The average hold on the top spot the last month has been about five minutes. Indiana has lost twice at No. 1 – to Butler and Illinois – and neither Michigan nor Duke nor Louisville has found a firmer grip at the top. IU was still No. 1 today (in The Associated Press poll), even after the Illinois loss, since the Hoosiers rebounded with such a big-time performance in a win at Ohio State.
I wouldn't rank IU at No. 1 after the loss at Illinois, especially blowing the late lead. But the other good teams except Duke lost, and the most recent snapshot is the most memorable. The Hoosiers rolled and controlled Ohio State, a good Big Ten team, on the road. The coaches were less impressed, moving Duke to the top spot.
For the most part, a rise to No. 1 is a prelude to a fall. But even that fall is temporary and fairly inconsequential.
Being ranked No. 1 in college hoops is all talk and of no long-term consequence. College hoops has always has been, and always will be, about March Madness. Get one of those four top seeds and let it rip.
The key is to get into the NCAA Tournament. The route doesn't matter. It is better to be one of the Top 10 than to be a bubble team, certainly. And if you can land a No.1 seed in the NCAAs, you've got a real shot at winning a national title.
Being ranked No. 1 in February means you've got a contender. Nothing more.
That subjective No. 1 spot might, in fact, be better avoided. Without it, there's less pressure to deal with, less chance of an opposing crowd being whipped into a frenzy, and less attention to deal with between games.
If this were college football, being No.1 would matter, albeit that will be reduced in years to come as the playoff picture expands. In college basketball, the regular season simply sets up who gets into the postseason, and entering March Madness ranked No. 4 is just as viable a position – perhaps more so – than being No. 1. Of course, if Indiana can start its tourney trip at Lucas Oil Stadium – a perk of the high seed – that would be a bonus.
The musical chairs at the top of The Associated Press and coaches polls probably reflect best the flaws of all the top teams and the parity at the top.
Indiana and Michigan are the two best teams in the Big Ten and may be the two best teams in the country. Indiana won the showdown in Bloomington. I expect Michigan to hold serve in Ann Arbor. Playing each other, win or lose, prepares both of them for the NCAA tourney. Neither will face a tougher team.
Playing the rest of the Big Ten's best teams, such as Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin, also prepares Indiana and Michigan for the postseason. The daunting schedule, especially on the road, will likely keep both teams from holding the No. 1 spot for long. That's not a problem. That's an asset.
Indiana's pre-conference schedule wasn't exactly taxing, given its proliferation of “States” such as Sam Houston, Coppin and Central Connecticut. The only ranked team the Hoosiers played was North Carolina, then No.14, but of course Butler has proved to be a top-20 team.
Now that the Big Ten has proved to be so strong, the pre-conference doesn't make much difference unless you're a bubble team needing some quality wins to impress the NCAA selection committee. So maybe IU coach Tom Crean was right to go light in the pre-conference. He's getting more than enough heavy-hitting games in Big Ten play.
The key for Indiana the rest of the season is to refine its game. Find ways to have Cody Zeller be an integral part of the offense every game, like he was at Ohio State, and not have those games where his teammates seem to forget about him. They need to find a way to continue to play as well in the second halves of games as they did at Ohio State. They need to find a way to avoid stretches of a lack of concentration.
Indiana's main goal should be refining its game, to get to the point where it's tournament-ready.
The Hoosiers might end up No. 1 when the final poll arrives. They might be No. 2, No. 3 or No. 4. Any of those spots means the same thing in March – a tourney berth, a No. 1 seed and a chance at a national title. Actually, a No. 2 or No. 3 seed gives them a shot, too, even though they wouldn't likely get that Lucas Oil Stadium launch.
After all, only one team will be able to say, “We're No. 1!” in April.
Not coincidentally, that's also the only time it truly matters.