No. 1 or not, pressure crumbles teams
LEFT: Aaron Gordon goes up for a dunk Arizona's 70-64 victory against SDSU at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. on March 27, 2014 in the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight. (Tyler Baker/The Daily Wildcat)
RIGHT: Duke's Grayson Allen (3) sits on the bench in the second half against Clemson during the ACC Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on March 8. (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)
The Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball team is the preseason favorite of many. While the distinction of being preseason No. 1 is quite an honor, it carries with it high expectations and even higher pressure. Assuming at some point during the season Arizona does, in fact, become No. 1, we ask the question: How have previous preseason No. 1’s fared?
The top-ranked teams of the past five preseasons were very predictable. The 2016–2017 preseason favorite was Duke, as is the case again this year. The favorites of the four years prior consist of, in order, North Carolina, Kentucky two years in a row and Indiana. The common theme between these teams is the return of guards.
All five of these teams either returned their top guards or brought in a top freshman guard; and Arizona matches this trend, returning starters Rawle Alkins, Allonzo Trier and Parker Jackson-Cartwright.
The preseason favorite hasn’t won the National Championship in the last five years. The closest it has come during that span was North Carolina in 2016 and Kentucky in 2015; both reached the Final Four but fell short. In 2015, Kentucky lost in the Final Four after going undefeated the entire season to a Wisconsin team fresh off a win over No. 2-seed Arizona. It was considered one of the biggest upsets in recent memory, despite Wisconsin being a No. 1 seed.
In 2016, North Carolina battled Villanova in the championship and tied the game at 74 on a Marcus Paige double-pump 3-point shot as the shot clock expired. The Wildcats would follow it up with a full-court length handoff by Ryan Arcidiacono to Kris Jenkins, who subsequently drilled the game-winning 3 at the buzzer.
Five years ago, Indiana fell in the Sweet 16. The worst showing by a preseason favorite in the past five years was during the 2016–2017 season, when Duke dropped their second-round match-up to South Carolina.
Top seeds carry an expectation to be perfect. It puts teams in a tricky spot, because if they succeed it’s what was expected, and anything less is looked at as an unsuccessful season.
Kentucky last won the tournament in 2012 and was ranked second in the preseason by Athlon Sports. They are the most recent top-two-ranked team to win the championship.
Arizona is ranked No. 3 and has a dynamic starting five, along with a deep bench. The ‘Cats return four key players, but have an excess of five freshman that will see a lot of minutes. The returners have already felt the pressure of being a top-10 team, but weren’t able to deal with the stress of being a No. 2 seed in the tournament. How they cope with the stress of added expectations, in addition to helping mentor freshman, will be as big a factor as anything this season, especially with all the off-court distractions plaguing the University of Arizona thus far.
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