IN A season inwhich it seems every team but your Thursday-night rec-league squad has triedand failed to hold on to the No. 1 ranking, there's a simple reason Memphiscoach John Calipari and his players never worry about how they would handle thetop spot in the polls. They're absolutely certain that the voters will neverlet them get there. Never mind that the fifth-ranked Tigers had a 20-gamewinning streak through Sunday, the longest in the country, or that theyadvanced to last year's NCAA title game and to the Elite Eight the two seasonsbefore that. Their status as the powerhouse of Conference USA, in which theyhaven't lost a league game since March 2006, counts little in the eyes of somepollsters. One voter ranked Memphis 12th in last week's AP poll. "Thoseguys will give up a kidney before they put us Number 1 in the country,"says Calipari. "Maybe two kidneys. We aren't allowed to lose agame."
If the 26--3Tigers seem more amused than irritated by their treatment in the polls, maybeit's because they realize the voters are doing them a favor. Ever since NorthCarolina's seven-week run at No. 1 ended with a loss to Boston College on Jan.4, the throne has come equipped with a whoopee cushion. Pittsburgh (twice),Wake Forest, Duke, Connecticut (twice) followed the Heels as the top-rankedteam, none of them for more than three weeks. Four times, teams that were votedinto the top spot lost their very next game. "My only prayer at night is'Please don't let us move up,'" says Louisville coach Rick Pitino of theNo. 1 ranking.
The constantshifting at the top is the last thing anyone expected when the season began.The Tar Heels were widely considered to be the kings-in-waiting, blue bloodsadvancing toward their inevitable coronation. What we have instead is a big,juicy hamburger of a season, deliciously messy and hard to get a grip on, withNo. 1 teams dropping like plops of ketchup, unpredictably and often.
There is stillthe very real possibility that North Carolina will have the mess all mopped upby the end of the championship game in Detroit four weeks from now. But the25--3 Tar Heels, like every other elite team in this marvelously competitiveseason, have been bloodied a bit, more than was expected last June, when threekey players, guards Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson and forward Danny Green,ended their flirtations with the NBA and decided to rejoin reigning Player ofthe Year Tyler Hansbrough for another season at Chapel Hill. That meant all themajor contributors to last year's 36--3 Final Four team were returning, and theonly issue for the Tar Heels seemed to be who would hold the ladder when theycut down the nets in the Motor City.
But the √ºberteamthat remains head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd all season onlyarises about once a decade in college basketball. There's a reason, or, rather,multiple reasons, that the 2006--07 Florida team with NBA-bound big men JoakimNoah and Al Horford is the only one in recent memory to maintain an aura ofinvincibility from Midnight Madness all the way to March Madness. The widedistribution of talent, the distracting dreams of NBA dollars, theunpredictable rate of improvement among still-developing players, and twoever-threatening wild cards—injuries and the referees' whistle—all conspireagainst wire-to-wire dominance.
THESE DAYS it'salmost impossible for a team even to establish control of its conference. Thelone exception is Memphis. Through Sunday, the Tigers' average margin ofvictory in their 14 league wins was 17.1 points, and only two teams, Tulsa andUTEP, had lost to Memphis by less than double digits. But Calipari's teamhasn't exactly been a pushover outside the conference, either, with victoriesover Gonzaga and Tennessee. Their defense is one of the stingiest in the nationand certainly seems capable of carrying the team deep into March. Memphis ranksninth in scoring defense (58.6 points per game), second in field goalpercentage defense (37.1%) and fifth in blocked shots (6.3). In a 68--50 rompover then No. 18 Gonzaga in Spokane last month, the Tigers held the Bulldogs27.9 points below their season average. Against Southern Miss last Saturday,playing their second game in less than 48 hours, the leg-weary Tigers gave upjust 14 points in the first half and held the Golden Eagles to 29.4% shootingfrom the field for the game in a workmanlike 58--42 win. "When we shutpeople down, we can stay in any game," says senior guard AntonioAnderson.
The Tigers'defensive prowess is primarily due to their remarkable length. Lanky forwardsRobert Dozier (6'9") and Shawn Taggart (6'10") both have wingspans inexcess of seven feet. Calipari, a devotee of man-to-man defense, has begun totake further advantage of their size and speed by periodically switching to a3--2 zone, with stringy 6'8" freshman Wesley Witherspoon disrupting thingsat the top. Last Saturday, the scheme thoroughly crippled the Golden Eagles,who struggled to advance the ball inside the three-point line and went 9:45without scoring. "They're so long, you can't turn any corners on them,"says Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy. "There are no good shots."
