NCAA Tournament Mar 13, 2023; Dayton, OH, USA; General view of the March Madness logo at UD Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA Tournament is perhaps the wildest sporting event of the year for many fans. It often leads to truly unpredictable teams coming out of nowhere to make a deep run and produce huge upsets. However, some teams simply get lost in history and forgotten about. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the best teams in the history of the NCAA Tournament in their respective seed.

For the purposes of this rankings list, we will only look at teams dating back to 1985. That’s when the NCAA Tournament was expanded to a 64-team format. The list will largely be based on how dominant each team looked in their NCAA Tournament run, along with how deep they were able to make it into the tournament.

No. 16: UMBC Retrievers (2018)

We start with an obvious one. The UMBC Retrievers were the first and (to date) only 16-seed to ever beat a No. 1, shocking a 31-3 Virginia team. Not only that, but they did so surprisingly dominantly, easily handling the Cavaliers, 74-54.

What makes this even more impressive is that Virginia would go on to win the NCAA Tournament the following season. Unfortunately for the Retrievers, this would be as far as they would go, losing in the second round to Kansas State.

Honorable mentions: Princeton Tigers (1990), Eastern Tennessee State Buccaneers (1989)

While UMBC is the only team to accomplish the feat of beating a 1-seed, Princeton came incredibly close to doing so as well. The Tigers took No. 1 seeded Georgetown led by Alonzo Mourning to the wire in 1990, losing 50-49 in an incredibly close effort.

Eastern Tennessee State probably should have gone down as the first 16-seed to ever beat a 1-seed in 1989. The Bucs blew a 17-point lead to Oklahoma in 1989, losing by one point against the Sooners.

No. 15: Saint Peter’s Peacocks (2022)

Saint Peter’s miraculous run is probably the one that’s most fresh in people’s minds when thinking of a true Cinderella team. The Peacocks began their run by beating No. 2 seed Kentucky. They then went on to beat Murray State and Purdue to become the first 15-seed to ever reach the Elite Eight. Their run would fall just short of a Final Four appearance, clearly overmatched by an imposing North Carolina team.

Honorable mentions: Oral Roberts Golden Eagles (2021), Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (2012)

Oral Roberts, who returns to the NCAA Tournament this season, may have trouble topping their 2021 tournament run. The Golden Eagles, led by Max Abmas, shocked the No. 2 seeded Ohio State Buckeyes and the Florida Gators to reach to Sweet 16. They ultimately fell just shy of an Elite Eight appearance with a two-point loss to Arkansas.

Florida Gulf Coast earned the nickname ‘Dunk City’ in 2012 with its shocking upset over Georgetown. The Eagles followed that up with another win over San Diego State before ultimately falling to Florida in the Sweet 16.

No. 14: Cleveland State Vikings (1986)

In an opening round matchup, Cleveland State knocked off No. 3 seeded Indiana, who went on to win the NCAA Tournament the following season. The Vikings then defeated Saint Joseph’s in the second round before narrowly falling to a David Robinson-led Navy team in the Sweet 16.

Honorable mentions: Chattanooga Mocs (1997), Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (2016)

Chattanooga also reached the Sweet 16 beating Georgia and Illinois, just with slightly less difficult competition than Cleveland State had in their run. 

Stephen F. Austin has been a tournament darling in several different years in the last decade. One of its four tournament runs in the past ten years came in 2016. The Lumberjacks upset West Virginia in their first matchup and narrowly lost a heartbreaker to Notre Dame in the second round.

No. 13: La Salle Explorers (2013)

There have been four 13-seeds that have moved onto the second round dating back to 2013. Of those teams, the La Salle Explorers had the best run by far. La Salle gets a bonus for getting through the First Four Round of the tournament. The Explorers beat Boise State in this preliminary round before defeating Kansas State and Ole Miss to reach the Sweet 16. La Salle’s excellent run fell short before reaching the Elite Eight against Wichita State.

Honorable mentions: Ohio Bobcats (2012), Bradley Braves (2006)

Ohio started the tournament run in 2012 by taking out No. 4 seed Michigan, who went on to play in the National Championship the next season. The Bobcats then defeated South Florida before falling to No. 1 seed North Carolina in the Sweet 16.

Bradley had one of the more memorable NCAA Tournament wins in the first round over perennial college basketball powerhouse Kansas. The Braves followed that up with a win over Pittsburgh before falling in the Sweet 16 to Memphis.

No. 12: Oregon State Beavers (2021)

The Beavers beat a number of extremely talented teams like Tennessee, Oklahoma State led by Detroit Pistons star Cade Cunningham, and Loyola Chicago before ultimately falling to Houston in the Elite Eight. Perhaps what is most impressive about this run is that they were underdogs in all of their final six games of the season dating back to the Pac-12 Tournament.

Honorable mentions: Missouri Tigers (2002)

The Tigers were the first 12 seed to make it past the Sweet 16. Coached by current Atlanta Hawks head coach Quin Snyder, Missouri would beat Miami, Ohio State, and UCLA before falling to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight.

