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What did past Final Four teams look like when February started?

Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire

Do you remember how eventual Final Four teams Texas Tech and Auburn were viewed in the rankings this time last year? How about national runner-up Michigan two years ago? And where was North Carolina ranked entering February before the Tar Heels went on to win the national championship in 2017? It's unlikely most of you would even care to remember these things, because what matters most is how these teams finished their seasons.

What this column is designed to do, though, is provide hope for a wider swath of fan bases than the current rankings or conference standings might be able to accomplish as we enter February.

Preseason No. 1 Michigan State has faced some adversity this season and has been inconsistent at times, but the Spartans should still be considered a national title threat. Meanwhile, teams such as Florida, Memphis, North Carolina, Texas Tech, Ohio State and Xavier were all ranked in the preseason but find themselves on the outside looking in. Each of these teams has had its own special set of issues, but most of them still have enough talent to turn things around and be a factor in March. Remember, we're still about six weeks from Selection Sunday.

While there have been seasons -- like last year -- when the entire top five in the AP poll on Feb. 1 wound up earning top-two seeds in the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16 or better, the way this season has played out thus far hardly gives you the impression we're headed down that road again in 2020.


What kind of mayhem should we expect?

Using recent history as our guide, it's likely that at least one currently very well-thought-of team will not survive the first weekend and that at least one team that's currently well off the radar will come together at just the right time to reach the Final Four. Try this on for size: In the past 10 years, 12 teams ranked in the AP top five on Feb. 1 went on to lose in the first or second round of the NCAA tournament.

In that same span, eight teams that were unranked in the AP poll on Feb. 1 went on to reach the Final Four. Four of those eight teams didn't even receive a vote (Loyola-Chicago in 2018, Syracuse in 2016, Michigan State in 2015 and Butler in 2011). To answer one of the intro questions briefly, last year Auburn joined this list, as the Tigers were 26th in terms of votes after suffering three straight losses in late January.


What did recent national champions look like on Feb. 1?

While we have seen many teams reach the Final Four that weren't in the championship discussion, the teams that wound up hoisting the trophy are almost always among those who were in the conversation.

The average AP poll ranking of the past 10 champions on Feb. 1 was 7.8, but that number is inflated by UConn being unranked (26th in terms of votes) in 2014. If you take the Huskies out, the average rank for the other nine champs is 5.8.

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No. 1 Baylor improves to 7-0 in Big 12 play

MaCio Teague is the high scorer with 15 points as Baylor cruises past Iowa State 67-53.

You'll often hear analysts and writers opine about how many teams are legitimate threats to cut down the nets in April. Here is some recent data that shows how rarely championship teams come out of nowhere, even if you go back to February:

  • Nine of the past 10 champions were ranked in the top 12 on Feb. 1 (six ranked in the top six).

  • Four of the past five champs were ranked fourth or better (North Carolina was 12th in 2017, to answer another of the intro questions above).

  • In case you're curious, two of the past 10 teams to be ranked No. 1 entering February went on to win the title (Villanova in 2018, Kentucky in 2012).

Baylor is currently the top-ranked team in the country and is looking for its first national championship. But if you are looking for teams to buck the top-12 trend that is mentioned above, blue bloods such as Kentucky (13th) and the aforementioned Michigan State (14th) are lurking, as is a talented Maryland squad (15th) that was a preseason top-10 selection and Auburn (17th), which is hoping for a return trip to the Final Four.


Four top-10 teams in Final Four: How rare is it?

Since the AP poll debuted in the 1948-49 season, every Final Four has featured at least one participant that was ranked in the top 10 entering February. That might not seem all that noteworthy, but even in seasons when the bracket was turned upside down -- the 2000 and 2011 tournaments are recent examples -- at least one team that was well thought of on Feb. 1 advanced to the final weekend of the Big Dance.

That said, it's quite uncommon for the entire Final Four to comprise teams that are highly ranked right now. In the modern tournament era (since 1985), only four times have all four eventual Final Four teams been ranked in the top 10 entering February. The last time was 12 years ago.

(NOTE: Below, teams are listed in order of champion, runner-up, then semifinal losers)

2008: Kansas (2), Memphis (1), North Carolina (4), UCLA (5)
2001: Duke (2), Arizona (7), Michigan State (5), Maryland (9)
1998: Kentucky (7), Utah (3), North Carolina (2), Stanford (4)
1993: North Carolina (6), Michigan (7), Kentucky (2), Kansas (3)

This year's top five teams entering February are: Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas, San Diego State and Florida State.


Two slightly odd notes to file away for March ...

... Just in case these things occur this year.

  • In the past six years, there have been six teams that were ranked in the top five on Feb. 1 but didn't receive a top-two seed on Selection Sunday. None of them got past the Sweet 16, and three of them lost in the second round (Michigan State in 2018, Iowa in 2016 and Syracuse in 2014).

  • In the past seven years, there have been eight teams that were unranked on Feb. 1 but finished strong enough to get a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament. Three of these teams lost in the first round, two in the second round, and none got past the Sweet 16. This list includes Virginia in 2014, which rallied from being 29th in votes entering February to a No. 1 seed (only to fall to fourth-seeded Michigan State in the Sweet 16). It also includes No. 2 seed Georgetown in 2013, which lost to 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast by 10 in the first round.