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Predicting Which NCAA Basketball Teams Will Spend Time at No. 1 This Season

Jake CurtisFeatured ColumnistDecember 12, 2013

Predicting Which NCAA Basketball Teams Will Spend Time at No. 1 This Season

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    Arizona is on top of the heap at the moment
    Arizona is on top of the heap at the momentChristian Petersen/Getty Images

    Three NCAA basketball teams have already held the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press poll this season, and several others may hold that position before the NCAA tournament begins. The question is, which teams have the potential and schedule to enable them to ascend to No. 1?

    In the past 10 seasons, no more than six teams have held the No. 1 spot in a given season. In half of those 10 seasons, no more than three teams earned the top position at some point. So you can expect only a few more teams to hold the No. 1 ranking this season.

    However, teams can rise a considerable distance to reach the No. 1 slot. Gonzaga was No. 21 in last season's preseason AP rankings and was No. 1 in the final AP poll, which was issued just before the NCAA tournament.

    Our slideshow starts with seven teams that have a shot at the No. 1 spot but are expected to fall shot. Those squads will be followed by the three teams that have held the No. 1 spot, with predictions of whether they can regain or retain it. Finally, we list three other teams we expect to be No. 1 before the season is over.

     

Kansas

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    Andrew Wiggins
    Andrew WigginsJamie Squire/Getty Images

    Kansas has dropped to No. 13, and the Jayhawks figure to fall further in the polls after losing to Florida for their third loss in their past four games.

    Coach Bill Self is working with three freshmen (Andrew Wiggins, Wayne Selden, Joel Embiid) who could be lottery picks in the upcoming NBA draft. The talent is there, but Self is still figuring out how to put the inexperienced pieces together.

    By season's end, Kansas should be a quality group capable of making noise in the NCAA tournament.

    Prediction: Kansas is too far down in the rankings to rise to No. 1.

     

Connecticut

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    Shabazz Napier
    Shabazz NapierJared Wickerham/Getty Images

    An unbeaten record and a Dec. 2 victory over Florida have put Connecticut in the Top 10 after starting No. 18. 

    The Huskies' schedule is manageable until their Jan. 16 road game against Memphis, and any team from a major conference that is unbeaten in mid-January has a shot at a No. 1 ranking.

    In addition, the American Athletic Conference provides fewer obstacles for UConn than the talent-rich Big East did.

    However, the Huskies' lone impressive win, against Florida, was a one-point victory achieved at home on a last-second shot by Shabazz Napier. The Huskies have yet to prove they are No. 1 material.

    Prediction: UConn may rise a few more notches in the rankings, but it is not a threat to get to No. 1.

     

Duke

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    Jabari Parker
    Jabari ParkerJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Ranked No. 4 in the preseason poll, Duke has already lost two games, albeit to quality teams (Arizona and Kansas).

    Freshman Jabari Parker is a star, and Rodney Hood, a transfer from Mississippi State, looks like a future pro as well. However, having two losses on their record combined with an Atlantic Coast Conference schedule that will be more challenging than past years may prevent the Blue Devils from having the record needed to ascend to No. 1.

    Prediction: Duke will be better at season's end than it is now, but it will not be ranked No. 1 at any point.

     

Villanova

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    JayVaughn Pinkston
    JayVaughn PinkstonAl Bello/Getty Images

    Villanova's neutral-court wins on consecutive nights against Kansas and Iowa opened some eyes and put the Wildcats in the Top 10.

    The Wildcats are an experienced team, with their top three players (JayVaughn Pinkston, James Bell, Darrun Hilliard) all having received extensive playing time the previous two seasons.

    That means they should have the poise and chemistry to play well against top-flight opponents. It also means they are a finished product with less room for improvement. 

    Jay Wright's squad is probably as good as it's going to get, while other, younger teams should improve. If Villanova wins consecutive road games against Syracuse and Butler on Dec. 28 and 31, respectively, Villanova will have a shot at reaching the No. 1 plateau. That is a lot to ask.

    Prediction: The Wildcats are unlikely to hang onto their Top 10 ranking, much less rise to No. 1.

