Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Big Boys Stumble. At various stages of this season, Indiana and Florida have been called the best team in the country. Both efficiency statistics and on-court observations confirmed the hype. Over weeks of grueling competition the season has spotlighted weaknesses on both outfits – Florida can’t win on the road, Indiana tightens up in the second halves of close games. Top teams get picked apart endlessly; it’s part of the reason why this sport, and its subjective polls, are so fun to talk about. With both going down on Tuesday night, I won’t even begin to imagine what will be said Wednesday morning about these teams. Some of the talk may be more optimistic than I’m leading on. Equally possible is a scathing revival of the “No Best Team” debate, and the attendant tirades about the quality and quantity of NBA talent in this year’s draft class. We, of course, will leave that for other people. Don’t worry: These upsets receive plenty of love in the space below. But if you expect a mainstream screed on the state of college basketball, on the evils of the one-and-done system, the ultimate vanity of the regular season, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Your Watercooler Moment. Don’t Rue IU.
The rare multi-week placeholder of the number one ranking in the AP Poll lost Tuesday night. We should have seen this coming; the top spot in the rankings has been a dangerously ephemeral place since Duke fell from its No. 1 perch around the turn of the New Year. Indiana’s reign felt* like the most sustainable thing since, with not only the star power of Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo mounting a strong case for their team’s unquestioned dominance. The results on the court were piling up quite nicely, too – the Hoosiers withstood a devastating last-second loss at Illinois, perilous road trips to Ohio State and Michigan State, all while keeping that coveted numerical distinction. What IU was doing in the Big Ten – living and thriving on the road, what every team has tried and failed to do at time or another – was remarkable. It was also too good to be true. In this historically fierce Big Ten, was there anyone who reasonably believed Indiana could rip off eight straight wins, including trips to Minnesota and Michigan, to finish the season as a Kentucky 2012-like favorite heading into the NCAA Tournament? The Gophers ended that conversation Tuesday night at the Barn. Indiana lost one in a number of tricky Big Ten road games, and now, inevitably, the No. 1 debate will rage on for another week. This feels like a perfect juncture to salute the Hoosiers for an inspiring run of dominance unseen in any other league by any other team this season. After braving the road rigors of Big Ten country, Indiana, despite Tuesday night’s loss, can at least claim to have lived up to its preseason front-runner status. Reputational merits aside, the Hoosiers made a fine go at keeping No. 1 locked up in B-town. And given their body of work to date, they just might keep it (*see what I did there?) through next week.
Also Worth Chatting About.Deja Vols.
This is not a new story. Last season, Tennessee won eight out of nine games to finish 10-6 in the SEC race. The Volunteers, powered by then-freshman wunderkind Jarnell Stokes, pushed hard for an at-large bid, and if not for an overtime loss to Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament, their late surge would have given the selection committee a long and hard decision to make. UT is pressing yet again as the conference season plays out, and it might just be in better position to leave Selection Sunday with more than an NIT one-seed this time around. Because when you snag the biggest kid on the SEC block, as the Volunteers did in Knoxville Tuesday night by beating Florida, the resume-changing potential is boundless. Tennessee is in the discussion now, no doubt, and the way Cuonzo Martin’s team is playing lately, and the soft tail end of the SEC schedule (at Georgia and Auburn, home against Missouri), things are looking up in Knoxville. The late-season Tournament surge is on, the Volunteers are playing their best basketball of the season, and in a year where the SEC boasts two decent teams and not much else, UT has a place in the at-large jumble. It also helps when the aforementioned Gators, the best NCAA chip available in this league, cannot, under any circumstance, beat quality teams on the road. The Gators’ road hiccups are of no big concern to UT. Right now, the Vols have their sights set on the prize they fell just short of last season. Their bubble stock is on the rise, that’s for sure – which is a lot more than you can say about most bubble-dwellers these days.