Lowest Seed to Make the NCAA Championship Game

The NCAA Tournament is usually won by one of the top seeds. That’s evident by the fact that 24 of the last 38 NCAA Tournaments have been won by a No. 1 seed. However, you may be interested to know that there have been some pretty big upsets throughout the years. What is the lowest seed to ever each the NCAA Championship? I’m going to answer that question in this article.

The answer is an 8th seed, however, you may not know that it has now occurred five times in NCAA Tournament history: It happened in 1980 with UCLA, five years later in 1985 with Villanova, and then again in 2011 with Butler. Kentucky became the next No. 8 seed to advance to the championship game in 2014, where they lost to No. 7 Connecticut.  The most recent 8 seed to reach the championship was North Carolina in 2022. The Tar Heels came close to glory, but fell short against top-seeded Kansas (69-72).

Notably, UCLA’s run came back when the tournament only featured 48 teams, so only four teams have achieved this feat in what we would call the modern tournament era.

Villanova went on to win the championship in 1985, becoming the lowest seed (and only No. 8) to win so far. Coincidentally, when Villanova made their historic run it was the first year of the modern era with the familiar 64-team bracket.

No. 8 UCLA (1980)

This 1980 Bruins team featured some big names, including head coach Larry Brown, who really returned excitement to UCLA basketball that year. It was the first time that the Bruins came into the tournament unranked since 1966 as they made it as a No. 8 seed in the West. They opened with an 87-74 victory over Old Dominion behind 34 points from Kike Vandeweghe.

A victory meant that UCLA would have to face the nation’s #1 team in DePaul, which was 26-1 with its only loss coming in overtime to Notre Dame. UCLA would hit some key free throws down the stretch, pulling off the 77-71 upset. That meant a showdown with Clark Kellog and Ohio State in the Sweet 16. The Bruins would again hit two late free throws to seal a 72-68 victory.

In the Elite 8, the Bruins would take on Larry Nance and the Clemson Tigers. They would make easy work of the Tigers, surging to a double-digit lead in the first half and finishing off an 85-74 victory. That meant a showdown with Purdue and the 7’1″ Joe Barry Carroll in the opener of the Final Four. UCLA would win a tight one 67-62 before falling short to Louisville (54-59) in the championship game.

No. 8 Villanova (1985)

The Wildcats, under the guidance of coach Rollie Massimino, made one of the most surprising runs in NCAA Tournament history in 1985. It was the first year of the 64-team field and it was certainly one to remember. They beat Dayton (at Dayton), top-seeded Michigan, Maryland and second-seeded North Carolina to win the Southeast Regional.

Villanova would advance to the Final Four in Lexington/Kentucky. It would go on to defeat 2-seed Memphis State in the national semifinals, setting up a showdown with defending champion and ten-point favorite, Georgetown. This was a Hoyas team that was led by Patrick Ewing, and this game just so happened to be played on April Fool’s Day.

Top-seeded Georgetown had beaten conference rival Villanova twice during the regular season. The Hoyas were a team built on defense, allowing opponents to shoot less than 40% from the field on the season. The Wildcats weren’t phased, making 22-of-28 (78.6%) from the field in perhaps the greatest shooting performance in NCAA history. While the Hoyas still hung tough, making 55% of their shots, they were unable to overcome the torrid shooting of Villanova, which won 66-64.

No. 8 Butler (2011)

The Bulldogs became the first team to reach consecutive final fours without being a one or a two seed either year in 2011. It was their second straight trip to the NCAA Championship Game as well, setting another record. They were also the first non-BCS school to reach the championship game in back-to-back seasons since the 1960-61 and 1961-62 Cincinnati Bearcats.

Like UCLA before them in 1980, the Bulldogs opened up with a 60-58 victory over No. 9 Old Dominion. They would win another one at the wire with a 71-70 victory over top-seeded Pittsburgh in the next round, capping off two wins by a combined three points in the first two round. Butler topped Wisconsin 61-64 in the Sweet 16 before knocking off Florida 74-71 (OT) in the Elite Eight.

Behind 24 points from Shelvin Mack, the Bulldogs knocked off No. 11 VCU in the Final Four in a game that nobody expected either of these two teams to be playing in. It certainly appeared as if Butler ran out of gas in the Championship Game, falling to No. 3 Connecticut by a final of 53-41. That Huskies team featured Kemba Walker, who just wouldn’t be denied that year.

No. 8 Kentucky (2014)

The 2014 NCAA Tournament was memorable due to the fact that a No. 8 seed (Kentucky) and a No. 7 seed (UConn) played each other in the championship game.  Kentucky’s improbable run started with a seven-point victory over 9th-seeded Kansas State.  The Wildcats then faced the No. 1 seed Wichita State Shockers, upsetting the top seed in the Midwest Region with a two-point victory.

Next up for Kentucky was a bitter rivalry game against Louisville (a No. 4 seed), who many expert had picked to run the table in what was seen as a soft region.  In the end, the Wildcats and their five starting freshmen walked away with a five-point win.

There were no easy matchups for Kentucky as they narrowly defeated Michigan in the Elite 8 and managed a one-point victory in the Final Four over the No. 2 seed Wisconsin Badgers.

The Championship game featured a Connecticut team with some of the best guards in the nation.  Their quickness and timely shooting proved to be too much for the Wildcats, who had clear advantages in both athleticism and size.  UConn led by as many as 15 points, but adjustments by the Kentucky defense helped slow the Huskies’ offense and allowed the ‘Cats back in the game.  Ultimately UConn walked away with a 60-54 victory, but it was an impressive run for a John Calipari and his young eighth-seeded Kentucky squad.

No. 8 North Carolina (2022)

Many experts thought the Tar Heels were under-seeded in the 2022 NCAA Tournament, and they were vindicated with UNC’s run. In the first round, North Carolina dominated No. 8 seed Marquette 95-63. The win sent them to the second round, where they were matched up with the No. 1-seeded Baylor Bears. UNC’s offense showed up once again, toppling Baylor 93-86, the key win in this now historic run.

In the Sweet 16, the Tar Heels notched another upset against No. 4 UCLA. Then, their Elite opponent was another team on a historic run, No. 15 Saint Peter’s, who were the first 15 seed to reach this round in tournament history. The Peacocks ran out of luck against the more talented UNC team, who ended up winning handily by 20 points (69-49).

The Final Four matched North Carolina up with their most bitter rivals, the 2nd-seeded Duke Blue Devils. This is the only time the two have met in the tournament and the game lived up to the hype. The Heels battled their way to a 81-77 victory and punched their ticket to the 2022 National Championship game.

While UNC came up short in the finale, losing 69-71 to No. 1 Kansas, they became just the fifth 8 seed in tournament history to navigate the bracket and reach the title game.

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