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North Carolina is the 24th team to start the season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason poll and end the season playing for the national championship.
Regardless of the outcome of Monday night’s game against Villanova, the Tar Heels have fulfilled the lofty expectations they carried on their shoulders in November. They won the ACC regular season and tournament championships, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Final Four.
Back in October, we analyzed data from each preseason poll since 1985 and compared it to that season's NCAA tournament seedings. We learned then that 86 percent of the teams ranked in the preseason poll played in the NCAA tournament. We learned that only eight unranked teams earned a No. 1 seed in that span. We learned that roughly half the No. 1 seeds started the season ranked in the top four, which is the equivalent of a top seed.
So, how did AP college basketball voters fare in 2015-16?
For starters, 16 teams were ranked in both the preseason and final regular season polls.
As it pertained to the top seeds, UNC and Kansas (No. 4) turned their top four preseason rankings into No. 1 seeds. Virginia, the No. 1 in the Midwest, was sixth in the preseason. However, coach Dana Altman’s Oregon squad became the ninth unranked in the preseason to earn a No. 1 seed.
The Ducks were one of four teams to start unranked and finish in the top 10 of the final regular season poll. They were joined by No. 8 West Virginia, No. 9 Xavier and No. 10 Miami. All three teams received top four seeds in the NCAA tournament but none made it past the Sweet 16.
Syracuse deserves special mention for completing a trifecta of sorts. The Orange proved once more they can be dangerous when unranked in the preseason. Jim Boeheim led his team from unranked to national champion in 2002-03. The Orange went from unranked to a No. 1 seed in 2009-10. And this season, Syracuse went from unranked to the Final Four. Don’t expect Boeheim to worry if his team fails to crack the 2016-17 preseason poll.
Michigan State (No. 13) also slightly exceeded its preseason expectations. Although, with the Spartans, a stunning first round defeat as a two-seed complicates the perception of their season. Still, coach Tom Izzo surpassed outside opinions once more by leading his team to a No. 2 seed.
Teams that failed to meet preseason expectations
LSU (No. 21) was the only preseason top 25 member to miss the NCAA tournament. Voters held the Tigers in high regard last October due to the arrival of freshman phenom Ben Simmons, but for whatever reason his massive talent didn't produce consistent winning. The Tigers finished with a disappointing 19-14 mark (11-7 in the SEC) and missed the postseason entirely.
Kentucky (No. 2) rallied late to earn a No. 4 seed, then lost to Indiana in the second round. Not terrible, but a letdown after four Final Four trips in the previous five years. Maryland (No. 3) managed a No. 5 seed, yet reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in 13 years. So, it’s fair to call the Terps’ 2015-16 a mixed bag. Voters expected Duke (No. 5) to reload with a new freshman crop and contend for another national title. But not all rookies are created equally. The Blue Devils were fortunate to earn a No. 4 seed and reach the Sweet 16.
Gonzaga (No. 9) and Wichita State (No. 10) both snuck into the NCAA tournament. The Zags by virtue of winning the West Coast Conference tournament and the Shockers as one of the last at-large selections, sent to the First Four. Gonzaga atoned for its supbar regular season by advancing to the Sweet 16. Wichita State also won two games before losing to Miami (Fla.) in the second round.
Vanderbilt (No. 18) didn’t quite pan out, either. The Commodores finished 19-14, slipping in the NCAA field as one of the last at-large selections, but going home quietly with a loss in Dayton. Michigan (No. 25) slipped in as a No. 11 seed and won its First Four game, salvaging a pedestrian season impacted by the loss of injured star Caris Levert.
The long ride nears an end with a big numeral 2 on a board in the North Carolina locker room, written with a Tar Heel blue marker.
That’s how many teams remain in the NCAA tournament, a reminder to his players from Roy Williams after Saturday night’s win over Syracuse. “We jump around, and then he writes the number on the board,” Theo Pinson was explaining “I can’t even explain the feeling.”
Two teams, one championship game. We are down to the “ifs” now. Lots of ‘em. A sampling:
If Villanova wins... the new Big East will have a national champion in the first three years. It took the old Big East five years to get one.
If North Carolina wins... four of the past eight titles belong to Tobacco Road, between Duke and Chapel Hill.
