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Andy Wittry | | February 4, 2020

How a men's basketball team does in the NCAA tournament when it earns its best-ever seed

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The 2020 men's basketball season is setting up for several notable programs to potentially earn their best NCAA tournament seed in program history.

AP No. 1 Baylor has earned a No. 3 seed four times under coach Scott Drew, but this year's Bears are on pace to receive a No. 1 seed, according to Andy Katz's latest tournament projections.

Those projections also feature No. 4 San Diego State on the top seed line as the unbeaten Aztecs make a push for an undefeated regular season. That would be their best seed ever.

Dayton only needs to earn a top-three seed in order to set a new high-water mark.

So, when you go to fill out your 2020 NCAA tournament bracket, how should you handle a team that receives its highest-ever tournament seed on Selection Sunday?

I researched all 353 DI men's basketball programs to find out.

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I took note of every school's best NCAA tournament seed ever (No. 1 seed through No. 16 seed) and recorded how many tournament games each school won when it earned its best-ever seed. I only counted the first season in which it earned its best-ever seed, so if a program has received a No. 1 seed three times, we only counted the first year that it did, because only that season was unprecedented.

Also note that I defined "program-best" retroactively, meaning I looked for the best seed in program history as of 2020, not what was the best seed in program history in the moment, say in 1987.

Those are the seasons we're looking to analyze in order to project forward to schools like Baylor, San Diego State and Dayton this season.

Keep in mind that seeding for the entire NCAA tournament field started in 1979, so there are schools that won a national championship or made the Final Four before seeding existed as we know it today.

First, here are some of the highlights of my findings:

  • Since the NCAA tournament began seeding every team in every region in 1979, there has never been a school that has played in the national championship game, let alone won a national title, after earning a program-best seed of a No. 2 seed or worse. This involves a sample size of 255 schools and the 48 schools that have earned a No. 1 seed are not part of that.
  • However, there have been three schools that won the national championship the first time they earned a No. 1 seed (Florida, Indiana and Maryland) and two others that finished as the national runner-up the first time they received a top seed (Duke and Wisconsin).
  • On average, schools that earn a No. 1 seed for the first time win 2.7 games in the NCAA tournament — almost one more win than the average win total of any other seed in this study. This means that you can typically pencil in a No. 1 seed to the Sweet 16, if not the Elite Eight, even if the school has never been seeded that low in the past.
  • Be very hesitant of picking a school that receives a program-best seed of No. 11 or worse to win one game, let alone multiple, in the NCAA tournament. It's no secret that double-digit seeds face an uphill battle of advancing to the second round, especially those seeded No. 13 or worse, compared to their single-digit-seeded brethren. Schools whose best NCAA tournament seed is a No. 12 seed have averaged 0.39 wins per tournament when earning their best-ever seed, just ahead of schools that earn a historical-best No. 11 seed (0.38 wins per tournament). No. 13 seeds (0.10 wins), No. 15 seeds (0.09 wins), No. 14 seeds (0.05 wins) and No. 16 seeds (0.00 wins) have done even worse.

Here's the complete data.

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As I hinted at the top of the story, there are some schools that can potentially earn a No. 1 seed for the first time in school history this season. How have past No. 1 seeds fared during the school's first-ever tournament as a No. 1 seed?

The complete breakdown is below, showing the 48 schools that have earned a No. 1 seed. Note that when seeds were first added to the NCAA tournament there were just 40 teams in the tournament, so when you see that three No. 1 seeds failed to win a single game in the school's first-ever NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed, keep in mind that the tournament wasn't in its current 68-team format. They lost to a No. 8 or No. 9 seed, not a No. 16 seed.

Number of tournament wins number of teams
6 3
5 2
4 10
3 12
2 9
1 9
0 3

This data should help dispel the notion that any first-time No. 1 seed, whether it's Baylor, San Diego State or another school in the future, can't make the Final Four — or even achieve more than that.

Here are some other interesting observations from the data I collected:

  • Besides the No. 1 seed, there are only two other seed lines that have resulted in a school making the Final Four in the tournament in which it received its highest-ever: No. 2 seed and No. 9 seed. In 1979, Penn won four games as a No. 9 seed, as did West Virginia as a No. 2 seed in 2010.
  • A No. 10 seed is the rarest seed line for a program to peak. Just seven of the 353 DI programs have earned a program-best tournament seed of No. 10. The most common NCAA tournament selection result is actually missing the tournament entirely. Fifty schools have never made it, while 48 schools have peaked as a No. 1 seed. The next most common result is a No. 15 seed, which has been the best seed ever for 33 schools.
  • Only five seed lines have an average tournament win total of at least one win: No. 1 seed (2.73 wins), No. 2 seed (1.82 wins), No. 3 seed (1.29 wins), No. 4 seeds (1.07 wins) and No. 7 seed (1.00 win).
  • There are six seed lines that, when they're a school's best seed ever, have never resulted in a Sweet 16 appearance. The most NCAA tournament wins for a school that earned a program-best seed of No. 6, No. 8, No. 11, No. 13, No. 14 or No. 15 is just one win.

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