College hoops polls might be inconsequential noise, but that doesn't make the arguments any less fun. In that spirit, I present the creatively named Poll Thoughts, which you can expect every Monday until the season is over.
On Thursday, Indiana lost at Illinois 74-72 after a late-game collapse and a defensive breakdown gave the Illini -- a 2-7 Big Ten team to that point -- the easiest last-second buzzer-beater these eyes have ever seen.
Five days later, Indiana is still No. 1.
How does that work? It's a combination of factors. The first is that Indiana rebounded from that collapse in Champaign, Ill., with one of its most impressive wins of the season, a 81-68 decision at Ohio State. The Buckeyes are one of the nation's 10 best defenses, and had just pushed Michigan to the brink in Ann Arbor on Tuesday night, but Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo were dominant in Columbus, and the Hoosiers set the tone in the first half and bossed the game in the second. It was thorough.
It also probably didn't hurt that Illinois turned around and beat Minnesota 57-53 on Sunday, helping to prove that its 2-7 start was as much about cold shooting as some deeper functional malaise.
But more than anything, that's just how this season has gone. Every team ranked No. 1 in the past five weeks has lost within days of achieving that ranking, and it's gotten to the point where we all have to acknowledge that the poll's usual rules for arguing on behalf of a first-place team -- chief among them: no losses allowed -- don't apply to the 2012-13 season. Everything's wide open.
This is an immense relief. Think about it. For the first two months of the season -- and in pretty much every season before this one, at least that I can remember -- fans have argued back and forth about their respective team's résumé mostly as a matter of comparing wins and losses. Many times the AP poll devotes its No. 1 spot to the team that lost longest ago on the calendar, regardless of the quality of its wins since. People confuse "résumés" for "teams," as if the process by which teams achieve their results -- even for the purposes of ranking teams -- is beside the point. This is all very frustrating.
And it's all over, at least for now. We have reached a point in the 2012-13 season where everyone can basically agree there are eight or nine teams that can win the national title, and that none are distinctly flawless or dominant. The rest of the Top 25 (and then some) is similar: If you think you can really tell me whether Colorado State is better or worse than Oklahoma State at this stage of the season, you're kidding yourself. If you think there should be some huge consensus on the No. 1 team in the country -- whether it be Indiana or Duke or Miami or Michigan or even Gonzaga -- you're kidding yourself.
You know what this gives those of us who have to rank and write about rankings? Freedom. I don't have to do anything with my rankings because someone's "résumé" tells me so; at this point, every "résumé" is the same. So I'm free to pick who I think the best team in the country is, and pick a different team next week based on rules strictly of my own devising. Everything's on the table now. All the options are there.
Personally, I do still think Indiana is the best team in the country, especially when Zeller plays like he did Sunday. But I would happily hear arguments for Michigan, Miami, Florida, Gonzaga or even Louisville, even after Saturday night.
From poll chaos, we achieve mission clarity. We're in a good place.
Other thoughts on the Week 15 (Week 15 already!) poll:
The prompt for the above discussion was seeing just how close the first-place voting was. I have to say, I'm a little shocked Duke received that many first-place votes -- the Blue Devils aren't defending well right now, and they barely got out of Boston College with a 62-61 win Sunday. I'm guessing most AP voters missed that one. The Grammys red carpet show was starting, after all, and those Ke$ha jokes in your hometown Sunday column aren't going to write themselves. (The only joke that writes itself goes like this: "Wiz Khalifa.")
Happy to see Miami jump five spots up to No. 3 and receive 17 first-place tallies, mostly because when rankings matter, they matter to fan bases and programs that don't get to experience them all that frequently. Miami hasn't been a basketball school since ... well, since ever. But the Canes have a legitimately great, well-coached team, and it's a lot of fun to see Jim Larranaga surprise everyone in Coral Gables with ever-ascendant success.
There is a bit of cognitive dissonance in Indiana's maintenance of its No. 1 spot and Florida's descent to No. 7. How do I mean? Well, the Hoosiers lost a road game to a mediocre conference opponent. So did Florida. Indiana lost its game because it fell apart in the final two minutes of the game; Florida lost because it couldn't make a shot for the first 20. I'm not sure one off-shooting night should so readily negate all of the dominance we've seen from Florida thus far -- and it's still No. 1 in the KenPom rankings, for what it's worth -- even if a loss at Arkansas does tend to make you wince.
Kansas dropped to No. 14 after its three straight losses, and I think that's fair. It didn't warrant a full-scale plunge from the rankings, but there are some significant issues there that can't be brushed aside so easily anymore.
As expected, Memphis hopped into the poll this week after its win at Southern Miss, which is a little bit baffling to me. I mean, good win, but exactly what evidence do we have to tell us that Southern Miss is even a top-50 team? It isn't wins. It isn't per-possession stats. Memphis has definitely looked better in recent weeks, but it is kind of funny that a team can fall totally off our radar from Dec. 15 to Feb. 9, and as soon as it beats its first remotely decent opponent, we leap right back on the bandwagon. Weird.
And hey, look who it is: Kentucky's back! I actually have less of a problem with this, even if it feels similarly arbitrary (wins at Ole Miss and A&M didn't do it for the AP voters, but home wins over South Carolina and Auburn do) because the Wildcats have been playing a lot better in recent weeks. They still have some defensive issues (they force the fewest turnovers per possession in the SEC, for example) but the general development over the past month has been almost entirely positive.