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Daniel Wilco | | March 15, 2018

Why Virginia is far from a lock for national championship

  Kentucky's 2012 team was the first team to rank No. 1 in the final AP Poll and win the national championship since Duke in 2001.

Sorry Cavalier fans, but just because Virginia finished No. 1 in the final AP poll doesn't mean it is the best choice for the national championship. It seems like a safe pick — the top ranked team before the tournament has to have a great chance to win the NCAA tournament, right? 

Not really. It’s happened just once since 2001 and only four times since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

That cold fact hasn’t deterred couch bracketologists, though. Looking at data from the past seven years taken from millions of brackets, the team that finishes No. 1 in the final AP poll before the tournament has been selected to win it all in almost a quarter of the brackets. Yet only one of those seven — Kentucky in 2012 – actually ran the table.

That Kentucky team was hardly a runaway choice among bracket pickers. The Wildcats were tabbed to win in only 19.57 percent of the brackets in 2012. Only Gonzaga in 2013 — selected to win the tournament in just 4.87 percent of brackets — and last year's No. 1, Villanova — selected to win in 12.25 percent — generated less faith among bracket players over the past seven years. And the players' hesitation on both of those teams was warranted; more on that below.


Team (record)

Picked to win championship

Picked to be upset in 1st rd.


2017 Villanova (31-3) 12.25% 1.88% Round of 32


Kansas (30-4)



Elite Eight


Kentucky (34-0)



Final Four


Florida (32-2)



Final Four


Gonzaga (31-2)



Round of 32


Kentucky (32-2)



NCAA Champion


Ohio State (32-2)



Sweet 16

The 2012 Wildcats, led by Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Doron Lamb, among others, won their six tournament games by an average of 11.83 points (none by fewer than eight points) on their way to the program’s eighth national title. It was the first time since Duke in 2001 — a team led by All-Americans Shane Battier and Jay Williams — that a team ranked No. 1 in the final AP poll captured the national championship.

Even if choosing the AP No. 1 to win it all is far from a guarantee, it’s much safer than picking that team to be upset in the first round. Still, about 1 percent of the millions of brackets we looked at over the last seven years did that — picked the No. 1 team in the final AP poll to be upset by a No. 16 seed. A friendly reminder: No 16 seed has ever beaten a 1 seed in the history of the NCAA tournament.

Last year, Villanova finished the season at No. 1 in the AP poll, yet were picked to be upset in the first round in 1.88 percent of brackets, a record high for the period we looked at. The Wildcats left no doubt in a 20-point first-round win over Mt. St. Mary's, but we're the first 1-seed to fall in the tournament, being upset by 8-seed Wisconsin. The result tied 2013 Gonzaga for the earliest departure for an AP No. 1 in the past seven years.

Second Round: Wisconsin upsets Villanova

In 2016, AP No. 1 Kansas (which finished with a 30-4 regular-season record) was picked to lose to No. 16 seed Austin Peay in 1.32 percent of brackets. Instead, the Jayhawks handled the Governors 105-79 to start their run to the Elite Eight, where they fell to eventual champion Villanova 64-59.

So what lessons are to be learned from this? Mainly an affirmation for bracket players: Records — and rankings — don’t matter as much in March.

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