Can Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State Recover from Their Disappointing Starts?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 6, 2019

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo
Michigan State head coach Tom IzzoAl Goldis/Associated Press

The inescapable refrain from the first month of the 2019-20 men's college basketball season has been: No one is elite.

With all due respect to the likes of Louisville, Maryland and Ohio State, who have gotten out to remarkable starts and look like strong candidates for the No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, it's hard to avoid talking about things like the preseason No. 1 team losing three of its first eight games, or the preseason No. 2 and No. 4 teams losing at home to mid-major opponents that didn't even win half of their games last season.

For Duke and Kentucky, it's just one game, right?

And for Michigan State, there's still plenty of season left to figure things out, yes?

The past few decades of NCAA tournament history would seem to suggest, no, that's not the case.

For this little research project, I looked back through the past 20 years to see how well every No. 1 seed and every national champion fared in the first 10 games of that season. While never-before-seen things happen every year in this beautifully chaotic sport—obligatory shout-out to UMBCthe findings are far from promising for those three preseason front-runners for the national championship.

Let's start with the bad news for the Blue Devils and Big Blue Nation.

Duke's Matthew Hurt (21) and Cassius Stanley (2)
Duke's Matthew Hurt (21) and Cassius Stanley (2)Gerry Broome/Associated Press

KenPom.com data dates back to the 2001-02 season, meaning it encompasses the past 18 NCAA tournaments. That's 72 No. 1 seeds. And of those 72 teams, only two suffered a loss (in their first 10 games) against an opponent that finished the season outside the KenPom Top 100:

  • 2004-05 North Carolina suffered a season-opening loss to No. 129 Santa Clara in California
  • 2015-16 Oregon lost at No. 117 UNLV

While we don't know where Evansville or Stephen F. Austin will finish the season, Kentucky lost at home to the team currently ranked No. 194 while Duke lost at home to No. 201.

In Evansville's next four games against D-I opponents, it lost to SMU, East Carolina and George Washington and needed three overtimes to beat Morgan State. In Stephen F. Austin's only other game against a top-250 opponent, it lost by a dozen to Rutgers. Suffice it to say, we're not expecting either to vault into the top 100 any time soon.

Despite Duke's wins away from home against Kansas and Michigan State, earning a No. 1 seed with a November loss that hideous is going to be a challenge that no team in the past 18 years has been able to overcome.

And before you start to think, "Well, that's fine, we'll just win it all as a No. 2 seed instead," be sure to note that North Carolina's aforementioned loss to Santa Clara is the only thing an eventual champion has done that even comes close to comparing to the losses Duke and Kentucky suffered this year.

Using KenPom data again for the past 18 years, in the first 10 games for the eventual national champion, the second-worst loss after Santa Clara was either 2013-14 Connecticut losing at home to No. 34 Stanford or 2016-17 North Carolina losing at No. 44 Indiananeither of which is even remotely as unforgivable as Evansville or Stephen F. Austin.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari
Kentucky head coach John CalipariJames Crisp/Associated Press

Taking that one step further into the pre-KenPom era of data, that 2013-14 Connecticut team was the only one in the past 36 years to win a national championship after losing at homeregardless of the strength of the opponentin its first 10 games of the season.

(That's a bleak omen for more than just Duke and Kentucky. Preseason AP Top 25 teams Michigan State, Florida, Purdue, Seton Hall and Saint Mary's have also already lost at home.)

It's one thing to bounce back and win a title after two early losses away from home against quality opponents. Just in the past 30 years, 1989-90 UNLV, 1990-91 Duke, 1996-97 Arizona, 1999-2000 Michigan State, 2001-02 Maryland, 2006-07 Florida and 2015-16 Villanova managed that feat.

But a single bad home loss does not appear to be salvageable.

Neither does three losses in the first 10 games of the regular season, which is more bad news for 5-3 Michigan State.

In the past 20 years, there have only been two instances of a team starting 7-3 or worse before earning a No. 1 seed. Kentucky did it in 2002-03 and Virginia pulled it off in 2013-14. Those Wildcats went from 6-3 to 32-3, though, and the Cavaliers won 19 of their final 21 games to controversially earn the fourth No. 1 seed. (The Bracket Matrix had Virginia at No. 6 overall on the No. 2 seed line.)

Those are extreme examples of rallying from slow starts, but it's what it would take for the Spartans to earn a No. 1 seed.

Michigan State PG Cassius Winston
Michigan State PG Cassius WinstonDarryl Oumi/Getty Images

Once again, if you're thinking they don't need a spot on the top line to win it all, the championship potential for 7-3 (or worse) teams is an even grimmer outlook.

The last team to start out 7-3 or worse and win a title was 1987-88 Kansas. Those Jayhawks began 0-2 in the Maui Invitational and eventually dropped all the way to 9-8 before winning it all as an unranked No. 6 seed. Just like the aforementioned 2014 Connecticut team that won as a No. 7 seed, 1988 Kansas will always be one of the biggest exceptions to the norm in tournament history.

But maybe the Spartans will have that type of second-half-of-the-season transformation if and when Joshua Langford returns from his foot injury.

Alternatively, perhaps they are destined to repeat Kentucky's 2012-13 season, starting out at or near the top of the AP poll and going 8-3 before missing the dance altogether.

Most likely, they are headed for something in between, perhaps a No. 4-7 seed that at least reaches the Sweet 16 before bowing out. After all, Tom Izzo has played that part seven times already in his career. However, if we're going to bring up the ancient history of Danny Manning's playing days as a possible script for the Spartans to follow, it's only fair to also point out a more recent case that didn't end so wonderfully.

Maybe Michigan State could still crash the Final Four. There have been 15 examples in the past two decades of a team losing at least three of its first 10 games and still reaching the national semifinals. Heck, the Spartans did it five years ago with a virtually identical 5-3 start with losses in the Champions Classic, a neutral-site tournament and the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

But the Final Four isn't the goal for Michigan State. Nor would Duke and Kentucky be content with getting that far only to fall short. All three of these teams want championships, and it's not looking like they'll find one this year.

The moral of the story is that No. 1 seeds and national champions almost always fare well for the first month of the season. This isn't groundbreaking news, of course, but it should serve as a reminder/warning for fans in Durham, Lexington and East Lansing that disappointing Novembers rarely result in joyous Aprils.


Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.