Wichita State

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    Cleanthony Early
    Cleanthony EarlyPeter Aiken/Getty Images

    Wichita State could be this season's Gonzaga. The Shockers gained the national respect needed to be voted No. 1 by reaching the Final Four last season. They are already ranked No. 12, higher than Gonzaga was at this stage last season before the Bulldogs rose to the top spot.

    No team even close to being ranked in the current AP poll is on Wichita State's remaining schedule. Upcoming games against Tennessee (Dec. 14) and Alabama (Dec. 17) may be the biggest threats.

    Despite the significant losses of Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead from last year's squad, coach Gregg Marshall still has two stars: Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker.

    However, a team from the Missouri Valley Conference, which no longer includes Creighton, can lose no more than one game, perhaps two, and still have a shot at being ranked No. 1. Unlike Gonzaga, which beat Baylor, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Oklahoma and St. Mary's (three times) last season, Wichita State will have no such signature wins on its record.

    Prediction: Wichita State may have to go unbeaten to get to No. 1, and that's not going to happen.

     

Oklahoma State

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    Marcus Smart
    Marcus SmartSam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Oklahoma State would be a solid contender for the No. 1 spot if it had beaten Memphis for a second time this season on Dec. 1.

    With Marcus Smart leading the way and no immediate challenges awaiting, the Cowboys may not lose again until they face Kansas in Lawrence, Kan. Jan. 16. Their toughest game until then is against Colorado, and that Dec. 21 game is in Stillwater, Okla. 

    The Big 12 does not have as many elite teams as it usually does, and two of the Cowboys' toughest road games, against Baylor and Iowa State, come late in the season. Oklahoma State should have an impressive record by then.

    Prediction: Oklahoma State will be in contention for the No. 1 spot by mid-February, and it might get there. We are predicting the Cowboys will fall just short, though.

     

Louisville

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    Russ Smith
    Russ SmithAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    Defending national champion Louisville was No. 3 when it lost to North Carolina on Nov. 24. But there's nothing embarrassing about losing to the talented Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, N.C.

    The Cardinals have been inching their way back up the polls since then, and with the national reputation they have built under Rick Pitino, pollsters would have no qualms voting them No. 1 at some point despite a few losses.

    A Dec. 28 road game against Kentucky will be a major challenge, but the competition in what is now the American Athletic Conference is not as intimidating as what Louisville faced in the Big East in the recent past.

    With Russ Smith scoring points and the Cardinals defense creating havoc, Louisville should have an impressive record by season's end. The Cardinals will get some first-place votes at some point, and they have the wherewithal to be No. 1.

    Prediction: Louisville will finish high in the rankings and should spend a good bit of time in the Top Five. But it will not own a No. 1 ranking this season.

     

Kentucky

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Kentucky started the season ranked No. 1, but with two losses, the Wildcats can afford no more than one or two losses the rest of the way to have any hope of reclaiming the top spot.

    With six players who were McDonald's All-Americans last season, the Wildcats figure to improve as their young talent develops. The same thing was said of Kentucky each of the past two years, with contrasting results. Two seasons ago, Kentucky's freshmen quickly matured into a cohesive unit that finished the season No. 1 and won the NCAA title. Last season, the Wildcats faded into oblivion, losing in the first round of the NIT.

    This group seems more apt to develop than last year's squad, but it does not look as strong as the 2011-2012 group.

    Prediction: Kentucky will improve, and its record should be good enough to keep it in the Top 10. However, upcoming games against North Carolina and Louisville probably mean another loss for Kentucky before January arrives. Regaining the No. 1 spot seems unlikely.

     

     

Michigan State

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Michigan State's victory over Kentucky earned the Spartans the No. 1 spot for three weeks. But their home loss to North Carolina knocked them out it.

    Two conflicting points of view on Michigan State make it difficult to predict whether the Spartans can regain the top spot.

    Tom Izzo's squad typically improves as the season progresses. By February, their physical style and defensive toughness begins to dominate opponents. That suggests the Spartans, who clearly have enough talent to beat anyone, should be able to reach the No. 1 ranking again later in the season.

