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History clouds what carousel of No. 1 teams will mean for 2019-20 college basketball season

Sporting News — (Ryan Fagan)

It has been a tumultuous college hoops season, to say the least.

Six different teams have occupied the No. 1 spot in the AP Top 25 Poll during the 2019-20 season, the first time that has ever happened before the season rolled into the new year. Michigan State started atop the preseason poll; Kentucky was No. 1 in Week 2. Duke stayed there for two weeks, followed by Louisville for two weeks, then Kansas for a week. Gonzaga has held the position longest (since Dec. 6), but even the Zags have had a few tense moments in WCC play since moving into the top spot.

Other No. 1 potentials are lurking among the current AP top 10 teams — such as Baylor (12-1), Auburn (14-0), Butler (14-1), San Diego State (16-0) and Oregon (12-3) — should Gonzaga and a couple other former No. 1s lose between now and the start of March Madness.

The record for number of different teams ranked No. 1 in a given season is seven, which occurred in 1982-83. Six other seasons have placed six different teams in the No. 1 spot. We wanted to know, in the hopes of possibly figuring out what might happen the rest of this season — and, more importantly, wanting to know if this year’s NCAA Tournament is going to be completely mind-boggling or just regular-level chaos — what happened during those seven seasons.

So let’s take a look, shall we? (But first, special thanks to College Poll Archive, KenPom.com and College Basketball Reference for the research!)

DECOURCY: No safe bet to win NCAA Tournament in this crazy season

1982-83 season

No. 1 teams: Virginia (5 weeks), Indiana (2), Memphis State (1), UCLA (2), North Carolina (2), UNLV (2), Houston (3)

NCAA Tournament seeds/results:

  • No. 2 UCLA lost to No. 10 Utah in the opening round.
  • No. 3 UNLV lost to No. 6 N.C. State in the opening round.
  • No. 2 Indiana lost to No. 3 Kentucky in the Sweet 16.
  • No. 4 Memphis State lost to No. 1 Houston in the Sweet 16.
  • No. 2 North Carolina lost to No. 4 Georgia in the Elite Eight.
  • No. 1 Virginia lost to No. 6 N.C. State in the Elite Eight.
  • No. 1 Houston lost to No. 6 N.C. State in the national title game.

Seed-wise: Six of the seven No. 1 teams lost to teams with worse seeds (yikes). Only Memphis State lost to a better seed.

National champion: Maybe it was fitting, in this year of unprecedented — and still unmatched — chaos atop the national polls, that a team like N.C. State wound up winning one of the most unlikely national titles of all time. The Wolfpack dropped out of the Top 25 in mid-January and didn’t reappear until winning three consecutive nailbiters to claim the ACC Tournament title. Even then, they were just No. 16 in the final poll. And in the biggest dance, the Wolfpack needed double overtime to beat Pepperdine in the opener, then knocked off three teams that spent time at No. 1 during the regular season. That sentence still feels made up, doesn’t it? But it’s true.

Need to know: This was, of course, before the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams.

1992-93 season

No. 1 teams: Michigan (3 weeks), Duke (5), Kentucky (1), Kansas (2), Indiana (5) and North Carolina (2)

NCAA Tournament seeds/results:

  • No. 3 Duke lost to No. 6 California in the second round.
  • No. 1 Indiana lost to No. 2 Kansas in the Elite Eight.
  • No. 2 Kansas lost to No. 1 North Carolina in the Final Four.
  • No. 1 Kentucky lost to No. 1 Michigan in the Final Four.
  • No. 1 Michigan lost to No. 1 North Carolina in the national title game.
  • No. 1 North Carolina won the national title.

Seed-wise: Two of the six No. 1 teams (Duke and Indian) lost to teams with worse seeds. Two (Kentucky and Michigan) lost to identical seeds. One (Kansas) lost to a team with a better seed. One (North Carolina) didn’t lose at all.

National champion: If you take some time out to think about it, you probably remember what happened near the end of the championship game between Michigan and North Carolina. Technically speaking, it’s one of the most cringeworthy endings we’ve ever seen in a major sporting event. The Tar Heels won, 77-71.

