The NCAA Tournament expanded in 1985, making March Madness what it is today
In the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Oral Roberts came up just short of becoming the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Elite Eight, falling to Arkansas 72-70. The Golden Eagles can still lay claim to being the greatest 15-seed in the history of March Madness.
Every team in the NCAA Tournament controls its own destiny. Regardless of their seeding, they have a shot to win it all, and while talent generally dictates the outcome of the Tournament, some seeds have punched above their weight, while others have lived up or down to expectations. Here are the best teams ever by seed.
(Note: You will probably notice that most of the teams in this ranking came after 1985. That is because the NCAA Tournament did not expand from 12 to 16 seeds until then. Prior to the expansion, many of the top-tier seeds also received first-round byes, which automatically disqualifies them from this list.)
No. 16 — UMBC (2018)
Finished: Lost to No. 9 Kansas State 50-43 in Second Round
No. 16-seeded teams were 0-135 against No. 1s until UMBC played Virginia in 2018. Not only did the Retrievers from the relatively unknown America East Conference take down a top seed, it was a 20-point victory against the ACC's Cavaliers, the No. 1 overall team in the field, and one that had lost just two games previously. There was nothing fluky about this historic victory and it matters little that UMBC lost to Kansas State in the Second Round.
No. 15 — Oral Roberts (2021)
Finished: Lost to No. 3 Arkansas 72-70 in Sweet 16
The 2020-21 Oral Roberts Golden Eagles joined 2012-13 Florida Gulf Coast as the only 15-seed to make the Sweet 16, and they almost crashed the Elite Eight. After breaking many a bracket with an upset of No. 2 Ohio State in the First Round, ORU took down No. 7 Florida and then gave No. 3 Arkansas all it could handle as a potential game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer came up just short.
No. 14 — Cleveland State (1986)
Finished: Lost to No. 7 Navy 71-70 in Sweet 16
Two No. 14s have made the Sweet 16 — Cleveland State in 1986 and Chattanooga in ‘97. The Cleveland State Vikings have the edge because they beat an Indiana team that won the national championship the next season and lost to a David Robinson-led Navy team by one point in the Sweet 16.
No. 13 — Oklahoma (1999)
Finished: Lost to No. 1 Michigan State 54-46 in Sweet 16
The Sooners edged No. 4 Arizona in the First Round and ran away from No. 5 Charlotte to make the Sweet 16. There, they lost to No. 1 Michigan State, but Oklahoma's body of work is the most impressive of the six No. 13 seeds to make it past the first two rounds.
No. 12 — Missouri (2002)
Finished: Lost to No. 2 Oklahoma 81-75 in Elite Eight
Mizzou blew past Miami, Ohio State and UCLA to become the first No. 12 seed to make the Elite Eight (Oregon State did it in 2021), where they faced Big 12 rival Oklahoma. During the regular season, the Tigers lost to the Sooners 84-71 and they came up short again in the tournament as well. Nevertheless, they were the first team seeded that low to make it so far.
No. 11 — LSU (1986)
Finished: Lost to No. 2 Louisville 88-77 in Final Four
Five No. 11 seeds have made the Final Four: LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006, VCU in '11, and Loyola-Chicago in '18, and UCLA in 2021. I may be wrong but I think Dan Redden, Hot Rod Williams, and the rest of the 1985-86 LSU Tigers could've taken the other three teams. They remain the only No. 11 seed to beat the No. 3 (Memphis State), No. 2 (Georgia Tech), and No. 1 (Kentucky) seeds in their region. Plus, the team that stopped their run was eventual national champion Louisville.
No. 10 — Syracuse (2016)
Finished: Lost to No. 1 North Carolina 83-66 in Final Four
No one predicted Syracuse to make the Final Four, but Middle Tennessee upset Michigan State in the First Round and the Orange easily dispatched the Blue Raiders in the Second Round. Syracuse then beat Gonzaga and No. 1 seed Virginia to make the Final Four, where the Orangemen lost to North Carolina. They remain the only No. 10 seed to be one of the last four teams standing.
No. 9 — Wichita State (2013)
Finished: Lost to No. 1 Louisville 72-68 in Final Four
The Shockers are the only No. 9 seed to make the Final Four and did not have an easy road to get there. They had to overcome No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Ohio State to make it, where they lost to eventual national champion Louisville.
