North Carolina will start the season ranked No. 1 and, if you’re like me, you might have wondered what kind of history comes with that distinction.
You know, things like: How many times has the preseason No. 1 team gone on to win the national championship (that’d be six times, it turns out, since the NCAA tournament expanded in 1985)? And how many times a preseason No. 1 team failed to advance to the Sweet 16? That sort of thing.
Unlike you, though, they actually pay me to sit here and dig up such important facts. So without further delay I present a little segment I like to call: How Preseason No. 1 Teams Have Fared Since the 1984-85 Season, the First With a 64-Team NCAA Tournament Field.
Nice and concise. We have 31 seasons of data to consider, starting with the 1984-85 season to the one that finished last April, with Duke winning the national championship. And so there have been 31 teams that started those season ranked No. 1 in the first Associated Press top 25 poll.
Of the past 31 teams to start the season ranked No. 1 …
All 31 made the NCAA tournament. So the Tar Heels have that going for themselves. Since the expansion of the NCAA tournament in 1985, no team that has started the season No. 1 has ever missed the tournament.
Here’s how the past 31 preseason No. 1 teams were seeded in the NCAA tournament:
No. 1 seed: 21
No. 2: 5
No. 3: 3
No. 5: 1
No. 8: 1
Of the 31 preseason No. 1 teams that made the NCAA tournament (again, all of them since 1985), 30 advanced to the round of 32. The lone exception? Kansas in 2005. The Jayhawks began the 2004-05 season ranked No. 1 but lost to Bucknell, a No. 14 seed, in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
So now we’re down to 30 preseason No. 1 teams. Of those 30 teams that advanced to the round of 32, 25 advanced to a regional semifinal. The five preseason No. 1 teams that lost in the round of 32: 1988 Syracuse, 1994 UNC, 1997 Cincinnati, 2000 Connecticut and 2010 Kansas.
So, since the 1984-85 season, 25 of the 31 teams that have started the season No. 1 have gone on to reach the Sweet 16. Pretty good odds. Of those 25 preseason No. 1 teams that reached the Sweet 16, 21 of them made a regional final. The ones that lost after reaching the Sweet 16: 1986 Georgia Tech, 2002 Duke, 2006 Duke, 2013 Indiana.
Now we’re down to 21 teams. The 21 preseason No. 1 teams that went on to reach a regional final – also known as the Elite Eight. Of those 21 teams, 16 went on to the Final Four. The preseason No. 1 teams that lost one game before reaching a Final Four: 1987 UNC, 1998 Arizona, 2003 Arizona, 2011 Duke, 2012 UNC.
That leaves us with 16 preseason No. 1 teams that have reached the Final Four. Not bad odds, again, by the way: 16 of the 31 preseason No. 1 teams since 1985 went on to be among the last four teams standing at the end of the season. Of those 16 teams, 12 advanced to the national championship game. The four that didn’t, after reaching a national semifinal: 1989 Duke, 1991 UNLV, 2008 UNC, 2015 Kentucky.
Which leaves us with 12 preseason No. 1 teams – out of 31 – that played on the final night of the season. Of those 12, half lost in the national championship game: 1985 Georgetown, 1993 Michigan, 1995 Arkansas, 1999 Duke, 2001 Arizona and 2014 Kentucky.
Which leaves us with six teams since the 1984-85 season that started the season No. 1 and finished it as national champions: 1990 UNLV, 1992 Duke, 1996 Kentucky, 2004 Connecticut, 2007 Florida and 2009 UNC. That’s right: the Tar Heels are the most recent team to start the season ranked No. 1 and end it by winning the NCAA tournament.
Now the question is can UNC become the first team since, well, UNC to do it again?
And if this was all just too much to read, here’s a year-by-year look, since the 1984-85 season, of teams that started the season No. 1, where they were seeded in the NCAA tournament and how far they advanced:
2014-15 Kentucky, No. 1 seed, Final Four
2013-14 Kentucky, No. 8 seed, National final
2012-13 Indiana, No. 1 seed, Regional semifinal
2011-12 North Carolina, No. 1 seed, Regional final
2010-11 Duke, No. 1 seed, Regional final
2009-10 Kansas, No. 1 seed, Round of 32
2008-09 North Carolina, No. 1 seed, National champion
2007-08 North Carolina, No. 1 seed, Final Four
2006-07 Florida, No. 1 seed, National champion
2005-06 Duke, No. 1 seed, Regional semifinal
2004-05 Kansas, No. 3 seed, Round of 64
2003-04 Connecticut, No. 2 seed, National champion
2002-03 Arizona, No. 1 seed, Regional final
2001-02 Duke, No. 1 seed, Regional semifinal
2000-01 Arizona, No. 2 seed, National final
1999-00 Connecticut, No. 5 seed, Round of 32
1998-99 Duke, No. 1 seed, National final
1997-98 Arizona, No. 1 seed, Regional final
1996-97 Cincinnati, No. 3 seed, Round of 32
1995-96 Kentucky, No. 1 seed, National champion
1994-95 Arkansas, No. 2 seed, National final
1993-94 North Carolina, No. 1 seed, Round of 32
1992-93 Michigan, No. 1 seed, National final
1991-92 Duke, No. 1 seed, National champion
1990-91 UNLV, No. 1 seed, Final Four
1989-90 UNLV, No. 1 seed, National champion
1988-89 Duke, No. 2 seed, Final Four
1987-88 Syracuse, No. 3 seed, Round of 32
1986-87 North Carolina, No. 1 seed, Regional final
1985-86 Georgia Tech, No. 2 seed, Regional semifinal
1984-85 Georgetown, No. 1 seed, National final