No time to be No. 1

Originally Published: December 14, 2003
By Andy Katz |

OK, enough of, "Who is going to be the next No. 1?"

We get it now. No one really, really wants this weekly honor -- if you can even call Monday's anointing of a new No. 1 each week that.

Besides, we'll probably be left with two No. 1 teams this week, anyway.

Connecticut leaped back into the Associated Press' top spot it occupied heading into and for the first two-plus weeks of the season. Kentucky, No. 2 in last week's ESPN/USA Today top 25, will likely replace Florida in the coaches' ranking being released later today.

An argument can also be made for 8-0 Georgia Tech, which tipped the first domino that has led us to four different No. 1 teams in as many weeks, beating then-No. 1 Connecticut back in the Preseason NIT semifinals. The Yellow Jackets are off to their best start in over two decades and are still probably the hottest team in the country.

Also unbeaten and with a case for the top spot in either poll are two more ACC unbeatens -- North Carolina (6-0), which has beaten Illinois en route to six straight wins, and Wake Forest (5-0), which opened the season by beating Memphis and routed Indiana by 37 in one of the season's more impressive wins.

And don't forget Stanford, which beat then-No. 1 Kansas, or the only team to beat Gonzaga this season ... 7-0 Saint Joseph's.

But as Florida found out this past week in losing twice, with the No. 1 tag comes the spotlight of being the team that everyone seems to want to see fail.

Connecticut, in hindsight, was glad to be rid of No. 1. No, the Huskies didn't want to lose to Tech. But in losing, they were hardly a cohesive unit. They were still dealing with the Charlie Villanueva saga, wondering if and when he was going to be eligible. Emeka Okafor's back was hurting. Taliek Brown's toe was sore. Josh Boone wasn't 100 percent, either.

But since that loss on Thanksgiving eve, the Huskies have essentially mowed down the competition, albeit not the toughest tests. UConn rebounded to blow out Utah in MSG and went back to Storrs, Ct., with renewed focus in routing Lehigh, Army and Quinnipiac -- the latest rout coming Saturday night without Okafor, who missed the game while he rested his still aching back.

"When we got out of the glare, it was good for us," Calhoun said Sunday night. "We were shocked how hard Georgia Tech played and that loss allowed us to focus on becoming a better team today. We evolved. We were able to do more out of the glare, instead of fighting all of the publicity, interviews, NBA scouts and media attention."

The NBA scouts aren't going anywhere with the talent assembled on Calhoun's bench. But they haven't been flocking to see the Huskies against the likes of Lehigh and Army. So, the combination of the schedule and the Huskies being off national television -- and oh yes, not being the No. 1 team that everyone wants to see get beat -- certainly helped this squad.

"We were without Emeka (against Quinnipiac) and we were really good," Calhoun said. "We looked so much sharper. I don't think there is any question that teams play you tougher when you're No. 1. There was a distraction for us.

"We had so much talent on this team with Ben (Gordon), Emeka and Denham (Brown) that there was a feeling that we could just show up and win. That's what happened against Georgia Tech."

The loss turned out to be the best thing for UConn. Again, the Huskies immediately responded by disposing of Utah two days later and, although they have had moments where they have struggled -- like a lethargic first half against Lehigh -- the Huskies are getting their act together.

Roles are being defined. Gordon (19.4 ppg, including 28 points on eight 3s against Quinnipiac) has assumed the leadership role as a scorer. Okafor, when healthy, is still the dominant defensive player with 4.7 blocks a game. Brown (52 percent on 3s) is as solid a third option as maybe any in the country. Villanueva, who is on a tough weight and conditioning program this month to catch up with the rest of the team, is averaging 15.5 points in just 21.5 minutes per game over his first two games.

The point guards -- senior Taliek Brown and freshman Marcus Williams -- are both 2.5-to-1 in assists to turnovers a game. Boone is grabbing six rebounds a game, while Hilton Armstrong had a double-double against Quinnipiac. Both are proving to be more than capable power forwards next to Okafor. The only player who is really struggling is guard Rashad Anderson, who won't get as much time if he continues to shoot 25.8 percent on 3s.

"We stunk against Lehigh, but we were going to beat them in April," Calhoun said. "The turning point in that game was when I signed the contract. Quinnipiac had given us fits over the years, but we held them to 55 points.

"We keep evolving and we could be a really good offensive team. I like what I see. We took one of the best players in the country off our team and we looked the same (against Quinnipiac). That's a good sign. We couldn't have done that a month ago."

Evolving is what most of the elite teams in the country can say about their squads. Even the undefeated teams haven't peaked, nor should they want to in mid-December.

"We start way too early," Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "We shouldn't play before the weekend after Thanksgiving. Kids aren't really as ready as they think, yet we tout everyone. I'd rather see us push the season back and wait until Thanksgiving."

The early tip offs may explain why teams who aren't supposed to lose in November or December, are doing so, and looking so disorganized doing so. Florida didn't just lose twice after reaching No. 1, but trailed by double-digits in both games -- at home to Maryland in overtime, and at Louisville on Saturday.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino said the losses may have the Gators (and their fans) scratching their heads, but expects the setbacks to propel Florida into the great season expected of it. Why? Billy Donovan now has his team's full attention.

"We had no flow or continuity to us," Donovan said after Saturday's loss. "We've got a lot of young guys right now. We got exposed and that's because of a lack of experience. We never talked about being No. 1, except with the media. I'd like to add water and mix it up and have everything work out. But it's going to take some time."

Duke got its wakeup call against Purdue in Alaska. Arizona had its eye-opening experience in a loss to Florida, and even more so in a one-point win at Saint Louis. Kansas' came in a loss to Stanford. Missouri's might have come in an overtime loss to Gonzaga on Saturday in Seattle. And we know Gonzaga's came against Saint Joseph's to start the season in New York.

Maybe Kentucky, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Stanford and St. Joe's won't need to lose to see none are where they need to be in March. But the rest of their brethren who have shared top-10 rankings benefited from at least one loss.

Connecticut certainly did, and now as it takes over one of the No. 1 rankings is better prepared to handle the attention that comes with the target. (A soft December schedule won't hurt, either.)

Kentucky? We may see how the Wildcats handle the extra attention this week. But with games the next three Saturdays against Indiana, Louisville and North Carolina -- UK may not stay No. 1.

Which isn't a bad thing. Just ask the Huskies, among others. Andy Katz is a senior writer at

Andy Katz | email

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