CLASH OF THE UNDERDOGS: SUPER NOVA

Since the NCAA tournament expanded to sixty four teams in 1985 — its modern format — solely four of thirty four national champions were unranked to begin the season. That’s about one in every eight years.

But it does happen.

The first may be most unforgettable. In 1985, Villanova — coming back off of a 19-12 season that led to the second round of the NCAA tournament — was left out of the preseason poll.

The Wildcats responded powerfully, beginning the season 8-0, enough to get them within the AP Poll for 6 weeks. however Villanova finished its last 9 games of the season 4-5, terrible momentum heading into postseason play. The Wildcats received an 8-seed, giving them one of the toughest methods to a Final Four, however it didn’t matter. They won 5 games in an exceedingly row to secure a pairing with the Patrick Ewing-led, No. 1-seed Georgetown Hoyas, and beat the clear favorites in exceptional fashion to become the lowest-ever seed to win a national championship.

In 2003, Syracuse wasn’t ranked to start out the year after a second-half collapse within the 2002 season saw the Orange head to the NIT. however in 2003, Syracuse won eleven out of its last thirteen games, climbed to No. eleven within the AP Poll by March, and entered the tournament as a 3-seed. There, led by freshman Carmelo Anthony, the Orange won six straight, beating Kansas within the championship game.

In 2006, unranked Florida won 17 straight games to start the season and quickly found itself No. 2 in the AP Poll come January. The Gators then went 7-6 in their final 13 games of the regular season, sliding to No. 16 in the poll, before winning the SEC championship and securing a 3-seed. They would go on to beat UCLA 73-57 for the school’s first-ever national championship, and would even repeat as champs the following year.

The most recent unranked team to win the title came in 2011. After 2010’s 18-16 campaign ended in the second round of the NIT, UConn failed to make the preseason Top 25 in 2011. Then the Huskies started the year 17-2 and shot to No. 4 in the AP poll. A 4-7 record to finish the year left UConn with a No. 3 seed come tournament time, but the Huskies — powered by junior guard Kemba Walker — won six tournament games by an average of 10.3 points per game and defeated Butler 53-41 for the program’s third title.

YEARTEAMPRE-
SEASON AP RANK
LOWEST AP RANKHIGH-
EST AP RANK
FINAL AP RANKTOUR-
NAMENT SEED
FINAL RECORDRUNNER-UP
2018Villanova6612136-4Michigan
2017UNC61436133-7Gonzaga
2016Villanova111716235-5UNC
2015Duke4524134-4Wisconsin
2014UConn18NR918732-8Kentucky
2013Louisville21212135-5Michigan
2012Kentucky2311138-2Kansas
2011UConnNRNR49332-9Butler
2010Duke91133135-5Butler
2009UNC1512134-4Mich. St.
2008Kansas4424137-3Memphis
2007Florida1713135-5Ohio State
2006FloridaNRNR211333-6UCLA
2005UNC41122133-4Illinois
2004UConn1917233-6Ga. Tech
2003SyracuseNRNR1113330-5Kansas
2002Maryland2824132-4Indiana
2001Duke2411135-4Arizona
2000Mich. St.31122132-7Florida
1999UConn2413134-2Duke
1998Kentucky8945235-4Utah
1997Arizona1919615425-9Kentucky
1996Kentucky1512134-2Syracuse
1995UCLA6711131-2Arkansas
1994Arkansas3612131-3Duke
1993UNC7814134-4Michigan
1992Duke1111134-2Michigan
1991Duke61456232-7Kansas
1990UNLV11412135-5Duke
1989Michigan313210330-7Seton Hall
1988Kansas7NR7NR627-11Oklahoma
1987Indiana3823130-4Syracuse
1986Louisville91977232-7Duke
1985VillanovaNR1914NR825-10Georgetown

There is a flip aspect to this, of course. simply being ranked within the preseason doesn’t guarantee success. Since 1985, approximately four groups ranked in the season poll fail to make the tournament every year.

That includes twenty three groups ranked within the top ten, and even a preseason No. 2 and No. 3.

A year after going 32-7 and winning the program’s second national championship, Louisville entered the season ranked No. 2 in 1987. And then, disaster. Louisville lost 3 games to unranked foes to start the year and was 3-6 through its 1st 9 games. The Cardinals were out of the rankings by the first regular season poll, did not create the tournament, and finished 18-14.

More recently, Kentucky was ranked No. three to begin the 2013 season, however lost 3 of its 1st seven games, with 2 of these losses coming at the hands of unranked opponents, and was promptly out of the highest twenty five. The Wildcats would create a brief look at No. twenty five in February, however were out once more the very next week. Kentucky would finish 21-12, losing to Robert Morris within the 1st game of the NIT.

Daniel Wilco has worked at the AJC, Sports Illustrated, and SEC Country. His writing has also appeared on SI.com, Men’s Health, and the cauldron.

The views on this page don’t necessarily reflect the views of the NCAA or its member institutions.

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