Please Don't Pick Us No. 1

Coaches have learned the hard way that being first in the preseason polls can be the unkindest cut of all
November 18, 1987

In the course of human events there is nothing on God's green earth folks won't do to be somebody's No. 1. You think George Bush wouldn't hug a Detroit autoworker to be No. 1? Think Lee Iacocca hasn't already done so? Does Bill Cosby pine to be No. 1 every week? Does Barry (No Prisoners) Switzer on every down? Bruce Springsteen went back into the studio. Kaye Lani Rae Rafko put on a headdress and did a hula. Ivan Lendl smiled. Glenn Close went berserk and boiled a live bunny rabbit. Whatever it takes.

Ah, but in college basketball—played on God's golden hardwood, remember—the equation changes. Though they work, dress, recruit, build, promote, X, O and VCR all their lives to arrive at the exalted status of No. 1, most college basketball coaches, when they finally get their teams there, treat it like the losers' bracket in the Persian Gulf Christmas Classic.

No. 1 in the polls, mind you. Preseason No. 1's. Magazine No. 1's. Wire service No. 1's. The fun No. 1's. Not the real No. 1, the top of the mountain, the NCAA championship. That's making No. 1 the old-fashioned way—those teams earrrrrrn it. That's O.K. with coaches. (Although when North Carolina's Dean Smith, the most reluctant numero uno of them all, finally did win his NCAA on the court in 1982, even then he surmised that Georgetown might have been the better team that night.)

Smith would rather be caught with his carton of cigarettes under the Dean Dome bleachers than be ranked No. 1. That's probably because he knows better than anyone the pressure and the pitfalls, the hype and the headaches, the debilitating difficulty of trying to prosper on the lead. In the 14 years since the end of the UCLA dynasty, and with it the Bruins' domination of the polls, Smith's Tar Heels have been a consensus preseason No. 1 four times and have been ranked first during various parts of the seasons of 1978, '82, '83, '84, '86 and '87—yet were able to win the championship exactly once. "Number 1? It just means the other teams are shooting at you more," says Smith. Not that Carolina has been alone in its inability to bear the burden. During that same period, only one other preseason consensus No. 1 was still wearing its early, kingly trappings at season's end to finish as champion: Indiana in 1976. Moreover, only four of the consensus picks even made the Final Four: UCLA '74, Indiana '76, Carolina '82 and Georgetown '85. How balanced and chaotic has college parity ball been since the (Bill) Walton Gang departed UCLA: Of the 68 total choices for No. 1 in five supposedly authoritative preseason polls, only 10½ were correct (see chart, page 61). And take a look this year: Ain't nobody the leader in the clubhouse.

Is it any wonder Smith tells his players, "Don't look at the rankings, because they mean nothing." Is it a surprise Louisville's Denny Crum says, "A Number 1 ranking makes it harder to win. It's a pain." (In 16 years under Crum, the Cardinals have been ranked No. 1 by a wire service poll exactly one week. Last year. Preseason. By UPI. The defending national champions started 0 for Alaska, finished 18-14 and were not invited back to defend their tournament title.)

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski says the No. 1 ranking "is like a death wish." His assistant, Bob Bender, who played on No. 1-ranked teams both at Indiana and Duke, says, "Pride and excitement turn to apprehension and fear." Georgia coach Hugh Durham acknowledges that it's merely "coaching nature to prefer to be an underdog and move up. The worst thing is to be ranked higher than you are good."

Then there's former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall, who said of a local Lexington reporter who had picked the Wildcats as preseason No. 1: "That was an un-Christian thing to do." And this was after Kentucky won the NCAAs in 1978.

Maybe Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins's hair began turning its peculiar dishwater pewter in his 1969-70 senior season at South Carolina when the preseason, in-season No. 1 Gamecocks were eliminated in the ACC tournament final, and a shattered Cremins hid out in a cabin in the mountains. (Author's note: South Carolina was the third of SI's preseason No. 1's in six years—joining NYU and Davidson in '63 and '64—who didn't even make the NCAA tournament. And coaches think their job is pure desolation.)