No. 11: UCLA Bruins (2021)

This is by far the hardest seed to rank to this point. Five 11-seeds have made the Final Four, but UCLA came to closest to making the championship game. The Bruins made it out of the First Four Round against Michigan State, which sparked an amazing stretch of play. They went on to beat BYU, Abilene Christian, Alabama, and Michigan before a Final Four matchup against Gonzaga.

Ultimately, a ridiculous overtime game-winner from Gonzaga star and current Orlando Magic player Jalen Suggs kept the Bruins from the finals.

Honorable mentions: George Mason Patriots (2006), VCU Rams (2011)

George Mason is one of the first and potentially the most famous Cinderella teams to reach the Final Four. The Patriots beat blueblood programs like Michigan State, UNC, and UConn along with a fellow Cinderella team Wichita State to reach Final Four. George Mason would ultimately come up just short against Florida in the Final Four.

The 2011 VCU Rams were the best of seven NCAA Tournament teams for current Marquette coach Shaka Smart while he was coaching the program. They beat USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State, and Kansas before losing to Butler in the Final Four. 

No. 10: Syracuse Orange (2016)

In 2016, the Orange became the only No. 10 seed to make the Final Four. They beat Dayton, Middle Tennessee, and Gonzaga before an unbelievable 15-point second-half comeback against Virginia helped them secure a Final Four spot.

Syracuse’s miraculous run would finally come to an end against North Carolina in the Final Four. 

Honorable mentions: Davidson Wildcats (2008), Gonzaga Bulldogs (1999)

Led by NBA superstar Steph Curry, Davidson had a miraculous Cinderella run in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats knocked off some massive titans of college basketball, defeating Gonzaga, Georgetown, and Wisconsin before narrowly losing to No. 1 seed and eventual national champion Kansas in the Elite Eight. 

Gonzaga’s Elite Eight run in 1999 happened after beating Minnesota, Stanford, and Florida before falling short against the UConn Huskies, who ultimately won the championship that season. This run also sparked 22 consecutive seasons of making the NCAA Tournament at Gonzaga which is still intact today. 

No. 9: Wichita State Shockers (2013)

The Wichita State Shockers had a number of great NCAA Tournament runs in the last ten years. This was by far their most successful, making it all the way to the Final Four led by Gregg Marshall. They would beat Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, La Salle, and Ohio State before losing to eventual champions Louisville. 

Honorable Mentions: Wisconsin Badgers (2000) 

Wisconsin is the only other team at the seed to make it to the Final Four. The Badgers would beat Fresno State, Arizona, LSU, and Purdue before losing to eventual champs Michigan State.

No. 8: Villanova Wildcats (1985)

The Wildcats were the first team to benefit from the NCAA Tournament expanding to a 64-team format. They likely wouldn’t have been in the tournament otherwise and certainly took advantage of the opportunity in a massive way. To date, they’re the lowest seed to ever win the NCAA Tournament. They did so by defeating Dayton, Michigan, Maryland, North Carolina and Memphis before a massive upset in the championship game against Georgetown with Patrick Ewing. 

Honorable mentions: Kentucky Wildcats (2014), North Carolina Tar Heels (2022)

Kentucky was an underachieving team for most of the season with a ton of NBA talent in 2014. However, the Wildcats turned things on in a massive way come tournament time, defeating Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan, and Wisconsin before falling to UConn in the championship game. 

North Carolina actually had a similar story to Kentucky, unimpressive for most of the 2022 season. However, the Tar Heels rattled off wins over Marquette, Baylor, UCLA, Saint Peter’s, and Duke before famously blowing a massive lead to Kansas in the championship game. 

No. 7: UConn Huskies (2014)

The UConn Huskies are the only seven seed to win the NCAA Tournament. Led by star point guard Shabazz Napier, they would defeat Saint Joseph’s, Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State, Florida, and Kentucky to win the championship under second-year head coach at the time Kevin Ollie. 

Honorable mentions: Michigan State Spartans (2015)

Legendary head coach Tom Izzo has had a number of great teams in the NCAA Tournament. However, this is perhaps one of his best coaching jobs, leading the Spartans to wins over Georgia, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Louisville. They would ultimately fall to Duke in the Final Four, who went on to win the Tournament. 

No. 6: Kansas Jayhawks (1988)

The Jayhawks hold the distinction of being the only 6-seed in the 64-field format to ever win the NCAA Tournament. Led by Danny Manning, Kansas beat Xavier, Murray State, Vanderbilt, Kansas State, Duke, and Oklahoma to win the big dance.

Honorable mentions: Michigan Wolverines  (1992)

This Michigan team was perhaps the most iconic that the program has ever had, led by the famed ‘Fab Five’ of Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson. Michigan certainly had the talent to win multiple championships but did not do so. This was the first of two National Championship losing teams with the Fab Five.

