College basketball’s 25 duds of the past 25 years
The men’s college basketball offseason offers an opportunity to reflect not just on the previous season, but examine the nostalgic moments throughout the history of the game. But sometimes those conversations are complicated by a boundless time frame. How can you compare players or teams from the 1980s to players or teams from the past few years? The game has changed — dramatically — and that makes it difficult to have any fruitful conversations.
That’s why we’ve decided to launch a series that focuses only on the past 25 years of college basketball. Any team, player, coach or moment from 1998-99 through 2022-23 is eligible. The rest? That’s someone else’s problem.
After going through the top 25 players, top 25 “What if?” moments and top 25 individual performances, we turn to the 25 greatest disappointments of the past 25 years.
This list of individual teams is varied. We have teams that entered the season with a lot of hype and stumbled in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. There are squads that never even earned an invitation. Others simply failed to find a rhythm after preseason fanfare. There may have been impressive feats among those seasons, but we’re not focusing on them.
Full disclosure: You will see North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky and Duke on this list multiple times. Are we picking on those programs? No. But if you’re a blue blood, you got to win like one. Talent and prestige increase expectations. It’s just the way it is.
Here’s our list:
1. 2022-23 North Carolina Tar Heels
The Tar Heels were ranked No. 1 in the AP preseason poll last October — a status earned after Armando Bacot and other key players from the 2022 national runner-up team returned to Chapel Hill. All signs pointed to another run to the Final Four. Yet, Hubert Davis finished his second season at the helm with a 20-13 record and missed out on an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament, making history as the first preseason No. 1 that failed to get a bid.
The top overall seed in the 2018 NCAA tournament had won 23 of its past 24 games when it entered its first-round matchup against 16-seed UMBC. But instead of an easy win, Virginia became the first top seed to lose to a 16-seed. The fact that Tony Bennett’s squad lost by 20 points (74-54) in a true David vs. Goliath matchup only magnified the gravity of the upset. Virginia, though, won the national title a year later.
Reigning Wooden Award winner Zach Edey was the greatest force in college basketball last season, and he was part of a squad that played a top-25 defense on its way to securing a No. 1 seed in the 2023 NCAA tournament. The Boilermakers’ first-round opponent, 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson, had qualified for the tournament by default because Merrimack, the team that beat FDU in the one-bid NEC’s tournament championship, was still transitioning to Division I and therefore ineligible to play in the postseason. Tobin Anderson’s team was also ranked No. 315 on KenPom before the postseason and viewed as one of the worst teams to play in the NCAA tournament. And that’s what made Purdue’s 63-58 upset loss to the Knights in the first round — joining the aforementioned Virginia squad as the second 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed — such a stunning development.
4. 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats
The Wildcats embarrassed most of the teams they faced. John Calipari’s squad beat Kansas by 32 points and North Carolina by 14. Future NBA All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns anchored a Kentucky team with four lottery picks in the 2015 NBA draft, while Devin Booker, the Phoenix Suns star, came off the bench as a freshman. The Wildcats had won every game — 38 in a row — when they met Wisconsin in the Final Four, after narrowly escaping Notre Dame in the Elite Eight. But the Badgers killed Kentucky’s dream, and Calipari’s run at a second national title, with a 71-64 upset. This remains one of the most talented teams in college basketball history without a national championship. It’s also the last time Calipari made an appearance in the Final Four.
5. 1998-99 Duke Blue Devils
Mike Krzyzewski’s squad had four lottery draft picks (Elton Brand, William Avery, Trajan Langdon, Corey Maggette). Chris Carrawell, a key player on that team, would win ACC player of the year honors a year later, while Shane Battier would win the Wooden Award the season after that. But the combination of talent in 1998-99 that won 32 straight games failed to live up to the hype — the Blue Devils were 9.5-point favorites — in its 77-74 loss to UConn in the 1999 national championship game.
