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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | October 29, 2020

The best, worst and most likely finish for each spot in the AP Top 25 college basketball rankings

Andy Katz makes his first 2021 NCAA bracket prediction for March Madness

Did you know that three of the last six men's college basketball national champions were ranked outside of the top five in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, including two that were outside the top 10? Seriously.

UConn was ranked No. 18 in the 2013-14 preseason poll, Villanova was ranked No. 11 before the 2016 season and North Carolina checked in at No. 6 prior to the 2017 campaign.

I've analyzed the history of the preseason men's basketball AP poll and broken down the best-case, worst-case and average season outcomes for each spot in the preseason AP poll from No. 1 through No. 25. Keep these in mind when you're making your NCAA bracket picks this season.

Here are some of the highlights of what I found:

  • You can confidently predict that the national champion will be ranked among the top 10 teams in the preseason AP poll, and history says it's more likely than not that the eventual national champion will debut in the top three.
  • The average NCAA tournament result for teams ranked in the top two in the preseason AP poll is more than three wins in the NCAA tournament.
  • Since the 1990 season, only one team ranked in the top four of the preseason AP poll has ever missed the NCAA tournament — Kentucky in 2013, and that was after star freshman Nerlens Noel suffered a serious injury in mid-February.
  • Teams ranked in the top eight in the preseason average at least two wins in the NCAA tournament.
  • With the exception of the No. 22 position in the preseason AP poll, teams holding every other ranking from No. 14 through No. 25 in the preseason poll have been ranked in the final AP poll of the season 50 percent of the time or less. For example, just 10 of the last 30 teams to debut at No. 23 in the preseason AP poll have finished the season ranked.

If your team is ranked in the preseason AP Top 25, you're going to want to see how teams with your team's preseason ranking have fared historically.

How many NCAA champs were ranked in the preseason poll

Since the first edition of the preseason AP poll was released prior to the 1961-62 season, 52 of the 58 national champions, or 89.6 percent, were ranked in the preseason poll. The AP poll ranked 10 teams through the 1968 season, 20 teams through the 1989 season, and it included 25 teams starting in the 1989-90 campaign.

In addition to the six times that a national champion has been unranked in the preseason AP poll, there have been just four times since the first preseason poll in 1962 that a national champion has been ranked outside of the top 10.

To this day, Arizona has made the biggest jump from the lowest preseason ranking (No. 19 in 1997) to win the national championship, ahead of UConn in the 2014 season (No. 18), NC State in the 1982-83 season (No. 16) and Villanova in the 2015-16 season (No. 11).

Here's what you need to know when forecasting in the fall what team might win the national championship the following spring:

  • Of the 52 national champions that have been ranked in the preseason AP poll, their average preseason ranking is 4.0.
  • The most common preseason ranking of national champions is preseason No. 1, which has been the preseason ranking of 14 national champions since the 1961-62 preseason poll. There have been 13 national champions that were ranked No. 2 in the preseason poll. That means 27, or 46.5 percent, of national champions in the preseason AP poll era have been ranked in the top two.
  • However, eight of the seasons in which the preseason No. 1 team won the national championship came between the 1966-67 season and the 1977-78 season, including six times in seven seasons from the 1966-67 season through 1973. The last time the preseason No. 1 team won the national championship was in 2007, when Florida won the national title for the second year in a row.
  • More than half of the national champions since 1962 have been ranked in the top three in the preseason (32 of 58).
  • More than two-thirds of national champions since 1962 have been ranked in the top five in the preseason (40 of 58).
  • More than 80 percent of national championships since 1962 have been ranked in the top 10 in the preseason (48 of 58).
  • The highest position in the preseason AP poll at which a national champion has never started a title-winning season is the preseason No. 10 ranking.
  • Three of the six national champions during the preseason AP poll era that started the season unranked took place before the AP poll had expanded to 25 teams.

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Here's the complete breakdown of where past national champions have been ranked in the preseason AP poll.

Preseason ranking number of national championships
1 14
2 13
3 5
4 6
5 2
6 3
7 2
8 1
9 2
10 0
11 1
12 0
13 0
14 0
15 0
16 1
17 0
18 1
19 1
20 0
21 0
22 0
23 0
24 0
25 0
Unranked 6

The table below shows the average wins, average NCAA tournament seed of the teams with that preseason ranking that made the tournament (what number of teams with that preseason ranking made the tournament in parentheses), the average number of wins in the NCAA tournament among teams that made the tournament, and the average final AP poll ranking among teams that were ranked in the poll (what number of teams made final ranking in parentheses). The chart below analyzes data from the 1989-90 preseason poll (the first preseason poll with 25 teams) through the 2018-19 season. Wins in the First Four were not included in NCAA tournament win totals.

