Men's College Basketball
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Contender or Pretender?
Lucas Gulotta - Associate Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans are occupying the top spot in the Top 25, but MSU has not exactly looked the part since being deemed the best team in the land.

The Spartans began the season ranked second behind a freshman filled Kentucky Wildcats squad, which Michigan State went on to defeat in a marquee matchup in Chicago on Nov. 12 to become the new king of the hill for the first time since 2001. Since that impressive performance, Izzo's team has won two games in a very non-dominant fashion, which has many thinking there are other teams more deserving of the top spot.

Michigan State has not shown the killer instinct it had against Kentucky. It actually trailed Columbia by four points at halftime before barely escaping the Lions, who helped their opponents out with a pair of shot-clock violations on key possessions.

"I'm very disappointed. It's a game that you want to win, a game that you win ugly. I'm very disappointed in it," said Izzo after the close call. "You go into a game after you get out-rebounded and you get out-rebounded again. I can stand going 0-7 from three, withstand some things, but it's a team that's reading their press clippings, listening to Twitter, team that's got to hope now that Kansas blows somebody out so they move them ahead of us because we proved tonight that we're not ready to handle any kind of success and that disappoints me"

Michigan State was still deemed the No. 1 team in the nation when the next poll was released. In their next outing, the Spartans did not respond with a rout like many thought they would. They let Portland hang around and threaten their perfect record for much longer than they should have. The Pilots, who finished the 2012-13 with an 11-21 overall record, tied the score with 12:43 in regulation before MSU finally responded with a run to pull off for a 15- point win.

"This is the toughest question of all. Let me explain it, it means zero." said Izzo on the importance of the number one ranking after the win over the Pilots. "There is no ring, there are no banners and there are no bonuses. There is nothing for it in that respect. However, we are going to have to play a little better than we are playing, and quickly. At the same time, I think we have earned some of it and I think it will be good. I look at it as a privilege; not a weight on my shoulders, not a bull's-eye on my back. I think it is great for us, great for the university and great for the Big Ten. But all in perspective, it does not mean anything in November."

Whether or not the coach of the 2000 national champions wants to admit it, being number one is very much like having a bull's-eye on your back. Michigan State will get the best shot of every team it faces while it remains number one, and although it wasn't pretty, it already absorbed a pair of stellar performances and came out unscathed.

The Spartans may not be better than the Wildcats they took down in Chicago. Kentucky's youthful lineup came out flat, while MSU was looking to prove itself. Experience plays a big factor in big games, that is why many of the mid-major Cinderella teams in March have strong senior leadership. For example, Davidson made a run in the NCAA Tournament during Stephen Curry's junior year, when he had an excellent senior point guard in Jason Richards alongside him to make clutch plays. The next season, Davidson failed to win the Southern Conference despite the return of Curry.

The NCAA Tournament does not always crown the best team when it is all said and done. Although Kentucky has more talent on its roster, the Spartans made it clear they were more prepared for the spotlight. UK may be ready come March and the loss actually may have helped it as it has been unstoppable since leaving Chicago. MSU would have lost its last two games if it faced a top tier program, but at the end of the day, it got the job done and deserves some credit for surviving.

The Spartans should remain at the top until they are knocked off the pedestal. That could happen on Friday when they take on Virginia Tech, it could happen when they face North Carolina on Dec. 4, there's a chance it doesn't happen at all. Only time will tell.

However, there is one school with a reason to feel disrespected and it appears to be showing it. There is no reason Louisville should not have come into the year ranked number one in the polls. The defending national champions have continued to dominate in 2013-14, despite losing a few players to the NBA. The Cardinals are currently on a 20-game win streak dating back to last season. They are playing at a very high level from start to finish each time out, although they have yet to face an opponent that stands a chance.

Rick Pitino's team came into the season ranked third behind MSU and the Wildcats, who have many key components that had yet to register a minute at the NCAA level prior to the season. Although Cardinal fans may be crying foul, Pitino has to be quietly happy. He has an extra tool to motivate his team at his disposal and just as Izzo said, in November the number one ranking means absolutely nothing.