Need to know: Even though there was a lot of turnover at the top of the poll, all the teams who claimed the No. 1 spot — except maybe Duke — showed well. Four of the six claimed No. 1 seeds, four of the six reached the Final Four and one other (Indiana) lost to one of the other teams (Kansas) in the Elite Eight. Duke’s fall was surprising, considering the Blue Devils had seniors Bobby Hurley and Thomas Hill and junior Grant Hill, three guys who knew a lot about winning in March. Duke, though, lost its regular-season finale, its ACC tournament opener and its second-round game to Cal.

1993-94 season

No. 1 teams: North Carolina (5 weeks), Kentucky (1), Arkansas (9), Kansas (1), UCLA (1) and Duke (1)

NCAA Tournament seeds/results

  • No. 5 UCLA lost to No. 12 Tulsa in the first round.
  • No. 1 North Carolina lost to No. 9 Boston College in the second round.
  • No. 3 Kentucky lost to No. 6 Marquette in the second round.
  • No. 4 Kansas lost to No. 1 Purdue in the Sweet 16.
  • No. 2 Duke lost to No. 1 Arkansas in the national title game.
  • No. 1 Arkansas won the national title.

Seed-wise: Three of the six No. 1 teams (UCLA, Carolina and Kentucky) lost to teams with worse seeds. Two (Kansas and Duke) lost to teams with better seeds. One (Arkansas) didn’t lose at all.

National champion: Sophomores Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman fueled the high-scoring Razorbacks all season, and the NCAA Tournament was no different. Arkansas opened the season ranked No. 3 and only spent three weeks outside the top three, with a five-week stretch at No. 1 starting in December and then another four-week stint up top late in the season. Arkansas beat Duke 76-72 in the championship contest.

Need to know: Remember how we just talked about all the No. 1 teams from the 1992-93 season showing well? Well, that didn’t happen this year. UCLA lost four of its final seven games to fall to a No. 5 seed, then gave up 112 points to No. 12 seed Tulsa. UNC, the reigning national champs, started the season in the No. 1 spot and had three other one-week stays at No. 1. But the Heels were dumped by 10-loss Boston College in the second round. Kentucky’s second-round loss to Marquette isn’t high on the list of program highlights, either.

1994-95 season

No. 1 teams: Arkansas (2 weeks), UMass (5), North Carolina (6), UConn (1), Kansas (1) and UCLA (3)

NCAA Tournament seeds/results:

  • No. 1 Kansas lost to No. 4 Virginia in the Sweet 16.
  • No. 2 UMass lost to No. 4 Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight.
  • No. 2 UConn lost to No. 1 UCLA in the Elite Eight.
  • No. 2 North Carolina lost to No. 2 Arkansas in the Final Four.
  • No. 2 Arkansas lost to No. 1 UCLA in the national title game.
  • No. 1 UCLA won the national title.

Seed-wise: Two of the six No. 1 teams (Kansas and UMass) lost to teams with worse seeds. Two (Arkansas and UConn) lost to teams with better seeds. One (North Carolina) lost to an identical seed. One (UCLA) didn’t lose at all.

National champion: If 4.8 seconds had gone differently, the story of UCLA in 1995 would have been about a second consecutive disappointing NCAA Tournament finish. But Tyus Edney made those 4.8 seconds count, racing the length of the court in the second round against plucky 9-seed Missouri for a buzzer-beating layup that gave UCLA a 75-74 victory. The two-loss Bruins cruised to the title from there, winning their next four games by 21, six, 13 and 11 points.

Need to know: Yep, this was the third season in a row six teams wound up in the No. 1 spot at some point during the season. Four of the six teams wound up as No. 2 seeds; the other two were No. 1 seeds. Three wound up in the Final Four.

BOETTGER: Parity paving way for more non-power contenders

2003-04 season

No. 1 teams: UConn (8 weeks), Kansas (1), Florida (1), Duke (4), Stanford (4) and Saint Joseph’s (1)

NCAA Tournament seeds/results:

  • No. 5 Florida lost to No. 12 Manhattan in the opening round.
  • No. 1 Stanford lost to No. 8 Alabama in the second round.
  • No. 4 Kansas lost to No. 3 Georgia Tech in the Elite Eight.
  • No. 1 Saint Joseph’s lost to No. 2 Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight.
  • No. 1 Duke lost to No. 2 UConn in the Final Four.
  • No. 2 UConn won the national championship.

