Three teams this century have lost their opening game to an unranked opponent and gone on to win the NCAA men's basketball national championship.
Kind of surprising, isn't it? Before we get into how each national champion got past the sting of that early loss, here are three things each had in common:
- The loss was on a neutral court. Losing at home to start the year would be a much worse omen.
- Each team followed up its opening loss with at least eight straight wins. You need to bounce back fast to erase the sour taste of an 0-1 record.
- No team would lose more than five games on the season. By the end of the year, it doesn’t matter too much where your losses came from, as long as they were few and far between.
Now, let’s take a trip back to the aughts.
North Carolina, 2005
We’ll start with the most surprising of the three.
After a 19-11 season that saw a second-round loss to Texas in the NCAA tournament, North Carolina entered the 2005 season ranked No. 4 in the country, poised for a much better year. The Tar Heels returned their entire starting lineup (which included Sean May, Rashad McCants, Jawad Williams, and Raymond Felton), and added a talented freshman in Marvin Williams.
But the season could not have started out much worse. In the Pete Newell Challenge in California, North Carolina faced Santa Clara (which had gone 16-16 in 2004 and would go 15-16 in 2005) and lost, 77-66.
Since 1997, the only time UNC had lost in the first game of the season came in 2002, when UNC went 8-20 — the program’s worst season ever. Not a good sign.
"I've got to do a heck of a lot better job and do the little things we've talked about all along," coach Roy Williams said after the game. "We are extremely disappointed. Ticked off is what I am, but I'm ticked off at myself not at the kids."
UNC would play three more neutral-court games before its first home game of the season — not the easiest route to recovery. But the Tar Heels won those three by an average of 21 points each en route to compiling a 14-game winning streak that saw victories over No. 8 Kentucky, No. 22 Maryland, and No. 8 Georgia Tech, before coming to an end on the road against No. 4 Wake Forest.
North Carolina only lost three regular season games that year: Santa Clara, at No. 4 Wake Forest, and at No. 7 Duke, earning a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, where they would upset top-ranked Illinois, 75-70 to take home the title.
Unlike the other two teams here, Syracuse wasn’t ranked to start its championship season. But the Orange entered the season with high expectations nonetheless, thanks in part to two new additions: freshmen Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara.
In his first game at Syracuse, against Memphis, Anthony scored 27 points — the most ever for a Syracuse freshman — but the Orange managed just six points in the final 10 minutes of the game, and lost 70-63.
Syracuse followed with 11 straight wins.
But the Orange didn’t play a ranked team until Jan. 13, when they beat No. 13 Missouri 76-69. The following week, they were ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time that year (in the ninth poll of the regular season), then promptly fell out the next week after losing to No. 3 Pittsburgh. Though they stayed ranked from January 28 until the end of the year, the Orange were streakier than most national champions, losing four times over their final 17 games, including twice to unranked teams.
As a result, Syracuse never cracked the top 10, and earned a 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. But from there, they won their six games by an average of nine points each, taking down two 1 seeds (Oklahoma and Texas) by double digits on the way to beating 2-seed Kansas 81-78 for the championship.
Maryland’s opening-game loss was the most understandable of the three, though it might not look like it at first.
After losing in the Final Four to eventual champion Duke, Maryland returned four starters and was ranked No. 2 in the preseason AP poll — the highest preseason ranking in school history.
The first game of the season for the Terrapins was a matchup with unranked Arizona, which had lost to Duke in the national championship, but lost all four of its top scorers from 2001.
Yet it was the lone returning starter for the Wildcats, Jason Gardner, who scored 23 points to lead Arizona to a 71-67 upset in Madison Square Garden.
That Arizona team would start the season with five straight ranked games — four of them Top 10 opponents — and win four, reaching No. 4 in the AP poll two weeks after being unranked. So as disappointing as the loss may have seemed at the time, one month later, Maryland was 8-1 and No. 2 in the country. They dropped three more games before the NCAA tournament — at No. 22 Oklahoma, at No. 1 Duke, and against NC State in the ACC tournament.
That 26-4 season would earn them a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the only time in school history, and the Terrapins didn't waste it. They won every game by at least eight points before dismantling Indiana 64-52 in the national championship.