Picking the all-time NCAA tournament bracket from the past 25 years

What is March without a bracket? Well, it’s like any other month and I simply will not stand for that. Sure, it’s true that we don’t have a bracket to fill out this season, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun.

The NCAA shortened its shot clock from 45 seconds to 35 seconds entering the 1993-94 season, marking a significant change to how college basketball was played. The short clock was again shortened (to 30 seconds) ahead of the 2015-16 season, but the initial cut was the most significant and is where I’m drawing the line for my purposes of creating a bracket of the top four teams on each seed line.

So, how did I go about picking these teams?

I didn’t get too cute. I used an NCAA tournament win requirement based on past performance for each seed and then evaluated the remaining teams on two metrics that are tied to tournament success: eFG% and sports-reference’s Simple Rating System (SRS: a way to balance point differential with strength of schedule). The top four teams in combined ranking in those two statistics made my field (the only exceptions were outlier underdogs like UMBC that recorded a historic performance, thus earning them an automatic bid into my field).

As for filling the bracket out? There is no right or wrong answer. Below are the requirements each team had to meet.

  • 1-seeds: Must have won the title
  • 2-seed: Must have advanced to the title game
  • 3-4 seeds: Must have advanced to the Final Four
  • 5-7 seeds: Must have advanced to the Elite 8
  • 8-13 seeds: Must have advanced to the Sweet 16
  • 14-15 seeds: Must have advanced to the Round of 32

Here is the bracket, along with my picks:

Below is a refresher on each team that you can read before you look for your upsets and crown your all-time champion.

Top left region

2001 Duke (1-seed): Outscoring opponents by over 20 points a night? That’ll happen when you have Jay Williams and Shane Battier providing as much intangible leadership as tangible scoring (41.5 points per game).

2004 UConn (2-seed): This roster had nine top-100 high school recruits on it, led by a junior tandem of Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor (combined: 36.1 points, 16.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game).

2019 Texas Tech (3-seed): Jarrett Culver’s final season in Lubbock, Texas, saw him score 20-plus points 13 times, including twice in tournament play.

2013 Michigan (4-seed): They weren’t the Fab 5, but four of their top-five scorers were underclassmen (three freshmen), with Trey Burke’s 18.6 points per game leading the way.

2005 Michigan State (5-seed): They tripped up a 1-seed in Duke and a 2-seed in Kentucky with a roster that included nothing but top-55 high school recruits (including a trio of top-10 players).

2010 Tennessee (6-seed): The scrappy Vols had four players average a steal per game, with Wayne Chism (the team leader in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots) among them.

2012 Florida (7-seed): Freshman Bradley Beal is the name you know on this roster, but let’s not forget that Kenny Boynton led this team in scoring, and his 110 made 3s ranked fifth in the nation.

1996 Georgia (8-seed): The Bulldogs weren’t a juggernaut, but with a trio of players averaging at least 10 points, 4.5 rebounds and one steal per game, their success wasn’t a mistake.

2 Related

2018 Florida State (9-seed): This team struggled down the stretch of the regular season, but its versatility (a different leading scorer in all four of the NCAA tournament games) made it a tough out when the game was on the line late.

2008 Davidson (10-seed): So that Steph Curry guy averaged 25.9 points with nearly a 50/40/90 shooting slash and a jersey that looked too big. We know what he is now, but he was still an underdog back then and that put him in a “nothing to lose” mindset. Good luck with that.

2016 Gonzaga (11-seed): There were two players in Division I with 90 made 3s while shooting the long ball at a 43% clip and scoring 20 points a night — Buddy Hield and Kyle Wiltjer.

2011 Richmond (12-seed): An elite scoring defense was supported on the offensive end by the dynamic duo of Justin Harper and Kevin Anderson (34.5 points per game).

1999 Oklahoma (13-seed): Eduardo Najera led the team in scoring (15.5) and rebounding (8.3), with Ryan Humphrey swatting two shots per game to stabilize an elite defense.

1997 Chattanooga (14-seed): The bracket-busting Mocs were ahead of their time, ranking 26th in the nation in 3PA in 1997, with five players jacking up over 2.5 triples per game.

