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College Basketball

Indiana the latest victim of the Curse of No. 1

Photo: Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY Sports

Cody Zeller (40) and the Hoosiers have not played well on the road thus far despite their lofty record.

Like skyscraper elevators that skip the number 13 in superstition, perhaps the next Associated Press and coaches' polls on Monday should start with No. 2. It would be symbolic in this season without a clear-cut best team to leave the top spot vacated, as no one really deserves it, and it also would alleviate the curse of No. 1 that seemingly inflicts every team to occupy it, almost instantly.

For the fifth straight week, the top-ranked team in the nation lost. Indiana was the latest to fall from that perch, wasting an eight-point lead at Illinois in the final three minutes before losing 74-72. The Hoosiers became the latest "No. 1-and-done" when a complete defensive miscommunication on a inbounds from the baseline corner allowed an uncontested -- and I mean uncontested -- layup for the Illini win. It was such a screw-up that the Hoosiers didn't even react after it happened. They instantly knew how bad it was.

A number of my Hoosier-backing Twitter followers have been irked for the past couple of weeks when SI.com's brackets weren't giving the Hoosiers love consummate with their lofty record and quality of wins. Even after they beat Michigan (you know, last week's No. 1), it still wasn't enough to push them ahead of the Wolverines in the overall pecking order. The reason for it, as also detailed on the CrimsonCast podcast last weekend? Indiana hadn't proven anything yet on the road, and the selection committee is very particular about those types of accomplishments.

After what amounts to a handout to a reeling-and-desperate Illinois squad, the Hoosiers still haven't done anything substantial away from home. They didn't schedule any true road games in nonconference play, and the Big Ten schedule was completely lopsided in their favor up until Thursday. They slipped past Georgetown in overtime in Brooklyn, edged Iowa and routed a mediocre Purdue team. It's not nothing, but it's not really very much of something, either.

There's little doubt this Indiana team is one of the best in the nation. They are talented and better defensively than anyone thought, possessin a future lottery pick big man (who doesn't get -- or seek out -- nearly enough shots, but that's a story for another day), a Swiss Army knife of a swingman, solid enough shooting and point guard play to threaten any team in the land.

It's impossible, though, to know what this team truly has in its quiver because of its lack of quality road seasoning. That's where mettle shows. That's where teams find out that 36 good minutes isn't good enough. The NCAA tournament isn't played in away venues, but the pressure of decisive moments in that event is a good proxy. And when the chips were down tonight in Champaign, the Hoosiers buckled.

Blown assignments happen. This one happened to cost Indiana the ballgame. What will be most important going forward is the reaction, the lessons learned, the takeaways from this giveaway. The road ahead features dates in Columbus (on Sunday), East Lansing, Minneapolis and Ann Arbor. Results matter, but in Indiana's case, the process will be just as important.

Indiana needs to show us that Cody Zeller has the will to take over in a big spot. Show us that it's figured out who the final shot-taker should be. Show us that it's not going to butcher a switch -- or a non-switch, or whatever they were asked to do on the final play -- when a loss ends not only your night, but your season. Someone is going to be No. 1 at the end of the season. Someone is going to win on that final, magical Monday night in April. Indiana needs to show something that makes me truly believe that can be that team. I want to, but I don't just yet.

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