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How have reigning NCAA champions performed after winning a title?

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UNC are the reigning national champions. How have previous champions performed the year after their title?

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament Championship-Virginia vs North Carolina Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Friends, family, and fellow Tar Heel fans, it’s that very special time of year. The Heels are in the NCAA tournament once again. Like last season, they have a legitimate chance to return to the Final Four. Thanks to a perceived favorable bracket, morale is high among the fan base. With the right matchups, and the defensive intensity that was discovered in Brooklyn, an eternal optimist would be booking flights and hotels for San Antonio right now.

However, the reality is that repeating as National Champions is really hard. Since 1990, only two teams have actually won back-to-back titles - Duke, in ‘91-92 and Florida in ‘06-07. Only five additional teams have even made back-to-back national title games, Michigan (‘92-93, both losses), Arkansas (‘94-95, one win and one loss), Kentucky (‘96-98 one loss sandwiched between two wins), Butler (‘10-11, two losses), and of course UNC in ‘16-17 with one loss and one win.

You may have noticed a trend. The 1990’s were stacked with dominant multi-year teams. Four of those seven teams were within an eight-year span. The trend was strong in the 80’s as well, with North Carolina, Houston, and Georgetown all making back-to-back appearances in the early part of the decade. And yet, in the 20 years since that 1998 Kentucky team, only three teams have been able to accomplish the feat.

That got me thinking. How have reigning NCAA Champions performed in the year following their title? Is there historical precedent in this century, from 2000 to 2017, to give UNC reasonable hope at another season ending, six-game winning streak? Turns out, yes. Kind of. Sort of. Maybe.

Note: “First Round” means “Round of 68”. “Second Round” means “Round of 32”. Common sense and all.

2000
Champion: Michigan State
Next Season’s Result: #1 Seed, Final Four (loss to Arizona)

2001
Champion: Duke
Next Season’s Result: #1 Seed, Sweet 16 (loss to Indiana)

2002
Champion: Maryland
Next Season’s Result: #6 Seed, Sweet 16 (loss to Michigan State)

2003
Champion: Syracuse
Next Season’s Result: #5 Seed, Sweet 16 (loss to Alabama)

2004
Champion: UCONN
Next Season’s Result: #2 Seed, Second Round (loss to NC State)

2005
Champion: UNC
Next Season’s Result: #3 Seed, Second Round (loss to George Mason)

2006
Champion: Florida
Next Season’s Result: #1 Seed, National Champions

2007
Champion: Florida
Next Season’s Result: NIT

2008
Champion: Kansas
Next Season’s Result: #3 Seed, Sweet 16 (loss to Michigan State)

2009
Champion: UNC
Next Season’s Result: NIT

2010
Champion: Duke
Next Season’s Result: #1 Seed, Sweet 16 (loss to Arizona)

2011
Champion: UCONN
Next Season’s Result: #9 Seed, First Round (loss to Iowa State)

2012
Champion: Kentucky
Next Season’s Result: NIT

2013
Champion: Louisville
Next Season’s Result: #4 Seed, Sweet 16 (loss to Kentucky)
Note: Regardless of any recent punishments, this game was played. I will count it as such.

2014
Champion: UCONN
Next Season’s Result: NIT

2015
Champion: Duke
Next Season’s Result: #4 Seed, Sweet 16 (Loss to Oregon)

2016
Champion: Villanova
Next Season’s Result: #1 Seed, Second Round (Loss to Wisconsin)

2017
Champion: UNC
Next Season’s Result: TBD

A few quick takeaways, of the 17 champions who tried to repeat their title runs. (North Carolina is the 18th team, but obviously, cannot be included in this yet).

  1. Since 2000, only two reigning champions made it past the Sweet 16. Michigan State in 2001, and Florida in 2007. Both were over a decade ago.
  2. Of the remaining 15 teams, just one team has lost in the first round. Three teams have lost in the second round, and seven teams have lost in the Sweet 16. Four teams were relegated to the NIT.
  3. Be glad Michigan State, Arizona, and NC State are not in the West Region. Those three teams have all knocked off reigning champions a combined six times — two times each.
  4. With their #2 Seed, UNC is seeded lower/higher/better than over half of the previous champions. Only six of the 17 teams were a #1 seed (five) or a #2 seed (one).

Recent history clearly puts UNC at a disadvantage. For what are likely a plethora of reasons (better recruiting capabilities, more widespread grassroots development allowing for more parity, the one-and-done environment impacting player continuity), fewer teams are winning a title, or even making the title game, and then making deep runs the following year. Even this season, after winning their conference tournament, Michigan is currently a trendy pick to upset the Heels in the Sweet 16.

Though, I would like to point out the B1G was criminally bad this season, with just four bids to the NCAAT. Not to mention, UNC also made their conference championship before falling to the best team in the country by single digits, with one starter nursing a leg/hip/back injury, in their fourth game against a NCAAT team in four nights. That is not meant a slight to UVA, who was clearly a superior team that evening. Just evidence that UNC can hang with anybody on any given night.

Plus, you know, UNC waxed Michigan 86-71 in December. Without Cameron Johnson.

Whatever.

Look. UNC has a favorable bracket, but tournaments are weird. March is mad for a reason. The proof is in the numbers. Hopefully UNC can break the recent patterns and return to the Final Four. Sometimes all you need is a chance.