Undefeated records are great, but there’s not a team that would take a long undefeated start to a season over a national championship. We wanted to see if an unblemished start predicted if a team won the NCAA Division I men's basketball championship. The answer: not really.
We chose New Year's Day as a logical starting point to measure a team's national championship chances if they are undefeated on that day. This year, there were four undefeated teams in Division I men’s basketball Jan. 1. Nevada’s loss this past Saturday left Michigan, Virginia and Houston as the teams still without a loss.
Here are three key points we found from scouring the last 10 years of data:
- Since the 2009 NCAA tournament, just two teams have won the national championship after making it to New Year’s Day undefeated: North Carolina in 2009 and Duke in 2015.
- Out of all 42 teams that made it to Jan. 1 undefeated since 2009, the same amount of teams missed — or were ineligible for — the NCAA tournament as the number of teams that made the national championship game. In addition to North Carolina and Duke, Gonzaga made the title game in 2017 and Michigan in 2013.
- It’s rare for a team which makes it to Jan. 1 without a loss to miss the NCAA tournament. It’s likely that team wins a game or two, but winning the national championship is even more rare.
This is how far the teams that were undefeated on Jan. 1 have gone in their NCAA tournaments since 2009 by round:
- Missed/ineligible for NCAA tournament - 4
- Lost in first/second round - 5
- Lost in second/third round - 10
- Lost in Sweet Sixteen - 8
- Lost in Elite Eight - 7
- Lost in Final Four - 4
- Lost in NCAA championship - 2
- Won NCAA championship - 2
A note: We looked at teams that made it to at least Jan. 1 without a loss. Teams that lost on New Year’s Day are still included.
Here are a few other points of interest that stuck out in this analysis of undefeated teams and how they did in March Madness.
- 2017-18 was the only year in the past 10 seasons where no team made it to Jan. 1 undefeated. The high was seven undefeated teams on New Year’s Day in 2011 and 2014.
- Seven teams have made it past Jan. 31 undefeated. Only two have entered the NCAA tournament unbeaten in the past 10 seasons.
- Of the 42 teams that made it to Jan. 1 undefeated since 2009, 16 earned No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament that season. The lowest seed in the past 10 seasons was Texas as a No. 8 in 2010.
- If Michigan, Virginia, Houston or Nevada want to make the Final Four, history shows they will have to earn a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Michigan as a No. 4 seed in 2013 had the lowest seed of the teams that made it to Jan. 1 undefeated to make the Final Four. The other seven teams were either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
- Going later in the season without a loss doesn’t exactly mean more NCAA tournament success. Kentucky in 2015 and Gonzaga in 2017 are the only two Final Four teams on this list since 2009 to have its first loss after Jan. 14.
All things considered, Michigan, Virginia and Nevada should contend for top seeds in the NCAA tournament this season. And there’s no reason to think Houston can’t be a top-three seed either. Time will tell if one of those four teams can make it five straight seasons that a team undefeated on Jan. 1 makes the NCAA tournament Final Four.
Here are all the teams since 2009 that were undefeated as of Jan. 1 and where they finished:
|Year||School||First loss||Finish||Final Record|
|2009||North Carolina||Jan. 4||NCAA champion||34-4|
|Pittsburgh||Jan. 17||Elite Eight||31-5|
|Clemson||Jan. 17||First round||23-9|
|Wake Forest||Jan. 21||First round||24-7|
|2010||West Virginia||Jan. 1||Final Four||31-7|
|Syracuse||Jan. 2||Sweet Sixteen||30-5|
|Purdue||Jan. 9||Sweet Sixteen||29-6|
|Kansas||Jan. 10||Second round||33-3|
|Texas||Jan. 18||First round||24-10|
|Kentucky||Jan. 26||Elite Eight||35-3|
|2011||UCF||Jan. 8||Missed tournament||21-12 (All wins vacated)|
|Cincinnati||Jan. 9||Third round||26-9|
|Duke||Jan. 12||Sweet Sixteen||32-5|
|Syracuse||Jan. 17||Third round||20-8 (seven wins vacated)|
|Kansas||Jan. 22||Elite Eight||35-3|
|San Diego State||Jan. 26||Sweet Sixteen||34-3|
|Ohio State||Feb. 12||Sweet Sixteen||34-3|
|2012||Missouri||Jan. 7||Second round||30-5|
|Baylor||Jan. 16||Elite Eight||30-8|
|Syracuse||Jan. 21||Elite Eight||34-3 (All wins vacated)|
|Murray State||Feb. 9||Third round||31-2|
|2013||Arizona||Jan. 10||Sweet Sixteen||27-8|
|Duke||Jan. 12||Elite Eight||30-6|
|Michigan||Jan. 13||NCAA runner-up||31-8|
|2014||Oregon||Jan. 5||Third round||24-10|
|Ohio State||Jan. 7||Second round||25-10|
|Iowa State||Jan. 11||Sweet Sixteen||28-8|
|Wisconsin||Jan. 14||Final Four||30-8|
|Arizona||Feb. 1||Elite Eight||33-5|
|Syracuse||Feb. 19||Third round||28-6|
|Wichita State||March 23||Third round||35-1|
|2015||Villanova||Jan. 3||Third round||33-3|
|Colorado State||Jan. 3||Missed tournament||27-7|
|Duke||Jan. 11||NCAA champion||35-4|
|Virginia||Jan. 31||Third round||30-4|
|Kentucky||April 4||Final Four||38-1|
|2016||Oklahoma||Jan. 4||Final Four||29-8|
|South Carolina||Jan. 13||Missed tournament||25-9|
|SMU||Jan. 27||Ineligible for postseason||25-5|
|2017||Villanova||Jan. 4||Second round||32-4|
|Baylor||Jan. 10||Sweet Sixteen||27-8|
|Gonzaga||Feb. 25||NCAA runner-up||37-2|