Sixteen years later, in 1985, Cremins's Yellow Jacket team was a consensus preseason No. 1. "I just wanted us to be a good basketball program," Cremins said then. "I don't know how the hell all this happened. It's terrible. The day I see us Number 1 is the day I go out and think about where my life's going." Where the Jackets were going was nowhere: Cremins rode them unmercifully toward the denouement, a loss at home to LSU in the NCAA tournament Southeast Regional, just before which the frazzled coach could be heard saying of his own home court at the Omni in Atlanta: "I hope it doesn't have a negative effect."

At least Cremins was honest. Some fellows claim to cherish the honor of the No. 1 spot, the way St. John's Lou Carnesecca did in the middle of 1985. "It's a blessing, a great feeling," Lou said. "It's like when you have a brand-new suit and somebody says, 'Gee, that's a nice-looking suit.' " (Actually, Lou had a new sweater and it was positively revolting.) When coaches insist they ignore the polls and couldn't care less if they're No. 1, that's the signal to break out the sheep-dung detector.

Bob Knight delivered one of his more legendary witticisms upon being asked his reaction to a preseason poll. "Only the opinions of sportswriters...," he sneered. "All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to other things." That was in 1973. Two years later, January '75, Indiana achieved its first No. 1 ranking under Knight.

"We're Number 1, huh?" Knight said in a 2:30 a.m. call to his bosom buddy, Bob Hammel of the Bloomington Herald-Telephone. "Which poll?"

"UPI."

"That the coaches or press?"

"Coaches."

"Oh.... When will you have the other one?"

"I don't know. I just checked on it an hour ago, and it wasn't ready yet," said Hammel.

"Oh, well.... Why don't you call again?"

Not that Knight gave a damn, of course.

Most overused phrase in the dictionary of hackneyed coachspeak: No. 1 is nice, but we want to be there at the end rather than the beginning.

"I've never heard anybody say, 'I'd rather be Number 1 at the beginning,' " says N.C. State coach Jim Valvano. "But go ahead. Rank me. I'd like it. Everybody has a poll anyway. The wires. USA Today. Sports Illustrated. Popular Mechanics, Vanity Fair. The Italian-American Red and Green. If you can't get ranked in one of those suckers, you're in serious trouble. But the only one that matters is my mother's poll. We've been No. 1 in that poll so many times I can't count 'em."

Northwestern's Bill Foster recalls that when he was coaching Duke in 1978-79—the only team in the last 14 years to be the preseason choice in all five major polls—a booster asked him if the team would finish No. 1. "This guy was in insurance, so I asked him if he was the Number 1 insurance salesman in the whole United States," says Foster. "I wasn't being a wise guy. I didn't mean disrespect. But people don't stop and think what Number 1 means. It's a very, very big deal."

With no conference championships to go for, Notre Dame's Digger Phelps has lived off playing—and upsetting—No. 1's: UCLA in '74 (halting the alltime 88-game winning streak), San Francisco in 1977, Marquette in 1978, DePaul in 1980, Carolina last year. To prepare for the Bruins, Phelps had his team practice cutting down the nets every day. "It's all a head game," says Phelps. "We've got history on our side and now [No. 1's] who come in here know the percentages aren't so good they're going to get out alive."

Conversely, on a February '78 night in Baton Rouge, LSU's Dale Brown didn't emphasize that Kentucky was No. 1 until the teams were headed into overtime. "You've got five more minutes," Brown roared. "Suck it up and you can knock off Number 1." Previously, Brown's Tigers were 1-11 against Hall's Wildcats. The home team won 95-94, a victory that turned the LSU program around. "It made us legitimate," says Brown, whose teams are 11-11 against Kentucky for the nine years since.

