When Pitt took over at No. 1 in Monday's polls, all seemed right in the college basketball world: The Panthers had earned it with their giant-flipping invasion of Hartford one week earlier, and two lesser-deserving teams who might have assumed the top spot instead, North Carolina and Oklahoma, were bumped out of line by upset losses on Saturday. The Tar Heels, Sooners and Huskies were all playing at less than full strength, while Pitt was the lone contender with all of its resources available, from the Ultimate Rebounder, DeJuan Blair, all the way down to the grunts at the end of its rotation, Gary McGhee and Nasir Robinson. The Panthers had a more clearly defined identity than any of the elites, too: They were the toughest team in the country, unable to be beaten in any Big East dogfights. In a season in which the No. 1 team had changed five times in the past eight polls, it seemed that Pitt could bring some stability to the situation.
And then we turned on our TVs on Tuesday night.
And saw Pitt remind us, from Providence, that the last thing we're going to get is stability at the top. It's been a wide-open season since North Carolina first lost the No. 1 ranking on Jan. 5, and it'll remain that way through the Final Four.
There were weird things about the Panthers' 81-73 loss on Tuesday: Actor James Woods, of all people, was there, wearing a string of Mardi Gras beads and being interviewed by a sideline reporter. The Rhode Island native (who's not a Providence alum) did not sound like he was well-versed in Friars hoops. But he did mention that he is a Catholic and was once an altar boy, and that Father Brian J. Shanley, Providence's president, had told Woods that if the Friars won, he'd have to come back for every game the rest of the year. I assume he isn't going to make good on that request; and besides, Dr. Harvey Mandrake from Any Given Sunday wouldn't be much of a good-luck charm anyway.
The setting for the upset was a court most casual fans had only seen on YouTube this season -- when Jeff Xavier's brother walked onto it, from the stands, to protest a call. When Providence students stormed the court in proper fashion after this game, one kid was holding a giant cutout of senior center Randall Hanke's head, which bobbed up and down a couple of times before being swallowed into the frenzied mob. The giant head was in honor of Hanke's Senior Night, which, because the Big East schedule-makers had put the Friars on the road from here on out, was being held in February.
What wasn't strange was the way Pitt was beaten: Despite the fact that Providence coach Keno Davis had said before the game, "I don't see any way to be able to stop [Blair]," his team knew exactly how to do it -- by getting him into foul trouble, the same way Louisville did when it beat the then-No. 1 Panthers on Jan. 17, and the same way Villanova did when it beat the Panthers on Jan. 28. He picked up two early fouls, was robbed of much of his impact on defense and on the glass, and eventually fouled out with 17 points and eight boards in 30 minutes -- decent numbers for most post players, but not for Blair. Every contender has an Achilles' Heel, and for Pitt, it's Blair Power getting neutralized by the refs. If the officials in the NCAA tournament call games tighter than they do in the Big East -- where more bruising interior play is allowed than in any other league -- then this could be an issue in March.
Is it a bigger problem, though, than those faced by the other No. 1 candidates?
North Carolina's defense is at the same level Pitt's is -- ranked in the top 30 nationally in efficiency, but not truly elite -- but the Heels seem to be prone to major meltdowns on the perimeter. Their past two games, in which they let NC State and Maryland look like offensive juggernauts, serve as fine examples of this issue. And the answer to their problems, senior lockdown artist Marcus Ginyard, isn't coming back: He's opted to take a medical redshirt.
UConn is missing the guy who took its highest percentage of shots on offense, Jerome Dyson, who had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee and is out for the season. Dyson was the Huskies' biggest guard, best slasher and best perimeter defender, and they haven't made up for his absence by merely upping the minutes of Kemba Walker and Craig Austrie. They might be the next team to take over the No. 1 spot, if they can beat Marquette and Notre Dame this week. But the Huskies, who once looked like a Final Four lock, are no longer a sure thing.
Oklahoma was set to be No. 1 on Monday -- but all-everything forward Blake Griffin suffered a nasty concussion in the first half against Texas on Saturday, they lost that game, and then lost again on Monday to Kansas with Griffin still on the bench. The Sooners' issues go deeper than just missing Griffin, though: Even with him they were playing the worst defense of any team in the top 10 of the polls. As of Tuesday they ranked 55th in adjusted defensive efficiency and were behind Missouri and Kansas in the Pomeroy efficiency ratings.
Two darkhorses to jump up to No. 1, Memphis and Louisville, aren't perfect either: The Tigers didn't win a single big game before Conference USA play started, losing to Xavier, Syracuse and (most troublingly) Georgetown, so they don't really have No. 1 credentials.
And while Louisville's offense has been peaking in the past week and it may be the favorite to win the Big East regular season, the Cardinals did lose to Notre Dame -- which might not even be an NCAA tournament team -- by 33 points just two weeks ago. At the season's outset, nearly everyone thought there was a perfect team. It was supposed to be North Carolina. Now there are none, and when brackets are filled in a few weeks, you'll be forced to choose a champ whose flaws are the least troubling. Only if you worry most about whistles, you worry most about Pitt.