A few familiar Cinderellas have provided some of the greatest moments in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But every shocking upset from a ragtag mid-major also means something else: a big-name school has fallen on its face in spectacular fashion.
And it seems certain big-name schools are more prone to this than others. In tournaments over the past 10 years, Georgetown has lost its opening-round game playing as a No. 3, No. 6 and No. 2 seed. Arizona won a title and made a second Final Four in the 1990s but also peppered that decade with four losses in the opening round — and in each, the Wildcats were seeded No. 5 or better.
So are certain schools uniquely susceptible to March heartache? We looked back over every team’s opening-round game since the tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985 — including the round of 64 and the play-in games known as the First Four.1 Some higher seeds do seem to head home early more than others — and a few of those well-known names are putting together an interesting range of losses.
In the past 33 tournaments, 22 teams have made opening-round exits at least eight times.2 But most of those teams have typically been underdogs — teams that want to win, of course, but aren’t strictly supposed to. Brigham Young, for example, has lost its opening game 12 times, including once in the First Four, but never as a seed better than eighth.3 Only eight of those 22 teams were seeded better than their opponent in half or more of their opening-round losses. One of those teams is Arizona, which has lost 11 times in the round of 64 and as the better seed in six of those games — most recently in 2016 as a No. 6 seed to a Wichita State team that had to win a play-in game just to be there. Missouri and Indiana have each lost 10 round-of-64 games, though only five of the Tigers’ losses came as the better seed, while the Hoosiers were the better seed in eight of their defeats.
|School||Opening-round losses||Share as better seed than opponent|
|New Mexico State||11||18||
|East Tenn. State||8||0|
Georgetown, however, doesn’t show up in our list of biggest opening-round losers, even though it suffered high-profile losses to Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 and Ohio in 2010. Indeed, the Hoyas have lost at the start of the tournament only two other times since 1985, as a No. 6 seed in 2011 and a No. 10 seed in 1997.
But Georgetown does have something interesting in common with Arizona and Missouri, teams with high numbers of opening-round defeats. All three have lost an opening-round game as both a No. 2 and a No. 3 seed — a distinction they share with Duke, Iowa State, Michigan State and South Carolina.4
This got us thinking: If a team already has round-of-64 losses from two of the top three seeds, how many different seed lines could it lose from?
In this day and age, it would be tough to suffer opening-round defeat from every spot on the bracket (especially considering that a No. 16 has yet to fell a No. 1). Major-conference teams are almost guaranteed a seed somewhere between 1 and 11, so they have plenty of opportunities to fail from those seed slots.5 And 14 through 16 seeds are almost always automatic qualifiers from smaller conferences that will have a hard time ever reaching the higher seeds without moving to a power conference or magically transforming into Gonzaga. So, a reasonable goal — if you could call it that — might be to lose from 12 different seeds, or three-fourths of those possible.
It takes a special kind of program to have a diversified portfolio of early tournament losses. It has to be good enough to make the tournament often but not so good that it never loses its opener. So teams like Kansas are out: The Jayhawks have made the tournament every year but one since 19856 but have lost only two of their 32 round-of-64 matchups. (Duke is in a similar position, with only two opening-round losses other than its two highly seeded defeats.) The team also needs enough regular-season inconsistency from year to year to receive tourney bids from many different seeds — a program that’s good enough for a No. 4 seed one year but just the right amount of mediocre for a No. 10 seed the next.
This merit badge of losing might not be possible; no team has reached even the three-fourths mark. These are the programs with opening-round losses from at least six different seeds:
|Lost when seeded …|
These teams are closest to running the table, but they all still have a long way to go. Iowa State has some of the hardest seeds out of the way — losing as a No. 27 and No. 38 — but also handling the tricky 12 and 13 spots. To get to three-fourths of the seeds, all the Cyclones need to do is lose from those middle seeds of 4 through 7, 9 and 11. (For a long-suffering fan of the cardinal and gold, this feels like an attainable goal.)
West Virginia is another team with a good range of losses, and unlike the Cyclones, the Mountaineers actually have a chance to add to their total this year. West Virginia is seeded fifth in the East region — a seed from which it has never lost in the round of 64. The 5-vs.-12 matchups are already ripe for upsets, as we know, so I’ll be picking Murray State to take down the Mountaineers and hand them a fresh seed loss. Like Iowa State and West Virginia, Murray State has six differently seeded opening-round losses, but one of those already came from the No. 12 seed, unfortunately. Penn also could have built on its total this year, but it’s already lost as a No. 16 seed. (And, of course, we’re hoping that the Quakers make another kind of history.)
The teams on top of our loser’s bracket, Arizona and Missouri, have lost as eight different seeds, an impressive feat. Both teams have been responsible for several busted brackets, having fallen from the second, third and fourth seeds. We were hopeful that each team could add a notch to its belt this year, but the selection committee didn’t come through for us. Arizona is missing a No. 7 seed loss, but the Wildcats were too strong, securing the No. 4 seed in the South region. Missouri had more options in the middle, needing a No. 5 or a No. 7, but no such luck for the Tigers (well, really, for us) — they ended up with the No. 8 seed in the West.
No team wants an early exit from the tournament. But if you’re going to lose your first game, it may as well be in a new and interesting way.
Check out our latest March Madness predictions.