The nation's No. 1 team likely lost that distinction Tuesday night at CFCC, suffering an 85-76 upset loss to St. Petersburg College.
The upset was all the more shocking in that the Patriots (5-1) had already handled the Titans (4-1) once, a convincing 98-82 season-opening win at St. Pete on Nov. 3. Some cracks in the CF armor were evident in the home opener against Hillsborough Nov. 10, when the Patriots had trouble containing explosive All-American guard Faisal Aden. Patriots head coach Tim Ryan warned later that Hillsborough had crafted a formula for knocking off the Patriots, even if they hadn't managed to finish the job themselves.
St. Pete used a similar approach Tuesday, and this time closed the deal. Speedy guards Anthony Tolliver (21 points) and Christopher Watson (20 points) combined for nearly half of the Titans' points, an onslaught the Patriot backcourt could neither suppress defensively or equal offensively. CF relied as usual on All-American big man Ricardo Ratliffe, but his 34 points and 19 rebounds weren't nearly enough, as none of his teammates contributed more than the 13 points apiece rung up by Josh Proctor and Rahshon Tabb.
The Titans' blueprint for beating CF - allow Ratliffe his numbers, limit everyone else, and attack the guards - is a solid one, obviously, and something the Patriots will need to address immediately with a daunting Tallahassee team visiting Saturday. That matchup is just as intriguing for me as it was before Tuesday's loss, as the Eagles have their own loss to Daytona State smudging their record. It's a battle of two supremely talented teams trying to fix their flaws, and could very well be a preview of a late-round state tournament game.
While nobody here was rooting for a loss, it's clear that next Tuesday will bring an end to the burden and responsibility of the nation's No. 1 ranking, which the Patriots were surprised to attain in the preseason and held on to through the season's first vote with a perfect 5-0 start. They'll inevitably plummet in the polls now, and they'll need to notch a few impressive wins - Tallahassee, for starters, plus one or both of Northwest Florida and Chipola at a three-day classic in Marianna the first week of December - to come anywhere near that stature again.
But polls are arbitrary at best and meaningless at worst. They build excitement, create expectations, and apply pressure, but their impact is felt only when it manifests itself in the psyches of the teams and players involved. Playoff teams are made in conference play, and champions are made at the state tournament, and neither of those things happen in November. If CF emerges as national champion, or even state champion, Tuesday's loss morphs from devastating to character-building, from season-ending to season-defining. It's up to the Patriots to return to the business of simply winning ball games, which in the end is the only number that really matters.