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No. 1 Ranking: Good or Bad?

   by Larry Ness - 03/08/2010

North Carolina began last season as the unanimous No. 1 in both preseason polls and the Tar Heels confirmed all the hype with one of the most dominating runs in NCAA tournament history. North Carolina won all six of its tournament games by double figures (average victory margin of 20.2 PPG), including beating Michigan State 89-72 in last year's national championship game at Ford Field in Detroit. However, the Tar Heels were not the nation's top-ranked team heading into the tournament, as North Carolina was ranked No. 2 in the final regular season AP poll, as the Louisville Cardinals claimed the top spot.

I bring this up as Monday's (3/8) latest AP poll saw Kansas move back into the top spot. The Jayhawks were a solid No. 1 in the preseason (55 of 65 first-place votes) and Monday's ranking marks the school's 14th week at No. 1 this season (including the preseason poll). Syracuse was No. 1 last week but it lost at Louisville on Saturday (last game at historic Freedom Hall), falling to No. 3 after just a one week stay at the top. Kentucky is No. 2 after clinching the school's 44th SEC title this past week and also held the top spot for one week (Jan 25th poll).

Texas is the only other school to top the AP rankings this year (Longhorns were ranked No. 1 for two weeks beginning on Jan 11) but Texas has imploded since its 17-0 start, finishing 6-8 over its last 14 games and ending up a distant 6th in the Big 12 (9-7). Kansas, Kentucky , Duke and Villanova have all been ranked in the top-10 each week with just one regular season poll remaining, while Georgetown, Michigan State, Purdue, Tennessee and West Va make a total of nine schools ranked in each one of the AP's top-25 polls this season.

The final regular season AP poll will be taken after all schools have completed their respective conference tourneys and released late next Sunday or early Monday. Does any school really want that final No. 1 ranking prior to the NCAA tournament? History says no way! The only school to win the national championship entering the tournament as the AP's No. 1 team the last 10 years is Duke in 2001. Just three of the other nine No. 1 teams even made it as far as the Final 4. A look at the history book shows that teams entering the NCAA tournament No. 1 have not fared well since the heyday of John Wooden's Bruins.

UCLA won 10 of 12 titles from 1964-75, seven times entering the tournament as the nation's top-ranked team. Bob Knight's 1975-76 team, the last to finish a season unbeaten at 32-0, also entered that year's tourney as No. 1. However, since that season, just five schools have finished No. 1 in the AP's final regular poll and gone on to win the title. Along with Duke in 2001, the list includes UCLA (1995), Duke (1992), North Carolina (1982) and Kentucky (1978). Doing the math, that's just five in 33 years or 15.2 percent, not exactly making this year's AP's final regular season No. 1 an overwhelming favorite to "cut down the nets" at Lucas Oil Stadium come April 5.

While the nation's top-ranked team at the end of the regular season is certainly no "sure thing," it's not as if too many teams have "come out of nowhere to win," either. Just three schools have entered the "Big Dance" unranked since Knight's legendary Hoosiers team of 1976 and gone on to win the national title. North Carolina State (26-10) won it all in 1983, Villanova (25-10) won the title in 1985 and Kansas (27-11) won the national championship in 1988. However, since Manning's 1988 Jayhawks team (a span of 21 years), just three more schools have entered the NCAA tournament ranked higher than 10th yet gone on to win it all.

That list includes Arizona in 1997 (ranked 15th and with a No. 4 seed), Syracuse in 2003 (ranked 13th and with a No. 3 seed) plus Florida in 2006 (ranked 11th and with a No. 3 seed). It should be noted that Arizona Wildcats of 1997 are the only school in tournament history to upset three No. 1 seeds on its way to winning a national championship. Arizona beat Kansas (No. 1 in the Southeast) in the Sweet 16, North Carolina (No. 1 in the East) in the national semifinals and Kentucky (No. 1 in the West) in the championship game.

I'll be back before the weekend with an update on the conference tourneys and then next Monday with my annual "Tournament by the Numbers" column.

Good luck, Larry

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