No. 5: Butler Bulldogs (2010)

Surprisingly, 5-seeds have never won the NCAA Tournament. That makes for an incredibly hard choice for the best team to come from this seed. But no 5-seed has ever come closer than Butler. The Bulldogs, led by Gordon Hayward, went on a miraculous run. They defeated UTEP, Murray State, Syracuse, Kansas State, and Michigan State to reach the National Championship. Butler faced off against Duke in the tournament final, where a half-court buzzer-beater from Gordon Hayward half-court buzzer-beater just missed. 

Honorable mentions: Florida Gators (2000), Indiana Hoosiers (2002)

Florida was led by former NBA players Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem. The Gators made it all the way to the National Championship under Billy Donovan, beating Butler, Illinois, Duke, Oklahoma State, and North Carolina. They would ultimately lose to Michigan State in the championship game. 

Indiana also made it to the National Championship. Led by NBA veteran Jared Jeffries, the Hoosiers would beat No. 1 seeds Duke and Oklahoma before ultimately losing to Maryland in the final game. 

No. 4: Arizona Wildcats (1997)

The Wildcats were led by a number of NBA players — such as Mike Bibby and Jason Terry — and had one of the most difficult runs through the NCAA Tournament of anyone on this list. Arizona became the first team in the 64-team format to beat three 1-seeds in their run, capping off its tournament run with a National Championship victory over Kentucky.

Honorable mentions: Michigan Wolverines (2013), Syracuse Orange (1996) 

Michigan made it all the way to the National Championship, thanks to the impressive play from standout guard Trey Burke and a number of future NBA players such as Nic Stauskas and Tim Hardaway. The Wolverines ultimately lost to Louisville in the championship game in an extremely close affair. 

The Orange beat Montana State, Drexel, Georgia, Paul Pierce-led Kansas, and Mississippi State to make it to the championship game. Syracuse would ultimately lose to No. 1 seed Kentucky in the final game. 

No. 3: Florida Gators (2006)

The Florida Gators were one of the more dominant programs in the mid-2000s, winning back-to-back National Championships. Led by future NBA stars Joakim Noah and Al Horford, they would win all but one tournament game by ten points in 2006, including their National Championship victory over a star-studded UCLA team. 

Honorable mentions: Syracuse Orange (2003), Michigan Wolverines (1989)

Syracuse was led by one of the greatest freshmen in college basketball history Carmelo Anthony. The Orange beat a number of talented teams like Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma to cut down the nets.

Michigan became the first 3-seed in the 64-team format of the NCAA Tournament to win a National Championship in 1989. They did so despite some very difficult circumstances, with a head coaching change just before the NCAA Tournament began.

No. 2: Duke Blue Devils (1991)

The first of back-to-back championship teams led by Coach Mike Krzyzewski and star forward Christian Laettner. This was a year before Laettner’s famous (or infamous depending on your perspective) game-winning shot over Kentucky. While that team will also be mentioned later, this team perhaps had a more difficult road than their team a year later. In 1991, the Blue Devils beat the likes of top overall No. 1 seed UNLV with Larry Johnson and Kansas to win it all. 

Honorable mentions: UConn Huskies (2004)

This is perhaps the best team of legendary head coach Jim Calhoun at UConn. Led by future NBA standouts Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor, the Huskies would go on to beat impressive teams like Duke with Chris Duhon and Luol Deng, as well as Georgia Tech with Jarrett Jack to win the National Championship.

No. 1: Kentucky Wildcats (2012)

It’s certainly paid off in the past to be a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Dating back to 1985, a 1-seed has won the Big Dance 23 times. That makes it incredibly difficult and up for interpretation as to who’s the best 1-seed in NCAA Tournament history.

That being said, Kentucky perhaps had the most dominant team in the modern NCAA Tournament era in 2012. The Wildcats were led by star forward and future NBA star Anthony Davis. The team only lost two games the entire season by a combined eight points. In the tournament, they beat true blueblood programs like Indiana, Baylor, Louisville, and Kansas to win the championship rather dominantly. It also sparked a major change in college basketball. For the first time, a team made up largely of freshmen won it all.

Honorable mentions: Duke (1992), North Carolina (2009)

This Duke team, as alluded to earlier, was the second of Coach K’s back-to-back championship teams led by Christian Laettner. The Blue Devils’ run in 1992 included Laettner’s incredible game-winning shot to beat Kentucky in the Elite Eight.

Their run went through a number of great teams like Kentucky, Indiana, and Michigan to win the championship. All three of these teams ended up being 1-seeds in the NCAA Tournament the following season. 

North Carolina arguably had the most dominant NCAA Tournament run of any team. Led by all-time great college basketball player Tyler Hansbrough along with future NBA point guard Ty Lawson, the Heels won every game in the tournament by no less than 12 points. Legendary head coach Roy Williams had a ton of great teams while he was at the program. This UNC team has a great argument to be at the top of that list. 

About Reice Shipley

Reice Shipley is a staff writer for Comeback Media that graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Sports Media. He previously worked at Barrett Sports Media and is a fan of all things Syracuse sports.