Congrats to Villanova, North Carolina, Kansas, and Gonzaga on earning no. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament! On Selection Sunday, we’re told that securing a no. 1 seed is really important, and in some ways it is: Zero no. 1 seeds have ever lost in the first round of the tourney, going 128–0 since the event was created in 1939. No. 2 seeds, meanwhile, have fallen four times in the past five years, owing to the significantly higher quality of no. 15 seeds than no. 16 seeds.
But landing a top seed is not exactly a hall pass to the national championship game. Only eight no. 1 seeds have reached the Final Four in the past seven years, and only once in that span has more than a single no. 1 seed made it. (In 2011, none did.) This may seem shocking, but run the math and it makes sense. Let’s say you give a no. 1 seed a 99 percent chance of winning its first game, an 85 percent chance of beating a no. 8 or a no. 9 seed in the second round (probably a bit high), a 75 percent chance of beating a no. 4 or a no. 5 seed in the Sweet 16 (definitely generous), and a 60 percent chance of beating a no. 2 or no. 3 seed in the Elite Eight (ridiculously high). That gives it a 37 percent chance of reaching the Final Four — and that was with us being very, very generous.
I’m sure you want to hear which teams are LOCKS, but in all honesty, there’s no such thing. So who’s most or least likely to screw up? Here’s a quick ranking of which no. 1 seeds have the clearest path to the Final Four.
1. Gonzaga (32–1), West Region
As we wrote in February, Gonzaga is really, really, really good. Yes, Gonzaga, the team you’ve been conditioned not to trust because you can’t forget that Adam Morrison cried one time. Sure, its schedule wasn’t great, but that shouldn’t discredit how dominant the Bulldogs were: The statistics that factor in the Zags’ quality of competition, such as Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, still rank them as the best team in college basketball by a pretty wide margin.
The no. 2 seed in Gonzaga’s bracket is Arizona (30–4), which the Zags beat comfortably in December at Staples Center. (The Bulldogs won 69–62, and they led by as much as 14 before a late Wildcats run.) So the highest-seeded team that could stand between them and the Final Four is an opponent they’ve already beaten. And the no. 3 seed in the West region is Florida State (25–8), which enters the tourney having dropped four of its last eight games.
The team that could give Gonzaga troubles is West Virginia (26–8), which is probably a little bit underseeded — it’s a no. 4 seed, but ranked fifth in the country, according to KenPom. The Mountaineers also play a pressing, ball-hawking style of defense that has proved it can overwhelm good teams. Still, the Zags should have the pieces to withstand it.
And yes, by saying this, I am admitting that I expect my preferred college basketball team, the Northwestern Wildcats, to lose within the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. Look, we just wanted to make it.
2. North Carolina (27–7), South Region
Hey, I’ve seen North Carolina, Kentucky, and UCLA in the same bracket before.
I could see all three of those teams winning the national title. I could see Kentucky (29–5) and UCLA (29–4) both beating UNC — I mean, we’ve already seen Kentucky beat UNC. Plus, 10-seed Wichita State (30–4) might be the most disrespected team in NCAA tournament seeding history. Maybe you think I’m silly for mentioning a no. 10 seed in reference to a no. 1 seed’s chances, but don’t forget that Wichita State made the Final Four as a no. 9 seed not so long ago.
But UNC will have to play only one of those three teams. The ceiling for the Tar Heels’ tournament progress truly is the roof. (I don’t know what this means. Just go with it.)
3. Kansas (28–4), Midwest Region
The Jayhawks lost four games this year and won a 13th-straight Big 12 title. Neat! If only you got a national championship for winning the Big 12 a bunch of years in a row.
Anyway, one of those four losses? At home, 92–89, in overtime, to Iowa State — the Jayhawks’ first loss at Allen Fieldhouse in 51 games.
Hey, who’s that in Kansas’s bracket? Oh, it’s Iowa State! Kansas is just two games from a potential rematch with no. 5 seed Iowa State (23–10). That game would be in Kansas City, where the Cyclones just won the Big 12 tournament and where the Jayhawks got knocked out in the first round.
This seems like a failure on the part of the selection committee. Obviously, it has a lot of things to prioritize as it’s creating the bracket — location, seeding, etc. — but few people want to see a rematch of a conference game in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament. And no. 1 seeds definitely don’t want to play in rematches against teams to which they’ve already lost. Of course, Kansas also beat Iowa State in Ames. So it’s just a rubber match.
The second problem for Kansas is that it’s not even the best team in its own bracket. That would be Louisville, which is ranked four spots higher than the Jayhawks on KenPom.
4. Villanova (31–3), East Region
We already went over this a bit, but it bears repeating: Villanova did not get a very pleasant prize for being the tournament’s no. 1 overall seed. Wisconsin (25–9) shouldn’t be a no. 8 seed, Florida (24–8) and Virginia (22–10) are both underseeded per KenPom, and Duke (27–8) arguably should’ve been a no. 1 seed. Also included is no. 3 seed Baylor (25–7), which means Villanova really needs to watch out for the no. 14 seed Baylor is going to lose to in the first round.
Every path to the Final Four is hard; Villanova’s is a carnival of teams that the committee underestimated. A repeat title is possible — Villanova is deserving of the top seed in the field — but it won’t be easy.
Then again, neither was last year.