Scroll to the right to view the complete table.

preseason ranking Avg. wins avg. seed avg. tournament wins avg. final ranking
No. 1 31.2 1.77 (30/30) 3.4 4.6 (29/30)
No. 2 30.4 2.27 (30/30) 3.2 5.7 (29/30)
No. 3 28.3 2.55 (29/30) 2.5 7.2 (27/30)
No. 4 28.1 2.83 (30/30) 2.5 7.2 (27/30)
No. 5 26.7 2.61 (28/30) 2.3 7.5 (26/30)
No. 6 26.9 3.38 (29/30) 2.3 9.6 (26/30)
No. 7 26.5 3.57 (28/30) 2.0 10.3 (24/30)
No. 8 25.4 4.33 (30/31) 2.1 12.1 (25/31)
No. 9 25.5 4.81 (26/29) 1.8 13.2 (19/29)
No. 10 25.2 4.42 (26/30) 1.4 10.2 (20/30)
No. 11 25.5 4.37 (27/30) 1.6 12.2 (23/30)
No. 12 24.4 4.88 (26/30) 1.1 13.2 (19/30)
No. 13 24.0 4.72 (25/30) 1.2 12.1 (19/30)
No. 14 23.1 5.5 (20/30) 1.0 14.5 (15/30)
No. 15 22.1 7.0 (25/31) 0.8 16.3 (12/31)
No. 16 22.8 6.4 (23/29) 0.9 14.6 (13/29)
No. 17 22.5 6.3 (22/30) 0.9 11.6 (11/30)
No. 18 22.7 5.8 (24/30) 1.0 16.1 (15/30)
No. 19 22.2 6.2 (22/30) 1.0 14.8 (12/30)
No. 20 22.6 6.3 (24/31) 0.9 16.5 (15/31)
No. 21 21.6 5.5 (17/29) 1.0 11.6 (11/29)
No. 22 24.7 5.2 (25/30) 1.1 15.9 (20/30)
No. 23 21.7 6.4 (22/30) 0.8 14.8 (10/30)
No. 24 22.1 6.0 (21/30) 0.7 12.8 (13/30)
No. 25 22.7 7.2 (26/31) 1.0 13.3 (11/31)

Once again, the data below is from the 1990 season through the 2019 season.

How AP preseason No. 1 teams do

Best-case scenario: National championship (six times); 38 wins (Kentucky in 2015); No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament (20 times)
Worst-case scenario: No. 8 seed (Kentucky in 2014); zero wins in the NCAA tournament (Kansas in 2005 and 2010); 25 wins (UConn in 2000)
Average outcome: 31.2 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 1.8, 3.4 wins in the NCAA tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 1 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 2 teams do

Best-case scenario: National championship (five times); 38 wins (Kentucky in 2012); No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament (11 times)
Worst-case scenario: No. 10 seed (Michigan State in 2011); one win in the NCAA tournament (eight times); 19 wins (Michigan State in 2011)
Average outcome: 30.4 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 2.3, 3.2 wins in the NCAA tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 2 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

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How AP preseason No. 3 teams do

Best-case scenario: National championship (two times); 38 wins (Memphis in 2008*); No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament (13 times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss the NCAA tournament (Kentucky in 2013); 18 wins (Michigan State in 2004)
Average outcome: 28.3 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 2.6 among 29 of 30 teams that made the tournament; 2.5 wins in the NCAA tournament

*Wins later vacated by the NCAA Committee on Infractions

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 3 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 4 teams do

Best-case scenario: National championship (three times); 37 wins (Kansas in 2008); No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament (14 times)
Worst-case scenario: No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament (two times); zero wins in the tournament (five times); 19 wins (Michigan State in 1991)
Average outcome: 28.1 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 2.8, 2.5 wins in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 4 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 5 teams do

Best-case scenario: National championship (Virginia in 2019); 37 wins (Illinois in 2005); No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament (nine times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (two times); 16 wins (Missouri in 2004)
Average outcome: 26.7 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 2.6 (28 of 30 made it), 2.3 wins in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 5 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 6 teams do

Best-case scenario: National championship (four times); 36 wins (Villanova in 2018); No. 1 seed (six times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (North Carolina in 2010); 20 wins (two times)
Average outcome: 26.9 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 3.4 (29 of 30 made it), 2.3 wins in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 6 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 7 teams do

Best-case scenario: National championship (North Carolina in 1993); 35 (two times); No. 1 seed (six times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (two times); 16 wins (Florida in 2015)
Average outcome: 26.5 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 3.6 (28 of 30 made it), 2.0 wins in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 7 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 8 teams do

Best-case scenario: National championship (Kentucky in 1998); 35 wins (Kentucky in 1998); No. 1 seed (two times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (Duke in 1995); 13 wins (Duke in 1995)
Average outcome: 25.4 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 4.3 (30 of 31 made it), 2.1 wins in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 8 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 9 teams do

Best-case scenario: National championship (Duke in 2010); 35 wins (Duke in 2010); No. 1 seed (two times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (three times); 19 wins (four times)
Average outcome: 25.5 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 4.8 (26 of 29 made it), 1.8 wins in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 9 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 10 teams do

