March Madness 2021: Which No. 1 seed is most likely to be upset early?

Ryan Wormeli
·6 min read
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March Madness 2021: Which No. 1 seed can be upset early? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

They say each region of the NCAA Tournament bracket doesn't really begin until the top seed goes down. Before then, the rest of the teams are just playing for the right to face off against one of the best four teams in the country.

But once a No. 1 seed goes down, everything else opens up. All of a sudden, the region seems ripe for the taking, if another team can take advantage.

Of course, knocking off a top seed is easier said than done. They are top seeds for a reason, after a season of proving themselves night in and night out.

Let's run through each of the four No. 1 seeds, in order from least likely to get upset in the opening weekend to the most likely. And since only one time in NCAA history has a 16-seed upset a one-seed -- sorry, Virginia fans -- we'll just focus on the second-round matchups instead of the opening round.

Gonzaga

Gonzaga is in a tier of its own among the top seeds. Not only are they clearly the best team in the sport and trying to be come the first program to complete an undefeated season since 1976, but they also are blessed with one of the easiest paths of any team to the Final Four.

Part of that is that neither the No. 8 or 9 seeds in their region are much of a threat. Oklahoma has been in a major slump to end the season, and Missouri doesn't match up well with the Bulldogs at all, and are also in a slump of their own right.

Gonzaga is the heavy favorite to cut down the nets in this year's tournament, and it would go down as an all-time, historic upset if it were to fall short of the Sweet 16. We don't need to waste much time on them here.

Illinois

Illinois is a really difficult team to gauge in terms of a path to the Sweet 16, at least. The Fighting Illini are playing as well right now as any team in the country, Gonzaga included, and are probably considered the team with the second-best chance of winning it all among most fans.

Illinois won more games than any other team in the best conference in the country, including winning the Big Ten Tournament. They have multiple superstars in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, both of whom have reasonable arguments as the best in the sport at their respective positions.

But they also have probably the toughest second-round test ahead of them. Georgia Tech has gotten on a hot streak and won the ACC Tournament, but they will now be forced to play without its best player after Moses Wright, the ACC Player of the Year, was announced out for the first weekend of the tournament. But Loyola-Chicago, the No. 8 seed, is as strong a threat as anybody.

Porter Moser's team has been there before, making the Final Four in 2018. And now the Ramblers are a top-10 team according to KenPom's efficiency metrics, meaning they are likely underseeded as a No. 8. 

Illinois is perhaps the best team in the nation not named Gonzaga, so it will be favored either way. But the Illini are in for a close fight in the second round, and it wouldn't be the most shocking thing in the world to see an up-and-down team like Illinois lose earlier than most expect.

Baylor

Baylor could easily have been the second team on this list instead of third. For most of the year, it was in the same tier as Gonzaga looking down on the rest of the college basketball world.

The Bears are still very highly rated in every possible metric, but they've also taken a step down since they had to pause their season as a result of COVID-19. That makes them just slightly more susceptible than they looked previously.

Plus, Baylor could find itself in a tricky spot in the second round. The Bears will be facing the winner of North Carolina-Wisconsin, and both teams could prevent interesting dilemmas. UNC is loaded in the frontcourt and playing much better now than it was in the beginning of the season. The Tar Heels are built like the type of team that could theoretically give Baylor trouble.

Wisconsin is interesting, too. The Badgers are as veteran a team as any in the bracket, and experience usually means something in March. They also like to play a slow, grind-it-out style which can lend itself to upsets in lower-scoring games. At the same time, they have yet to beat a truly great team all season and appear to have been overrated prior to the season.

Historically, though, preseason rankings have been more meaningful in the postseason than the rankings at the end of the regular season. So it's possible the Badgers are ready to shock the world this weekend.

Michigan

While it was difficult to pick between Baylor and Illinois, Michigan was the easy choice for the team most likely to fall before the second weekend of the tournament.

That's not to say they will definitely lose - on the contrary, the Wolverines will deservedly be heavy favorites against either LSU or St. Bonaventure in the second round. But they are more susceptible to a loss than the other No. 1 seeds because they are the team at less than full strength.

Isaiah Livers' injury has been kept somewhat under wraps by the team, but it would be a major surprise if he plays anytime soon. Michigan just isn't the same team without one of its best, most important players on the court.

The Wolverines also are entering the postseason in a minor slump, not quite looking like the juggernaut they were for most of February. Also, head coach Juwan Howard will be coaching in his first NCAA Tournament this season. That shouldn't matter with a team as talented as Michigan, but sometimes experience does make a difference for coaches who have been there before.

The opponents could come into play, too. Well-rounded St. Bonaventure has been underrated all season and is an elite defense according to the metrics. LSU, meanwhile, is as talented as any roster, though the Tigers have been a lot more mercurial this season. They proved against Alabama in the SEC title game, however, that they can play with anyone in the country on their best day.

Again, Michigan probably wins both games this weekend. But if you're looking for a No. 1 seed with the best chance of being upset early, they stand out among the rest.