The best NCAA March Madness teams by seed

The best NCAA March Madness teams by seed

Ranking the best schools to occupy Nos. 1-16 since 1985

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Danny Manning, Larry Brown and the 1988 Kansas Jayhawks are in the running for the best 6-seed ever.
Danny Manning, Larry Brown and the 1988 Kansas Jayhawks are in the running for the best 6-seed ever.
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The NCAA Tournament has become one of the most unpredictable, edge-of-your-seat sporting events of the year due to its knockout nature. It’s a clash of college basketball styles coming together as the calendar turns from winter to spring, pitting teams that usually never see each other on the same court with their seasons on the line.

Upsets happen every year in the tournament, while other teams that’ve been highly ranked all season continue their dominance to a Final Four. The 2022 edition of March Madness will be the first in three years with the possibility of full-capacity crowds, meaning few who’ll play under those bright lights have experienced it before.

As Selection Sunday looms closer, we’re looking at the best NCAA Tournament team at each seed. It’s not necessarily the teams that advanced the furthest or the squad that had the best overall season. It’s our best shot at the team that best stands out from its competition. Only teams from the 1985 NCAA Tournament to present day were eligible for this list, as the field expanded to 64 teams, giving an even playing field.

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16 — 2018 University of Maryland, Baltimore County

16 — 2018 University of Maryland, Baltimore County

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The only team to take down a No. 1 seed in the first round was the Retrievers four years ago. And they dominated the overall top seed Virginia in a 74-54 blowout. No. 16 seeds are still 1-143 all-time in the tournament, and the streak-breaker was one few outside of Baltimore, and maybe the biggest doubters from other Atlantic Coast Conference towns, saw coming.

The Cavaliers entered the game as 20.5-point favorites, but only mustered 21 first-half points to enter the halftime break tied with UMBC. Virginia’s stout defense disappeared in the second half as an early barrage out of the break handed the Retrievers a double-digit lead, which they never surrendered. UMBC couldn’t become the first 16 seed to reach the Sweet 16 two days later, falling 50-43 to Kansas State.

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15 — 2021 Oral Roberts

15 — 2021 Oral Roberts

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Two teams from the second-to-bottom rung of NCAA Tournament seeds have advanced to the Sweet 16. The nod goes to last year’s Oral Roberts team over the 2013 Florida Gulf Coast due to the quality of the Golden Eagles’ play in Indianapolis. Despite finishing the regular season with a 13-10 record, Oral Roberts turned it on in March by winning the Summit League Tournament, then taking down No. 2 seed Ohio State in overtime.

Oral Roberts followed that up with a three-point victory over Florida in the Round of 32. Perhaps the Golden Eagles best performance of the season came in the Sweet 16, giving Arkansas a steep test and nearly advancing past the Razorbacks, only falling to one of the country’s best teams by two points. Arguably the team’s biggest star, Kevin Obanor, now plays for Texas Tech and has a chance to star in the tournament again this season





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14 — 1986 Cleveland State

14 — 1986 Cleveland State

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There hasn’t been a 14-seed to make the Sweet 16 since 1997 and two have done it ever. Cleveland State is the best to ever receive a No. 14 seed for being the more dominant team that advanced the furthest, over the 1997 Chattanooga squad. The Vikings were dominant in the Association of Mid-Continent Universities league, now known as The Summit League, going 13-1 in conference play. Their remaining pair of regular-season losses were to then-No. 2 Michigan and Ohio State.

In the 1986 NCAA Tournament, Cleveland State took down Bobby Knight’s Indiana and then advanced to the Sweet 16 against St. Joseph’s. The Vikings’ season ended at the hands of Navy, led by David Robinson, by a single point. Cleveland State has made two NCAA Tournament appearances since. First, defeating Wake Forest in 2009 as a No. 13 seed before bowing out in the second round. In 2021, the Vikings returned to March Madness as a No. 15 seed, losing to Final Four-bound Houston.

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13 — 2013 La Salle

13 — 2013 La Salle

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Six teams have reached the Sweet 16 with none advancing to the Elite Eight. Among the six is an oddly competitive group of teams. The top spot goes to the most recent No. 13 seed to make it that far in La Salle, barely over the 1988 Richmond Spiders and Ohio’s 2012 squad. The Explorers finished tied for third in a stout Atlantic 10 Conference and lost its final two games before appearing in the tournament as part of the First Four.