6. 2021-22 Kentucky Wildcats
Oscar Tshiebwe won the 2022 Wooden Award after averaging 17.4 points, 15.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game for the 2-seed Kentucky squad. Although 15-seed Saint Peter’s had won seven consecutive games entering its first-round NCAA tournament matchup with the Wildcats, it had lost six games to sub-200 teams on KenPom during the regular season. The game appeared to be a massive mismatch. Then Shaheen Holloway’s Peacocks pulled off an 85-79 upset, a victory that commenced with the team’s run to the Elite Eight and extended UK’s Final Four drought.
Michigan State’s 2008-09 season ended with a trip to the national championship game against North Carolina. The 2009-2010 season concluded with a Final Four run. Future Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green (Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year), Kalin Lucas (All-Big Ten first team) and Durrell Summers (11.6 PPG) — key players for both those teams — returned for this 2010-11 season. But the Spartans (19-15) failed to repeat the magic a third time, instead finishing as a 10-seed that lost to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
8. 2009-10 Kansas Jayhawks
Sherron Collins (15.5 PPG) led a Jayhawks squad that featured eight players who would eventually play in the NBA. Not surprisingly, Bill Self’s squad won 27 of its first 28 games and secured a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament. But that talented group didn’t even make the second weekend of the tournament, falling 69-67 to Ali Farokhmanesh (he hit a late, game-sealing 3-pointer) and Northern Iowa in the second round.
9. 1999-2000 UConn Huskies
As the season began, UConn was viewed as a team that could win its second consecutive national championship — a projection backed by the team’s AP preseason No. 1 ranking. Khalid El-Amin (16.0 PPG, 5.2 APG), a hero of the team’s 1999 national title win, had returned and seemed positioned to guide the Huskies back to the Final Four. But the team finished tied for fourth place in the Big East, was a 5-seed and lost to 4-seed Tennessee by double digits (65-51) in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
10. 2004-05 Kansas Jayhawks
Wayne Simien averaged 20.3 PPG and 11.0 RPG for a team that was ranked first in the preseason and expected to do better than the previous year’s Elite Eight appearance. But as a tournament 3-seed, it suffered a 64-63 loss to 14-seed Bucknell in the first round, falling short of the expectations for Simien, a first team AP All-American, and five of his teammates who eventually reached the NBA.
11. 2000-01 North Carolina Tar Heels
The retirement of Bill Guthridge, legendary coach Dean Smith’s longtime assistant, opened the door for Matt Doherty to lead UNC during the 2000-01 season. The pressure on Doherty, a former Tar Heel, was intense. A No. 6 preseason ranking only added to the scrutiny. The team would capture a share of the ACC title and secure a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament, but a second-round loss to 7-seed Penn State would set off a series of moves that would lead to Doherty’s resignation two years later.
12. 2008-09 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The Fighting Irish were ranked ninth in The Associated Press Top-25 preseason poll. Led by Luke Harangody (23.3 PPG, 11.8 RPG), a second-team AP All-American, the Irish appeared to be a team with legit Final Four hopes. But it finished 17-3 (8-10 in the Big East) and failed to get an at-large bid, ending the season in the NIT.
In Billy Donovan’s final year in Gainesville, the Gators were led by a strong group of upperclassmen, including Dorian Finney-Smith (13.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG), a year after a run to the Final Four. The Gators started as the No. 7 team in the preseason top-25 poll but fell from the rankings a month into the season. The Gators ended their year with a 16-17 record after a second-round loss to Kentucky in the SEC tournament and would not get invited to either the NCAA tournament or the NIT.
Twenty-two years ago, Dajuan Wagner scored 100 points in a high school game, solidifying his status as the No.1 prospect in the 2001 recruiting class, per ESPN. Only 13 players had achieved that feat in a high school game, so his performance rightly elevated the expectations around what was then John Calipari’s Tigers when Wagner arrived on campus. The squad began the year ranked No. 14 in the AP preseason poll. But Wagner couldn’t save that team, which lost five of its last seven games before Selection Sunday and missed the NCAA tournament.
