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Being No. 1 in October no guarantee of NCAA crown

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“We’re No. 1,” the cries echo from Blooming­ton with each new college basketball projection.

Louisville and Kentucky might get a cover story here and there, but most publications project the Hoosiers as the best college basketball team in the land.

USA Today, Sporting News, ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Yahoo all have tapped Indiana as the top dog.

Sure, that sounds good in October, as a packed Assembly Hall testified at Hoosier Hysteria, but history is not always kind to the team that starts at the top.

Despite the symbolic bravado, which cannot be underrated for a program so recently down and out, the top spot in polls without playing a game is hardly an accurate barometer of season-long roundball success.

IU will be good. Make no mistake about that. But how good will depend upon a number of factors,

including how tone deaf the team is to the siren call of preseason hoops supremacy.

In other words, enjoy the No. 1 ranking, but don’t start printing those championship T-shirts just yet. Fall in love with this team but not the number it currently wears.

Garnering a preseason No. 1 spot is akin to winning the Iowa straw poll at the start of a presidential election cycle. It seems much more decisive and predictive than it really is.

(Quiz: Name the top GOP finishers in the 2011 Iowa straw poll; answer below.)

College basketball prognosticators are the kind of people who make political pundits and TV weathermen look smart.

Only three times in the past decade has the team opening the season at No. 1 won the championship. In other words, the poll was wrong as a predictor of the April outcome 70 percent of the time. That’s not exactly one shining moment for those making projections.

To be fair, though, that also is understandable. It is a long season, and much can happen to change a team’s outlook. It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish, the logic goes.

If that’s the case, you might expect the polls to be much more accurate in predicting a winner at the end of the regular season.

Uh, no, actually it is the opposite. In a trend that would bring a warm front to a weatherman, the closer the tournament, the more inaccurate the assessment. That’s right, the further into the season, the less likely that the No. 1 team in the polls will win the championship.

In the past decade, the team ranked No. 1 in the last regular-season has won the title only once. That was Kentucky, just this past year.

Casey Stengel made more sense than ever when he advised, “Never make predictions, especially about the future.”

Of course, projecting who has the best sports team is fun and fodder for millions of fans.

This is not a plea to stop the guessing. It is, however, a caution to remember that it is just guessing.

After all, the past two times IU won the national championship, North Carolina (1987) and Kentucky (1981) were the preseason No. 1. Indeed, the No. 1 teams at the end of the regular season were UNLV (1987) and DePaul (1981).

So, sprinkle a good dash of salt on those preseason predictions.

Proclamations of Hoosier superiority do nothing to win a game, let alone make a basket. They certainly do not render it more or less likely that IU will emerge with the national championship trophy in Atlanta next April 8.

Like most things in life, that is a matter of hard work, responsibility, communication and a good dose of luck.

Two things are certain now. First, IU has the ingredients it takes to be an elite team. And, second, whether it takes the title in Atlanta is a matter of a thousand bounces in the next six months.

Simply put, it’s not about the polls today but about the journey tomorrow.

Oh, by the way, what about those Iowa results? Michele Bachmann was first, followed by Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and Rick Perry.

Mitt Romney, who won the straw poll but not his party’s nomination in 2008, finished seventh this time before proceeding to capture his party’s nomination.

Be careful, Hoosier hoops fans. Those early polls are notoriously wrong. This is a long race. The goal is to be No. 1 next spring, no matter what road it takes to get there.

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