Despite getting the vast majority of first place votes in both polls in the last two weeks, Syracuse is by far the most controversial #1 that I can remember. The pundits, even those that voted the Orange #1, are all quick with a "yeah, but", whether it's supposed weak non-conference schedule or the fact that Syracuse has only played one "true road game" or that there's apparently no real "star" player.
When UNC was ranked #1 to start the season, everyone agreed that they had to be the most flat out talented team in the country. When it was Kentucky, everyone agreed that their stable of young, NBA caliber talent was unsurpassed. If it had been Ohio St., everyone would talk about how great Jared Sullinger is. If it had been Duke, everyone would talk about how great Coach K is. But with Syracuse, the prevailing opinion is, "Well, they haven't lost yet, so we have to vote them #1 until they do". And that's the conventional poll etiquette; teams that win jump teams that lose and get to keep their spot until an L shows up.
Given the revolving door that had been the #1 spot so far and the debate that a team like OSU, who has yet to hold the top spot this season, is actually the best team in the country, I got to thinking. What does the best team in the country look like? What attributes does the #1 team have that makes people say, "Hey, they're the best." other than their win/loss record? My personal breakdown after the jump.
1.) #1 can beat anyone, anywhere on any given night.
It seems like a given, but it's worth mentioning. A lot of discussion about rankings revolves around where the games are played. I understand that it’s merely a way for pundits to split hairs when trying to compare teams that haven’t played each other. But, to me, the notion that a "true road" win is somehow better than any other win is ridiculous. If a team if going to be so affected by a hostile environment that it’s going to be the deciding factor in a win or loss, then that team wasn’t all that good in the first place.
This is not to say that #1 will beat any and all comers. After all, the one thing that all previous #1s have in common is that they all have at least one L. The college basketball landscape is such that there will never be an undefeated national champion. But the #1 team will never be outclassed the moment they walk on the court, and certainly won’t be undone by people who aren’t even playing in the game. If they play to their ability, they’re going to win.
2.) #1 knows their role.
All team sports require that everyone does their job. Someone needs to block for the RB. Someone needs to be the cutoff man that turns that long fly ball from a triple to an out at 3rd. Someone needs to be strong on the glass to get boards when Fab is out of position because he's aggressively trying to block shots. In order for the team to succeed, everyone needs to not only do their job, but clearly understand what that job is.
Look at the 2003 title team. Carmelo was, obviously, the superstar go-to scorer. G-Mac was the floor leader and 3-pt dagger shooter. Pace was the hustle man. Kueth was the sneaky, "BTW, I scored 12 points and grabbed 4 boards" veteran. Hak was the rebounder and tea bagger. McNeil was the shot blocker. Forth was the guy who stood in the middle of the zone with his hands up. Billy was the, "How did he just make that shot?" guy. Everyone had a job. Everyone knew that their job was. Most people like to say that Carmelo carried the Orange to the title. But as great as he was, that championship wouldn’t have been possible if G-Mac didn’t hit 6 3s in the first half of the title game or if Hak hadn’t Supermaned himself halfway across the court to swat Michael Lee’s shot in the final seconds. The #1 team is so because of the sum of its parts, not because any one or two players carried it there.
3.) #1 is never out of the game.
Even the best teams are going to have down stretches, even down games. Basketball is a game of runs. A team can be up 10 and find itself down 15 in mere minutes (see NC State Wolfpack). #1 has the talent and, more importantly, the fortitude, to keep themselves in the game not matter what the score.
Take this past weekend’s SU/NC State game. Syracuse was down 8, not an alarming margin but of concern given how well the Wolpack were playing. Three minutes or so later, the Orange were up 14. That’s what #1 does. #1 never gets so down mentally that they beat themselves by giving up when things don’t go their way. #1 has the confidence, the swagger, to believe that no deficit is insurmountable.
4.) #1 is interchangeable.
Basketball coaches aren’t dumb. Top programs are well oiled machines that have opponents scouted weeks in advance, detailed game plans in place and designs to exploit the opponents weaknesses and to curb their strengths.
#1 doesn’t care about that. #1 can beat teams in a variety of ways. Again, look at Syracuse this season. Through 11 games, the Orange have had 4 different leading scorers, have 10 players that average double digit minutes (of which only MCW isn’t in the regular rotation) and 5 players averaging 9 PPG (Southerland rounded up from 8.8). The one area where pundits consistently give Syracuse their due credit is in regards to depth, but I think that the Orange go further than just being deep. Depth, to me, is having a serviceable backup that isn’t a total liability. Most of Syracuse’s backups would be starters on a lot of other teams. Good teams. And not only that, the reserves aren’t simply replacements. They change the way the Orange play. CJ is a much different player that Southerland. Dion is a much different player than Scoop. While who’s better than who is up for debate, there’s no denying that the dynamics of the team change with each different lineup. The result is a versatile Orange squad that can’t be stopped by a single game plan, no matter how well scouted.
My description of #1 is very much shaded Orange. My fanhood colors that a bit as does the fact that I tend to only really follow Syracuse; only catching other teams in bits and pieces. I can only give examples of teams that I watch. Despite that, I’m truly of the opinion that there is no true #1team. Instead there are a handful of teams that could be called the best. Syracuse is among them, but so is Ohio St, Kentucky and Louisville and maybe some other dark horse that I haven’t seen yet. My description of #1 fits all of them. I’m not going to be a homer and tout Syracuse an undisputable #1 simply because of fan pride, but I’m not going to go the other way and list a bunch of mitigating factors either. The only way to decide which team is best is to let it all play out in March. When time comes, we Orange fans can be as confident as anyone that Syracuse will come out on top. That’s the best we can hope for and all we should ask for.