Kelly Olynyk secured AP first-team All-American honors as the leader of a squad that finished 7-1 against Power 5 teams during the regular season and entered the NCAA tournament with a 31-2 record overall. But the Bulldogs, who finished third in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom, squeezed by Southern (64-58) in the first round, before suffering a 76-70 loss to 9-seed Wichita State in the second round.
16. 2012-13 Kentucky Wildcats
Star Nerlens Noel suffered a season-ending leg injury just as the Wildcats started to trend toward earning an NCAA tournament berth late in the season. Without Noel, the Wildcats still had future NBA lottery pick Willie Cauley-Stein and other top recruits. John Calipari’s squad, however, couldn’t avoid a free fall in the final stretch, which cost them a trip to the NCAA tournament. They finished 1-4 in their last five games, a stretch that included a loss to Robert Morris in the opening round … of the NIT.
17. 2016-17 Duke Blue Devils
Freshman Jayson Tatum (16.5 PPG) and eight other players on this Duke team would eventually play in the NBA. But they finished fifth in the ACC and exited the NCAA tournament as a 2-seed after an 88-81 loss to 7-seed South Carolina in the second round.
Kevin Durant is widely recognized as the one of the greatest shooters among bigs in NBA history. At Texas, he averaged 25.8 PPG and connected on 40% of his 3-point attempts in his sole collegiate campaign. Unfortunately, the rest of the Longhorns were also young, with six underclassmen as their top scorers. The inexperience showed in a 25-10 season that ended with a 19-point loss to USC in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Gilbert Arenas (15.5 PPG) was the star of this team that won a share of the Pac-12 title and earned a 1-seed in the 2000 NCAA tournament, just three years after the school had won a national championship. However, this squad missed projections when it lost to 8-seed Wisconsin 66-59 in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Chris Paul earned first-team AP All-American honors after averaging 15.3 PPG and 6.6 APG for Wake Forest, a preseason No. 2 team that returned every key player from the previous season. The eventual 2-seed Demon Deacons also had the most efficient offense in college basketball. Meanwhile, West Virginia, their second-round opponent in the NCAA tournament, had finished ninth in the Big East in the same category. That’s why Wake Forest’s 111-105 loss in double overtime to the 7-seed Mountaineers, after the Demon Deacons squandered a 13-point halftime lead, was such a surprise.
Before the season, Arthur Lee was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with a headline that read, “Stanford is No. 1.” That preseason buzz didn’t last. Lee (13.2 PPG) and Mark Madsen (13.1 PPG, 9.0 RPG) led a Cardinal squad that earned a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament but lost to 10-seed Gonzaga 82-74 in the second round.
Marcus Smart, Markel Brown, Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte were a strong foursome for a preseason AP top-10 team. Yet, the team couldn’t find its rhythm after late-season stumbles, which included a seven-game losing streak and Smart’s three-game suspension for shoving a fan in a loss at Texas Tech. The chaotic year ended for the 9-seed Cowboys and a first-round loss to 8-seed Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament.
23. 2001-02 Duke Blue Devils
All signs pointed to another trip to the Final Four for the then-reigning national champions. Jay Williams (Wooden Award), Mike Dunleavy (No. 3 pick in the 2002 NBA draft) and Carlos Boozer (a future NBA all-star) had returned. What ended up happening: The Blue Devils suffered a 74-73 loss to Indiana in the Sweet 16, a disappointing finish for the preseason No. 1 team.
24. 2005-06 Duke Blue Devils
Yes, another Duke appearance. This preseason No. 1 team featured JJ Redick, who averaged 26.8 PPG and won the Wooden Award, and Shelden Williams, a first-team AP All-American. The Blue Devils started the season with a 27-1 record and connected on 39% of their 3-pointers. But a 62-54 loss to 4-seed LSU in the Sweet 16 ended the 1-seed’s season sooner than expected.
A year after finishing second in the Big Ten title race, Maryland added five-star recruit Diamond Stone to a talented group. Mark Turgeon’s Terps never put it all together, though. Following a 22-3 start, they finished 5-6 in their last 11 games, including losing to Kansas in the Sweet 16.