La Salle won three NCAA Tournament games, first defeating Boise State. In the second and third rounds of the tournament, the Explorers beat Kansas State and Ole Miss. Their NCAA Tournament ended in the Sweet 16 to a team we’ll see later in this countdown. La Salle’s run concluded the school’s best season since its back-to-back national championship appearances in 1954 and 1955. It hasn’t been to the tournament since.

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12 — 2002 Missouri

12 — 2002 Missouri

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Those notable 5-12 upsets have the potential to turn into much more. A No. 12 seed is the lowest to ever make an Elite Eight, happening twice with last year’s Oregon State run and 20 years ago, current Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder guiding Missouri to a game away from the Final Four.

The Tigers were much better than the Beavers head-to-head, playing in a deeper conference with better players. Mizzou took down two nationally ranked teams to make it to the Sweet 16 in Miami and Ohio State. MU entered uncharted territory with its victory over UCLA, applying a little revenge for Tyus Edney, before bowing out of the competition with a loss to former Big 12 rival Oklahoma.

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11 — 2018 Loyola Chicago

11 — 2018 Loyola Chicago

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Five No. 11 seeds have made it to the Final Four with all but one of those occurrences happening over the past 16 years. After LSU’s 1986 appearance, no 11-seed appeared in the Final Four until George Mason’s breakthrough in 2006. The Patriots and fellow former CAA underdog VCU are edged out by Loyola Chicago as the best to ever start on the 11-line.

Although UCLA nearly took down No. 1 Gonzaga last season, the Ramblers’ run to the Final Four capped a 32-win season where they won Missouri Valley Conference. Loyola won its final 14 games of the season before reaching the Final Four, falling to runner-up Michigan. Who’ll ever forget Sister Jean, too?

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10 — 2008 Davidson

10 — 2008 Davidson

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This might’ve been the most competitive group of any individual seed. There’s only one Final Four team in the mix in 2016’s Syracuse run, but the Orange had far from the best overall season. Jim Boeheim’s squad couldn’t be the choice here with so much quality from other teams. Eight 10-seeds have made it to the Elite Eight, with a Steph Curry-led Davidson team edging out the others.

The Wildcats went undefeated in the Southern Conference, winning their last 25 games of the season before running into eventual-national-champion Kansas in the Elite Eight, only losing by two to the Jayhawks. Every team Davidson beat en route to the Elite Eight was nationally ranked at the end of the season in Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin. The other teams considered were 1987 LSU, 1990 Texas, 1997 Providence, and 2002 Kent State.

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9 — 2013 Wichita State

9 — 2013 Wichita State

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Only one 9-seed has made it to the Final Four and while the Shockers’ near-undefeated run the next season is just as memorable as the ’13 trip to the Final Four, most of the core from the pair of teams was the same. In 2013, Wichita State lost the Missouri Valley regular season and conference tournament crowns to Creighton before the Blue Jays left for the Big East.

The Shockers defeated Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, the best-13-seed-ever La Salle and Ohio State to reach the program’s first Final Four since 1965. Wichita State lost to eventual-champion Louisville, which had the title stripped by the NCAA in 2018 for players receiving improper benefits.

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8 — 1985 Villanova

8 — 1985 Villanova

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The first year the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, the lowest seed to ever win a national title took the crown in Villanova. The Wildcats won three close games to get to the Elite Eight, defeating Dayton, Michigan, and Maryland by a combined nine points. Villanova advanced to the championship game with larger wins over North Carolina and Memphis, setting up a showdown with the Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown Hoyas, who were also the defending champions, in the title game.

Villanova bested Georgetown by one point in each half to defeat its Big East rival for its first title in program history. Only three 8-seeds have made it to a championship game with 2011 Butler and 2014’s Kentucky team both losing the title matchup. Speaking of a 2014 title team …

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7 — 2014 UConn

7 — 2014 UConn

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The Huskies were a hard team to seed heading into the 2014 postseason, finishing third in the American Athletic Conference, winning 26 regular-season games, but never truly making a push into the season’s elite. UConn ended up on the 7-line and needed overtime to defeat St. Joseph’s in the first round.

