No. 1 looks a lot like an exclamation point. No. ! It’s the same thing, isn’t it?
In his autobiography, Lute Olson wrote in a thoughtful and measured tone for 147 pages. But suddenly, on Page 148, discussing Arizona’s rise to No. 1 in the Dec. 21, 1987, Associated Press poll, he wrote:
He continued: “It feels good to be No. 1. Good? It’s tremendous.”
That was Olson’s one lapse into hyperbole across 311 pages of memories. He embraced the magnitude of the ranking and made sure no one thought it was unappreciated.
When No. 1 Michigan State lost at home to North Carolina on Wednesday, it inescapably turned the storyline to Saturday’s Arizona-UNLV game into The Battle for No. 1.
“I think it’s a healthy thing to talk about,” UA coach Sean Miller said after No. 2 Arizona beat Texas Tech 24 hours earlier.
Who doesn’t want to be No. 1?
Texas Tech won 23 consecutive games in 1996 and went to the Sweet 16 with a 30-1 record. And yet the Red Raiders never rose above No. 5 in the AP poll.
As Texas Tech learned, sometimes you can’t win enough to become No. 1.
Do you know who covets No. 1 more than anyone in college basketball? Maryland. The Terrapins have been ranked No. 2 on 22 occasions and were never able to take the final step to No. 1. Someone like Duke or UCLA always blocked the Terps’ path to No. 1.
The Utah Utes, who have played in three Final Fours, have been ranked 212 times in the AP poll but have never been No. 1. Do you think the Utes would trade one of those Final Fours for the right to say they had, for one glorious week, been No. 1?
Saturday is an Exclamation Point Day for Arizona. Much like Olson 26 years ago, Miller doesn’t attempt to pretend it’s not a Big Thing.
“Being No. 1 is not our end goal,” he said, “but I think when you’re playing with that thought in mind, practices matter, how you play matters … everything we do takes on even more added importance because you’re trying for, in a sense, rarified air to be the No. 1 team in the nation.”
You couldn’t order a more perfect opponent than UNLV. The history is irresistible.
The Rebels beat No. 1 North Carolina in November 2011, winning big, 90-80, chopping up Roy Williams’ undefeated Tar Heels at the Orleans Arena.
The Rebels also beat No. 1 Arizona in March 1989, a crushing end to the Sean Elliott era, 68-67, a not-so-Sweet 16 game in Denver.
If you have a chance to climb to No. 1, you don’t want to look across the floor and see Arkansas–Little Rock. You want to play someone with history and a reputation. Someone like UNLV.
Arizona made the regular-season climb to No. 1 six times under Olson, and each required some special work.
None was more special than the first: In December 1987, the Wildcats were so dominant that they jumped undefeated Kentucky, then 6-0, to arrive at No. 1. The UA beat preseason No. 1 Syracuse, went to No. 3 Iowa to beat the Hawkeyes and routed No. 9 Michigan. Upon opening the Pac-10 season with a 110-71 victory at Washington, the Wildcats made the improbable jump over a sitting, undefeated No. 1.
Now all they’ve got to do is beat 3-3 UNLV.
Olson’s next encounter with No. 1, in February 1989, created one of the epic games in UA history. By quirk of the schedule, Arizona met Oklahoma, the team it had replaced as No. 1 — and also the team it had lost to in the previous year’s Final Four. The Sooners won at home 82-80.
“It seems like every time we play, one of us is No. 1,” OU coach Billy Tubbs said. “I’m trying to get Lute to agree to a 10-year contract.”
Arizona opened No.1 in the AP’s preseason polls of 1997-98, 2000-01 and 2002-03 (eventually falling from the top spot by losses to, in order, Duke, Purdue and LSU) and was restored at No. 1 on Jan. 13, 2003, when Duke lost to Maryland.
The Wildcats played their last game as the nation’s No. 1 team on March 13, 2003, losing to UCLA in double-overtime. The Bruins entered that game with a 9-18 record, and a lame duck coach, Steve Lavin.
“When you play the No. 1 team in the nation, you don’t have to worry if your team is going to show up,” said Lavin. “Our guys couldn’t wait to get to the arena.”
The only way Saturday’s game could be any better would be for Jerry Tarkanian to sit on UNLV’s bench, chomping his towel.
When Tark’s Rebels beat No. 1 Arizona in the 1989 Sweet 16, he loudly crowed “I sent Luther home.”
What goes around comes around. No. 1 awaits.