March Madness 2024: Predicting Which No. 1 Seed Will Be Upset First

In the buildup to March Madness, the search for the next Cinderella team dominates the national conversation. Who will be this year's Saint Peter's or Florida Gulf Coast? Will it be Drake? How about James Madison? My colleague Kevin Sweeney took a stab at predicting which double-digit seed will still be dancing next weekend — and perhaps beyond.

But while everyone is in search of a sleeper, let's take a look at potential upsets from a different point of view. Which No. 1 seed is in danger of going down the earliest?

It's a pertinent question considering last year's Elite Eight was the first in men's NCAA Tournament history without a No. 1 seed. Purdue was upset in the Round of 64, Kansas was eliminated in the Round of 32 and Houston and Alabama both went down in the Sweet 16.

The Boilermakers and Cougars return to the tourney as No. 1 seeds this year, joined by UConn and North Carolina. Purdue is hoping to avenge that early upset to Fairleigh Dickinson in the same manner that Virginia did in 2019 by winning a championship a year after its Round 1 loss to No. 16 UMBC. The Huskies, on the other hand, are chasing history. The last team to win back-to-back titles was Florida in 2006 and 2007 and UConn, the defending national champion, enters the tournament as the favorite to cut down the nets again.

The recent history of reigning champions going far in the tournament is checkered, though. The Jayhawks only won one game in 2023 after winning it all the year before. The same goes for Baylor in the 2022 tournament. Virginia was bounced in the Round of 64 in 2021, the first tournament since the Cavaliers' title two years prior. Villanova in 2019 and North Carolina in 2018 also saw their title defenses fall short in the Round of 32. So altogether, the last five champions won a total of four games in the tournament the following year — just something to keep in mind as the Huskies mount their title defense.

A season ago we correctly predicted Purdue would be the first No. 1 seed eliminated from the field. So, which No. 1 seed is in the most danger of an early upset this time? Let's see what the odds say.

Dan Hurley and the UConn Huskies enter the tournament as favorites to repeat.

Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

(Odds via FanDuel.)

Odds to Win the National Championship

UConn (+370) is the betting favorite to cut down the nets, followed by Houston (+550) and Purdue (+700). North Carolina (+1700) is well behind the other three No. 1 seeds and has worse odds than No. 2 Arizona (+1200), which is in the West Region with the Tar Heels.

The East, headlined by the Huskies, appears to be the toughest region. Between UConn, No. 2 Iowa State (+2000) and No. 4 Auburn (+2200), it's home to three of the top eight teams by title odds. No. 5 San Diego State (+7500) and No. 8 Florida Atlantic (+15000) were Final Four teams a season ago, No. 3 Illinois (+3500) is dangerous and No. 6 BYU (+60000) is a potential sleeper as well.

Compare that to the South, where No. 2 Marquette (+2500) is the only other team beyond the Cougars in the top 10 by championship odds. However, just outside that cutoff, No. 3 Kentucky (+3000) and No. 4 Duke (+3000), two blue bloods, are tied for the 11th-best odds.

Out West, UNC and Arizona are well ahead of the rest of the region. No. 3 Baylor (+3500) is tied for the 13th-best odds, followed by No. 4 Alabama (+4000) and No. 5 Saint Mary's (+6500). Evidently, the oddsmakers like either the Tar Heels or Wildcats to come out of the West.

The biggest threats to the Boilermakers in the Midwest are No. 2 Tennessee (+1700) and No. 3 Creighton (+2000), two teams in the top 10. And beyond the Vols and Bluejays, Purdue might have to contend with No. 4 Kansas (+4500) and No. 5 Gonzaga (+5000), two annual fixtures in the tournament.

Odds to Reach the Sweet 16

UConn (-650) is a massive favorite to advance to the Sweet 16. That's an implied probability of almost 87% to beat Stetson in the Round of 64 — the Huskies are 26.5-point favorites — and the winner of No. 8 FAU vs. No. 9 Northwestern. The Hatters are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance and the Owls and Wildcats both rank outside the top 40 in KenPom.

Houston and Purdue are tied for the next-best odds to make it to the Sweet 16 at -430. Though less of a lock than UConn, that's an implied probability of over 81% for the Cougars and Boilermakers to keep dancing until the second weekend. Houston is a whopping 24.5-point favorite over Longwood in the first round and will play the winner of No. 8 Nebraska vs. No. 9 Texas A&M in the Round of 32. The Cornhuskers and Aggies have one NCAA Tournament appearance combined in the last five years. As for the Boilermakers, they figured to be favored by at least 20 points against No. 16 Montana State or No. 16 Grambling State, though that didn't stop FDU, a 23.5-point underdog. Assuming Purdue avoids disaster, next up would be No. 8 Utah State or No. 9 TCU, a tough team that has a win over Houston under its belt.

North Carolina (-205) unsurprisingly has the worst odds of any No. 1 seed to win two games this weekend. The Tar Heels are favored by 24.5 points against No. 16 Wagner, which should be an easy win. But that Round of 32 game against No. 8 Mississippi State or No. 9 Michigan State is where an upset could occur. The Rebels have a top-20 defense per KenPom and the Spartans are top 10 on that side of the ball. That's a tough draw for UNC.

Related: Ranking the Men's NCAA Tournament Field 1–68

Odds to Reach the Final Four

UConn (+100) is even money to survive the many threats it could encounter in the East and represent its region in Phoenix. The Huskies are also a good deal ahead of their next-closest competition: Iowa State (+450) and Auburn (+490).

Houston (+135) is the next-best bet to win its region. Similarly, the Cougars are a tier above Marquette (+550), Duke (+650) and Kentucky (+700), the top teams they have to worry about in the South.

Purdue (+165) is the favorite in the Midwest, but Tennessee (+340) is right on its heels and Creighton (+460) is not far behind.

Once again, North Carolina (+340) has the worst odds of the No. 1 seeds to end up in the Final Four. Arizona (+230) is the favorite in the West and Baylor (+650) and Alabama (+750) are also contenders to end up in Phoenix.

Purdue coach Matt Painter is hoping his Boilermakers can avoid a fourth straight year with a tournament loss to a team ranked No. 13 or lower.

Matt Krohn/USA TODAY Sports

No. 1 Seed to Fade

It's clear that the oddsmakers are out on North Carolina relative to the other No. 1 seeds. But is that distrust valid? Before losing to N.C. State in the ACC title game, the Tar Heels had won eight straight. And the only other time Hubert Davis took UNC to the tournament, the result was a national championship game appearance in his first year at the helm.

A second-round matchup with Mississippi State or Michigan State is not an ideal draw for the Tar Heels, but it's not a death knell, either. If they get to the second weekend, they should march all the way to the Elite Eight, where a game against Arizona and UNC transfer Caleb Love likely awaits. But by then, a No. 1 on the opposite side of the bracket might have fallen already.

Sorry, Purdue. This might not be your year, either. The Boilermakers have been eliminated by a double-digit seed three years in a row: In 2021 it was No. 13 North Texas, in 2022 it was No. 15 Saint Peter's and last season No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson did them in. Don't empty your bankroll on Montana State or Grambling State becoming the third No. 16 seed to ever beat a No. 1, but Utah State or TCU could do it in the Round of 32 or Kansas or Gonzaga — programs that historically make deep runs — in the Sweet 16.

On the top of the bracket, it's hard to see a team taking down UConn or Houston before the Final Four. And despite the struggles of recent defending champs, the Huskies might prove to be the exception. Though the Tar Heels could have an early exit, we're going back to the well with Purdue.


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