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Daniel Wilco | | March 14, 2021

How No. 2 seeds do in March Madness

Exploring the absurd odds of a perfect bracket

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

The 2019 NCAA Tournament saw No. 2 seeds reach greater heights than they had, at least collectively, in the previous two tournaments. Every No. 2 seed in 2019 – Michigan State, Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky – made the Sweet 16.

Two made the Elite Eight and the Spartans made the Final Four. One one of those No. 2 seeds won by single digits in the second round – Tennessee.

In the 2018 NCAA Tournament, No. 2 seeds Cincinnati and North Carolina lost in the second round. A third, Purdue, lost in the Sweet 16. The 2017 NCAA Tournament saw a similar level of shortcoming from the No. 2 seeds with two losing in the second round and one dropping a game in the Sweet 16.

Swap 2017's Duke and Louisville for 2018's Cincinnati and North Carolina, 2017's Arizona for 2018's Purdue and 2017's Kentucky for 2018's Duke and the story you read seems all too familiar.

Second Round: South Carolina defeats Duke

All this goes to show you: there’s no certainty when it comes to the No. 2 seed.

The 1991 Syracuse team learned that lesson quickly. The Orange suffered a 73-69 loss to No. 15 seed Richmond, which was the first time ever a No. 15 seed sent a No. 2 seed home.

Before the Spiders’ upset, the second seeds didn’t have much trouble defeating the No. 15 seeds. From the expansion to 64 teams in 1985 until the Syracuse upset, only four games had been decided by eight points or fewer:

Year Winner Loser Score Margin
1985 Georgia
Mercer 65-58 7
1986 Michigan Akron 70-64 6
1987 Syracuse Georgia
79-73 6
1990 Kansas Robert
79-71 8

But the loss by the Orange in 1991 showed that perhaps beating a No. 2 seed wasn't as far-fetched as first thought.

Three more upsets occurred in 1993, 1997 and 2001 before No. 2 seeds went undefeated against No. 15 seeds for the next 11 years.

All in all, No. 2 seeds have lost only eight games in the opening round, most recently Michigan State in 2016, when the Spartans lost to Middle Tennessee, 90-81. However, three of those losses happened in back-to-back years with Duke and Missouri in 2012 and Georgetown in 2013. 

The Blue Devils have the most appearances in the two spot with 10. The 2012 loss to Lehigh has been the Blue Devils' only setback, although in 1997 and 2008, Duke survived Murray State and Belmont respectively by a combined four points.

More No. 2 seeds have been knocked out in the Round of 32 — 43 of the 132 first-round winners — than any other round in the tournament, but five different No. 2 seeds have won a national championship: 1986 Louisville, 1991 Duke, 1998 Kentucky, 2004 Connecticut and 2016 Villanova.

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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