From there, the Huskies took down four straight teams ranked in the top 11 of the country heading into the tournament in Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State and top-seed Florida. In the lowest-combined-seeded championship game of all-time, UConn defeated Kentucky 60-54 for the program’s fourth title in history.

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6 — 1988 Kansas

6 — 1988 Kansas

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Here comes “Danny and the Miracles” with an 11-loss team winning the national title in its backyard. The Jayhawks finished third in the Big Eight behind Oklahoma and Kansas State in 1987-88. The conference tournament took place at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, which was also the site of that year’s Final Four, just over 40 miles from Lawrence.

Kansas State defeated Kansas in the Big Eight Tournament. The Jayhawks rebounded to go on an unexpected run to a rematch with the Wildcats in the Elite Eight, defeating their in-state rivals by 13. After defeating Duke in the Final Four, Oklahoma stood in Larry Brown, Danny Manning and the rest of Kansas’ way to a title. The Jayhawks defeated the Sooners 83-79 in what was Brown’s final game as a college coach until 2012.

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5 — 2010 Butler

5 — 2010 Butler

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The highest seed to never win a national championship was a few inches away from doing so in 2010 on a missed buzzer-beater from the fingertips of Gordon Hayward. The Bulldogs played in the national championship game against Duke in their home city of Indianapolis and won 25 straight games heading into the matchup with the Blue Devils.

Butler won 33 games in 2009-10 and was again the national runners-up in 2011 under Brad Stevens’ leadership. The 2010 Bulldogs were stout defensively in the tournament. Outside of their 77-59 win over UTEP in their opening game, they scored 63 points or less in every tournament game.

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4 — 1997 Arizona

4 — 1997 Arizona

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Only one team from the 4-line has ever lifted a national title, and Lute Olson’s Wildcats did that 25 years ago. Arizona wasn’t a standout team in the regular season, finishing fifth in the Pac-10, garnering a conference record of only 11-7. In the tournament, the Wildcats only faced double-digit seeds or No. 1 seeds.

Three eventual first-round draft picks helped Arizona lift the trophy in Mike Bibby, Michael Dickerson, and Jason Terry. The Wildcats defeated two No. 1 seeds in the Final Four, first taking down North Carolina, then besting Kentucky in overtime to win the title. It’s the Wildcats only championship in program history.

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3 — 2003 Syracuse

3 — 2003 Syracuse

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Eleven of the 17 Final Four 3-seeds have advanced to the national championship game, with only four winning a title. None were better than the Syracuse team with pesky freshman Carmelo Anthony. The future NBA legend averaged a double-double for the Orange, with 22.2 points per game and 10 rebounds per game.

Syracuse went 30-5 in 2002-03, losing in the Big East tournament semifinals to UConn. In the tournament, the Orange won four of six games by double digits, escaping Auburn in the Sweet 16 by one point and beating Kansas in the championship game 81-78. Major contributors to that team also included Kueth Duany, Hakim Warrick, and Gerry McNamara.

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2 — 1998 Kentucky

2 — 1998 Kentucky

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Tubby Smith’s first season in Lexington couldn’t have gone any better, outside of losing four games. Kentucky won 35. The Wildcats were the Southeastern Conference regular season champions, SEC Tournament champions and then won the whole damn thing. Kentucky breezed to the Elite Eight with double-digit wins over South Carolina State, Saint Louis, and UCLA.

The Wildcats beat the No. 1 seed in their region, Duke, to advance to the Final Four. After defeating Stanford in overtime to reach the national championship, UK faced Utah and won 78-69 in Smith’s only Final Four appearance of his career.

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1 — 1990 UNLV

1 — 1990 UNLV

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Of course, the top seeds have so many amazing options to choose from. The Runnin’ Rebels get the nod because of their consistency and dominance over college basketball during that time. The 1989-90 squad finished 35-5, blowing out Duke 103-73 in the national championship game. UNLV’s only slip-up was a 2-point win over Ball State in the Sweet 16.

With the likes of Larry Johnson, Anderson Hunt, and Greg Anthony back for the next season, the Rebels won 45 straight games before losing in the 1991 Final Four by two, but were nearly untouchable for the entire season. The 1990 championship squad set up the tremendous run.

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