A soft conferenceschedule certainly didn't hamper the Tigers in the tournament last season, whenthey fell to Kansas in the championship game. It could work even more to theiradvantage this season, when some of the traditionally strong conferences, likethe Big East and the ACC, are particularly loaded. The intensity of thecompetition could leave some of those teams burned out and bruised bytournament time. "The question is, Have we paid too great a price in theregular season?" says UConn coach Jim Calhoun of the Big East grind."Are we going to be fit enough, is Louisville, is Pittsburgh going to befit enough to be able to win next month? That is the concern I have."
For some teams,the season seems like one long war of attrition. Michigan State, a presumedtitle contender last fall, dealt with injuries to center Goran Suton (bothknees) and forward Delvon Roe (left ankle), and Raymar Morgan's mononucleosis.Purdue, picked to win the Big Ten title, lost forward Robbie Hummel to a backinjury, and went 2--3 in the games he missed.
But it's not justfallen stars who can quickly shift the balance of power. Injuries to key roleplayers and defensive stoppers have diminished several teams. Jerome Dyson ofUConn, North Carolina's Marcus Ginyard and Dominic James of Marquette—fineperimeter defenders in addition to their other talents—are all injured and lostfor the season, and their teams are more vulnerable as a result.
While some teamshave been weakened by injuries, others have been strengthened by the emergenceof key players. Sixteenth-ranked Washington (22--7) rose from a probablemiddle-of-the-Pac-10 team to a conference champion largely because senior guardJustin Dentmon improved from a role player into the league's sixth-leadingscorer. "That's what makes it so hard to predict who the best teams aregoing to be," says Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar. "These are 18- to22-year-old kids who are still growing and learning. A kid can be a completelydifferent player in February than he was in November, and that can make a hugedifference."
ALL OF which iswhy it seems so foolish now to have thought that North Carolina, or any otherteam, would waltz through the regular season. But if we drank the CarolinaKool-Aid, at least we were in good company. "In the beginning of the year,I thought that North Carolina was just in a class by itself," says Pitino,whose sixth-ranked Cardinals (23--5) beat Marquette 62--58 on Sunday to remainin contention for the Big East regular-season title. "Now, as it shakesout, you see it's one of quite a few teams. Look at Memphis or Kansas. Itwouldn't shock you to see them in the Final Four. It wouldn't shock you to seeClemson [there]—or Arizona State, Michigan State, Gonzaga. I thought it wasjust going to be a bunch of us chasing North Carolina. I guess I've changed myopinion."
That's becausethe best teams keep beating each other up, sometimes quite literally. Oklahomaforward Blake Griffin, who has replaced Hansbrough as the favorite for Playerof the Year, saw his Sooners blow a chance at the No. 1 perch after he suffereda concussion in a physical game against Texas. Oklahoma was beaten by theLonghorns and, while Griffin was out, lost to Kansas (which had to replace allfive starters from last season's championship team but beat Missouri 90--65 onSunday and needed just one more win to clinch at least a share of the Big 12regular-season title). After Hansbrough had what coach Roy Williams called"one of the worst games he's played all year," with eight points in a69--65 win over Miami on Feb. 15, it was reported that he too had suffered alow-grade concussion from a blow to the head during the game.
Extending thethree-point line this season by a foot, from 19'9" to 20'9", wasexpected to help open up the game and reduce the physical contact, but ithasn't always worked that way. The longer three has encouraged some teams toplay more zone defense, packing it in and daring opponents to shoot threes.Players who try to penetrate into the paint or score in the post are met withlots of bodies.
It's hard toquantify the pounding, but it does appear that the Big East and Big Ten'sbruising style is spreading to the rest of the country, with the referees'permission. Hansbrough, for instance, attempted 11.4 free throws per conferencegame last year. This year that average is down to 8.1, and he shot just fourfree throws in the Tar Heels' 88--85 overtime loss to Maryland on Feb. 21, thefifth straight game in which Hansbrough attempted fewer than 10 in a game.
The officials'willingness to condone some of the banging surely helped Pittsburgh centerDeJuan Blair, who's 6'7", in his memorable low-post beatdown of UConn's7'3" Hasheem Thabeet on Feb. 16. Despite his height disadvantage againstThabeet, the 265-pound Blair dominated the 250-pound UConn center with hisbulk, finishing with 22 points and 23 rebounds compared with Thabeet's five andfour in a 76--68 Pittsburgh victory that knocked the Huskies out of the topspot in the polls. "That was the most physical game I ever played in,"Blair said afterward, clearly of the opinion that it was a good thing.
