The biggest upset possible in March Madness is a 16 taking down a 1 seed. It was once thought to be impossible, until UMBC (University of Maryland – Baltimore County) stunned the world by upsetting the Virginia Cavaliers in 2018.
It’s typically a foregone conclusion that those teams will win their opening game against the No. 16 seed, as an upset has happened just once in the history of the Big Dance.
As millions of fans fill out their NCAA tournament brackets and prepare to start betting on the biggest tournament of the year, the bookmakers are setting lines on the NCAA Tournament games with biggest point spreads in the 1 vs. 16 match-ups.
March Madness 2021: 1 vs. 16 seed
West – No. 16 Norfolk State vs. No. 1 Gonzaga
Norfolk State edged out Appalachian State for the chance to play the NCAA Tournament’s top overall seed Gonzaga. While UMBC finally solidified “never say never” by being the only 16 seed to beat a one seed, Gonzaga () can be penciled in for a first-round win. The Zags lead the nation in scoring, scoring margin, and shooting percentage. It’s a talent problem for whichever 16 seed grabs the spot and it’d be foolish to think otherwise.
Catch Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, March 20 at 9:20pm EST on TBS.
South – No. 16 Hartford vs. No. 1 Baylor
The Hartford Hawks have made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in their 37-season history. They get a first-round matchup with the Baylor Bears (), who were unable to secure the Big 12 Championship, but were named the second overall seed. Hartford has played great defense all year, but lacked in the scoring and size department– something Baylor excels in. If you’re looking for the 16-over-1 Cinderella story, this likely isn’t where you’ll find it.
This game tips off Friday, March 19 at 3:30pm EST and is televised on truTV.
East – No. 16 Texas Southern vs. No. 1 Michigan
Texas Southern beat out Mount Saint Mary’s in the First Four for the 16th seed in the East Region on Thursday and faces Michigan, who was awarded a top seed despite not winning the Big Ten championship. The Wolverines () are without Isaiah Livers, who suffered a foot fracture before missing the Big Ten Tournament, but still have plenty of talent on their roster to make a deep tournament run. Texas Southern took the Southwestern Conference as the third seed and secured their first tournament berth under head coach Johnny Jones (since 2018).
Michigan opens up their 2021 NCAA Tournament run on Saturday, March 20 at 3:30pm EST and will be televised on CBS.
Midwest – No. 16 Drexel vs. No. 1 Illinois
Illinois () won a thrilling Big Ten championship game over Ohio State in overtime and secured the final top seed in the NCAA Tournament. They take on CAA champion Drexel, who secured their first autobid since 1996 as a six seed in the conference. As a lower-seed from a smaller conference, it would be a true miracle for Drexel to overcome Illinois.
This game tips off Friday, March 19 at 1:15pm EST and is televised on TBS.
Bracket and odds
Who usually gets placed in the 1 vs. 16 game?
The NCAA committee selects NCAA Tournament teams based on a number of criteria, and the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) was added prior to the 2019 tournament. The NET relies on game results, strength of schedule, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency, game location and the quality of wins and losses in determining NCAA Tournament teams and seedings.
The No. 16 seed teams don’t have the strength of schedule or quality wins over top teams, or what the committee considers Quadrant 1 wins. But those teams also don’t get the opportunity to schedule major conference teams during the regular season. The imbalance from athletic budgets, size, strength and skills of the players is wider overall compared to the major conference players and teams. Sixteen seeds are often winners of lower-tier conference tournaments.
The No. 1 seeds, meanwhile, are the dominant teams who won their conference and are most often from the Power-6 conferences. Gonzaga is an outlier as the Bulldogs have been an annual power out of the smaller West Coast Conference. They will secure their fourth No. 1 seed in school history for the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga was also set to be a No. 1 seed in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic caused the shutdown of that year’s tourney.
One seeds are ranked in the top 5 of the final Associated Press Poll. They possess the strongest stat profiles and have proven to be the best teams. The No. 16 seeds are from small conferences that won their conference tournament and secured the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Some of these weaker teams failed to win their regular season title, but got through their conference tournament to advance to the Big Dance.