Best-case scenario: National runner-up (Duke in 1990); 36 wins (Florida in 2014); No. 1 seed (three times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (four times); 16 wins (Seton Hall in 2001)
Average outcome: 25.2 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 4.4 (26 of 30 made it), 1.4 wins in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 10 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 11 teams do

Best-case scenario: National championship (Villanova in 2016); 35 wins (Villanova in 2016); No. 1 seed (four times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (three times); 17 wins (Virginia in 2002)
Average outcome: 25.5 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 4.4 (27 of 30 made it), 1.6 wins in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 11 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 12 teams do

Best-case scenario: Elite Eight (four times); 33 wins (two times); No. 1 seed (three times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (four times); 18 wins (two times)
Average outcome: 24.4 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 4.9 (26 of 30 made it), 1.1 wins in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 12 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 13 teams do

Best-case scenario: National runner-up (Kansas in 2012); 35 wins (Gonzaga in 2015); No. 1 seed (Stanford in 2000)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (five times); 15 wins (West Virginia in 2019)
Average outcome: 24.0 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 4.7 (25 of 30 made it), 1.2 wins in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 13 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 14 teams do

Best-case scenario: National runner-up (Gonzaga in 2017); 37 wins (Gonzaga in 2017); No. 1 seed (Gonzaga in 2017)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (10 times); 10 wins (UCLA in 2003)
Average outcome: 23.1 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 5.5 (20 of 30 made it), 1.0 win in the NCAA tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 14 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 15 teams do

Best-case scenario: Elite Eight (Texas in 2008); 31 wins (Texas in 2008); No. 2 seed (Texas in 2008)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (six times); 15 wins (two times)
Average outcome: 22.1 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 7.0 (25 of 31 made it), 0.8 wins in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 15 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 16 teams do

Best-case scenario: National runner-up (Utah in 1998); 35 wins (Wichita State in 2014); No. 1 seed (two times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (six times); 15 wins (UConn in 1993)
Average outcome: 22.8 wins, NCAA tournament seed  of 6.4 (23 of 29 made it), 0.9 wins in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 16 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 17 teams do

Best-case scenario: National runner-up (Butler in 2011); 32 wins (Kentucky in 2003); No. 1 seed (three times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (eight times); 13 wins (two times)
Average outcome: 22.5 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 6.3 (22 of 30 made it), 1.0 wins in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 17 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 18 teams do

Best-case scenario: National championship (UConn in 2014); 32 (two times); No. 2 seed (two times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (six times); 12 wins (Pittsburgh in 1990)
Average outcome: 22.7 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 5.8 (24 of 30 made it), 1.0 wins in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 18 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 19 teams do

Best-case scenario: National championship (Arizona in 1997); 32 wins (UCLA in 2006); No. 1 seed (Stanford in 2004)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (eight times); eight wins (North Carolina in 2002); No. 1 seed (Stanford in 2004)
Average outcome: 22.2 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 6.2 (22 of 30 made it), 1.0 win in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 19 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 20 teams do

Best-case scenario: National runner-up (Michigan in 1992); 30 wins (two times); No. 2 seed (two times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (seven times); 14 wins (Texas A&M in 2012)
Average outcome: 22.6 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 6.3 (24 of 31 made it), 0.9 wins in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 20 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 21 teams do

Best-case scenario: Final Four (Oklahoma State in 1995); 32 wins (Gonzaga in 2013); No. 1 seed (two times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (12 times); 11 wins (Texas in 2017)
Average outcome: 21.6 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 5.5  (17 of 29 made it), 1.0 win in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 21 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 22 teams do

Best-case scenario: National runner-up (Indiana in 2002); 31 wins (two times); No. 1 seed (two times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (five times); 14 wins (Texas in 1998)
Average outcome: 24.7 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 5.2 (25 of 30 made it), 1.1 wins in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 22 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 23 teams do

Best-case scenario: Final Four (Villanova in 2009); 30 wins (Villanova in 2009); No. 3 seed (four times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (eight times); seven wins (Florida in 1990)
Average outcome: 21.7 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 6.4 (22 of 30 made it), 0.8 win in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 23 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 24 teams do

Best-case scenario: Elite Eight (Purdue in 2019); 32 wins (BYU in 2011); No. 1 seed (three times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (nine times); 14 wins (UMass in 1999)
Average outcome: 22.1 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 6.0 (21 of 30 made it), 0.7 win in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 24 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

How AP preseason No. 25 teams do

Best-case scenario: Final Four (two times); 34 wins (San Diego State in 2011); No. 2 seed (five times)
Worst-case scenario: Miss NCAA tournament (five times); 12 wins (Louisville in 1998)
Average outcome: 22.7 wins, NCAA tournament seed of 7.2 (26 of 31 made it), 1.0 win in the tournament

Below is the complete data set of teams ranked preseason No. 25 in the AP poll from the 1989-90 season through the 2018-19 season.

 

 

 
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