Wichita State, the only unbeaten in Division I, has a pretty good case as the nation's top team. (Peter G. Aiken/Getty)
One of the silliest things in college basketball is voting on a No. 1 team. The rankings won’t specifically influence NCAA tournament seeding. It won’t decide the national champion. While it isn’t exactly arbitrary, the criteria tend to be. Is it a snapshot of who’s playing best at the moment? Best overall body of work? A bit of A, a bit of B?
But votes are taken and votes are counted, and here we are wondering if two-loss Florida or undefeated Wichita State deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country this week. The Associated Press voters have spoken and selected the Gators – or at least 47 of them did Monday, with 14 picking the Shockers and four rebels selecting Arizona.
"I think on any given night," Gators coach Billy Donovantold reporters on Monday, "there are a number of teams that could look like the No. 1 team in the country."
So here’s the case for both sides – and an adjudication on the matter:
The Case for Florida
The Gators might have been the best team in the country even before Syracuse suffered its first loss. Florida dropped its only two games of the season by a combined seven points, including a defeat at the buzzer to Connecticut. Both were true road games, an Florida didn't have a full roster for either. The Gators were working through suspensions and injuries to key players like Scottie Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith.
And now, they’ve won 19 in a row, including five top-50 wins. Florida is about as complete a team as anyone can imagine, ranking No. 9 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. Still, they are formidable beyond that. The Gators are fueled by seniors, but those seniors are edgy and relentless, disabused of the notion that they have proved anything. They might be the hardest team in the nation to beat because there are no apparent holes. And if there is a crack, a dogged veteran is the one fixing it.
The Case for Wichita State
The Shockers, you might have heard, have not lost a game this season. You also might have heard their detractors howl that they’ve played a suburban 8th grade CYO schedule. But it is preposterously difficult to play 29 games and not lose one of them. That was evident last Wednesday when Wichita State cruised to a road win while Syracuse tumbled from the ranks of the unbeatens after a home loss to Boston College, maybe the least accomplished major-conference team in the country.
And the consistency is thorough: Wichita State is No. 8 in the latest RPI rankings (Florida is No. 3) and the Shockers rank No. 16 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 13 in adjusted defensive efficiency. They have just two top-50 wins, but it merits mentioning that no one else has beaten Saint Louis at home or at all in the Atlantic 10. Wichita State plays bloodless basketball, and does so motivated by naysayers on a nightly basis. They’re a perfect team inherently unable to rest on laurels, because many sneer at the laurels.
So Who’s No. 1?
Wichita State looks as good and fearsome as anyone, that schedule be damned, but Florida rightly holds that top spot now. The Gators might as well be a born-again unbeaten, just as untouchable as the Shockers now that they have a full complement of talent at full health. Florida is playing the best now and has a body of work, all asterisks considered, to match that of the nation’s last undefeated team.