Are a$$-whoopings warning signs?

In the wake of Michigan’s meltdown in East Lansing last Tuesday and the Duke demolition in Miami, a couple of readers have asked whether tourney champions have ever suffered such thorough beat-downs in their pre-dance games. The answer is yes—and no. Yes, a champion has suffered a worse loss than the Wolverines did to MSU. But no, there hasn’t been a team to get beat as bad as Duke and yet still win the tournament.

The worst loss by an ultimate champion, at least in terms of scoring margin, happened in 1993. North Carolina lost to Wake Forest by 26 points—then downed Michigan in the finals to take the title. In fact, only three of the 28 champions in the 64-team bracket era have suffered a pre-tourney loss of 20 points or more. This chart lists the worst loss by each champ, including the opponent, the location and the point spread. I’ve also included, where applicable, the seed that the opponent ultimately got in the tourney:


Not surprisingly, 26 of the 28 champions had their worst loss against teams that wound up making the tournament. Those opposing teams had an average seed of 4.4—so they weren’t slouches. Only Duke in 2010 and Florida in 2006 suffered their worst loss to teams that weren’t good enough to get a bid to the dance. Another important point: only three champions tasted their most bitter defeat on their home court: North Carolina in 2009, UConn in 1999, and Michigan in 1989. Interestingly, Michigan was dusted at home by the Illini in 1989, then beat them in the Final Four. See the other red shaded year? That designates another champ whose worst loss was to a team they turned around and beat when it counted most. UConn got swamped by Georgia Tech in the regular season, but avenged that loss in the title game.

When it’s all said and done, most champions don’t suffer the sort of humiliation that Michigan and Duke endured this year. Only four of the 28 champions had a bad loss of more than a 17-point margin. So what does that portend for the elite teams in 2013? I rifled through the AP Top 20 and pinpointed each squad’s worst loss. Here’s what I found:

  1. Indiana lost by 5 to Wisconsin at home.
  2. Duke lost by 27 to Miami on the road.
  3. Miami lost by 19 to Arizona on a neutral court.
  4. Michigan lost by 23 to Michigan State on the road.
  5. Gonzaga lost by 11 to Illinois at home.
  6. Syracuse lost by 10 to Pittsburgh on the road.
  7. Florida lost by 11 to Arkansas on the road.
  8. Michigan State lost by 13 to Minnesota on the road.
  9. Arizona lost by 13 to Colorado on the road.
  10. Kansas State lost by 19 to Kansas on the road.
  11. Butler lost by 17 to Illinois and St. Louis, both on the road.
  12. Louisville lost by 9 to Villanova on the road.
  13. Ohio State lost by 19 to Illinois on the road.
  14. Kansas lost by 7 to TCU on the road.
  15. Georgetown lost by 28 to Pittsburgh at home.
  16. Pittsburgh lost by 9 to Cincinnati at home.
  17. Oklahoma State lost by 10 to Virginia Tech and Baylor, both on the road.
  18. Marquette lost by 33 to Florida on the road.
  19. New Mexico lost by 21 to San Diego State on the road.
  20. Wisconsin lost by 18 to Florida on the road.

Nine of these top 20 teams have gotten whooped by more than 17 points. Marquette (33), Georgetown (28), Duke (27), Michigan (23) and New Mexico (21) have taken the worst beatings. Does that mean they aren’t champ-worthy? I’ll certainly have to think twice. On the other hand, Indiana (5), Kansas (7), Louisville (9) and Pittsburgh (9) have kept their games closest. That might not have any bearing on how they’ll fare in the tourney. But it does suggest that they’re hard to put down. We’ll see where these numbers end up come Selection Sunday.

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6 Responses to Are a$$-whoopings warning signs?

  1. rick marcin says:

    Ku’s loss by 7 to TCU is worst than UM losing at MSU. It would be like losing to Penn State. Duke is over-rated. Not the same team without their injured playr and they are winning games against nobody’s by a few points. I realize how well they did earlier, the competition, etc., but things have changed.

    • ptiernan says:

      Yes, there are likely some embarrassing close losses for the top 20–and the 28 previous tourney champs. This was the easiest way to do a quick analysis. I will say this about the UM/MSU game. Michigan lost by 23…but it may as well have been 100.

  2. Joel says:

    UK lost to Vandy on a neutral floor at the SEC Tournament last year. Love your site and analytics!

  3. Alex says:

    To rick marcin above:
    You’re right. KU losing @ TCU is pretty much like UM losing to penn state lol!

    • ptiernan says:

      Both losses are telling. But Kansas has had some time to right the ship. I’m worried that Michigan will be limping into the tourney. They’ve definitely lost their swagger. But the real issue is defense. All year long, they’ve struggled to play solid interior D.

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