By Brad Spencer
What does it mean to be No. 1 in February?
Being the top dog when there is still sweat to bead, blood to roil, bones to bang has meaning although perhaps only as it pertains to your opponent. To them, you are nothing but a phony, a fraud, a fake dead Manti Te'o girlfriend, undeserving of any significant recognition. You shouldn't be where you are. You don't really exist there anyway. It doesn't matter what you've accomplished up to that point. You being ranked No. 1 before the final game is a big juicy steak of motivation for your famished opponent. That's all it is. Let the feasting begin.
Lately, on the Division I men's college basketball scene, there's been a rotating carousal of No. 1s. Five different teams have sat atop the pompous poll in the last five weeks. Your team make it up there? Mine did, after knocking Michigan off that pitiful pedestal. Then Indiana, rather unceremoniously, lost to Illinois, and my cellphone went off like it had Lance Armstrong's EPO running through it.
That's right, being ranked No. 1 during the season is meaningless, types the guy who was howling at the moon when Indiana beat previously top-ranked Michigan, and then feverishly texted his Illini-fan friends about how great this achievement was for the Hoosiers. They responded with the same pomp when, with the game tied at 72-72 and 0.9 seconds on the clock, Illinois' Tyler Griffey vanished from thin air only to reappear under the basket for a perfectly uncontested lay-in.
But really, how else do we gauge who's who, or whether or not our team is making strides throughout a season if not by a predetermined No. 1 team? Maybe there's more to this No. 1 thing than we think.
You want to defeat the No. 1 team, but you don't want to be the No. 1 team until the season is over. There's no remedy for this. It's just the way. The minute you catch the prey is the minute you become the prey. It's the cycle of life when it comes to college basketball in February. April is a different story, and March, with no definitive No. 1, should make for a thrilling and unpredictable NCAA Tournament.
Or maybe you do want to be the No. 1 team during the season. Those teams that sit atop the rankings and then get nudged off aren't exactly left weeping on their big pillows. There are benefits to being there and falling off, even if you land flat on your face like Indiana did by losing to a mediocre Illinois team after leading by nine with less than four minutes left in the game (Argh!). The Hoosiers sat atop the rankings for a total of seven weeks thus far this season. They have been to the mythical mountain top, looked out over the great expanse and seen the actual peak that needs to be scaled. It's a great view up there, but an even better one in just a couple months' traveling time.
I guess what I'm getting at is: I don't know what it means to be No. 1 in February.