Ness Notes: Long Way to CBB's Final 4

by Larry Ness

The college football season is entering Championship Saturday (December 4) and the final CFP rankings come out Sunday, when its version of a 'Final 4' will be revealed. The bowl season opens December 17. The CFP semifinals are set to be played on Friday, December 31 and the national championship game will be played on Monday, January 10 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Meanwhile, somewhat 'flying under the radar,' the 2021-22 college basketball season tipped off on Tuesday, November 9, meaning Tuesday, November 30 marks the beginning of its fourth week. Selection Sunday isn't until March 13, 2022, when 32 automatic bids will be handed out, along with 36 "at large" ones. The Final 4 is set for Caesars Superdome (New Orleans) for April 2 and 4. That's a L-O-N-G way off but let me take 'a peek' at what's happened so far.

The AP's preseason No. 1 team was Gonzaga, to no one's surprise. Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has led Gonzaga to 21 straight NCAA berths in his 22 years (2020 tourney was cancelled), doing everything BUT win a national championship. However, he's led the Bulldogs into the title game TWICE in the last four seasons. Last year's loss was a 'killer,' as Gonzaga was No. 1 wire-to-wire and at 31-0, was looking to match Bob Knight's 1975-76 team, which was the last team to go unbeaten (32-0) and win the title. However, 73 years after it last played for a national title, Baylor 'jumped all over' the Bulldogs early in the game and never looked back in an 86-70 victory. It was Baylor's first national title and extinguished Gonzaga’s ambitions for end-to-end perfection.

Sliding in behind Gonzaga at No. 2 was UCLA, which lost 93-90 in OT to Gonzaga in the national semifinals, on Jalen Suggs' 37-foot three-pointer. Counting down the rest of the preseason top-10 found Kansas at No. 3, Villanova at No. 4, Texas at No. 5, Michigan at No. 6, Purdue at No. 7, defending champion Baylor at No. 8, Duke at No. 9 and Kentucky at No. 10. Duke and Kentucky are college basketball 'Blue Bloods' but Duke was coming off a 13-11 season (first non-NCAA tourney team since 1995) and Kentucky was coming off a 9-16 year. In particular, the Wildcats opened last season as a preseason top-10 team but finished with the program's worst record in over 30 years and recorded the WORST record by an AP preseason top-10 team since the poll was started back in 19611

Checking in on the latest AP poll (Monday, Nov 29), NINE of the preseason top-10 teams remain in the top-10. The lone exception is Michigan (preseason No. 6), which is 4-2 with losses to Seton Hall (67-65 at home) and 80-62 to Arizona in Las Vegas. Michigan currently ranks 24th but note that 6-0 Arizona is up to No. 11 under first-year head coach Tommy Lloyd, who made his poll debut the previous week. As for Seton Hall, the Pirates lost to Ohio St in its next game after beating Michigan but at No. 25, is the "last time in."

Last week began (Tuesday) with then-No. 1 Gonzaga trouncing then-No. 2 UCLA 83-63 in Las Vegas but Friday, "The Dookies," in Coach K's final season, beat Gonzaga 84-81 in Las Vegas. So guess which school 'popped up' as No. 1 in Monday's AP poll? 7-0 Duke, the school everyone loves to hate, jumped from No. 5 to No. 1, a position Coach K is VERY familiar with. Coach K has now been ranked No. 1 for the 127th time in his career, ahead of some guy named John Wooden (121), who I'm told, coached UCLA back in the 1800s (I think around the Civil War?). FYI...Duke has been ranked No. 1 more than any other school (145 times), with UCLA checking in at 134 No. 1 rankings.

Gonzaga dropped to No.3 in the latest rankings, while UCLA fell to No. 5. "Movin' on Up" is 6-0 Purdue at No. 2, giving the school its highest ranking since the 187-89 season. That team won the Big 10 at 16-2 (no conference tourney) and finished the regular season 27-3. It was a No. 1 seed but lost in the Sweet 16, finishing 29-4 (remember Gene Keady?). Moving in at No. 4 (up from No. 6) is defending champion Baylor, which is 7-0 after winning The Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. The rest of the top-10 features No. 6 Villanova (despite a 4-2 record), No. 7 Texas (4-1), No. 8 Kansas (5-1), No. 9 Kentucky (5-1) and No. 10 Arkansas (6-0).

6-0 Florida made the biggest jump, moving up NINE spots to No. 14, while 5-1 Memphis had the biggest fall, dropping NINE spots to No. 18, after losing to unranked Iowa State by 19 points in the NIT Season Tip-Off championship game. However, Iowa St is one of three new teams in the recent AP top-25. Head coach T.J. Otzelberger took over an Iowa St program coming off a two-win season that included going 0-18 in Big 12 play and has the Cyclones at 6-0. 5-2 Michigan State joined the poll at No. 22  after beating UConn on the way to the Battle 4 Atlantis championship game, while 5-1 Wisconsin jumped in at No. 23 after winning the relocated Maui Invitational in Las Vegas. Falling out were No. 14 Illinois, No. 16 St Bonny's (Bonnies were ranked in the preseason poll for the first time since 1971!) and No. 25 Xavier.

Let's see how long Duke can hold its No. 1 ranking. The Blue Devils get tested Tuesday, Nov 30 at Ohio St in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Then again, let me note that Duke is 19-3 all-time in the Challenge! Gonzaga may have fallen from No. 1 to No. 3 but the Bulldogs have now been ranked in 99 consecutive polls, the longest active streak by a WIDE margin. Villanova owns the second-longest streak at 44, followed by Alabama (41) The only other schools with streaks of 20 or more consecutive rankings are Houston (30) and Texas (21).

Take note that NONE of the four schools with more than 2,000 career wins are among the above list. Entering the 2021-22 season, Kentucky led all schools with 2,3327 career wins, followed by Kansas (2,323), North Carolina (2,294) and Duke (2,2114). Join me in the middle of next week when I'll break down the final CFP standings/rankings.

Good luck...Larry

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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