With the Ravens officially putting football in the rearview mirror, its time for the casual college basketball fan to trickle back to their Dick Vitale-consumed TV sets and to be reminded that there's not a true No. 1 team in the country. That may sound strange, but there's enough evidence — Indiana-Michigan provided even more Saturday — to conclude that this is a dogfight.
Instead, it looks like five or six teams will continuously juggle the top spot for the rest of the year. Every time a team gets there, it tumbles. The Hoosiers knocked off No. 1 Michigan in convincing fashion at home, winning 81-73 behind solid double-double performances from its frontcourt of Cody Zeller and Christian Watford.
Indiana had its time at the top (it might be heading back) before losing to Butler and Wisconsin. Duke held the No. 1 spot twice, only to lose to conference foes soon after. Louisville fell 11 spots to 12th after rattling off three straight losses. Kansas and Syracuse have garnered recognition, but both lost their last game.
Indiana looks like a Final Four team, but, truthfully, the best team might just be the one sporting losses to Arizona and Kansas State — Florida. The Gators rank No. 1 in defensive efficiency and No. 2 on the offensive end, an all-around mark of dominance rarely seen at the college level. Those two non-conference losses aside, Florida is playing better basketball than anyone right now, although it’s tough to tell in the dreadful SEC. Still, Billy Donovan could have a squad heading back to Atlanta. But given this season's trend, that may not be a coveted target to put on their collective back.
There was plenty written about the physical and mental makeup of N.C. State (sans star point guard Lorenzo Brown) following Miami's 79-78 comeback win on the road Saturday, but there's one thing to keep in mind: With plenty on the line, the Wolfpack blew it.
As Miami trailed by five points with about a minute and a half to go, forcing coach Jim Larranaga to go ultra-high pressure, N.C. State couldn't handle it.
Call it fatigue. Call it inexperience. Call it coaching mistakes. Call it whatever you want, but here's the anatomy of a 90-second letdown, one that could very well help decide the ACC title race:
— Leading 76-71 with 1:37 to go, N.C. State freshman guard Rodney Purvis turns the ball over with a poorly-timed pass, leading to a quick fast break in which Miami's Durand Scott draws a hard foul. Scott knocks down both free throws. Three-point game.
— Right off the free throw, the Hurricanes go full-court press. N.C. State looks completely unprepared for the obvious defensive ploy. Freshman Ty Warren is credited with this turnover, just the team's 12th of the game. The steal leads to a quick two points, as Scott hits the driving layup to send PNC Arena into panic mode. One-point game.
— After a weak foul call goes against Miami for its full-court pressure on N.C. State's Tyler Lewis, who subbed in admirably for Brown (16 points, five assists), the Wolfpack re-take a three-point lead on the ensuing free throws. Scott returns the favor by once again drawing a foul and hitting a freebie. 78-76. Two-point game.
— Enter C.J. Leslie, the Wolfpack's most talented player, who heads to the free throw line with 50 seconds to go and the ability to make it a two-possession ballgame. He misses the front-end of the one-and-one, then fouls the rebounder 65 feet from the basket in the double-bonus. That’s the type of mental fortitude that N.C. State as a team exhibited down the stretch Saturday, and their coach, Mark Gottfried, looked just as speechless and stunned as his players. His face following Leslie's foul said it all. The game was slipping away.
— Back to Gottfried, who calls a timeout following Scott's made free throw. It's a one-point game with 28 seconds remaining, and he (apparently) calls a play for Lewis to take the shot — despite his freshman PG playing just 38 total minutes in conference play before Saturday. In other words: With a team featuring an NBA talent like Leslie, impressive scorers like Purvis and Warren and a great shooter in Scott Wood, the player who has barely played an important minute this year gets the call. Got it. One-point game, Miami ball.
— From there a Reggie Johnson tip-in with two seconds remaining — and a scary-close desperation heave that rattled out — sent Miami's players celebrating and semi-taunting on N.C. State's home court, ACC standings fully in their grasp.
Now, it's important to keep in mind that Brown, an NBA talent in his own right who missed the game with an ankle injury, likely would have made the difference down the stretch. He's one of the ACC's best. But even though he was relegated to the bench, Gottfried and N.C. State should not have dropped the game.
The Wolfpack's roster features some excellent players, but they have inexplicably fallen to 5-4 in conference play. Their four ACC losses have come by a combined seven points.
You can look at that two ways (except the Wake Forest loss, which deserves all the seat-taking available): The team is right on the cusp of being a national title contender … or it lacks the discipline, either physical or mental, and/or coaching to close teams out.
At this point, after watching Gottfried and his team's failure to avoid its latest letdown, perhaps it's unfair to cast immediate judgment. Because the latter looks like a smarter choice.