"I've never heard anybody say, 'I'd rather be Number 1 at the beginning,' " says N.C. State coach Jim Valvano. "But go ahead. Rank me. I'd like it. Everybody has a poll anyway. The wires. USA Today. Sports Illustrated. Popular Mechanics, Vanity Fair. The Italian-American Red and Green. If you can't get ranked in one of those suckers, you're in serious trouble. But the only one that matters is my mother's poll. We've been No. 1 in that poll so many times I can't count 'em."
Northwestern's Bill Foster recalls that when he was coaching Duke in 1978-79—the only team in the last 14 years to be the preseason choice in all five major polls—a booster asked him if the team would finish No. 1. "This guy was in insurance, so I asked him if he was the Number 1 insurance salesman in the whole United States," says Foster. "I wasn't being a wise guy. I didn't mean disrespect. But people don't stop and think what Number 1 means. It's a very, very big deal."
With no conference championships to go for, Notre Dame's Digger Phelps has lived off playing—and upsetting—No. 1's: UCLA in '74 (halting the alltime 88-game winning streak), San Francisco in 1977, Marquette in 1978, DePaul in 1980, Carolina last year. To prepare for the Bruins, Phelps had his team practice cutting down the nets every day. "It's all a head game," says Phelps. "We've got history on our side and now [No. 1's] who come in here know the percentages aren't so good they're going to get out alive."
Conversely, on a February '78 night in Baton Rouge, LSU's Dale Brown didn't emphasize that Kentucky was No. 1 until the teams were headed into overtime. "You've got five more minutes," Brown roared. "Suck it up and you can knock off Number 1." Previously, Brown's Tigers were 1-11 against Hall's Wildcats. The home team won 95-94, a victory that turned the LSU program around. "It made us legitimate," says Brown, whose teams are 11-11 against Kentucky for the nine years since.
Playing against No. 1, however, "is not something you can practice for," according to New Mexico State's junior forward Johnny Roberson. When his team led UNLV 43-24 at halftime in Las Cruces last season, says Roberson, "It felt like a whole different kind of game, like playing for some kind of championship. They were shocked. But they had a fifth gear." Vegas made up 22 points in 10 minutes and won 80-69.
"Don't think opponents get intimidated by Number 1. No way. They just get jacked up," says UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian, whose Runnin' Rebs were ranked first for 11 weeks last season. Excitement pervaded the PCAA, just as it did in 1983 at Cal State-Fullerton when 5,015 jammed 4,150-seat Titan Gym to watch the home team upset No. 1, 24-0 UNLV. "Vegas being Number 1 is worth 10, 12 points to everybody else in our league," says Fullerton coach George McQuarn.
"I'm superstitious, so we never talk about Number 1," says Tarkanian. But he has learned the value of the exposure. "The distractions are there, but it's a great honor. And it's opened up so many doors that now we can recruit successfully on a level with the Kentuckys and Louisvilles," he says.
Perhaps no regular-season contest for No. 1 has ever out-mediaed the Virginia-Ralph Sampson vs. Georgetown-Patrick Ewing confrontation in December '82. "You could actually feel the pressure in the air," says Virginia coach Terry Holland. The Cavaliers won an intense thriller 68-63, but the postscripts were equally instructive. In its next outing Georgetown lost to American U, while Virginia barely got by Houston in Tokyo (with Sampson sick), then, one win later, lost to Chaminade in Hawaii (with Ralph back). Seven teams went on to flip-flop in and out of No. 1 that season, and only one of them made the Final Four—Houston, which said sayonara in the title game.
"Number 1 is what you work to get," says Holland. "I don't think you should turn around and shirk that mantle. The main thing we did was try to have the players realize all that went with the ranking. When the media shows up to interview you because you're Number 1, the players can't say to themselves, 'I'm not any different than last week.' "
Coaches know better about One-derland. In truth, Holland did his best to keep the glare off Sampson's Cavs, although he stopped well short of locking up and muzzling his players as John Thompson did with Ewing's Hoyas. Both strategies were in the glorious tradition of John Wooden, who, of course, set the standards for poll protection during his reign at UCLA.