Sorry, UConn can't win it
By any objective measure, it's been a blockbuster autumn for curses.
Steve (Foul Ball) Bartman helped keep the billy goat in charge at Wrigley Field. Grady (Bullpen? What Bullpen?) Little ensured that the Bambino continues to haunt Fenway Park. Children stepping on cracks are believed to be breaking mothers' backs at a record rate.
College basketball is by no means ready to compete with those grand daddies of superstition, but it does have its own Hex On Training Wheels.
It's the Curse of the Consensus Favorite, now heading into its eighth uninterrupted year of business. Thus it is with sincere apology to Jim Calhoun and the boys in Storrs that ESPN.com joins the rest of the free world in picking the Connecticut Huskies to win the 2004 college basketball national championship.
|Preseason No. 1's final fate|
|Here is a look at how the past 10 Associated Press' preseason No. 1 teams have fared in the NCAA Tournament:|
Lost to Kansas in Elite Eight
Lost to Indiana is Sweet 16
Lost to Duke in title game
Lost to Tennessee in second round
Lost to UConn in title game
Lost to Utah in Elite Eight
Lost to Iowa State in second round
Won '96 national championship
Lost to UCLA in title game
1993: North Carolina
Lost to Boston College in second round
Go ahead and deflate the basketballs, Jimmy. It's over. You're yesterday's clam chowder. Everyone loves your team, which means you're utterly doomed.
You might win for a while. (In fact, ESPN.com is boldly predicting a triumph over Yale in the season opener.) You might fall from No. 1 and come back later. But the very fact that you're on top now leads us to suspect that you won't be there come April in San Antonio.
Last team to start No. 1 and finish there: Kentucky in 1995-96. But Rick Pitino had eight NBA players on that team, and is believed to have used the Sicilian Evil Eye to neutralize the Consensus Favorite Curse. Just in case overwhelming talent couldn't do it alone.
Consensus Favorites find a way to fold. Talent overload leads to chemistry calamity. Pressure dissolves a coach's stomach lining and sanity. Guys start playing for The League instead of the team. Someone gets hurt at precisely the wrong time. Some March underdog can't miss, on a night when you can.
There are a million maladies, and few cures.
Arizona has been built up and then torn down three times in this streak (last season, 2000-01 and 1997-98). Duke has failed twice as the prohibitive, landslide fave (2001-02 and 1998-99). Cincinnati couldn't come close to coming through in 1996-97. And Calhoun knows a little about this spot already, having been tabbed the preseason favorite in 1999-2000 and then flaming out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
(And by the way, has anyone seen Khalid El-Amin since then?)
In the 42 years that the Associated Press has had a preseason poll, the team ranked atop it has won the NCAA title 11 times. More than half of those were the Wooden-Era UCLA Bruins, when college basketball was less suspenseful than the sunrise. In the 28 preseason polls post-Wizard, the team that started on top has only finished there five times.
Not coincidentally, those teams might be the five greatest champions since the UCLA dynasty died off: Kentucky '96, Duke '92, UNLV '90, North Carolina '82 and Indiana's undefeated Hoosiers of '76. Of that group, only Duke and Indiana went wire-to-wire at No. 1. The other three slipped off the mountaintop at some point and had to climb back up.
The good news for UConn is this: You're going to make the Big Dance. It's been 28 years since the preseason No. 1 didn't play in the NCAAs, dating back to the days of one bid per league. In fact, chances are good that you'll fare well once you get there. Nine of the last 15 preseason No. 1s reached the Final Four, and seven of those made the championship game.
Just don't expect to win it.
If you're scouring the Top 25 for the team that will be there at the end, we can provide one general guideline: Check the top 10. Your champion is probably in there somewhere.
Last year, Syracuse was the first national champ to come from outside the preseason top 10 since Arizona in '97. (The Orangemen, in fact, were unranked.) Sixteen of the last 18 champs began the year in the top 10, all but three of them unencumbered with the title of Consensus Favorite.
Of course, in the old days it used to be easy to pick the Consensus Favorite. UCLA was the Pavlovian response to the question, year after year. Selecting your socks in the morning required more thought than starting your ballot with the Bruins.
(Then again, in the really old days, pre-Wooden, it wasn't so easy. The team ranked No. 1 in the first AP poll of the season -- they started in December then, instead of preseason -- failed to win the title every year from 1957-66, the longest streak in the history of the poll.)
In today's Hoopsworld, where everyone is guaranteed to lose at least a couple of games and plenty can go wrong in a six-game, single-elimination tournament, there's just no telling what's going to happen.
So I'll let you in on a little trade secret: We in the preseason prediction business have no idea what we're doing. Not with any real certainy, at least. If anyone tells you today that UConn is a lock to win it all, move away from that person at a high rate of speed.
Mabel in accounting, who makes her NCAA Tournament office pool selections on nicknames, uniforms and cute coaches, could probably do just as well as we can. It's all guesswork, of one form or another.
If you really want the inside scoop on how the big-time college basketball broadcast media guys make their picks, here are their personal methods:
Those are all jokes, of course, as are my own attempts to select a national champion.
But I'm narrowing it down. So far this year I've eliminated Baylor, which has actually eliminated itself with its own postseason ban.
And UConn, of course.
Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com