No. 8 — Villanova (1985)
Finished: Beat No. 1 Georgetown 66-64 to win national championship
The ironic thing is that Villanova would likely not have made the tournament if it had not expanded from 53 to 64 teams in 1985, even though they were the fourth-best team in the nation's toughest conference. Since they did make it in, the Wildcats capitalized on the last tournament to be played without a shot clock and beat all of its opponents with ball-control offense and amazing shooting. Villanova faced defending national champion and Big East rival Georgetown in the title game and shot an unbelievable 78.6 percent from the field to become the lowest-seeded team to cut down the nets.
No. 7 — Connecticut (2014)
Finished: Beat No. 8 Kentucky 60-54 to win national championship
The 2014 NCAA Tournament was chock full of upsets and in the end, the last two teams standing were seventh-seeded Connecticut and eighth-seeded Kentucky. The Huskies jumped out early and never trailed on its way to winning the school’s fourth national title. They are the only 7-seed to win a national championship.
No. 6 — NC State (1983)
Finished: Beat No. 1 Houston 54-52 to win the national championship
You’re probably wondering how the 1982-83 NC State national championship team can make this list given that the Wolfpack won before the expansion. Well, it’s because at that time, seeds 5 through 12 played the same bracket that they do now, while seeds 1 through 4 got a bye in the first round. The Wolfpack’s run is now part of college basketball lore and they edge the 1987-88 Kansas Jayhawks — the only other 6-seed to win a title — because they had fewer losses and they beat No. 1 seed Virginia to win the ACC Tournament and again to make the Final Four. And, of course, they upset Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma team to win the national title.
No. 5 — Butler (2010)
Finished: Lost to No. 1 Duke 61-59 in national championship game
A No. 5 seed has never won a national championship. The team that came closest to doing so was the 2009-10 Butler Bulldogs. Butler knocked off Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State to face Duke for the national title. The two teams engaged in a seesaw battle before Duke pulled ahead for good with two free throws with three seconds left. Butler came within inches of winning though, as forward Gordon Hayward’s attempted half-court shot at the buzzer hit the backboard and the rim before bouncing away.
No. 4 — Arizona (1997)
Finished: Beat No. 1 Kentucky 84-79 (OT) to win national championship
The Wildcats lost four of their last eight regular-season games and no one expected them to run the table in the tournament, but that is exactly what they did. During its march to the title, Arizona knocked off three of the four No. 1 seeds (Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky) to become the only 4-seed to win a national championship. Then again, the team did have five NBA draft picks so maybe their run is not as shocking in hindsight.
No. 3 — Florida (2006)
Finished: Beat No. 2 UCLA 73-57 to win national championship
Four No. 3 seeds have won national titles, but I’m putting the 2005-06 Florida Gators as the best because they won the SEC Tournament and then beat all but one of their opponents in the Big Dance by 13 points or more en route to winning the program’s first national title. Oh, and they came back and won it the next year too.
No. 2 — Kentucky (1998)
Finished: Beat No. 3 Utah 78-69 to win national championship
Rick Pitino’s last Kentucky team lost to Arizona in the title game in 1997. The team Tubby Smith inherited picked up right where the '97 squad left off, going 29-4 and winning the SEC regular-season and tournament championships. In most years, that would garner a No. 1 seed, but three of the top seeds (North Carolina, Kansas and Duke) had three losses, and the other, defending national champion Arizona, had four. No matter. The Wildcats blew out their first three opponents and then survived close contests with Duke, Stanford and Utah to win the program’s seventh title.
No. 1 — Duke (1992)
Finished: Beat No. 6 Michigan 71-51 to win national championship
With Baylor's victory this year, 21 No. 1 seeds have won national championships since 1985 so determining the best of all time really boils down to record, their conference tournament and NCAA Tournament opponents. With those factors in mind, I’m going with the 1991-92 Duke Blue Devils. The defending national champions' only losses were to Wake Forest, who made the tournament as a No. 9 seed, and to North Carolina, who won the national championship the next year. They easily won the ACC Tournament and then the national title. To give you a sense of how impressive this run was, the Blue Devils' final three opponents in the NCAA Tournament (Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan) were all No. 1 seeds the next season. Only three other teams, the 1994-95 UCLA Bruins, the 1998-99 Connecticut Huskies, and the 2011-2012 Kentucky Wildcats come close to matching that body of work.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports' Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.