by Eli Boettger – November 27, 2017
In a shocking sequence of events, #2 Arizona and #18 Purdue faced off in an unexpected 7th place consolation Battle 4 Atlantis matchup on Friday. Both teams entered the weekend as tournament contenders alongside Villanova (the eventual winners), but the Wildcats and Boilers notched a combined five losses instead.
Arizona was upset by North Carolina State 90-84 to open the tourney on Wednesday, allowed a 14-5 SMU run in the closing minutes of an eventual 66-60 defeat on Thursday, and were then demolished 89-64 by Purdue in Friday’s 7th place game. A team that some expected wouldn’t lose three games in the regular season already has a trio of L’s on its schedule. Now, arguably the country’s most talented roster might not even be ranked in Monday’s new AP poll.
It’s not often a preseason top five team starts a season like Arizona, but it isn’t quite as rare as most would suggest. In college basketball’s modern era (1985-present), 15 preseason AP top five teams have lost at least three of their first 10 games. Coincidentally, after this weekend’s sweep, Arizona has appeared on the infamous list on three separate occasions (1997-98, 2000-01, and 2017-18). The complete list is below.
The 2000-01 Maryland Terrapins had the worst early season start of any preseason top five team, dropping three of its first four matchups. Maryland participated in the Maui Invitational that season, pounding Louisville in its opening matchup before falling to #8 Illinois and Dayton. Wisconsin then handed the Terps another defeat, topping Maryland in a 78-75 overtime thriller at the Kohl Center in a ranked showdown. Maryland followed its poor opening week by winning 13 of its next 14 games. In the end, it was a successful season for Gary Williams’ squad, as Maryland advanced to the Final Four.
On average, preseason top five teams over the last ten years have played 19.4 games by the time of their third loss of the season. Arizona, ranked #2 in the preseason poll, lasted just six games. Even so, the above table indicates that three early losses are anything but a death sentence. Of the 14 instances, five of the teams advanced to the Elite Eight or better and just three missed the NCAA Tournament altogether.
Let’s not give up on the nation’s best roster less than three weeks into the season.