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Countdown to the madness-part 2

   by Larry Ness - 03/11/2006

Does anyone want that No. 1 ranking? The Big East opened the week with the top-two teams in the nation, U Conn at No. 1 and Villanova at No. 2. U Conn, in its first game of the Big East tourney, got beat by Syracuse in OT on Thursday, 86-84. Then on Friday night, it was Villanova's turn, as the Wildcats were dominated by Pitt, losing 68-54. What can we expect this weekend and just which school may be No. 1 in the AP's final poll (released Monday)?

No. 3 Duke looked shaky in an 80-76 win over Miami-Florida on Friday, No. 4 Gonzaga is home waiting and most observers feel the Bulldogs are no better than a No. 2 seed (maybe a three) and No. 5 Memphis squares off Saturday morning against UAB in the C-USA title game.No. 6 George Washington, the nation's only one-loss team at the end of the regular season, lost its first A-10 tourney game last Thursday, 68-53 to Temple.

If Duke wins the ACC tourney, the Blue Devils will most likely be No. 1 but if they get beat, who knows? However, maybe there's a method to all this madness? Maybe no one actually wants to be No. 1 in that final AP poll before the Big Dance gets underway? A look at the history books says it not a such a good idea as of late.

The AP poll first appeared back on January 20, 1949. St Louis, of all schools, debuted at No. 1 on that day but by year's end, the Kentucky Wildcats were the nation's top-team as the tournament began. Kentucky went on to capture the NCAA championship that season and through 1957, the nation's top-ranked team in the final AP poll of the regular season went on to win the national championship, six times. However, it was eight more years until it happened again.

The 1964 UCLA Bruins ended the 1963-64 regular season as the nation's top-ranked team and went on to win the first of John Wooden's 10 national titles. UCLA's domination over that period led to the No. 1-ranked team in the final AP poll winning the national title 10 times over the next 15 years (1964-1978). UCLA was responsible for seven of those so-called double-doubles.

Beginning in 1979, things changed dramatically! Over the next 26 years (from 1979-2005), only four schools, ranked No. 1 in the final AP poll, have gone on to capture the national title in that same season. The list includes, North Carolina (1982), Duke (1992), UCLA (1995) and Duke (2001). Six times, the nation's No. 1 team made it to the championship game but lost (Illinois did it just last season) and four other times made it to the Final Four, only to lose in the semifinals.

With this in mind, you just may want to wait until Monday afternoon (and the release of the final AP poll), before you fill out your brackets?

The NCAA has a history of sub-.500 schools making the tournament, as I switch gears to some lovable losers. Since the tournament expanded to a 64-team field in 1985 (now 65 with the play-in game established in 2001), 14 schools have qualified for the NCAA tournament by winning their conference tourney, despite a sub-.500 overall record. It's happened in each of the last four years and could again this year.

Two schools with sub-.500 records are playing in conference finals on Saturday. In the America East, Vermont (13-16) is at the league's No.1 seed Albany and in the SWAC, 13-15 Arkansas-Pine Bluff plays Southern (19-12). Everyone should remember Vermont, which led by Taylor Coppenrath, was in the Big Dance each of the last two seasons. The Catamounts lost in the first round to U Conn in 2004 but upset Syracuse last year (60-57) before losing to Michigan State (72-61).

Albany (13-3 in the regular season) claimed that league's No. 1 seed for the first time in school history, while Vermont ended the year with on a four-game losing streak to finish 11-16 (7-9). However, Vermont has won two straight and at 13-16, is just one win away from a third straight NCAA appearance.

Southern (15-3) claimed its first SWAC regular season title in 16 years but will need one more win to avoid the NIT. Unlike Albany, Southern won't be playing at home but rather on a neutral site (Birmingham, Alabama). Arkansas-Pine Bluff (11-15 / 8-10) has won two straight and with one more win, could claim an NCAA bid despite finishing 14-15.

Of the 14 schools to enter the NCAA tournament since 1985 with a losing record, none have won a first round game. However, each of the last four years, a sub-.500 team has won the play-in game. Siena (MAAC) did it in 2002, UNC-Asheville (Big South) in 2003, Florida A&M (MEAC) in 2004 and Oakland (Mid-Continent) in 2005.

Tourney streaks

Bob Knight's Texas Tech team lost to Texas on Friday (77-70), giving Knight his first losing season (15-17) since he coached Army to an 11-13 markl in 1970-71. Knight, who led Texas Tech into the Sweet 16 last year, has made 27 NCAA appearances, tying him with Dean Smith for the most all-time. However, he won't be breaking that tie with Smith this year. In fact, this will be the first year Knight's not coached in the postseason since 1976-77!

Lute Olson of Arizona will be making his 26th NCAA appearance this year (third-best all-time), as well as his 21st consecutive. He trails only Dean Smith, who made 23 straight NCAA trips from 1975 through 1997. Jim Boeheim of Syracuse makes his 25th NCAA appearance this year and Coach K of Duke will make his 21st. Other consecutive appearance streaks that will be extended this year belong to Roy Williams to 17 straight (Kansas and North Carolina), Tubby Smith to 13 (Tulsa, Georgia and Kentucky) and Gary Williams to 13 (Maryland).

As for individual schools, Arizona will extend its longest-active streak with its 21st straight NCAA tournament apperance this year. North Carolina holds the all-time record with 27 straight appearnaces from 1975 through 2001. Kansas will make it 17 straight trips this year, with Kentucky making it 15 straight and Maryalnd making it 13 straight. If invited, Cincinnati would join Kentucky at 15 straight trips and Stanford could make it 12 straight if the Cardinal were get a surprise invite.

Ness Notes will be available by 1:00 ET on Monday, with much more tourney 'dope'!

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