“Down goes number one!” It’s the headline that you’re probably getting sick of hearing on SportsCenter. For the fifth straight week, the nation’s number one team in college basketball has lost. The latest number one to fall was Indiana University against Big Ten rival University of Illinois Thursday.
I’m here to ask one question. Why? Why are all these great basketball teams stumbling once they reach number one? Why do the basketball gods all of a sudden hate whichever team sits in that top spot?
First off, you might just think it’s a fluke. Maybe there’s nothing to it. Well, here are a few stats that might convince you otherwise. Now keep in mind, I do not work for the Elias Sports Bureau. This is just a dude counting numbers on ESPN.com. But if my calculations are correct, the teams at the top spot are just 5–5 the past five weeks. This includes Duke University (for two weeks), University of Louisville, University of Michigan and Indiana. Overall, these teams are a combined 82–13. These are very, very good teams we are talking about. So why are they all of a sudden vulnerable once being named number one?
Well maybe it’s not just a number one thing. Maybe just being ranked near the top causes teams to fall. Second-ranked teams have also struggled during this five-week stretch, going just 6–4. So, to be fair to number one, they’re not the only ones having a hard time staying atop the rankings.
Interestingly enough though, third-ranked teams have fared very well, going a near perfect 8–1. Fourth-ranked teams have also had success, going 8–2. So why do these teams start struggling once becoming number one or number two?
For starters, these teams are now right in the thick of their inter-conference schedule. That means tough road games against hard-nosed conference rivals. Teams that maybe don’t look all that great on paper all of a sudden become tougher opponents because of rivalries.
But that shouldn’t explain everything. That doesn’t explain Duke getting blown out of the building by the University of Miami. That doesn’t explain a No. 1 Indiana team getting beaten by an unranked Illinois team that’s just 4–7 in conference play. So while this stretch of schedule may explain some of the shaky play, it does not fully account for first and second-ranked teams going a combined 11–9.
All right, then maybe it has to do with the opponent’s mindset. It is reasonable to assume that lesser teams are more amped up to play against a top-ranked program. But then why are third or fourth-ranked teams having more success than first or second-ranked teams? I have a hard time believing that opponents are only getting pumped up for first or second-ranked teams.
If I was playing, I wouldn’t be like, “Oh whatever, it’s just the third-ranked team in the nation,” but then be like, “Oh my god, it’s the number one team, this is our Super Bowl!”
Maybe I’m wrong, but I think the intensity would be the same going against a number one team and going against a number three team. And on top of that, these are supposed to be the best teams in the country. So the added intensity from the opponents should be offset by the fact that these are really good teams, right?
So then why are all these really good teams being exposed? Well, I blame coaching. I think it is natural for any player to get caught up in the hype of being a number-one or number-two team. These are just college kids we are talking about. Heck, I would walk around like king of the campus if I were on a number-one team. I would make everyone bow down to me. So I believe it is the coach’s job to bring his players back down to earth.
Teams always play better when they feel like the underdog. We see it literally every year in the NFL playoffs. It is the coach’s job to instill this “Us Against the World” mentality into the players. Otherwise, these teams that reach number one are going to continue this cycle of being told by the media how good they are, buying into it and then going out and laying an egg against a lesser opponent.
Come on, coaches, I’m looking at you to end this. Indiana gets a do-over at number one this week, and we’ll see how they fare.