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Daniel Wilco | | February 24, 2021

How No. 1 seeds do in March Madness

UMBC upsets Virginia, 74-54

*Note: All data is from the 1985 tournament to the present.

In back-to-back NCAA tournaments, Virginia experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows of being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. In the 2018 NCAA tournament, UMBC became the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed, when the Retrievers upset the No. 1 overall seed Virginia Cavaliers.

It wasn't even close. UMBC won by 20 points, 74-54, and delivered a result no other No. 16 seed had since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

After the 2019 NCAA Tournament, which Virginia won as a No. 1 seed, No. 1 seeds are now 139-1 against No. 16 seeds.

But being a No. 1 seed doesn't mean an automatic ticket to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

In the 2018 NCAA tournament, Xavier became the 19th No. 1 seed to exit the tournament in the Round of 32.

The two losses in 2018 by No. 1 seeds Virginia and Xavier, which were far different from the Final Four trips by the other two No. 1 seeds that season, Villanova and Kansas, proved to be stark reminders of the scares top seeds have experienced in the past. 

Take the 1989 tournament for instance when not one but two No. 1 seeds — Georgetown and Oklahoma — barely escaped the opening round. The Hoyas and Sooners defeated Princeton and East Tennessee State, respectively, by a single point. A year later, Michigan State found itself in a similar position before eventually defeating Murray State, 75-71, in overtime.

Purdue survived a scare in 1996 from the Western Carolina Catamounts, winning 73-71.

While no other teams have come down to a single possession, there have been some memorable games in the past that have been decided by single digits. Both Syracuse in 2012 and Kansas in 2013 survived tough contests from No. 16 seeds, defeating UNC Asheville and Western Kentucky, respectively, by seven points.

Now, No. 1 seeds may often appear to have it easy in the opening round, but the rest of the tournament could go either way. Despite the dominating numbers, 2008 remains the only year the Final Four has been comprised of all No. 1 seeds.

In 2019, No. 1 seed Virginia was the only No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four, and the Cavaliers won the national championship, just one year after becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the first round. Only seven title games since expansion have been a 1-v-1.

College basketball rankings: Even unranked teams find success in the NCAA tournament

Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 — its modern format — only four of 35 national champions were unranked to start the season. That’s about one in every nine years.

Only .025 percent predicted the 2021 Final Four teams in the Bracket Challenge Game

UCLA's upset of No. 1 Michigan in the Elite Eight turned what could have been a record-high number of perfect picks into a tiny number that went 4-for-4.

A huge majority of NCAA brackets have a No. 1 seed winning the 2021 championship

Here is how many brackets predicted each seed to win the national championship, from Gonzaga and the No. 1 seeds through Drexel and the rest of the No. 16 seeds.
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