Seed-wise: Four of the six No. 1 teams (Florida, Stanford, Saint Joseph's and Duke) lost to teams with worse seeds. One (Kansas) lost to a team with a better seed. One (UConn) didn’t lose at all.

National champion: UConn spent eight weeks in the top spot in the poll, but the Huskies weren’t in the top three in the final nine weeks of the regular season, thanks to a 4-4 road record in their final eight regular-season away games. But the Huskies, with the inside-outside tandem of Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon leading the way, won their first four NCAA Tournament games by an average of 17.5 points, snuck past an elite Duke team by a point in the Final Four and then beat Georgia Tech — which struggled through a 3-6 stretch at one point — by nine points in the title game contest.

Need to know: This was the year, of course, that Saint Joseph’s made its run at an undefeated season. The Hawks, with guards Jameer Nelson and Delonte West setting the tone, were 27-0 heading into the Atlantic 10 conference tournament. Despite losing their opener to Xavier, the Hawks were still rewarded — deservedly so — for their brilliant season with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Their March run ended with a two-point loss in the Elite Eight to Oklahoma State, the No. 2 seed in the region.

2008-09 season

No. 1 teams: North Carolina (9 weeks), Pittsburgh (3), Wake Forest (1), Duke (1), UConn (4) and Louisville (1)

NCAA Tournament seeds/results:

  • No. 4 Wake Forest lost to No. 13 Cleveland State in the first round.
  • No. 2 Duke lost to No. 3 Villanova in the Sweet 16.
  • No. 1 Pittsburgh lost to No. 3 Villanova in the Elite Eight.
  • No. 1 Louisville lost to No. 2 Michigan State in the Elite Eight.
  • No. 1 UConn lost to No. 2 Michigan State in the Final Four.
  • No. 1 North Carolina won the national championship.

Seed-wise: Five of the six No. 1 teams lost to teams with worse seeds, though Wake Forest was the only one that would qualify as a legitimate upset. One team (North Carolina) didn’t lose at all.

National champion: There’s a reason North Carolina spent the entire 2008 portion of the season ranked No. 1. The veteran Heels — with seniors Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green, along with juniors Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Deon Thompson — raced out to a 13-0 start and received 503 of 504 possible first-place votes in those first seven polls. They had a couple of regular-season hiccups, but rolled through the NCAA Tournament, winning all six of their games by at least 12 points.

Need to know: The Tar Heels dominated the top spot the first seven weeks, but then a bit of chaos ensued. In the final 11 weeks of regular-season polls, there were SIX one-week stays in the No. 1 spot. Only UConn (Weeks 12-14) stayed there more than two weeks in a row.

2015-16 season

No. 1 teams: North Carolina (2 weeks), Kentucky (2), Michigan State (4), Kansas (5), Oklahoma (3), Villanova (3)

NCAA Tournament seeds/results:

  • No. 2 Michigan State lost to No. 15 Middle Tennessee in the first round.
  • No. 4 Kentucky lost to No. 5 seed Indiana in the second round.
  • No. 1 Kansas lost to No. 2 Villanova in the Elite Eight.
  • No. 2 Oklahoma lost to No. 2 Villanova in the Final Four.
  • No. 1 North Carolina lost to No. 2 Villanova in the national title game.
  • No. 2 Villanova won the national title.

Seed-wise: Four of the six No. 1 teams (Michigan State, Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina) lost to teams with worse seeds. One (Oklahoma) lost to an identical seed. One (Villanova) didn’t lose at all.

National champion: Well, this is anticlimactic. Villanova won the national title, beating three of the other teams ranked No. 1 at some point in the season along the way. That’s a lot of heavy lifting, folks. The Wildcats dismantled Oklahoma in the Final Four 95-51, and then beat North Carolina 77-74 on the historic buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Kris Jenkins.

Need to know: Michigan State spent more weeks at No. 1 than any team other than Kansas, but the Spartans were also ranked the lowest of these six teams in the opening poll at No. 13. A three-game losing skid in mid-January dropped Sparty as low as No. 12, but it turns out that wasn’t the low point of the season. Michigan State became the eighth No. 2 seed to lose its NCAA Tournament opener to a No. 15 seed, falling to Middle Tennessee State 90-81 in a game the Blue Raiders dominated from start to finish. I know, because I was courtside for that one: the second 15-over-2 upset I’ve covered in person (the #FaganJinx is real, folks, and it's spectacular).