1 vs. 16: What happened last time?
The last NCAA Tournament came in 2019, and No. 1 seeds went 4-0 SU, but 1-3 ATS. Gonzaga had the biggest blowout win in a 87-49 beatdown of Northeast Conference winner Fairleigh Dickinson. A record three ACC teams were No. 1 seeds, but none of them covered the point spread in the opening round. Duke (27.5) beat Summit League champion North Dakota State, 85-62. Virginia (-22.5) stifled Big South champ Gardner Webb, 71-56. North Carolina (-24.5) outgunned Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) champ Iona, 88-73.
All four No. 1 seeds won in the Round of 32 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen as well. Three won by double-digits, but Duke escaped a major upset in a 77-76 win over No. 9 Central Florida.
North Carolina was the first No. 1 seed to go down in a 97-80 loss to No. 5 Auburn in the Sweet 16. Duke then lost to No. 2 Michigan State 68-67 in the Elite Eight. Gonzaga also went down to No. 3 Texas Tech, 75-69. Virginia was the only No. 1 seed to advance to the Final Four, but they needed overtime to beat No. 3 Purdue, 80-75.
Virginia then beat Auburn in a controversial national semifinal, 63-62. The Virginia Cavaliers won the 2019 National Championship with a 85-77 overtime win over No. 3 Texas Tech.
History since 2000
Number 1 seeds are 139-1 SU (99.3%) vs. No. 16 seeds since 1985. Since 2000, those big favorites and No. 1 seeds are 75-1 SU. The history of the 1 vs 16 matchup finally had a stunning finish and result in 2018 when UMBC became the first 16 seed ever to upset a No. 1 seed.
Very few fans knew what UMBC stood for or the team’s name or conference. But the University of Maryland, Baltimore County from the American East conference were the talk of the sports world after the Retrievers upset the ACC champs and top seed Virginia, 74-54. UMBC had been a 20.5 point underdog. The Retrievers finished the season 21-11 after losing in the next round to Kansas State, while Virginia finished 31-3.
The 1 vs 16 match-ups are often blowouts with large spreads. But since 2012, the lower seed has gone 17-15 ATS when betting on March Madness. In both 2014 and 2020, No. 16 seeds covered the spread in 3-of-4 games.
Eight times since 2000 has a No. 16 seed stayed within 10 points of a No. 1 seed. Most recently, Syracuse held off UNC Asheville 72-65 in 2012, and in 2013 Kansas avoided the upset in a 64-57 win over Western Kentucky. In 2014, Arizona won by nine points over Weber State, 68-59.
Going back further for the other closest games – Michigan State beat Murray State 75-71 in 1991, and in 1996 – Purdue edged Western Carolina, 73-71. That was the last time a No. 1 versus 16 seed game had been decided by one possession – according to NCAA.com.
Success of 1 vs. 16 seeds
While UMBC is the only 16 seed to pull the historic upset, two other teams suffered 1-point losses to a top seed. They both happened in 1989. In the classic David versus Goliath, Princeton slowed down the game and used its smarts and motion offense to take Georgetown to the wire before falling 50-49. Then top seed Oklahoma stormed back from a 17 point deficit to avoid history and outlast East Tennessee State (ETSU), 72-71.
One year after losing as a top seed in the opening round, Virginia returned as a No. 1 seed again and won the school’s first national championship in 2019. The Cavaliers were the third straight No. 1 seed to cut down the nets and win the NCAA Tournament. Villanova swept through the 2018 tournament to win each game by double digits and reward bettors by going 6-0 ATS. North Carolina cut down the nets in winning the 2017 tournament.
Since the field expanded in 1985, North Carolina (14), Duke (14), Kansas (14) and Kentucky (10) have been a No. 1 seed the most times. A No. 1 seed has won the NCAA Tournament 22 times since 1985, and those teams have reached the Final Four 56 times.
Only once have all four No. 1 seeds made it to the Final Four, and that was in 2008 when Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina and UCLA all advanced to the national semifinals. There have been seven National Championship games pitting a 1 seed versus a 1 seed since 1985.