John Clay

In the NCAA Tournament, is there much difference between a No. 1 seed and a No. 2?

John Calipari reacts to being left off Coach of the Year list

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari is not one of the 15 nominees for the Naismith National Coach of Year. Calipari was asked about that at his Friday press conference to preview the game at Tennessee on Saturday, March 2, 2019.
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Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari is not one of the 15 nominees for the Naismith National Coach of Year. Calipari was asked about that at his Friday press conference to preview the game at Tennessee on Saturday, March 2, 2019.

Is Kentucky a No. 1 seed?

Is Kentucky a No. 2 seed?

Less than two weeks before the NCAA Tournament’s Selection Sunday, that seemed to be the popular question concerning the basketball Wildcats heading into Tuesday night’s game at Ole Miss.

Despite UK’s 71-52 loss at Tennessee last Saturday, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had the Cats as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, to be played in Kansas City, with North Carolina as the No. 2 seed. But CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm had UK as the No. 2 seed in the South Region, to be played in Louisville, with Duke as the No. 1.

Here’s the question: Is there that much difference between being a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed?

The answer: Yes.

That is if you go by the past 10 NCAA Tournaments. A canvassing of the past decade shows that when it comes to making the Final Four, and especially when it comes to winning the national title, it is much better to be a No. 1 seed than a No. 2 seed.

Over the past 10 years, 14 of the 40 NCAA Final Four teams, were No. 1 seeds. That’s 35 percent. That’s double the No. 2 seeds that made the Final Four — seven out of 40 for 17.5 percent. There have been four No. 3 seeds and four No. 4 seeds that have made the Final Four over the past decade.

There were two No. 5 seeds who made it to the Final Four. There were three No. 7 seeds and two No. 8 seeds. Four of the 40 teams were No. 9 seeds or below. The 2016 Final Four included a No. 10 seed in Syracuse. Last year’s Final Four included a No. 11 seed in Loyola of Chicago.

Now here’s the biggest difference: Seven of the past 10 national champions were No. 1 seeds. Only one national champion over the past 10 years was a No. 2 seed.

The No. 1 seeds who cut down the nets: 2009-North Carolina, 2010-Duke, 2012-Kentucky, 2013-Louisville, 2015-Duke, 2017-North Carolina, 2018-Villanova.

The No. 2 seed who cut down the nets: 2016-Villanova.

The two outliers were both Connecticut teams. As a No. 3 seed, Jim Calhoun’s Huskies beat No. 8 seed Butler for the 2011 national title. As a No. 7 seed, Kevin Ollie’s Huskies beat No. 8 seed Kentucky for the 2014 national title.

Aside from whether to slot UK as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, the committee is going to have an interesting question to answer as far as where to send the Cats.

Heading into this final week, Duke and Virginia appear very much in the running for No. 1 seeds. It would make sense to keep the Blue Devils and the Cavaliers in the regionals closest to their campuses. That would be East Region host Washington, D.C. or South Region host Louisville.

If as Palm predicts — entering Tuesday night anyway — Kentucky is the No. 2 seed in Louisville, is that really fair to Duke, or whomever happens to be the No. 1 seed at the KFC Yum Center? Imagine you win your conference and you face a Kentucky team that didn’t win its conference, but is playing in its home state just 80 miles up the road from its home. Not ideal.

A similar question could face the committee about Kansas. Injuries and defections have hurt the Jayhawks, whose streak of 14 straight Big 12 titles is in serious jeopardy. Would the committee entertain the idea of keeping the Jayhawks in the Kansas City region even as a No. 3 or No. 4 seed? The guess here is no.

To be sure, there is still plenty of basketball to be played between now and when the bracket is announced March 17. Still, better to hear your name called as a No. 1 seed that day, than a No. 2.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.


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