Everybody loves an underdog during the NCAA Tournament, especially when it takes down a No. 1 seed in the process. Top seeds falling in the first or second rounds happen more than we think, but only once has a No. 16 seed stunned a No. 1.
Whether overrated and underachieving, here’s a look at some of the worst performances by No. 1 seeds in the history of the NCAA Tournament. Listed in chronological order.
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North Carolina (1979)
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Dean Smith had many great teams at North Carolina, winning two national championships and making the Final Four 11 times in all. During the 1978-79 season, Smith’s Tar Heels entered the NCAA Tournament, the first to seed the entire field, with a 23-5 record and a No. 1 seed. However, after receiving a first-round bye, Carolina fell 72-71 to upstart Penn, which reached the Final Four, where it lost to eventual champ Michigan State. The Tar Heels allowed Anthony Price and the Quakers to shoot 51.8 percent.
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After reaching the Final Four in 1979 with a relatively young squad, the future seemed bright for the DePaul program. Instead, the NCAA Tournament during the early 1980s proved to be somewhat of a nightmare for legendary coach Ray Meyer and his Blue Demons. In 1979-80, DePaul won its first 25 games before losing to Notre Dame in late February. When it came time for the NCAA Tournament, the top-seeded Blue Demons, who featured future NBA stars Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings, shot just 40.5 percent and allowed 43-second half points to UCLA in their opening 77-71 defeat.
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Yep, the Blue Demons again. At 27-1, DePaul entered the 1981 tournament ranked No. 1 in the nation. Awaiting in its opener was ninth-seeded Saint Joseph’s, which needed a one-point victory over No. 8 seed Creighton in the first round to stay alive. DePaul shot 51.2 percent against the Hawks, but the aforementioned Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings were held to a combined 14 points as the Hawks shot 56.1 percent and scored the go-ahead layup by John Smith with 2 seconds remaining to pull off a stunning 49-48 victory.
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Oregon State (1981)
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DePaul was not the only No. 1 seed at the 1981 NCAA Tournament to go down in its opener — on the exact same day. “The Orange Express” teams of the early 1980s at Oregon State were pretty special — until those NCAA Tournament appearances were vacated due to violations. This 1980-81 team earned a No. 1 seed, but like DePaul, was stunned by a late shot. Kansas State, down 11 in the second half, pulled off the 50-48 upset of the Beavers when Rolando Blackman hit a tiebreaking jumper with two seconds remaining in regulation.
We promise this is the last time we’ll talk about DePaul’s tournament futility as a No. 1 seed. The Blue Demons were 26-1 and carried a 21-game winning streak into their 1982 tournament opener. Terry Cummings recorded 20 points and 17 rebounds for DePaul, but the favorites had no real defensive answer for a Boston College squad that shot 53.7 percent and went to the free-throw line a whopping 42 times to earn the 82-75 upset in the second round. Five Blue Demons fouled out of this contest.
There was plenty of talent on this 1984-85 Michigan squad — Roy Tarpley, Gary Grant, Antoine Joubert. The Wolverines were the Big Ten champs and the No. 2 team in the country. However, when the NCAA Tournament rolled around, top-seeded Michigan couldn’t find its form. Coach Bill Frieder’s Wolverines barely got by Farleigh Dickinson in their tournament opener and then were upset by Cinderella and eventual national champion Villanova, despite shooting 51.0 percent, 59-55 in the second round.
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St. John’s (1986)
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This Lou Carnesecca group won 31 games, a Big East title, and was poised to reach the Final Four of a second consecutive season. Unfortunately for St, John’s, that did not happen. After shooting 57.4 percent, but beating Montana by just nine to open its tournament, St. John’s was thumped by eight-seeded Auburn in the second 81-65. The Tigers shot 53.0 percent and held a whopping 38-22 advantage on the glass and forced 16 turnovers to upset St. John’s.
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Led by Skeeter Henry, this Oklahoma squad won its first 12 games and eventually earned the program’s third consecutive No. 1 seed. Unlike the previous two teams, this group did not make it past the second of the NCAA Tournament. Now, these Sooners certainly had a right to claim the No. 1 seed, even with four losses entering the event. However, Billy Tubbs’ crew only beat first-round opponent Towson State by nine before falling to Rick Fox and North Carolina by two in the round of 32.
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Michigan State (1990)
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Another one from the 1990 tournament. Now, in the Spartans’ defense, they did reach the Sweet 16, but it was far from an easy road. They needed overtime to beat Murray State in the first round, then barely got by No. 9 seed UC Santa Barbara 62-58 in the round. Michigan State’s luck finally ran out in the regional semifinals, when it fell 81-80 in double-overtime to a fourth-seeded Georgia Tech squad that reached the Final Four.
