Why Florida deserves college basketball's No. 1 ranking (for now)

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Florida will be No. 1 when college basketball's polls are released on Monday. And the Gators deserve to be — because it's hard to find another team that does.

With No. 1 Syracuse's Saturday night loss at Duke, Florida — No. 2 behind Syracuse in both polls as of last week — looks like a shoo-in for the No. 1 spot in the college basketball rankings upon the release of the AP and USA TODAY polls on Monday.

And the Gators deserve the number one spot, because they deserve it more than the only other team — Wichita State — that currently does.

Those who deigned to read my 4,000 words on college basketball disguised as power rankings from last week know well that I thought Florida was playing the best basketball in the country as of that point. That case is actually easier to make now than it was last week.

Syracuse would have had a good claim to the "best team right now" title I'm trying to award with my rankings if it had beaten Duke — and not lost to a horrid Boston College team earlier in the week. Duke might have had a claim had it not faded against North Carolina, or had it beaten Syracuse more convincingly than it did in its seven-point ref-aided victory. Arizona and Kansas each played superb games on Saturday, but Kansas was only a little better than Texas Tech on Tuesday, and 'Zona barely better than Utah on Wednesday, and each of those teams, despite being clearly the class of its conference, has a loss in its last two weeks of play.

Wichita State is the other team with a claim to No. 1, and the other team on a winning streak against an overmatched conference like the one Florida is on. Wichita State is actually undefeated. The Shockers haven't won a game by fewer than seven points in more than a month, either, and their play has them in KenPom's top 15 on offense and defense — just like Florida.

But Wichita State's best win was over Saint Louis in December — a great win, sure, but one no better than on par with Florida's win over Kansas, or at Kentucky. The Shockers beat Tennessee at home, too — and that's their second-best win, really, and the nine-point margin in that game pales in comparison to Florida's 26-point annihilation of the Vols in Gainesville. The SEC may be just a two-bid league, given the damage done by the internecine games between teams in its middle class, but it's still better than the Missouri Valley, a one-bid league barring a shocking Shockers loss in the conference tournament. And Florida has handled the SEC about as well as Wichita State has handled the Valley, outscoring it by 0.197 points per possession; Wichita's MVC number is 0.231 points per possession.

Those concerns also matter a lot more to me, someone who wishes polls were more like power rankings, than the people who actually vote in them. For them, inertia is enough, and Florida's got greater inertia.

Florida has been on deck for No. 1 since last week's wins over Tennessee and Kentucky, which — combined with Arizona's loss at Arizona State — finally got the Gators past Wichita State in the USA TODAY coaches poll, but the Gators have had more momentum than the Shockers for about a month. It was the AP Poll released on January 27 that first moved Florida past Wichita State, and though the Gators didn't move past the Shockers in the coaches poll, they sliced what was a 56-point lead to 30 points. From January 27 to February 10, Florida never trailed Wichita State by more than 33 points in the coaches poll, putting them in position to make their leap last week.

Michigan State and Villanova each lost games between January 20 and January 27, moving both the Gators and Shockers up, but something else happened during that week to help make Florida look better than Wichita State: That 26-point win over Tennessee came on January 25. And, to the credit of voters who could probably have merely seen Wichita State's goose egg in the loss column and kept the Shockers ahead of the Gators, it seems to have mattered.

Florida might yet lose a game, and Wichita State will probably be able to claim No. 1 if that happens. But Florida did everything it needed to to get to No. 1 for the first time in seven years, and deserves to be enthroned — for now, anyway, on a throne that means so little.

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