MINNEAPOLIS — The top spot in The Associated Press Top 25 is the last place any team wants to be this season.
When Indiana lost at Minnesota on Tuesday night, it was the seventh time this season that a No. 1 team has been defeated. That’s the highest number since 2009-10, according to STATS. And this season isn’t over yet.
Second-ranked Gonzaga is poised to rise to No. 1 in the next poll if the Bulldogs can get through the rest of the week unscathed. If that happens, Gonzaga would be the fifth team atop the poll this season. That would be the most since 2008-09.
“There’s been almost a game of hot potato for the No. 1 ranking this season,” Big Ten Network college basketball analyst Tom Dienhart said. “Nobody seems to want it. It’s been a crazy year.”
Some of the biggest names in the land have had their hands on that coveted ranking. The Hoosiers haven’t been able to handle it. They’ve lost three times this season while ranked No. 1. Duke has gone down twice and Michigan and Louisville have also ascended to the top spot only to be knocked off.
No matter who gets up there next, the jostling at the top all season will ensure that the air of invincibility that often comes with the top ranking won’t be there for the rest of the season.
“Every year is wide open, but more so this year than ever,” said Minnesota coach Tubby Smith, whose Golden Gophers were swarmed by their delirious fans on Tuesday night after their first win over a No. 1 team since 1989. “I don’t think there’s a dominant team you can look at like Kentucky last year. You kind of had an idea they were the best team going, and that’s hard to overcome that type of talent.”
Five of those Wildcats from last year’s national championship team were drafted in June, including the top two picks in the draft. Coach John Calipari hasn’t been able to replace his stars quite as quickly as he has been able to in the past, and Kentucky has tumbled out of the rankings. Traditional powers North Carolina and UCLA are also unranked, which has created room for Miami, New Mexico and Saint Louis to creep into the Top 25.
Perhaps no team better illustrates this wild season than Smith’s Gophers. They won 15 of their first 16 games to climb to No. 8 in the poll, then lost seven of the next 10 games in the powerful Big Ten to fall off the board.
It took a game against the Hoosiers to wake them up, and Trevor Mbakwe’s 21 points and 12 rebounds helped get one of the oldest arenas in the country shaking as another No. 1 team bit the dust.
“I don’t think there’s a dominating player, and therefore it’s more difficult to have a dominating team,” ESPN analyst and former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. “There’s not a team in the country that doesn’t have a scar. Playing on the road is really difficult when you don’t have a player at the end of a game who can take over a game.”
Few teams have shown any consistent ability to win away from home. No. 4 Michigan became the latest highly ranked team to fall on the road, losing to 84-78 to Penn State, which had been winless in the Big Ten.
That should make for one heck of an NCAA tournament. Several analysts have estimated that there are at least 10 teams that will enter the field in the middle of March with a realistic chance to win the title. After seeing the likes of Butler, VCU and George Mason make surprising runs to the Final Four in recent years, the wide-open nature of this year’s college scene could make this the year a small school gets it done.
“Maybe one of these little guys can not only get there, but win it all,” Dienhart said. “I wouldn’t be shocked that this is one of those years.”
Gonzaga is perhaps the biggest of those little guys, a small school that has gained a large reputation over the last decade or more. It’s hard to get any bigger than being No. 1, something the Zags could do if they can beat BYU in Provo on Thursday and Portland at home on Saturday.
“It’s special ... that people see you in that light at the top of the nation,” guard Mike Hart said earlier this week when Gonzaga hit No. 2, the highest ranking in school history.
Who knows in this crazy college season? After so many big boys have failed to hold on to the No. 1 spot, maybe a small fry will show them all how it’s done.
“Being a national darling would not be new territory for them,” Dienhart said. “The players are different, sure. But they’re not a new team on the block. They’re used to being highly ranked and having high expectations. I think it’s kind of fun having somebody new up there.”