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The Jayhawks won the Big Eight title but also lost three of its final nine regular-season games before winning the conference tournament. That certainly gave Kansas momentum as a No. 1 seed, and it opened the tournament with a 100-67 rout of Howard. The fun would end though, as Kansas shot just 42.6 percent and could never shake pesky No. 9 seed UTEP in the second round, falling 66-60 in one of the tournament’s biggest upsets.
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North Carolina (1994)
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Carolina had six losses entering the 1994 Big Dance. Yet, Rasheed Wallace, Eric Montrose, and Co. should have been good enough to stick around for awhile in the tournament. Instead, the Tar Heels lasted only to the second round. That’s when North Carolina got beat 75-72 by No. 9 seed Boston College in an ugly game where both teams shot below 40 percent and the favorite committed 14 turnovers en route to an early exit.
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The Boilermakers were riding an 11-game winning streak when they lost their regular-season finale at Iowa. Maybe that was a harbinger for the NCAA Tournament. Purdue earned the top seed in the West Region, but barely survived Western Carolina, 73-71, to open the tournament. Coach Gene Keady’s Boilers weren’t as fortunate in the second round as No. 8 seed Georgia shot almost 49 percent and led by 13 at halftime of a 76-69 upset.
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The 2000 NCAA Tournament was not a good one for two members of the current Pac-12 Conference. Let’s start with Arizona, co-league champions. Despite splitting their final four games of the regular season and taking six losses into the NCAA Tournament, Gilbert Arenas, Michael Wright, and Wildcats earned a No. 1 seed for the event. They lasted all of two rounds, losing 66-59 to pesky eighth-seeded Wisconsin in their second game.
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The Cardinal were other Pac-12 (then known as the Pac-10) No. 1 seed to underachieve in the 2000 version of the Big Dance. Stanford was 25-1 when it lost back-to-back games against UCLA and aforementioned Arizona before closing the regular season with a victory. Casey Jacobsen, Mark Madsen, and the Cardinal won their tournament opener by 19 but shot 34.5 percent in losing 60-53 to North Carolina, which entered with 13 losses but reached the Final Four, in the second round.
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In defense of these Wildcats, only one No. 1 seed reached the Final Four during this tournament. The Wildcats, void of a marquee star, had five losses coming into the event and won their opener over Florida A&M by 20. Then, it was UAB, a No. 9 seed, in the second round. Kentucky committed 16 turnovers and was unable to fully overcome a nine-point halftime deficit to avoid the upset.
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Led by Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, the Jayhawks were 32-2 and the overall No. 1 seed heading into the 2010 NCAA Tournament. They make this list because they could not make it out of the opening weekend. Kansas was solid in dispatching Lehigh to open the tournament, but then were part of one of the great upsets in the history of the Big Dance. Ali Farokhmanesh’s clinching shot in the final minute helped ninth-seeded Northern Iowa take down Kansas 69-67 in the second round. It was the first time in six seasons that a No. 1 seed lost in the round of 32.
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Even with five losses, Pitt earned a No. 1 seed in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. That also came after losing to upstart Connecticut (the eventual national champion) in its opener of the Big East tournament. The Panthers got by UNC Asheville to open the Big Dance but were upset by another underdog on a roll, Butler, in their second game — 71-70. Pitt has gone 1-3 in NCAA Tournament games since that defeat.
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Gonzaga has underachieved at times during the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps none more than the 2013 tournament. The Zags were 31-2, but many college hoops pundits didn’t think they were worthy of a top seed considering they went 1-2 against ranked teams during the regular season. Such critics were proved right. Gonzaga struggled to put away Southern University 64-58 in its opener, then shot 35.6 percent and committed 13 turnovers during a 76-70 loss to Wichita State in the Round of 32.
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College hoops fans know about that massive upset of a No. 1 seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament (we’ll get there), but there was another in the same event. Though not nearly as memorable. At 29-5, Xavier managed to earn a No. 1 seed despite not winning the Big East tournament. After rolling over Texas Southern in the first round, the Musketeers got outplayed by Florida State’s bench and lost 75-70 in the second round. A result that wasn’t all too shocking.
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It’s not fair to say Virginia was not worthy of a No. 1 seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers won 31 games and allowed 54 points per contest, but ran into a first-round buzzsaw in the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). The Retrievers shot a ridiculous 54.2 percent, highlighted by 12 3-pointers, to blow out Virginia 74-54 to become the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1. The silver lining for Virginia, obviously, was that it won the national title the next season.
Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.