College Basketball: Are Teams That Topped the Polls During the Season Guaranteed Tournament Success?

Reaching number-one in the regular season polls is a great accomplishment, but does it mean anything down the road?

The easiest way to measure how a team is currently doing in college basketball outside of their record is their ranking in the Associated Press poll, which is updated weekly.

For some programs, it is a great feat to reach the top 25 in the pool of 351 Division I Men's College Basketball teams, but for others, it is a mark of failure if they drop out of the rankings.

The highest honor bestowed throughout the regular season is reaching number one in the polls, but once a team reaches the summit, they get a target on their back.

Thus far this season, there have been three different teams ranked number-one in the six weeks the poll has been released: Duke, Kentucky, and (currently) Villanova. Having this many different teams at the top of the polls by this point of the season is not uncommon, as it has happened 13 times over the past 26 seasons.

But seasons like this beg the question: does it matter if a team is ranked number-one, especially this early?

Luckily for you readers, I volunteered to comb through the past 25 seasons to decipher whether that number-one ranking during any point of the season guarantees success come NCAA Tournament time.

Quick Findings

Over the past 25 seasons, 93 teams were ranked number-one at some point during the season, and every one reached the NCAA Tournament.

The highest number of different teams that reached number-one in a season was six, which happened in 1993, 1994, 1995, 2004, and 2016, which was the only season of those in which each team held the ranking for at least two weeks.

The three teams that have spent time at number-one the most seasons over the past 25 years are Duke (13), Kansas (11), and North Carolina (10).

Of the past 25 national champions, 22 were ranked in the top four at some point during the season

Last Time Ranked Number One

College basketball is especially known for its crazy outcomes, hence the term "March Madness."

Over the past 25 seasons, an average of a little less than four different teams hold the number-one ranking at some point during the season.

Some of these teams only get one shot at being number-one, potentially only early in the season.

The following table details what month a team was last ranked atop the poll and what round they eventually exited the tournament.

Last Month
Ranked #1
March 6 1 7 7 4 4 0 29
February 3 1 4 4 5 6 0 23
January 3 0 5 5 3 1 3 20
December 1 0 1 3 0 0 3 8
November 0 2 3 2 0 5 1 13

This table serves as evidence that teams that are ranked number-one later in the season have more success than teams that had not held the honor since earlier in the season, which certainly makes sense.

NCAA Tournament Seeding

When it comes to the NCAA Tournament, being number-one at some point in the season has been a strong indication that a team will earn a high seed.

Over the past 25 seasons, 82 percent of teams that were ranked number-one have earned either a 1 or 2 seed in the tournament. Of those 1 and 2 seeds, 72 percent of them have reached the Elite Eight.

Continued excellence throughout the season is something that is rewarded and can also be trusted when filling out your bracket in March.

Overall Tournament Success

Reaching the NCAA Tournament is part of the battle for teams every season, but any team that has earned a number-one ranking during the season has also made the tournament in the past 25 years.

Because sports are filled with nuance -- in college basketball's case, the tournament brackets can throw curveballs that lead to unexpected early exits -- there can be numerous reasons why a team can lose in the tournament.

Teams that have been ranked number-one have had success, but an alarming number of those teams have also been knocked out of the tournament early.

Finish Were Ranked #1 % of Total
National Champions 13 14%
Lost in National Championship 4 4%
Lost in Final Four 20 22%
Lost in Elite Eight 21 22%
Lost in Sweet 16 12 13%
Lost in Second Round 16 17%
Lost in First Round 7 8%

A staggering 25 percent of teams that were ranked number-one in the regular season lost during the first weekend of the tournament, and close to 60 percent of all losses by number-one ranked teams were an upset.

On the other hand, 40 percent of these teams have reached the Final Four and have also accounted for more than half of the National Champions during this time period.

The Takeaway

Through all of the research, it seems the most important factor is sustained success.

Of the teams that were ranked number-one after January 1, nearly half of them reached the Final Four, and 74 percent reached the Sweet 16.

Of the teams that were last ranked number-one before January 1, only one-third of them reached the Final Four, and 43 percent did not make it past the first weekend.

If a team ranked atop the poll before January 1 gets the ranking back, they make it to the Final Four 57 percent of the time.

History suggests that it is important for Villanova to hold the number-one ranking as long as they can and for Duke and Kentucky to get back to number-one before the season's end.

If these teams never get the top ranking back, success in March is certainly not guaranteed.