When preseason polls come out and your team is ranked, it's always a surreal feeling. On one hand, it's exciting to see others acknowledge your squad. On the other, it's a bunch of talking heads attempting to predict the future. Before we bash the experts, let's take an objective look at how NCAA men's basketball teams that were ranked #1 in the preseason performed.
Since the 1984-1985 season, six times out of 37 have the experts correctly picked the national champion (i.e: the preseason ranked #1 team won the national championship). In those 37 seasons, a total of 17 different schools have gotten the nod as preseason #1. A total of eight teams have been ranked preseason number one more than once:
This past season's North Carolina team can and should largely be considered the biggest disappointment in college basketball history, as they became the first team in 37 years to be preseason #1 and not make the NCAA Tournament.
The list below has every preseason ranked #1 team since the 1984-1985 season (Shoutout to Tarheel Illustrated for help on this list).
Let's shift gears just slightly and turn to "who actually won the NCAA Championship" the past 37 seasons. Duke was preseason #1 eight times and won 5 championships. During this time period, only one other program has 5 titles and that's UCONN. The Huskies were ranked preseason #1 only twice during this time.
UNC, ranked preseason #1 seven times won 4 championships...not bad.
If we look at teams that were never ranked preseason number one, we see that both Louisville and Villanova were able to win 2 championships each. Gonzaga, on the other hand, has been ranked at the top twice but never won.
So, is it really fair to call a program an over or underachiever? Probably not. For one, we didn't look at the rest of the preseason rankings each year. A team could've been ranked #2 and won it all, meaning their were still high expectations, and they delivered.
The other thing that's clear is that their was a stretch between 2008 and 2019 of penciling in a blue blood every year. It's almost like that the sportswriters were just mailing it in. During that stretch, however, only once did they correctly pick the champion (thank you North Carolina in 2009). Teams like UCONN and Villanova won 4 national championships despite never being picked preseason #1.
What's in store for 2023-2024? I've seen a lot of picks for Duke, Michigan State, and Kansas. Some include Purdue and Creighton with asterisks based on who's coming back. My alma matter, Marquette, is also a chalk pick after a strong showing in 2022-2023. For what it's worth, I'm hoping Marquette isn't the preseason #1. As history tells us, their chances of following through are slim to none.
John Willkom is the author of Amazon best-selling basketball books: Walk-On Warrior and No Fear In The Arena. John is an avid reader, sports fan, and father to two incredible little girls.
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