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What history says about Cards' repeat bid

5/15/2013

Once upon a time, that four-letter school in Westwood won seven consecutive national championships. It is both an unthinkable achievement and the byproduct of a smaller, more regional NCAA tournament.

The institution of multibid conferences in 1976 and the dawn of the 64-team bracket in 1985 changed the face of college basketball's postseason forever. More recently, the era of one-and-done stars makes the prospect of multiseason dominance by any school far less likely.

Yet the unexpected return of guard Russ Smith to Louisville, along with mega-recruit Andrew Wiggins' decision not to join the Kentucky all-stars, has generated new talk of a possible repeat for the defending champion Cardinals. Rick Pitino both returns and adds plenty to his 2013 title team, enough to lift the Ville to a No. 1 seed in our first post-Wiggins bracket.

But back-to-back national championships? Let's just say there's a reason we've seen only two "repeats" -- Duke (1991 and '92) and Florida (2006 and '07) -- in the 64-team era. And it's not as if there's been a shortage of legitimate candidates. To wit:

• 1985: Georgetown returned the bulk of its 1984 championship team, including Patrick Ewing, and spent all but five weeks of the 1985 season ranked No. 1. None of that mattered when Villanova played the perfect game to upset the Hoyas in the '85 final.

• 1991: UNLV was coming off a record 30-point drubbing of Duke in the 1990 final and returned all five starters from that juggernaut, including Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony. When Duke exacted revenge in the NCAA semifinals, ending the Rebels' undefeated season, it became the greatest victory of the Mike Krzyzewski era.

• 1992: The Blue Devils, underdogs in 1991, were anything but a season later. Yet it still took the Grant Hill-to-Christian Laettner miracle for Duke to get back to the Final Four and defend its title.

• 1994: North Carolina was the preseason No. 1 coming off a dramatic 1993 championship game victory over the Fab Five. Yet the Tar Heels didn't get out of the first weekend of the '94 tournament, losing to No. 9 seed Boston College in the second round.

• 1995: Carolina's loss was Arkansas' gain, as the Razorbacks outlasted Duke for the 1994 title and -- behind Corliss Williamson -- were an overwhelming favorite to repeat. The Hogs almost got it done, but fell to UCLA and reserve point guard Cameron Dollar in the '95 championship game.

• 1997: Kentucky wasn't the preseason No. 1, but it deserves special mention as it had won the 1996 title under Pitino and would win again in 1998 under Tubby Smith. In between came an overtime loss in the '97 final to Arizona, which was all that kept Kentucky from a truly remarkable three-peat.

• 1998: Coincidentally, it was another set of Wildcats -- Arizona -- that was the consensus favorite to repeat this time. Everything was on track until Rick Majerus threw a triangle-and-2 at Zona in the West Regional final. Utah's blowout win cemented Majerus' brilliance and was one of the greatest single-game coaching efforts in NCAA history.

• 2000: UConn, the 1999 champion, was a default choice as preseason No. 1 the next season. Instead, the Huskies managed only a 5-seed in the 2000 NCAA tourney and lost in the second round to Tennessee.

• 2002: Duke, which won it all in 2001, brought Jay Williams &amp; Co. back to defend a season later. Yet it was the No. 2 team in the preseason poll, Maryland, that captured the '02 title, the only one in school history. The Blue Devils lost to Indiana by a point in the Sweet 16.

• 2007: It wasn't quite wire-to-wire, but Florida earned the second (and last to date) repeat of the 64-team era with a comfortable victory over Ohio State in the '07 title game. The Gators were 68-11 combined in their championship seasons, compared with Duke's 66-9 in 1991 and '92.

• 2011: Duke was tabbed to repeat once again after cutting down the nets in 2010. The Blue Devils earned a No. 1 seed in the 2011 tournament but were hammered by a clearly better Arizona squad in the Sweet 16. They were the 10th (and last to date) defending champion of this era to be ranked No. 1 the next season.

So let's review the math: About a third of the time, the defending NCAA champion is picked to repeat. In only 20 percent of those cases has it actually happened. And the main reason, like UCLA, is a four-letter word.

Winning a national championship, especially with six rounds instead of four -- as was the case when the Bruins pulled off seven in a row -- is incredibly H-A-R-D. One might add a second four-letter word, too, as in it also takes a whole lot of L-U-C-K.

In particular, teams such as Georgetown (1985), UNLV (1991), Arkansas (1995), Arizona (1998) and Duke (2002) were clearly the best in the country in those seasons. But we know the best team doesn't always win the NCAA tournament. More often than not, in fact, even the very best defending champions do not.

Louisville fans, consider yourselves warned.