Dog days are upon us
For top-ranked teams, no place to hide in conference play
The Syracuse Orange and Wisconsin Badgers -– giant killers, right? Not so quick.
While both Syracuse and Wisconsin obviously delivered gutsy, hard-fought and impressive performances to knock off the two teams perched atop last week’s polls -- No. 1 Louisville and No. 2 Indiana -- I’m hesitant to label the wins as anything much more than what they were: big conference victories.
Don’t get me wrong, backers of both ‘Cuse and the Badgers should be ecstatic with their respective teams’ performances. They should enjoy the heck out of those wins and have an increased level of optimism in their teams’ chances for the 2012-2013 season.
|DUKE NO. 1 AGAIN|
Duke is No. 1 in The Associated Press' college basketball poll after dropping from the top spot for one week.
The Blue Devils, who fell to No. 3 last week, took advantage of losses by Louisville and Indiana to move back to No. 1, their fifth week on top this season. Duke received 39 first-place votes from the 65-member national media panel Monday.
Michigan, which jumped from fifth to second, had 11 No. 1 votes. Kansas, which had seven first-place votes, and Syracuse, which knocked Louisville out of No. 1, tied for third. Syracuse received eight No. 1 votes.
Louisville dropped to fifth and was followed by Arizona, Indiana, Florida, Butler and Gonzaga.
Wichita State, Cincinnati, Mississippi and Miami moved into the rankings this week, replacing San Diego State, Illinois, UCLA and Marquette.
-- The Associated Press
In my opinion there are rarely upsets in conference play. You can throw the pre-conference season and records completely out the window. Everyone starts over. You’re 0-0 to begin the conference schedule. It’s a whole new ballgame, from the emotion of rivalries to bad blood with coaches, players and programs. Most coaches will tell you that any conference win on the road is a very good win. Teams, no matter their records, expect to hold serve on their home floor.
I’ll never forget -- it was January 1988. The most recent polls had just come out and across the board each one of them had ranked us, the University of Kentucky Wildcats, as the No. 1 team in the country. We were 10-0 and rolling.
Into Rupp Arena strolled head coach Sonny Smith and his struggling and unranked Auburn Tigers squad. This UK team of ours was big, long, athletic and deep. We regularly played 10 players. Auburn was decimated by injury and suspension. It only had seven guys available and in uniform on that cold, sleepy January night in Lexington, Ky. I say sleepy because my teammates and I played that way.
To this day I can still hear our Hall of Fame head coach, Eddie Sutton, in that gravelly southern drawl of his, explicitly warning us during the first timeout he called just minutes into the contest, “If you let this team hang around, you’re gonna get your asses beat!". If I heard those words from him once that night I heard them 10 times.
Well, needless to say, we let the Tigers/War Eagles “hang around” all night long. So long in fact, that I got an up-close and personal 3-ball right in my eyes by little-known Auburn role-player John Caylor (will never forget that name!), as he let go over my outstretched arms a bomb from the left wing that I still can sometimes see in my sleep -- nothing but bottom. John freaking Caylor. 10-0 no more. Bye-bye, No.1.
I can still remember the sounds and the sights associated with that loss some 25-years ago. Man, did it hurt.
Wish I could tell you that a terrible loss to an unranked, undermanned conference foe was as painful as it got for my teammates and I that night -- but it wasn’t.
As some 24,000 Kentucky fans watched those unranked Tigers and fans -– all 25 of them –- celebrated their victory against the No. 1-ranked team in all of the land, we, as players and coaches, took the long walk back to our locker room. Our heads were down and we were obviously embarrassed, mad, sad, etc. Well, we’re all seated at our lockers for a very, very long time before any of our coaches have said a single word to us. I’m talking, it’s been an hour or more since the buzzer sounded, and my teammates and I are still sitting there -- in uniform -- being given the old silent treatment. We knew better than to shower or to, Heaven forbid, leave before being given the green light to do so.
Finally, one of our managers walked in and said, “Coach Sutton wants to know if you guys are hungry?”. Being that we hadn’t eaten since our pre-game meal around 3 p.m., and that by now it was nearly midnight, naturally we were starving -– and said so. Some 45 minutes later the door to the locker room opened and in walked Coach Eddie. Behind him followed two managers -- in their arms were two 50-pound bags of dog food. Eddie grabbed the first bag of dog food and slung it all over the locker-room floor. He did the same thing to the second bag, turned and started to walk out. Before reaching the door Coach Eddie stopped, turned around and said to us, “You play like dogs, you eat like dogs!" -- then he left.
Now, Louisville lost to another highly ranked team (Syracuse came into the game No. 6, and moved into a third-place tie with Kansas in the newest AP poll), and Wisconsin has had Indiana's number (11 consecutive victories); but the point remains the same -- it's not as hard to lose a conference game as it is to win one.
Sure, a loss is a loss, but for Louisville and Indiana, they were suffered to extremely tough, superbly coached and very talented conference opponents. There certainly is no shame in those L’s, especially given that the Big East and Big Ten conferences are two of the country’s toughest, top to bottom, year in and year out.
For Syracuse and Wisconsin’s players and coaches, both had about 12 hours to enjoy what they’d accomplished and then it was back to the grind that is the college basketball season.
Why does it seem we are all of the sudden seeing more great games, more buzzer-beaters, more overtime games and more games that are nip and tuck from beginning to end? Why does it seem there is more passion and energy from the players and the fans alike? Simple -- it’s January. Conference play is here. Play time is over. And those so-called upsets are just beginning.
Rex Chapman played at Kentucky from 1986-88. He was a two-time All-SEC selection as well as an NABC All-American in 1988 before opting for the NBA Draft. He was the No. 1 choice -- eighth overall -- of Charlotte and played for the Hornets (1988-92), Washington Bullets (1992-95), Miami Heat (1995-96) and Phoenix Suns (1996-2000). Follow Rex on Twitter @rexchapman.