But one referee'sno-call is another one's foul, which the Panthers were reminded of last weekafter they had moved up to the top ranking. They dropped an 81--73 decision atProvidence on Feb. 24, largely because Blair was saddled with two early fouls."We wanted to go right at Blair and get him on the bench," saysProvidence coach Keno Davis. "I saw on film that when teams were successfulagainst Pitt, Blair wasn't on the floor."
VARIATIONS INopponents' styles of play also work against establishing overall dominance. Acollege schedule might call for a team to handle Syracuse's matchup zone onegame, followed by Louisville's up-tempo game the next, followed by Pittsburgh'sphysical style the next. "It's all about matchups," Pitino says."In conference play, in the tournament, you can't play the same way everynight. You've got to adjust because you've got to understand who you're playingagainst."
That also worksto Memphis's advantage, because Calipari is nothing if not flexible. Inaddition to modifying his defensive philosophy to fit his players' strengths,he also made a crucial offensive change. In December, after a 6--3 start thatincluded losses to Georgetown and Syracuse in successive weeks, the coachshuffled his lineup by moving freshman Tyreke Evans to point guard. Calipari,desperate to find a replacement for the departed Derrick Rose, made the moveafter consulting with director of basketball operations Rod Strickland, whoplayed the position for nine teams in 17 NBA seasons. Strickland helpedconvince the coach that it was O.K. to have his best scorer running thepoint.
The move was aninstant success—Evans is the team's best ball handler—making everybody morecomfortable in the offense, particularly Anderson, who had been struggling asthe point guard early in the season. Both he and Evans immediately beganscoring more and shooting better, and so did the rest of the team. The Tigershave even committed fewer turnovers per game with Evans at the point than theydid with Rose there last season. "I've always had the ball in myhands," says Evans. "It's opened everything up."
The race forthose four coveted spots in Detroit is equally wide-open, and the Tigers seemquite capable of making a run. Maybe they can't win over the pollsters, butwinning the tournament might be a different story.
NOW ON SI.COM
BREAKING NEWS, REAL-TIME SCORES AND DAILYANALYSIS.
With less than two weeks until Selection Sunday, Luke Winn addresses the keyquestions facing teams down the stretch.
Knocking Off No. 1:
Nov. 10: North Carolina is voted a unanimous No. 1 inthe AP preseason poll; no other team receives a first-place vote for the nextseven weeks of the season
Jan. 4: North Carolina loses 85--78 to Boston College
Jan. 5: Pittsburgh reaches No. 1 spot for the first time in school history
Jan. 17: Pitt falls 69--63 at Louisville
Jan. 19: Wake Forest becomes No. 1
Jan. 21: Wake Forest loses 78--71 to Virginia Tech
Jan. 26: Duke becomes No. 1
Jan. 28: Duke falls 70--68 to Wake Forest
Feb. 2: Connecticut becomes No. 1
Feb. 16: Connecticut loses 76--68 at Pitt
Feb. 23: Pitt becomes No. 1 for the second time this season
Feb. 24: Pitt loses 81--71 at Provi dence
March 2: Connecticut becomes No. 1 for the second time this year and the 28thweek since 1990
Photograph by Bob Rosato
MEMPHIS With a three-guard attack of Evans (12), Anderson (5) and Doneal Mack (20), the Tigers ran past Southern Miss for their 55th-straight win in Conference USA.
BOB ROSATO (MEMPHIS)
MEMPHIS The Tigers' swarming D is one of the stingiest in the nation.
JOHN BIEVER (NORTH CAROLINA)
NORTH CAROLINA Hansbrough (50) and the Tar Heels looked unbeatable when they blew out Michigan State in December.
PITT AND UCONN Two weeks after Thabeet (34) and the Huskies ascended to No. 1, Blair & Co. took them down—literally.
GREG NELSON (GRIFFIN)
OKLAHOMA The Sooners lost both games Griffin (23) missed, but he returned to put up a double double against Texas Tech.
JOE NICHOLSON/AP (DENTMON)
WASHINGTON Dentmon lifted the Huskies to a surprise Pac-10 title.
DENNIS WIERZBICKI/CAL SPORT MEDIA (WILLIAMS)
LOUISVILLE Terrence Williams (1) and the Cardinals stumbled against Notre Dame but still have their sights set on Detroit.
JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES (LITTLE)
KANSAS Mario Little and the defending champs are in the mix.