It seems like a safe pick — riding the top ranked team before the tournament to the top of your bracket game leaderboard. In theory, picking the final AP No. 1 team should produce a great chance to win the NCAA tournament, right? 

Not really. It’s happened just once since 2001 and only four times since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

That cold fact hasn’t deterred couch bracketologists, though. Looking at data from the past nine years taken from millions of brackets, the team that finishes No. 1 in the final AP poll before the tournament has been selected to win it all in almost a quarter of the brackets. Yet only one of those seven — Kentucky in 2012 – actually ran the table.

That Kentucky team was hardly a runaway choice among bracket pickers. The Wildcats were tabbed to win in only 19.57 percent of the brackets in 2012. Only Gonzaga in 2013 — selected to win the tournament in just 4.87 percent of brackets, Villanova in 2017 — selected to win in 12.25 percent of brackets — and Virginia in 2018, selected to win in 16.46 percent of brackets — generated less faith among bracket players over the past nine years. And the players’ hesitation on all three of those teams was warranted; more on that below.

Year Team (record) Picked to win championship Picked to be upset in 1st rd. Result
2019 Duke (29-5) 39.12% 1.46% Elite Eight
2018 Virginia (31-2) 16.46% 2.06% Round of 64
2017 Villanova (31-3) 12.25% 1.88% Round of 32
2016 Kansas (30-4) 21.42% 1.32% Elite Eight
2015 Kentucky (34-0) 34.2% 1.1% Final Four
2014 Florida (32-2) 21.28% 1.02% Final Four
2013 Gonzaga (31-2) 4.87% 1.23% Round of 32
2012 Kentucky (32-2) 19.57% 0.68% NCAA Champion
2011 Ohio State (32-2) 20.32% 0.46% Sweet 16

The 2012 Wildcats, led by Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Doron Lamb, among others, won their six tournament games by an average of 11.83 points (none by fewer than eight points) on their way to the program’s eighth national title. It was the first time since Duke in 2001 — a team led by All-Americans Shane Battier and Jay Williams — that a team ranked No. 1 in the final AP poll captured the national championship.

Even if choosing the AP No. 1 to win it all is far from a guarantee, it’s much safer than picking that team to be upset in the first round. Still, about 1 percent of the millions of brackets we looked at over the last nine years did that — picked the No. 1 team in the final AP poll to be upset by a No. 16 seed. A friendly reminder that ONE No 16 seed has ever beaten a 1 seed in the history of the NCAA tournament.

In 2018, Virginia finished the season at No. 1 in the AP poll, yet were picked to be upset in the first round in 2.06 percent of brackets, a record high for the period we looked at. Sure enough, the Cavaliers lost to 16-seed UMBC, by 20 points no less. Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to not reach the Round of 32 since the tournament expanded in 1985. That result surpassed 2016 Villanova and 2013 Gonzaga for the earliest departure for an AP No. 1 in the past nine years.

Lyles leads UMBC over Virginia

In 2019, AP No. 1 Duke (which finished with a 29-5 regular-season record) was picked to lose to No. 16 seed North Dakota State in 1.46 percent of brackets. Instead, the Blue Devils handled the Bison 85-62 to start their run to the Elite Eight, where they fell to Michigan State 68-67. That Duke team was also picked by 39.12 percent of brackets to win the championship, overwhelmingly the highest percentage from our nine-year range.

So what lessons are to be learned from this? Mainly an affirmation for bracket players: Records — and rankings — don’t matter as much in March.

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