Playing against No. 1, however, "is not something you can practice for," according to New Mexico State's junior forward Johnny Roberson. When his team led UNLV 43-24 at halftime in Las Cruces last season, says Roberson, "It felt like a whole different kind of game, like playing for some kind of championship. They were shocked. But they had a fifth gear." Vegas made up 22 points in 10 minutes and won 80-69.

"Don't think opponents get intimidated by Number 1. No way. They just get jacked up," says UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian, whose Runnin' Rebs were ranked first for 11 weeks last season. Excitement pervaded the PCAA, just as it did in 1983 at Cal State-Fullerton when 5,015 jammed 4,150-seat Titan Gym to watch the home team upset No. 1, 24-0 UNLV. "Vegas being Number 1 is worth 10, 12 points to everybody else in our league," says Fullerton coach George McQuarn.

"I'm superstitious, so we never talk about Number 1," says Tarkanian. But he has learned the value of the exposure. "The distractions are there, but it's a great honor. And it's opened up so many doors that now we can recruit successfully on a level with the Kentuckys and Louisvilles," he says.

Perhaps no regular-season contest for No. 1 has ever out-mediaed the Virginia-Ralph Sampson vs. Georgetown-Patrick Ewing confrontation in December '82. "You could actually feel the pressure in the air," says Virginia coach Terry Holland. The Cavaliers won an intense thriller 68-63, but the postscripts were equally instructive. In its next outing Georgetown lost to American U, while Virginia barely got by Houston in Tokyo (with Sampson sick), then, one win later, lost to Chaminade in Hawaii (with Ralph back). Seven teams went on to flip-flop in and out of No. 1 that season, and only one of them made the Final Four—Houston, which said sayonara in the title game.

"Number 1 is what you work to get," says Holland. "I don't think you should turn around and shirk that mantle. The main thing we did was try to have the players realize all that went with the ranking. When the media shows up to interview you because you're Number 1, the players can't say to themselves, 'I'm not any different than last week.' "

Coaches know better about One-derland. In truth, Holland did his best to keep the glare off Sampson's Cavs, although he stopped well short of locking up and muzzling his players as John Thompson did with Ewing's Hoyas. Both strategies were in the glorious tradition of John Wooden, who, of course, set the standards for poll protection during his reign at UCLA.

"It's an old, trite thing, but you need to concentrate on the job," says the Wizard. "Being man-made, polls don't mean much. Pre-'64 we weren't even in the top 50. We were ranked 77th, and we went unbeaten. But I preferred to start out Number 1 because teams automatically respect you. And I preferred a mixture of ages. In Alcindor's sophomore year we went unbeaten, and they were a joy to work with. I felt they'd be better the next year because they'd know each other, be more indoctrinated into the system. But it didn't work that way. They'd get a little satisfied and not work. It's all subconscious, but it's true. By the time they were seniors they were at times intolerable. Same with Walton's team."

And similar to Kentucky's of 1977-78, except that then it was a question of who was intolerating whom? Those were the Wildcats of Givens, Robey and Phillips: NCAA finalists as freshmen, NIT winners as sophomores, champion heirs apparent after preseason-consensus Carolina faltered. Laboring under oppressive expectations from the most front-running fandom in all the universe, Hall whipped and spurred that Kentucky team like a latter-day Simon Legree.

When UK registered its second loss of the season—that OT defeat at LSU—the coach was furious, dubbing the Cats "the folding five" and "the quitting quintet." The next game, he jerked every player who made a mistake, 17 substitutions in the first half. In the opening round of the NCAA tournament, Kentucky trailed Florida State by seven points at halftime; Hall inserted three scrubs, and Kentucky prevailed.

Faces tight, teeth gritted, psyches less than vibrant, the tyrannized Wildcats won the title at St. Louis in what Hall called, sorrowfully, "a season without celebration. The fans wouldn't allow me to take it lightly. We didn't come to have fun. We came to win."

