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  • Writer's pictureJim Sukup

Before They Won It All How Many Did They Lose?

INDIANAPOLIS – I have always been enamored by the number of wins, losses, and total number of games played by NCAA basketball champions (please see the accompanying lists regarding these three categories). The number of losses is especially intriguing. What sticks out is the number of schools that have won the whole thing with just a single loss. Consider the fact that the last champion with one loss was in 1974, that being the Wolfpack of North Carolina State, who finished with a 30-1 record. Most interesting is that there have been more undefeated NCAA champions, seven, than the six with just a single loss. The other one-loss teams were UCLA (in 1968, 1969, and 1971), San Francisco (1955), and UTEP (then known as Texas Western, 1966).


Undefeated NCAA champions are an interesting study as well. Champions with perfect records all occurred prior to the 1977 season, meaning more than half of the NCAA tournaments have taken place since Indiana’s 32-0 season in 1976.


Thirteen schools have had perfect records (seven) or one loss (six), accounting for 15.7% of the 83 NCAA champions to date. The sweet spot for NCAA champions’ number of losses is in the two- to four-loss range. A total of 44 of 83 champions’ losses (53.0%) have been in that bracket. Schools with from five to seven losses account for 19 championships, or 22.9%, and those with eight or more losses number seven schools (8.4%).


The number of wins by NCAA champions has ranged from 20 for Indiana (1940) and Wisconsin (1941) to 38 for Kentucky (2012). Undefeated champions all had wins within a tight range of from 29 to 32. The average number of wins and losses by NCAA champions for 83 seasons is 30.2 and 3.8, respectively, an average of 34.0 games played per season. Here is where it gets quite interesting. For the 41 seasons from 1939 through 1979, the average NCAA champion played 30.3 games per season, and for the 42 seasons since 1980, that average is 37.5. What is behind the increased number of games?


Three general factors can be attributed to the increased number of games through the years. They are the growth of the NCAA tournament, the increasing number of conference tournaments, and the explosion of exempt non-conference tournaments, which are now known as exempt multi-team events (MTEs).


From 1939 to 1950, it took just three tournament wins to crown the NCAA champion. From 1951 to 1978 it took either four or five wins to do the same (depending on whether a team received a bye in the tournament in the period from 1953 to 1974), and from five to six from 1979 to 1984, again depending on which teams were awarded byes. Since1985 it has taken six games to win the championship, with the note that it would have taken seven games to do so in the case of opening-round games from 2001 to 2010, and the same for those teams playing in First Four games since 2011. No opening-round team won a first-round game, and two First Four participants, VCU in 2011 and UCLA in 2021 made the Final Four but did not make the championship game.


From 1951 through 1974 only two or three conferences, depending on the year, held conference tournaments whose winners were awarded automatic bids to the NCAA tournament. That number was up to 11 by 1977, to 25 by 1985, and today all 32 conferences hold them to decide their automatic qualifiers. Unsurprisingly, the number of conference tournaments grew along with NCAA tournament expansion, when the number of at-large bids caught up with and finally surpassed automatic bids in 1985 when the tournament expanded to 64 teams. Conference tournaments count as one game unit no matter how many games are played, and that number can be as many as four or five, depending on the structure of a given tournament.


For several years, the only exempt non-conference games were those played in Hawaii in the Rainbow Classic, which began with the 1964-65 season, and in the Great Alaska Shootout, which began with the 1978-79 season. These exemptions, which did not count against a team’s maximum number of games, were to promote the game in those states and to help Hawaii in scheduling games due to travel distances involved. Exempt single games and tournaments increased with time, and now it is the rule rather than the exception for schools to participate in MTEs. The history and progression of exempt games and tournaments is beyond the scope of this article, but they can presently add up to four games to a team’s schedule. It easy to understand how MTEs, along with deep runs in conference and NCAA tournaments, can quickly add games to a team’s schedule.


While we are mainly discussing NCAA tournament champions, there have been six other undefeated teams since the NIT began in 1938 that are worthy of mention: St. Bonaventure (9-0, 1938); LIU (24-0, won 1939 NIT); Seton Hall (19-0, 1940); Army (15-0, 1944); Kentucky (25-0, 1954); and North Carolina State 27-0, 1973). Teams other than LIU were not invited, declined, or were on probation and could not participate in post-season tournaments. Also of note are the 15 teams that entered the NIT (2) and NCAA (13) tournaments undefeated but lost in those tournaments.


The most victories by a team in one season were by Memphis (38-2, lost in 2008 NCAA championship game, wins later voided); Kentucky (2012, 38-2, NCAA champs), and Kentucky again in 2015 (38-1, lost in Final Four).


The most games played in one season by any team were the 45 by Oregon (30-15, lost in 1945 NCAA tournament). An interesting aside is that Oregon played Washington State seven times and Washington six times during that World War II season. Since 1948, the most games played in a season were 41 by Connecticut (2011, 32-9, NCAA champs) and Michigan (2018, 33-8, NCAA runner-up).


Playing in MTEs and making deep runs in conference NCAA tournaments are the only way for teams to get wins into the high 30’s and total number of games played into the low 40’s in a single season. The upper limit to an NCAA champion’s losses is likely pegged in the low double digits, but that has not happened for 34 years. Competition in this age of the transfer portal and name, image and likeness compensation will make it unlikely to happen more than once every two or three decades, if that often.



Number of Wins by NCAA Champions:

No of Wins - No of Teams Most Recent Team and Year

38 1 Kentucky, 2012

37 1 Kansas, 2008

36 2 Villanova, 2018

35 9 Virginia, 2019

34 7 Kansas, 2022

33 5 North Carolina, 2017

32 11 Connecticut, 2014

31 4 UCLA, 1995

30 9 Syracuse, 2003

29 7 North Carolina St., 1983

28 8 Baylor, 2021

27 4 Kansas, 1988

26 4 Indiana, 1981

25 5 Arizona, 1997

24 1 CCNY, 1950

23 2 Kentucky, 1958

21 1 Utah, 1944

20 2 Wisconsin, 1941

Number of losses by NCAA Champions

No. Losses - No of Teams - Most Recent Team - Year

0 7 Indiana, 1976

1 6 North Carolina St., 1974

2 16 Baylor, 2021

3 14 Virginia, 2019

4 14 Villanova, 2018

5 8 Louisville, 2013

6 5 Kansas, 2022

7 6 North Carolina, 2017

8 1 Connecticut, 2014

9 3 Connecticut, 2011

10 2 Villanova, 1985

11 1 Kansas, 1988

Number of Games Played By NCAA Champions:

No of Games - No of Teams Most Recent Team - Year

41 1 Connecticut, 2011

40 11 Kansas, 2022

39 9 Duke, 2015

38 4 Virginia, 2019

37 3 North Carolina, 2005

36 6 Maryland, 2002

35 3 Syracuse, 2003

34 7 Arizona, 1997

33 3 UCLA, 1995

32 6 Michigan St., 1979

31 6 UCLA, 1975

30 13 Baylor, 2021

29 6 UTEP, 1966

28 1 Ohio State, 1960

26 1 Indiana, 1953

25 1 Utah, 1944

23 2 Wisconsin, 1941

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