    However, the Spartans are already a finished product. They are composed of veterans who already know their roles and have established their identity. Unlike a number of other top teams dominated by freshmen, Michigan State's potential for improvement seems limited.

    Playing in the tough Big Ten, where challenging road venues make winning streaks scarce, may make it difficult to have the needed win-loss record.

    Prediction: The Spartans will stay in the Top 10, and they will regain the No. 1 spot at some point, if only briefly. 

     

     

Arizona

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Arizona is the current No. 1 team. But can the Wildcats retain that position all season? Can they regain the top spot if they lose it?

    Arizona had a similar early-season surge last year. The Wildcats won their first 14 games and were ranked No. 3 on Jan. 1. But they went 11-7 the rest of the regular season, finished in a three-way tie for second in the Pac-12 and wound up No. 21 in the final AP poll.

    The presence of freshmen star Aaron Gordon as well as freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson gives the Wildcats room to grow. Point guard T.J. McConnell, a transfer from Duquesne, and junior guard Nick Johnson, the team's leading scorer, should give the Wildcats backcourt more consistency than it had a year ago.

    The Pac-12 does not offer the challenges of some of the other power conferences, but the Wildcats are not good enough to dominate the conference.

    Prediction: A Dec. 14 game at Michigan will determine whether the Wildcats remain No. 1 for the short term. The Wildcats will drop from the No. 1 spot at some point, and the lack of respect for the Pac-12 may prevent them from getting back to the top.

     

Syracuse

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    Rich Barnes/Getty Images

    Syracuse has several things working in its favor:

    1. It is ranked No. 2 as of Dec. 12, so it figures to move up to No. 1 if it keeps winning and Arizona loses.

    2. The Orange already have an impressive win. They beat Baylor on a neutral court, and the Bears have shown their worth by beating Kentucky. Syracuse is better than expected.

    3. Syracuse's two toughest games over the next several weeks (Dec. 28 against Villanova and Jan. 11 against North Carolina) are both at home, where the Orange are tough to beat.

    4. Freshman point guard Tyler Ennis is improving and has been effective against good competition. In the four consecutive games against Syracuse's toughest opposition (Minnesota, Cal, Baylor and Indiana), Ennis averaged 17.0 points while handing out 26 assists with just three turnovers.

    Prediction: With its proximity to the top and its upcoming schedule, Syracuse will get to No. 1 sometime in late December or early January. 

     

Ohio State

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Ohio State's 52-35 road victory over Marquette on Nov. 16 looked a lot better then than it does now that the Golden Eagles have faded.

    The Buckeyes have not beaten any team that's currently ranked. Nonetheless, they are undefeated and ranked No. 3, putting them in position to claim the No. 1 spot at any time.

    Because they play such good defense, the Buckeyes are unlikely to lose to an inferior team. Their first major challenge could be the Jan. 7 road game against Michigan State. That is followed by a Jan. 12 home game against Iowa. Even if it loses one of those games, an Ohio State team with one loss could climb to No. 1 before its road game against Wisconsin on Feb. 1.

    Prediction: The rugged Big Ten will saddle the Buckeyes with a few losses, but at some point in January or February, they will be No. 1.

     

     

Wisconsin

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    Sam Dekker
    Sam DekkerMike McGinnis/Getty Images

    Wisconsin's 59-53 victory over Florida on Nov. 12 was indicative of how good the Badgers are at home.

    The Badgers play three games between now and Feb. 22 against teams that are currently ranked, but those games against Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan State are all at home.

    A Jan. 14 road game against Indiana will be a challenge, but even a loss would not eliminate Wisconsin's chances of claiming the No. 1 spot for a week or two. The Badgers are ranked No. 4 at the moment, and a few wins over highly ranked teams could boost them to the top.

    The Badgers don't have the offensive firepower some teams do, but they don't need as much in Bo Ryan's system. For whatever reason, teams just seem to play poorly against the Badgers.

    Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky, a 7'0" player who can hit three-pointers, provide enough weapons, and the Badgers seldom play a loose game.

    Prediction: Wisconsin will be No. 1 at some point, although that may not happen for a month or so.

     

     

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