March 5, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Gonzaga is nation's No. 1, for what that's worth

Kelly Olynyk has led Gonzaga to the No. 1 ranking this week, the fifth school to top of the polls this season, following Michigan, Indiana, Duke and Louisville. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

This is what happens when stars don't stay in school long enough to legally order a beer. This is what happens when the best teams in the best conference spend three months shoving each other around. This is what you get, and while it might make you cringe, it shouldn't.

Gonzaga is No. 1 for the first time, and for some, this is the most-egregious development in college basketball since Dan Dakich launched his broadcasting career. I kid — Dakich is entertaining, and so is this wide-open season.

Is Gonzaga the best team in the country? Oh, goodness no. Is its 29-2 record and 12-game winning streak a pile of puff against the likes of Santa Clara, San Diego and San Francisco? Of course it is.

Based on the entire season and current rosters, I'd say the best team is either Indiana or Duke, now that Ryan Kelly is back. Or maybe Louisville or Miami or Kansas or Georgetown or — egads — New Mexico. By Final Four time, it might even be Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State.

Fans (and media) need to recognize what's happening in the most wildly fluid college basketball season ever. You don't have to embrace it, but you do need to adjust your thinking and update your perceptions. For a variety of reasons, there are very few national powerhouses, and by "very few," I mean "none." There are a lot of good, incomplete teams, which is why Gonzaga became the fifth No. 1, joining Indiana, Duke, Louisville and Michigan.

I know, I know. Fans around here are freaked because the Wolverines collapsed against the last-place Nittany Lions before squeaking past the Spartans, who have lost three straight. The sky is falling when the shots aren't falling, reality or not, and neither team is playing great right now.

Final Four material

Call me a dummy, but I still think Michigan and Michigan State have Final Four potential, based on looming circumstances. Depending on what happens in the Big Ten tournament, they should land No. 2 or No. 3 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, and both could open at The Palace. If both win two "home" games, they'd be in the Sweet 16, and even with obvious weaknesses, they have ingredients few teams possess.

Michigan has Trey Burke, arguably the most dynamic and dominant guard in the program's history. He single-handedly beat Michigan State with 21 points and five steals, and it's not ridiculous to suggest he could go on a scoring-passing-leading run like Chris Paul or even Isiah Thomas.

Michigan State has a 6-foot-10 force in Adreian Payne, who has added 3-point shooting to his exceptional rebounding. The Spartans also have a potentially dangerous backcourt of Gary Harris and Keith Appling — when Appling is attacking and distributing with confidence. It's been tough for him at point guard and his shooting has been awful lately, but would it be at all shocking if a Tom Izzo team cranked it up in March?

"In some ways, I feel this team has just as good a chance to go a long, long way as any I've had because of everybody we've played," Izzo said Monday. "Just about everybody we've played right down to the wire."

Bulldogs aren't bad

It's fun to debate Gonzaga's merits, tear apart its lame schedule in the West Coast Conference and point out it lost at home to Illinois (85-74) and at Butler (64-63).

The Bulldogs have an interesting team with two really good players from Canada — 7-footer Kelly Olynyk and guard Kevin Pangos. I think they'd finish third or fourth in the Big Ten, and that's a compliment disguised as a jab.

The No. 1 ranking has become a "kick me" sign, slapped on whichever team has gone the longest without a horrible loss. It has virtually nothing to do with the actual best team, and that's fine.

The NCAA Tournament will determine the best, er, the hottest team.

Kentucky was the overwhelming favorite last season, won it, then sent its players to the pros. North Carolina was the overwhelming favorite in 2009, won it, then sent its players to the pros. But in between, little Butler reached consecutive championship games, losing to Duke and Connecticut.

The top five right now are Gonzaga, Indiana, Duke, Kansas and Georgetown. Michigan is seventh and Michigan State is 10th.

If you look at the RPI numbers, the top three are Duke, New Mexico and Miami. (Seriously!). This is the New Normal, and while it doesn't assure a soundly played Tournament, it does assure a thoroughly unpredictable one.

Gonzaga will make its 15th consecutive appearance, and only Duke, Kansas and Michigan State have longer streaks. Michigan is clawing back, and if John Beilein can get his young players to follow Burke's determined lead, and get Tim Hardaway Jr. sizzling again, anything is possible.

"It's a new month, and we know what our flaws are and how to fix them," Burke said. "I think we'll be ready."

The Wolverines looked readier in edging the Spartans, thanks to a tougher defensive effort. But they still got hammered on the boards, still have breakdowns and still have questions.

Just like every good team in the country. Just like Gonzaga, No. 1 for now, for real or not.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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