2016-17 season

No. 1 teams: Duke (2 weeks), Kentucky (2), Villanova (8), Baylor (1), Gonzaga (4), Kansas (2)

NCAA Tournament seeds/results:

  • No. 2 Duke lost to No. 7 South Carolina in the second round.
  • No. 1 Villanova lost to No. 8 Wisconsin in the second round.
  • No. 3 Baylor lost to No. 7 South Carolina in the Sweet 16.
  • No. 2 Kentucky lost to No. 1 North Carolina in the Elite Eight.
  • No. 1 Kansas lost to No. 3 Oregon in the Elite Eight.
  • No. 1 Gonzaga lost to No. 1 North Carolina in the national title game.

Seed-wise: Four of the six No. 1 teams (Duke, Villanova, Baylor and Kansas) lost to teams with worse seeds. One (Kentucky) lost to a team with a better seed. One (Gonzaga) lost to an identical seed.

National champion: North Carolina never reached the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll, but the Tar Heels did snag a No. 1 seed. The Tar Heels were ranked as high as No. 3 in November, as low as No. 14 in January and were No. 6 in the final regular-season poll. The Heels beat Gonzaga in the title game, 71-65.

Need to know: Reigning national champion Villanova not only spent more weeks at No. 1 than anyone else during the regular season, but also had three separate stints atop the poll. The Wildcats were never lower than No. 4, received at least one first-place vote every single week and finished the regular season in the No. 1 spot.

MORE: Ranking most compelling conference races

Odds and ends

Worst seed: Two of the teams on this list wound up as No. 5 seeds. UCLA was No. 1 for a single week in 1994, and the Bruins wound up dropping their opener to No. 12 Tulsa. Florida was No. 1 for one week early in the 2003-04 season, wound up as a No. 5 seed and, you guessed it, dropped its opener to No. 12 Manhattan.

Big upsets: Let’s classify this as losing to a team seeded at least four spots lower. Just for fun, we’ll rank them.

1. No. 2 Michigan State lost to No. 15 Middle Tennessee (2016)
2. No. 2 UCLA lost to No. 10 Utah (1983)
3. No. 4 Wake Forest lost to No. 13 Cleveland State (2009)
4. No. 1 Houston lost to No. 6 N.C. State (1983)
5. No. 1 Virginia lost to No. 6 N.C. State (1983)
6. No. 5 UCLA lost to No. 12 Tulsa (1994)
7. No. 5 Florida lost to No. 12 Manhattan (2004)
8. No. 1 North Carolina lost to No. 9 Boston College (1994)
9. No. 1 Villanova lost to No. 8 Wisconsin (2017)
10. No. 2 Duke lost to No. 7 seed South Carolina (2017)
11. No. 3 Baylor lost to No. 7 South Carolina (2017)

National titles: We’ve had eight seasons with at least six teams landing at the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll. In six of those seasons, the eventual national champion was among those No. 1 teams. Here are those teams, along with their spot in the final pre-NCAA Tournament poll:

No. 4 North Carolina (1993)
No. 2 Arkansas (1994)
No. 1 UCLA (1995)
No. 7 UConn (2004)
No. 2 North Carolina (2009)
No. 6 Villanova (2016)

And to complete the thought, N.C. State was No. 16 in the final 1983 poll, while North Carolina was No. 6 in the final 2017 poll.

Takeaway

If you've made it this far, you probably want some overarching conclusion drawn from crunching the numbers and analyzing the information, but here's the honest truth: What happened in the past has very little bearing on what will happen in the future. That's true with many things in life, but especially with a sport that's being played by 18-to-22-year old athletes.

Just look at the difference between the 1993 and 1994 tournaments. In 1993, five of the six teams that reached No. 1 during the year performed like we expect No. 1 teams to perform. The next year, two of the six flopped, big-time. There are just so many factors at play, especially injuries, that maybe it's just best to use this little exercise as a fun trip down memory lane, because it probably shouldn't impact the way you fill out your NCAA Tournament bracket. The only thing that really matters, as you know, is the #FaganJinx.