An annual study of NCAA tournament teams' academic progress reveals Villanova and North Carolina were the class of this year's field long before they advanced to the Final Four.

The study, released March 16th by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, ranks each university's men's basketball program at or near the top of the NCAA's two key academic measures - Academic Progress Rate and Graduation Success Rate - compared with their fellow tournament participants.

Tonight's opponents, the Villanova Wildcats and North Carolina Tar Heels, each can claim superiority over the other in one of the measures.

North Carolina owns the highest Academic Progress Rate score in this year's tournament with a near-perfect 995 (out of 1,000), while Villanova is second, just behind the Tar Heels, with a 990.

Meanwhile, Villanova graduates 89 percent of its men's basketball players, which is three points higher than North Carolina's 86 Graduation Success Rate and an eye-opening 24 points higher than the national average for men's Division I basketball players (65 percent).

The Wildcats' graduation rate puts them in a three-way for the 11th highest in this year's field with Dayton, the Atlantic Ten university that defeated West Virginia in the first round before falling to Kansas, and Duke, eliminated by Villanova in the Sweet 16.

North Carolina is also in a three-way tie for the 14th highest graduation rate in the field, with Siena and Wisconsin.

According to the study, 'Nova and Carolina are two of 22 teams in this year's tournament that graduate at least 70 percent of their students.

The study, Keeping Score When It Counts: Graduation Rates and Academic Progress Rates (APR) for NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament Teams, polled 63 of the 65 teams competing in the 2009 NCAA tournament. That excluded Cornell and North Dakota State, schools not reporting graduation rates.

The study is based on the 2008 Academic Progress Rate and Graduation Success Rate reports, which contain the most current available data.

The 2008 academic progress report was released last May and includes data through the 2006-07 school year. The Academic Progress Rate measures eligibility and retention of student-athletes.

The graduation-rate report, which was released five months later, in October 2008, contains data on student-athletes who entered as freshmen from 1998-99 through 2001-02.

The Graduation Success Rate may be more useful for understanding a program's academic success than the Academic Progress Rate, since it measures actual graduation of student-athletes as opposed to their ability just to remain academically eligible and to return to school.

Nevertheless, a high score in either measure represents positive academic progress, and the NCAA uses academic-progress scores to sanction institutions that do not score 925 or better. Penalties include loss of scholarships and can become more severe if scores drop below 900.

New academic-progress data will be available in a 2009 report that the NCAA is scheduled to release in early May on an undetermined date.