2016 Middle Tennessee (15-seed): Reggie Upshaw led the team with 21 points in its tournament upset of Michigan State, but he got plenty of help, as he was one of four Blue Raiders to score 15 points.

2018 UMBC (16-seed): The historic 74-54 win over top-seeded Virginia will never be forgotten, nor will Jairus Lyles’ 28 points on 9-of-11 shooting in that convincing W.

Bottom left region

2018 Villanova (1-seed): Not one, not two, but six Wildcats averaged double figures, led by Jalen Brunson’s 18.9 points per game on 52.1% shooting from the field.

2003 Kansas (2-seed): This roster featured four future pros who all averaged over 14.5 points, led by Nick Collison and his nightly double-double (18.5 points and 10 rebounds).

2006 Florida (3-seed): Joakim Noah (14.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.4 blocks per game) led this loaded roster that included four other future pros.

2005 Louisville (4-seed): The three-headed monster of Francisco Garcia, Larry O’Bannon and Taquan Dean each averaged more than 14 points a night and combined to make 7.4 triples per game.

2019 Auburn (5-seed): Jared Harper’s season goes overlooked in the year of Ja Morant, but the junior was one of two players in the nation to average 2.5 3s and 5.8 assists per game (RJ Cole of Howard the other).

2005 Wisconsin (6-seed): These Badgers didn’t have to play a single-digit seed until the Elite Eight, but their combination of slow pace with a pair of efficient scorers (Michael Wilkinson and Alando Tucker averaged 29.5 points on 49.9% shooting) was a handful for any opponent.

2000 Tulsa (7-seed): Bill Self’s Golden Hurricane averaged more than 80 points a night with four starters standing at least 6-foot-5 and averaging at least 11 points per game.

2015 N.C. State (8-seed): Upperclassmen led this team in scoring, but it was a pair of underclassman in Abdul-Malik Abu and Lennard Freeman that double-doubled against top-ranked, 32-3 Villanova.

1994 Boston College (9-seed): Bill Curley poured in 20 a night for a BC team that upset a top-seeded UNC team that featured Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse.

2005 N.C. State (10-seed): Julius Hodge averaged 17 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.8 dimes in his senior season, carrying this Wolfpack team as the only player to average double figures.

2006 George Mason (11-seed): It took an all-time Florida team to knock out this Patriots team that featured zero future NBA-ers but five players who averaged at least 11 points per game.

2019 Oregon (12-seed): These Ducks focused on winning the 3-point line, as they made 28 more threes than their opponents for the season despite attempting 81 fewer.

2013 La Salle (13-seed): Led by a quartet of Philadelphia-born players, the Explorers were a top-35 team both offensively and defensively with 3P%.

1998 Richmond (14-seed): The Spiders ranked 14th in the nation in 3-point shooting (39.8%), led by two of the nation’s elite in Jarrod Stevenson (47.1%) and Jonathan Baker (44.7%).

2012 Lehigh (15-seed): C.J. McCollum (21.9 points per game) announced his presence on a national level by dropping 30 points in a first-round upset of Duke.

2008 Portland State (16-seed): Jeremiah Dominguez was one of seven players in Division I to average at least 2.6 3s and 1.94 steals per game despite standing just 5-6.

Top right region

2008 Kansas (1-seed): This roster featured seven future pros, highlighted by leading scorer Brandon Rush and the clutch stylings of Mario Chalmers.

1998 Kentucky (2-seed): The Wildcats won their final 13 games of the season, averaging 86.8 points per game during their run through the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

2017 Oregon (3-seed): An experienced frontcourt supported the brilliant Tyler Dorsey, as these Ducks owned a top-50 scoring offense and defense.

1995 Oklahoma State (4-seed): The 41.1 points a night from Bryant Reeves and Randy Rutherford got the headlines, but how about some love for a top-20 scoring defense?

2000 Florida (5-seed): Three future pros who all stood 6-8 made this team a difficult cover for most college teams, especially when one of them was capable of stretching the floor such as Mike Miller.

2001 USC (6-seed): USC’s top three scorers all stood at least 6-7 (Brian Scalabrine being the name you’d know from the NBA) and its top five scorers made at least half of their 2-point attempts.