If Villanova wins... Kris Jenkins will be cutting down the nets.
If North Carolina wins... Jenkins’ brother will. Jenkins’ legal guardians are Tar Heel guard Nate Britt’s parents, so Monday night is a most rare collision of young men whom life, not genetics, made siblings. “If we win Monday,” Britt said, “Kris will never hear me stop talking about the time we beat him for the national championship. I will permanently have a one-up on him.”
Said Jenkins, “There’s nobody in the world I want to beat more than my brother. It’s not a movie script. It’s amazing how it worked out.”
If Villanova wins... the magical and mystical Wildcats of 1985 have company.
If North Carolina wins... Michael Jordan and Donald Williams and Sean May and Tyler Hansbrough do.
If Villanova wins... Jay Wright will be known for much more than his sideline sartorial splendor and consistent longevity, and Ryan Arcidiacono more than just a kid who stayed home to go to school. They will be Pennsylvania guys who brought a fought-for title back to a Philadelphia that reveres its scrappers.
Each was born about a 40-minute drive from Villanova’s campus, and only a few miles from one another. Labeled as notorious March underachievers only a month ago, they would exit as standing alone as champions. And so far, dominant champions. Villanova’s average winning margin in this tournament is 24.2.
If North Carolina wins... Roy Williams... well, there’s a big one. Just what will it mean to Roy Williams?
He has aged some. You can see it. His knees need fixing. He has stood at the caskets of close friends, and the man who meant so much, Dean Smith.
“I'll get something out of the way first tonight,” he said after the Syracuse game. “I really wish Stuart Scott was here tonight. I really wish Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge and my best friend in Chapel Hill, Ted Seagroves, were here. It's been a difficult year and a half because of all of that.”
He is 65, and he bristles more and more at certain questions, such the first hint of a retirement question, though the clock is ticking, as it does for everyone. For years, Roy Williams rarely heard a discouraging word from the media, and then his world changed. He was asked Sunday why the cantankerous side has become so visible.
“Possibly the simple way is maybe I've gotten older and don't feel like I need to try to please everybody,” he answered. “But the issues that I think I've taken a stand on now, have a great deal to do with Roy Williams personally, too. When somebody questions my integrity, that really bothers me.”
So this is not a simple story, Williams in the championship game. It comes with nuances. Let’s start with this. If North Carolina wins... he has three championships, one more than Smith.
Not an easy concept for him.
“I don't think I'm in the same league with Coach Smith,” he said Sunday, “and I never will.”
North Carolina players are aware of just how much another title would mean to Williams.
Joel James: “I don’t think I can even sum up what (a championship) would mean to him. He’s a very passionate man. He loves North Carolina. Besides his family, I don’t think he care about anything else. He’d be the happiest man in the world.”
Britt: “He’s told us part of the reason we’re one of his favorite teams is because we provide an outlet for him two or three hours a day when we have practice. I think it would mean everything to him.”
This is the 25th anniversary of Williams first championship game, with Kansas. The game – and a whole bunch of good Jayhawks and Tar Heels – would make him a Hall of Famer in the ensuing quarter-century. And he would change with the times, because he had to.
“Now I see some things and they do some things that I can live with. I hate to say it like this, but I think I used to coach by fear,” he said. “Because I'd say, `Okay, if we're not going to do such and such, we'd get on the end line.’ I would try to bury them, try to make sure we'd have three or four guys throw up. I feel like the next day I didn't have to threaten that anymore. That lasted for a long time.”
The past two years have been the longest, for several reasons. Maybe that is why he has been so cranky lately. This season means so much, and people keep wanting to rain on it. Rain that he had never seen before. He has come up with a team for which he will always have a soft spot; the exact kind of team he needed at this point in his life.
“For me, the biggest thing is it's helped me appreciate what I'm doing,” he said. “It's helped me find a haven. It's helped me find a place where they believed, and trusted what I said, and didn't question everything that was ever written.”
If North Carolina wins... it will mean trip up the ladder for a coach who has spent time lately in both the sunshine and the shadows. A man who has come to see this season – and this team – as something of a gift, and now has only a surging and cohesive team from Villanova in the way.