In only a handful of cases, it’s proven possible for the lowest seed to win March Madness, the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. In this event, all teams can make a run to the championship regardless of their placement. Over the years, a number of teams have defied the odds and won the tournament. But what was the lowest seed to ever win March Madness? Read on to find out!
What Does Lowest Seed Mean?
When it comes to the NCAA Tournament, the term “lowest seed” is used to describe a team that is the lowest-ranked in their region and bracket. In other words, these teams are considered the underdogs and least likely to win the tournament. The NCAA seeds each team based on their performance in the regular season, with the top four teams in each region earning a higher seed than the remaining teams.
The seedings are based on a combination of factors including regular season record, strength of schedule, RPI rankings, and quality wins. Each team is assigned a number that corresponds to their seed – for example, a #1 seed is considered the top-ranked team in their region and is given the best chance of making it to the Final Four.
The term “lowest seed” typically applies to the 16th-seeded teams, which are considered to be among the most unlikely teams to win the tournament. Historically, it’s rare for any team ranked lower than #12 to make it out of the first round. It’s rare for any “low” seed to make it to the Final Four. So, when people talk about “the lowest seed to win March Madness,” they’re usually referring to a team that has defied all odds and gone against conventional wisdom to become champions.
One such example of this happened in 2018 when the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) Retrievers pulled off one of the biggest upsets in sports history. UMBC was the #16 seed going up against the #1 overall seed Virginia Cavaliers, who had lost just three games during the entire season leading up to that matchup. But despite being huge underdogs, UMBC went on to defeat Virginia 74–54, becoming the first ever #16 seed to defeat a #1 seed in tournament history.
In 2023, New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson became the second team to accomplish the feat, defeating the top-seeded Purdue Boilermakers 63-58. The 16-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson Knights then pushed the Florida Atlantic Owls to the brink in the next round, falling 78-70.
Those Florida Atlantic Owls ended up making the Final Four — just the second ever 9-seed to do so.
Lowest Seeds to Win in NCAA Tournament History
When it comes to March Madness, the lowest seed to ever win it all was the 1985 Villanova Wildcats. That year, they entered the tournament as a No. 8 seed and came out on top of the competition. The Wildcats started out their tournament run with a victory over Dayton, then defeated No. 1 seed Michigan, No. 5 seed Maryland and finally, No. 2 seed North Carolina to win the National Championship.
This feat is more impressive when considering that no other No. 8 seed had ever even made it to the Final Four before, let alone become national champions. Since then, three 8-seeds have made the title game — Butler in 2011, Kentucky in 2014, and North Carolina in 2022 — with all of them coming short of the title.
The changing landscape of college basketball over the past few decades has seen other low-seeded teams make deep runs. Five 11-seeds have made the Final Four: LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006, VCU in 2011, Loyola Chicago in 2018, and UCLA in 2021.
In 2022, a New Jersey team, Saint Peter’s, made a run to the Elite 8 as a 15-seed — the lowest seeded team to do so.
Why Do The Lowest Seeds Rarely Win?
As with most sports tournaments, the higher-seeded teams tend to win more often than lower-seeded teams. Teams with higher seeds have typically won more games throughout the regular season, against much tougher opponents. Even teams with seeds of four or lower are still considered longshots to win the tournament.
The reason why lower seeds struggle to make it to the end of the tournament comes down to one main factor: talent. The teams at the top of the rankings usually feature a combination of experienced players, high-level athletes, and talented coaches.
As a result, the lower seeds typically face an uphill battle against the higher-seeded teams. It is not uncommon for a top seed to beat a sixteen seed by 30 points or more.
To further illustrate why the lowest seeds rarely win, we can look at the NCAA Tournament odds for each seed. According to FiveThirtyEight, teams with a four seed or lower have only a 7 percent chance of winning March Madness. Comparatively, teams with one or two seeds have a 33 percent chance of winning. This shows that while anything is possible, low seeds face an uphill battle when it comes to winning the tournament.
It is very rare for a low seed to win March Madness due to the talent gap between them and the top teams. Despite this, there are cases where lower seeds have managed to defy all odds and take home the title.
Strengths That Lower-Seeded Teams Display
Lower seeded teams have a few key strengths that help them in March Madness. The most important of these is having a sense of underdog mentality. Lower seeds are often underestimated and may find themselves more motivated to prove their opponents wrong.
Additionally, lower seeds may benefit from having fewer expectations placed on them. This can take pressure off the team and allow players to be more relaxed and creative on the court.
Another strength of lower-seeded teams is their ability to surprise opponents. Low-seeded teams often have less exposure than higher-seeded teams, so they may be able to take advantage of opponents who aren’t familiar with their style of play. Furthermore, low-seeded teams may have an easier time finding an identity for themselves, since they don’t have to worry about living up to high expectations.
In the modern era, lower-seeded teams may have more experience. With top seeds having far more “one-and-done” players who may leave for the NBA after a year in college, teams that have lower seeds may make up with experience what they lack in talent. Smaller schools often see their stars remain at college through their senior years.
Because of that experience, teams with lower seeds sometimes have more depth than higher-seeded teams, allowing them to play more players, which can lead to fresher legs late in games.
When all is said and done, lower-seeded teams have the potential to pull off upsets and make deep tournament runs. While this isn’t always the case, the right combination of team strengths and luck can propel a low-seeded team deep into the tournament.
Ultimately, the chances of a low-seeded team winning March Madness depend on who they draw in the tournament and how they match up against those teams. That said, with the current seeding, there are plenty of opportunities for a low-seeded team to make a deep run in this year’s tournament and potentially bring home the championship trophy.
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