College basketball: How the AP preseason poll predicts NCAA tournament selection
When the Associated Press men’s basketball preseason poll is released in early November, it will be easy to skim it over and move on. We live in an era of metrics. Power ratings, advanced statistics, algorithms, formulas, indices - they’re out there to be consumed, studied or ignored at will.
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But the AP preseason poll is the granddaddy. It’s been around since the 1960s. What if the information contained within its 25 slots can actually give us a glimpse of the future? It can.
We analyzed data starting with the 1984-85 season (when the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams). The expansion to 68 teams for the 2011 tournament had little bearing on the information we hoped to extract from the numbers.
We wanted to know: How do teams ranked in the preseason AP poll fare come Selection Sunday? Here's what we learned.
The AP Poll is a good indicator of March inclusion
If your team appears in the AP preseason poll, you might want to keep the middle weeks of March free. You’re probably going dancing.
There have been 751 teams ranked in the AP preseason poll since 1984-85 and 85.6 percent of those teams reached the NCAA tournament.
In three of those years, every team that appeared in the preseason poll also competed in the NCAA Tournament. The preseason poll expanded from 20 to 25 teams in 1989-90 and the only perfect tournament predictor since occurred in 1999-2000. Michigan State started No. 3 in the preseason and ended with a No. 1 seed to give coach Tom Izzo his lone national championship.
National Champions are usually ranked - but not always
Forget just making the field, you have national championship dreams for your team. Well, the numbers reveal that appearing in the poll is important for teams expecting to contend for a No. 1 seed (and 19 of the last 31 champions were No. 1 seeds)
Since ‘84-85, only eight teams unranked in the preseason have earned a No. 1 seed, most recently Michigan State in 2011-12.
In this information age, outliers are even more rare. It’s occurred just twice since 1998-99. The other instance is 2009-10 Syracuse. As an aside, one could understand if Orange coach Jim Boeheim scoffs at and ignores the preseason poll. His 2002-03 team was also one of four national champions in the last 31 years that was unranked in the preseason. The others: 1985 Villanova, 2006 Florida and 2011 Connecticut. Although in the voters’ defense, predicting the brilliance of Carmelo Anthony and projecting the freshman’s ability to lead the Orange to the title had to be a challenge for even the most astute observer. That Syracuse team was the exception rather than the rule until the last four years when Kentucky and Duke rode elite freshmen to the national championship.
No. 1 seeds were usually highly regarded in preseason poll
There’s been 116 teams that have earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament since 1984-85. Roughly half (49.1 percent) were ranked in the top four of the preseason poll, which is the equivalent to a No. 1 seed. The average preseason rank for those 116 No. 1 seeds was 6.6.
Being ranked No. 1 in the preseason means more to a team than just seeing its name at the top of the page. In 21 of the 31 seasons, teams that were preseason No. 1 heard their name called first on Selection Sunday because they were a No. 1 seed. This is the case for nine of the last 10 preseason No. 1s, including Kentucky which entered last season’s NCAA tournament unbeaten.
In the last 10 seasons, 33 of the 40 No. 1 seeds started out in the AP preseason top 10.
What’s the worst seed ever received by a preseason No. 1? That’s a No. 8, in the Midwest, by 2013-14 Kentucky. But all was not lost for John Calipari and the Big Blue Nation. The Wildcats erased a disappointing regular season by tripping top seed Wichita State. They extended the scintillating run all the way to Monday night’s championship game before losing to Connecticut. That Kentucky squad was the lowest seeded team to play for the title since No. 8 Villanova won in 1984-85.
Preseason poll has had recent success
If you were one of the 70 or so AP poll voters in the latter part of the previous decade, give yourself a hand. In 2007-08 eventual No. 1 seeds UNC, UCLA, Memphis and Kansas were ranked No. 1 through No. 4 in the preseason. All four advanced to the Final Four, with Kansas defeating Memphis in the championship game. The following year, UNC was preseason No. 1, followed by Connecticut and Louisville. All three earned No. 1 seeds, joined by preseason No. 5 Pittsburgh, and the loaded Tar Heels won the championship.
The 1997-98 preseason poll was also somewhat like holding a March newspaper in November when voters pegged perennial powerhouses Arizona, Kansas, Duke and North Carolina as the nation’s four best teams. True to form, each received a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, however, they all departed emptyhanded. Kentucky won the title.
Perhaps your alma mater or hometown school isn’t quite in college basketball’s upper crust, but quite talented just the same. There’s about a 9 in 10 chance you’ll aim to learn whatever you can about the three teams in your pod in the days leading up to the first NCAA tournament games.
Complete misfires are a rarity - but they also happen
There have been 372 teams ranked in the preseason top 12 since ‘84-85. And 218 (58.6 percent) held true to form and ended the year with a top three seed in the NCAA tournament. Furthermore, only 22 teams plummeted from that lofty perch to the wrong side of the bubble, missing the field altogether. On just five occasions a team ranked in the preseason top five missed the tournament. Two of those occurred back in the 1980s when ESPN was a fledgling cable channel and people still relied on newspapers and the 11 o’clock sports desk for their information.
LSU in 2006-07 is one recent top five flameout. Fresh off a surprise run to the Final Four, the Tigers earned the No. 5 slot in the preseason poll. Their season ended, however, with a 20-point loss to Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. Louisville, 1986-87, holds the dubious distinction of crashing from the highest preseason ranking to NCAA tournament outsider. As defending national champions, the Cardinals were No. 2 in the preseason. They returned Final Four hero Pervis Ellison, but the loss of Billy Thompson and Milt Wagner was simply more than Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum could bear. UNC ('09-10) and Kentucky (12-13) were both ranked in the top six in the preseason poll coming off national championship seasons. But both failed to return to the tournament, as they were unable to replace key personnel lost to the NBA Draft.