To be No. 1. The coaches, teams and fans in Chapel Hill and Bloomington know the feeling. The ones in Syracuse and Ann Arbor and maybe even Laramie, Wyo., are about to. A chilling photograph, taken after North Carolina's championship in '82, captures the whole thing. The Tar Heels' classic, raw-thrills victory over Georgetown is over, the momentary ecstasy past. Smith stares grimly at the floor, while two players sit staring vacantly, their bodies exhausted, senses virtually paralyzed—images defining defeat. Except for one thing. The shreds of net still cling to the drooping neck of James Worthy. "The feeling was, Whew!" Matt Doherty would say later. "What did we just go through?"

[originallink:10651481:702700]

ILLUSTRATIONMICHAEL WITTENobody knows better than Knight (left), Smith (middle) and Cremins the cruel fate awaiting a team that's the darling of the press. They have all started a season on top and come up short. ILLUSTRATIONMICHAEL WITTEThompson has always shied away from the attention given a No. 1, but Louie loves it. ILLUSTRATIONMICHAEL WITTEShowmen that they are, Valvano (left) and Tarkanian have used the hoopla that comes with No. 1 to hype their programs. ILLUSTRATIONMICHAEL WITTE

The Favorites' Final Resting Place

In the 14 years since the end of UCLA's streak of seven straight titles, there have been 68 No. 1 picks in the pre-season polls of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, AP, UPI, The Sporting News and Street & Smith's; only 10½ (UPI had a split pick in '77-78) have proved correct. Of the 14 consensus picks, only four even made the Final Four and just two became champion. The last column indicates the NCAA tournament results for each of the other picks.

SEASON

SI

AP

UPI

TSN

SS

CONSENSUS

CHAMP

TOURNAMENT FINISH

'73-74

UCLA

UCLA

UCLA

UCLA

-

UCLA

NC State

UCLA: Final Four

'74-75

Louisville

NC State

NC State

NC State

-

NC State

UCLA

Louisville: Final Four
NC State: Uninvited

'75-76

Indiana

Indiana

Indiana

UCLA

UCLA

Indiana

Indiana

UCLA: Final Four

'76-77

Michigan

Michigan

Michigan

Michigan

Marquette

Michigan

Marquette

Michigan: Mideast final

'77-78

Kentucky

UNC

UNC Kentucky

Notre Dame

UNC

UNC

Kentucky

UNC: West 1st round
Notre Dame: Final Four

'78-79

Duke

Duke

Duke

Duke

Duke

Duke

Michigan St.

Duke: East 2nd round

'79-80

Indiana

Indiana

Indiana

LSU

Indiana

Indiana

Louisville

Indiana: Mideast semis
LSU: Midwest final

'80-81

DePaul

Kentucky

Kentucky

Maryland

Kentucky

Kentucky

Indiana

DePaul: Mideast 2nd round
Kentucky: Mideast 2nd round
Maryland: Mideast 2nd round

'81-82

UNC

UNC

UNC

Louisville

UCLA

UNC

UNC

Louisville: Final Four
UCLA: Probation

'82-83

Virginia

Virginia

Virginia

Virginia

Kentucky

Virginia

NC State

Virginia: West final
Kentucky: Mideast final

'83-84

UNC

UNC

UNC

Kentucky

UNC

UNC

Georgetown

UNC: East semis
Kentucky: Final Four

'84-85

Georgetown

Georgetown

Georgetown

DePaul

Georgetown

Georgetown

Villanova

G'town: Final Four runner-up
DePaul: East 1st round

'85-86

Ga. Tech

Ga. Tech

Michigan

Ga. Tech

Ga. Tech

Ga. Tech

Louisville

Ga. Tech: Southeast semis
Michigan: Midwest 2nd round

'86-87

UNC

UNC

Louisville

Indiana

UNC

UNC

Indiana

UNC: East final

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)