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Ask sports: How accurate are preseason basketball rankings?

Wichita State's Fred VanVleet knocks the ball away from Northwood Florida's Ian Umpierre during the first half of Saturday's season-opening exhibition game at Koch Arena.
Wichita State's Fred VanVleet knocks the ball away from Northwood Florida's Ian Umpierre during the first half of Saturday's season-opening exhibition game at Koch Arena. The Wichita Eagle

How accurate are preseason college basketball rankings?

Predicting how the college basketball season will end is nearly impossible in this age of parity and one-and-done players. That much is true heading into the NCAA Tournament after the bracket is announced – 2014 champion Connecticut anyone? – but it’s even more true before any games have been played.

The chances that the five teams who top the Associated Press preseason poll – Kentucky, Arizona, Wisconsin, Duke and Kansas – will be the top five in the final poll? Slim.

But that doesn’t mean a preseason poll can’t be accurate in terms of gauging expectations, or that it won’t offer a hint of the upcoming season.

In the days when most of the top players stayed four seasons it was easier to have the preseason polls predict what would happen over the course of that season. That started to change in the mid-1990s when players such as Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant skipped college for the NBA and some of the top collegiate players only attended school for two or three years. NBA age restrictions were put into place in 2005, ushering in the “one-and-done” era, adding volatility to the polls.

In the past 20 seasons an average of 2.65 teams from the preseason top five will end the season in the top five in the last poll taken before the tournament. There have been five seasons with four teams (1997-98, 2000-01, 2007-08 and 2008-09) and one season with zero: 2003-04, when surprise teams such as Stanford, Gonzaga and St. Joseph’s crashed the final leaderboard.

Only Louisville, which began at No. 3 as the defending champion and finished No. 5, stayed in both polls last season.

Last season’s final top five came from many spots in and out of the preseason poll: Florida was No. 10 in the preseason poll, Wichita State and Virginia were unranked, Arizona was No. 6, and Louisville was No. 3.

Do they predict Final Four teams? Sometime.

The 2014 Final Four was made up teams holding the Nos. 18, 1 and 10 preseason rankings and one team, Wisconsin, on the outside.

Twelve of 80 Final Four teams since 1995 have been unranked at the beginning of the season, but only three champions: 2011 Connecticut, 2006 Florida and 2003 Syracuse. Four champions began the season as preseason No. 1: 2009 North Carolina, 2007 Florida, 2004 Connecticut and 1996 Kentucky. The average preseason ranking of every Final Four team is 10.3, and 9 of 20 preseason No. 1s have made the Final Four.

The year the writers really knew what they were talking about? 2008.

That season’s preseason top four: North Carolina, UCLA, Memphis and Kansas. The final poll? UNC, Memphis, UCLA and KU. And of course that is the only year where all four No. 1 seeds made it to the Final Four with the Jayhawks winning the title.

So if fans are studying precedents, KU at No. 5 and WSU at No. 11 are pretty good spots to be in this season’s first poll.

What about preseason All-Americans? How often do they pan out?

Selecting the best players before any freshmen have played a game has turned out to be much more difficult for the AP voters. In the past 17 seasons an average of 1.82 players selected for the preseason All-America team will make the final squad.

Last season there were two players – Creighton’s Doug McDermott and Louisville’s Russ Smith – to be on both first teams. Even superfrosh Andrew Wiggins, who seemed like an obvious pick for the preseason list, only made the second team at the end of the season.

Since the 1998-99 team had four entries make both teams (Rip Hamlton, Mateen Cleaves, Elton Brand and Andre Miller) it’s gotten much less likely the final team will be projected by the preseason team.

Three times since then (1999-2000, 2006-07 and 2009-10) all five postseason picks were different from the preseason selections.

The last season all five preseason players made the postseason team? 1997-98. Defending champion Arizona placed Mike Bibby and Miles Simon along with Jayhawks Raef LaFrentz and Paul Pierce on the squad. Tar Heel Antawn Jamison rounded out the list.

So don’t expect to see all of this year’s preseason team of Marcus Paige, Montrezl Harrell, Frank Kaminsky, Fred VanVleet and Jahlil Okafor make the final five. Just 1.82 of them.

Joshua Wood

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