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.
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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.
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