The AP No. 1 men’s basketball team is far from a lock to win the NCAA tournament

It seems like a safe pick — riding with the top-ranked team before the start of the NCAA tournament, straight to the top of your Bracket Challenge Game leaderboard. In theory, picking the No. 1 team from the final AP Top 25 Poll should mean that team has a great chance to win the NCAA tournament, right? 

Well, not exactly. It’s happened just twice since 2001 and only five times since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Granted, one of those times was in 2024, when UConn went back-to-back and was No. 1 in the final rankings before the tournament.

Looking at data from the past 13 NCAA tournaments, 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 roughly a quarter of brackets. Yet only two of those 12 teams — Kentucky in 2012 and UConn in 2024 — actually won the championship. That Kentucky team was hardly a runaway choice among bracket-pickers, too. The Wildcats were tabbed to win it all in only 19.57 percent of the brackets in 2012.


School (record)

Picked to win championship

Picked to be upset in 1st rd.


2024 UConn (31-3) 26.15% 2.35% National champion
2023 Alabama (29-5) 15.22% 2.58% Sweet 16
2022 Gonzaga (26-3) 30.26% 2.28% Sweet 16
2021 Gonzaga (26-0) 38.84% 1.55% National runner-up
2019 Duke (29-5) 39.12% 1.46% Elite Eight

Virginia (31-2)

16.46% 2.06% Round of 64
2017 Villanova (31-3) 12.25% 1.88% Round of 32


Kansas (30-4)



Elite Eight


Kentucky (34-0)



Final Four


Florida (32-2)



Final Four


Gonzaga (31-2)



Round of 32


Kentucky (32-2)



National champion


Ohio State (32-2)



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, around 2 percent of the millions of brackets we looked at over the last 12 NCAA tournaments did that — picked the No. 1 team in the final AP poll to be upset by a No. 16 seed. A friendly reminder that only TWO No. 16 seeds have ever beaten a No. 1 seed in the history of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament: UMBC over Virginia in 2018 and FDU over Purdue in 2023.

In 2018, Virginia finished the season at No. 1 in the AP poll, yet the Cavaliers were picked to be upset in the first round in 2.06 percent of brackets, a record-high for the period we examined. Sure enough, the Cavaliers lost to the Ramblers, by 20 points no less. Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to not reach the Round of 32 since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. That result surpassed 2013 Gonzaga and 2017 Villanova for the earliest departure for an AP No. 1 in the past 10 NCAA tournaments.

Lyles leads UMBC over Virginia

In 2019, AP No. 1 Duke, which entered Selection Sunday 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 Duke fell to Michigan State 68-67. That Duke team was also picked in 39.12 percent of brackets to win the national championship, which was overwhelmingly the highest percentage that year.

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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