometer of the season to that point, not as a whole.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.