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Mike Lopresti | November 24, 2023

The loneliest number: Why a No. 1 ranking can be more trouble than triumph

Ron Harper Jr. reacts to his wild buzzer-beating shot to upset No. 1 Purdue

So you can’t wait for the day your favorite college basketball team gets to be ranked No. 1. Fans love it. Purdue’s will next week. But here’s a quick question:


In some ways, the honor during the season is nothing but trouble. A rose garden that if you look closely enough is really poison ivy. Opposing teams find another gear, opposing crowds reach another decibel level.  All paths from that high spot go downhill. No. 1 gets a headline when it wins but a bigger one when it loses. And if that should happen on the road, everyone knows what comes next. The students storm the floor like the Charge of the Light Brigade and the losers have to take their disappointment and tattered ranking back to their locker room, often clawing through a raucous mob chortling over their demise.

Some fun, huh?

When it comes to March, the No. 1 Associated Press ranking is like a leaky roof in a thunderstorm. Pretty much worthless. Alabama ended last regular season at the top and didn’t get past the Sweet 16. No national championship nets for the Tide, just like no nets for 24 other top-ranked AP teams in the past 26 tournaments going back to 1996. Only Duke of 2001 and Kentucky of 2012 have beaten the No. 1 jinx in that stretch.

North Carolina infamously started 2022-23 No. 1 and didn’t even get to the NCAA Tournament. No. 1 lost nine times last season, be it the Tar Heels, Alabama, Houston or Purdue. That’s one more defeat than the Connecticut Huskies, who were never No. 1 all year but steamrolled the field on the way to the national championship.

For that matter, if you believed in the sanctity of rankings, you’d expect it to be No. 1 vs. No. 2 on a good many Monday nights in April, deciding who gets to hear One Shining Moment. Forget it. That's happened once in the past 48 years, No. 2 North Carolina over No. 1 Illinois in 2005.

Sixty-one different schools have been ranked No. 1 in the AP poll going back to its birth in 1948. Duke has been there 145 times, UCLA 134, Kentucky 124, North Carolina 116. Blueblood numbers. But Saint Joseph’s has taken its turn up there, too. Duquesne, La Salle, Holy Cross. Louisville is a hallowed basketball name but Indiana State has been No. 1 for as many weeks (and good morning to you, Larry Bird). The highest profile program never to be No. 1 at least once? Probably Maryland.

Nearly all the teams at the top have known what it means to get evicted from the spot. The AP No. 1 team has been beaten 338 times, starting with Oklahoma State over Saint Louis in 1949 and up to this past Tuesday when Marquette knocked off Kansas. Whenever that happens, there’s almost always a change at the top the next week, and the clock starts ticking again on when No. 1 will fall.

Which brings us to the Purdue Boilermakers.

They’re next in line, due to ascend Monday. Over 50 fun-filled hours in Hawaii this week at the Maui Invitational, the Edeymakers beat No. 11 Gonzaga, No. 7 Tennessee and No. 4 Marquette with 76 points and 39 rebounds from Zach Edey. In three games, he committed six fouls. He drew 25. No team in the past 40 years had defeated three AP top-11 teams in three consecutive days.

🚂 Purdue wins 2023 Maui Invitational

So Purdue seems all prepped for the top spot, with the game’s most unique inside weapon and encouraging numbers from the perimeter. It was Marquette coach Shaka Smart, when surmising the Boilermakers, who noted this powerhouse is not Edey alone. Take the ongoing development of sophomore guards Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer.

“They play with more poise now, they play with more confidence,” Smart said. “For having the national player of the year on your team, those two guys’ ownership of their program is special. I think that separates them as a program from even other teams here.”

That’ll be needed with conference play starting soon and dates with Alabama and Arizona not far away, if Purdue wants to stay at the top long.  Assuming the Boilermakers get the votes next Monday, they’ll become the first Big Ten team in history to get to No. 1 in three consecutive seasons. Not Indiana, not Michigan State.

Purdue Basketball | Twitter Purdue's Lance Jones celebrates

But they have learned that getting the spot is hard, holding onto it is harder and thinking it’ll push you through the NCAA Tournament is folly. Purdue had never been No. 1 in the AP poll until breaking through on Dec. 6, 2021 . . . and three days later lost to unranked Rutgers. The Boilermakers made it back last season . . . and lost to Rutgers again. Also Indiana and Northwestern. Plus, any lingering aura from formerly being No. 1 didn’t help much when it came time to play Saint Peter's and Fairleigh Dickinson in the tournament.

Purdue has won 30 consecutive regular-season games against non-conference opponents, far more than anyone else, and 20 in a row in the month of November. Alas, in March of the past three years, they’re 2-3.

“We just got to keep building off it,” coach Matt Painter said of the karma from the Maui Invitational. There were a couple of teeny-weensy warning flags. The Boilermakers were only 63.3 percent from the free-throw line. Also they had a minus-11 turnover ratio, committing 44 in three games. The recent past clearly shows how deadly that can be. Their turnover ratio was minus-17 against North Texas (2021), Saint Peter’s (’22) and Fairleigh Dickinson (’23). Still, what they did in Hawaii stamps them as an elite power, and you can throw stats and history around  all day, and Edey is still 7-4.

So Purdue should understand the mixed bag coming, the adulation of No. 1 and the burden. And also the sure and hard-earned knowledge that none of this will mean anything come March.

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