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Brian Mull | | October 31, 2016

How the AP preseason poll relates to NCAA tournament seeding

  History bodes well for Bill Self and No. 3 Kansas as it relates to seeding in March.

The Associated Press released its men’s basketball preseason top 25 poll Monday, providing another tangible sign that opening day is within sight (11 days away, to be exact). It’s a joyous time of the year, indeed.

Coaches devaluing the preseason poll is an annual tradition. Downplaying the predictions of a media horde is as much a part of the coaching playbook as pick-and-roll defense or quick-hitting halfcourt sets. For example, Texas blends a strong batch of freshmen with a budding star like Tevin Mack and landed at No. 21 in the preseason poll. Speaking to the media Monday morning — before the poll was released — the Longhorns' second-year coach Shaka Smart said, "We're a long way away from being in the top 25 right now as I speak on Oct. 31."

Now, who am I to argue with Smart, one of the brilliant minds in college basketball today? His record (183-69) screams success. He’s led his team to the NCAA tournament in six of seven seasons and has already been to a Final Four. And he, of course, knows his team better than anyone else. The point of the preseason poll is to create conversation about college basketball and project a team’s potential.  

However, our intensive research proved last year that the AP preseason poll is a solid predictor of postseason seeding.

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For example, since 1984-85 there have been 776 teams ranked in the preseason poll. And 86 percent competed in the NCAA tournament. In 2015-16, preseason No. 21 LSU was the only team ranked in October to miss out in March.

Duke returns Naismith Trophy candidate Grayson Allen and welcomes a talented, deep freshman class to give coach Mike Krzyzewski one of the tallest teams he’s coached. The Blue Devils earned the No. 1 spot in this year’s preseason poll by an overwhelming margin. And while it’s been eight years since a preseason No. 1 won the national championship, last season the Blue Devils neighbor North Carolina became the 24th preseason No. 1 to play for the national title.

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Another good sign for the Blue Devils? 10 of the last 11 preseason No. 1s earned a No. 1 seed in March.

In the last 11 seasons, 36 of the 44 No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament started the year in the preseason top 10. Last season, Oregon became only the ninth team since 1984-85 to start out unranked and end up as a No. 1 seed.

A top-four ranking is equivalent to a No. 1 seed in March. According to our research, a top-four team in the preseason has ended up as a No. 1 seed 49.2 percent of the time (59 of 120) since 1984-85. Nobody would be surprised if the Blue Devils and the three teams immediately behind them — Kentucky, Kansas and Villanova — land on the top line on Selection Sunday.

Perhaps this season will be a repeat of 1997-98, when voters correctly slotted Arizona, Kansas, Duke and North Carolina 1-through-4 in the preseason. Those were the four No. 1 seeds in March, which hasn’t happened before or since.


Digging deeper, is there any value in being, say, ranked in the top 12 in the preseason poll? Yes, there is. So, speaking in a historical sense, this bodes well for teams like Wisconsin, Arizona, Indiana and Michigan State, who hold down spots 9-through-12 in the preseason poll. There have been 384 teams ranked in the preseason top 12 since 1984-85, and all but 22 have earned a bid to the NCAA tournament.

So, enjoy the preseason poll. Study it and savor it and rest easy knowing basketballs will bounce, sneakers will squeak and the scores will count very, very soon.

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