It's one of the worst kept secrets in sports, just behind "some players utilize performance-enhancers," and also "amateur recruits sometime receive illegal benefits," or I guess "yeah, we've got some gays." Ok, that's too many. Let's hit reset.
It's one of the many secrets in sports: with one exception, rankings in team games simply do not matter. The outlier, of course, is FCS college football, where various sets of rankings ultimately decide which two teams will pay in one game for the national championship. In every other league, conference or division worthy of discussion, rankings are pure fodder; gobbled up with the fury of a man who hasn't eaten for days and forgotten just as quickly.
Was there a set of rankings you saw and vehemently disagreed with at some point during the first week of Dec., 2010? I guarantee it. Do you remember what the beef was that got you so emotional? Of course you don't.
Again, with the exception of our collegiate friends from the gridiron, we can see rankings and polls, become enraged, but then ultimately brush that anger aside. Why is this possible? Because we know eventually everything will be decided on the field/court/pool (dive rankings are the new flair). At the end of the season, every passionate, well-pleaded argument regarding the relative strength or weakness of a team will have been either quashed or rectified by the actual contests that succeeded them. It's beautiful.
Though there was a little double-digit number next to the names of both Missouri and Marquette when they took the floor inside Madison Square Garden at the Jimmy V. Classic Tuesday night, each made a case that it belongs closer to one than it does to ten.
The reasons for Mizzou's relatively low start on the national totem pole start at the top.
In seven years at Miami, Frank Haith achieved a total record of 129-101 and reached the NCAA Tournament just once. Not exactly numbers worthy of a promotion, but that's exactly what the Tigers gave him after Mike Anderson left Columbia to take the head coaching job at Arkansas.
If his average track record wasn't eyebrow-raising enough, over the summer Haith was accused by former Miami booster Nevin Shapiro of knowing of a $10,000 cash payment made to secure the signing of elite recruit DeQuan Jones. A couple of months later he lost his best returning big man, senior forward Laurence Bowers, for the season with a torn ACL.
Despite all this, the Tigers stepped in front of a national television audience Tuesday night unbeaten and relatively untested. The same can be said a day later after Mizzou led a scrappy Villanova team by double-digits for the bulk of 40 minutes before closing out an 81-71 victory.
The formula for Missouri's success is fairly straight-forward: they shoot well, they pass well and they defend well. Marcus Denmon, who scored 28 last night, is a star and an early favorite for Big 12 Player of the Year. Denmon grabs the headlines, but sophomore point guard Phil Pressey might be the Tigers' most important player. He does a tremendous job running the show, and his 12 assists against Villanova were every bit as impressive as Denmon's 28 points. Ricardo Ratliffe has hit a remarkable 30 of his last 32 field goal attempts, and provides the inside presence that many thought this team would lack.
Equally unblemished Marquette had been almost equally dominant in victory before last night's thrilling nightcap against Washington, a team just a touch bigger and a touch more athletic than the Golden Eagles.
Buzz Williams doesn't have McDonald's All-Americans like the Huskies do, and he doesn't have a national player of the year candidate like Wisconsin does, but yet his Golden Eagles are still undefeated after facing each of these teams away from the Bradley Center.
Marquette isn't as talent-deprived as some make them out to be. Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder - the man who buried the game-winning three from the corner Tuesday night - could start for just about any team in the country. But that's not what stands out when you watch the Golden Eagles. What stands out is just how much these guys seem to enjoy playing together. Everyone on the bench is up after every semi-important basket, and everyone on the floor is high-fiving. It's this type of chemistry that has consistently toppled superior talent in recent NCAA Tournaments.
As it stands right now, there are only three teams - Kentucky, Ohio State and North Carolina - that I think you can say are, beyond the shadow of a doubt, superior to Missouri and Marquette. The fact that the pseudo caste system that is sports polling likely won't allow either team to climb the rankings without the teams currently in front of them being dealt defeats matters not. They'll both get their shot.