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Does Any Top Seed Want to Win the NCAA Tournament?

Virginia’s first-round knockout opened the floodgates, and now no tourney favorite is safe—just ask North Carolina, Cincinnati, and Xavier

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-North Carolina vs Texas A&M Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports

It’s a tough time to be a highly seeded college basketball team.

Fourth-seeded Arizona? Out. Three-seed Michigan State? Swallowed by the zone. No. 1 overall seed Virginia? Gone. As is third-seeded Tennessee, fourth-seeded Auburn, no. 2 seeds North Carolina and Cincinnati, and now, no. 1 seed Xavier.

After trailing by 22 with just over 11 minutes left in the second half, no. 7 seed Nevada closed the game on a frantic, incredible 32-8 run to topple the Bearcats—and it did so using only six players (five, if you ignore Hallice Cooke, who took just one shot and picked up three fouls). Despite having KenPom’s second-ranked defense in the country, Cincinnati suffered the same fate as its stylistic inspiration, Virginia, bowing out far earlier than expected. Nevada’s win marked the 13th upset of the tournament, and the seventh over a team seeded fourth or higher. And it was a thriller:

North Carolina looked powerless as a cold shooting night (26-of-78 from the field and 6-of-31 from deep) led to a blowout loss to no. 7 seed Texas A&M, 86-65. North Carolina’s offense, ranked fourth nationally by KenPom entering the game, sputtered, scoring 17 points below its season average of 82, and its usual advantage on the offensive glass—a weapon that typically kept the Tar Heels in contests—resulted in just nine second-chance opportunities. Even Joel Berry II, the team’s senior leader and leading scorer, shot just 41 percent from the field and 20 percent from deep. And while the loss was surprising, based on the results of the past four days, the margin of defeat wasn’t.

The Tar Heels became the fourth team seeded fourth or higher to lose by 20 points or more. Virginia and Arizona entered their games as heavy favorites, just as the Tar Heels did, and left embarrassed. While there have been a few other, closer upsets—like Syracuse’s two-point victory over third-seeded Michigan State and Loyola-Chicago’s one-point win over no. 3 seed Tennessee—it’s the blowouts that’ve set the tone during the tournament’s opening weekend.

After the Tar Heels’ and Musketeers’ losses, the West region is now almost as wide-open as the South—the first region to field a Sweet 16 without a top-four seed. Despite holding a double-digit lead in the second half, Xavier fell to Florida State 75-70 thanks to poor free throw shooting down the stretch and a well-timed Seminole run. The loss left the quarter without its top two seeds—both of whom entered Sunday among KenPom’s top 15 teams in the country.

But maybe placements on KenPom’s vaunted rankings don’t matter in this tournament. Virginia and Cincinnati had the first- and second-best defenses in college basketball. Tennessee was sixth, and Michigan State was 11th. Only six of the top 11 teams in KemPom’s overall rating remain in the hunt for a national title. Xavier may have been rated 15th overall, but did it make a difference that Florida State entered their second-round game ranked 32nd? In a tournament as topsy-turvy as this one has been, what tangible advantage does seventh-rated Gonzaga have over them? To make the Final Four, that game’s winner will have to go through the victor of Thursday’s Texas A&M–Michigan game. And while Michigan (ranked 10th) is KenPom’s three-point favorite over A&M (25th), based on Sunday’s results, would it surprise anyone if they lost by 20?

While teams in the tier below, like Purdue or Kentucky, possess the talent to make deep runs over the coming weeks, the only pre-tournament favorites that have looked the part in the first two rounds are no. 1 seed Villanova and no. 2 seed Duke. The Wildcats and Blue Devils blew past their opening opponents, winning their first- and second-round matchups by at least 22 points each. Despite facing challenges like Alabama’s Collin Sexton or Rhode Island’s E.C. Matthews, the blue bloods emerged unfazed. Throw in early losses by their presumptive Sweet 16 opponents Wichita State and Michigan State, and anything short of an Elite Eight appearance for Villanova or Duke would be a disgrace.

Of course, that may just mean that Duke and Villanova will be the next two teams to get devoured by the tournament. Listless play from top teams has been the defining trait of March. After Virginia’s loss to UMBC on Friday, TNT’s announcing crew speculated that other contenders would use the upset to refocus to avoid a similar fate. On Sunday, fans learned how few heeded that warning. College basketball’s titans are dropping like flies. And now, only one question remains: Who’s next?

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Nevada was a no. 10 seed; Nevada is a no. 7 seed.