2015 Michigan State (7-seed): Travis Trice led this team in scoring (15.3 points per game) despite being the only starter to not go to the NBA, as he scored more points as a senior than he did in his first three Sparty seasons combined.

2000 North Carolina (8-seed): Freshman Joseph Forte walked onto campus, led the team in scoring (16.7 points per game) and scored a game-high 17 in a second-round upset over top-seeded Stanford.

2018 Kansas State (9-seed): Don’t let the weird flow of this tournament skew your thoughts of these Wildcats. Dean Wade shot 55% for the season while averaging a team-high 16.2 points per game.

1999 Gonzaga (10-seed): Gonzaga won three games in this tournament — three more than it had in program history. With 80% of the roster being upperclassmen, the Bulldogs ran through the WCC conference tournament (+59 point differential in three games) before making history.

2017 Xavier (11-seed): Trevon Bluiett led the team in scoring (18.5 points per game) and put himself in the midst of the madness by dropping 29 on third-seeded Florida State in a 25-point victory.

2002 Missouri (12-seed): The Tigers played plenty of defense during the regular season, but they scored at least 75 points in all four of their tournament games, with Kareem Rush scoring at least 15 points in each contest.

1998 Valparaiso (13-seed): Bryce Drew’s 94 made triples ranked T-12 for the season, and he buried four in the first-round upset of fourth-seeded Mississippi.

2014 Mercer (14-seed): The Bears started nothing but seniors and were able to knock off Jabari Parker’s Duke Blue Devils in the first round.

2001 Hampton (15-seed): Behind the nation’s 12th-leading scoring offense, these Pirates upset Jamaal Tinsley’s second-seeded Iowa State Cyclones.

2017 UC-Davis (16-seed): Chima Moneke was an undersized forward at 6-6, but he scored 14.6 points per game (52.7% FG) while grabbing 9.5 boards.

Bottom right region

2005 North Carolina (1-seed): Sean May averaged a double-double for a Tar Heels team that grabbed 55.1% of all rebounds (eighth-highest rate in the nation).

2016 Villanova (2-seed): Nova ran the table with an average NCAA tournament point differential of +20.7 points, highlighted by a 44-point Final Four win over Buddy Hield’s Oklahoma Sooners.

2001 Maryland (3-seed): Who could forget the Juan Dixon/Lonny Baxter-led Terps who rebounded at an elite level and averaged 85.2 points per game (fourth in the nation)?

1997 Arizona (4-seed): Michael Dickerson led Arizona with 18.9 PPG, but how about three guards averaging over 10.5 points and over four dimes (Jason Terry, Miles Simon and a freshman named Mike Bibby)?

2011 Arizona (5-seed): Derrick Williams did the heavy lifting as a sophomore (19.5 PPG and 8.3 RPG, while no other Wildcat averaged 10 points or five boards).

2016 Notre Dame (6-seed): Zach Auguste averaged a double-double for an Irish team that had five players average over 11 points a game.

2014 UConn (7-seed): Shabazz Napier as a senior was special (18 points, 4.9 assists and 5.9 rebounds per game), but this team made its bones on the defensive end, ranking 31st in the nation in scoring defense and 13th in opponent FG%.

2017 Wisconsin (8-seed): The defense was solid as always, but this was the rare Badgers team that had three players average at least 14 points a night (Bronson Koenig, Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes).

2013 Wichita State (9-seed): A versatile Shockers team had Fred VanVleet coming off their bench, and he was one of four to reach double figures in the regional final win over Ohio State.

2000 Gonzaga (10-seed): In the first season under Mark Few, the Zags ranked top-20 in the country in both offensive and defensive FG%, proving plenty worthy of being ranked in the preseason poll.

2014 Tennessee (11-seed): Tennessee dictated tempo with its slow pace and made the most of it by boasting a top-20 rank in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

2001 Gonzaga (12-seed): The Zags entered the tournament as winners of 18 of their previous 19 games, led by the near 38 points a game that Casey Calvary and Dan Dickau combined to average.

2006 Bradley (13-seed): Led by three frontcourt players who averaged over 10 points and five rebounds per game (Marcellus Sommerville, Patrick O’Bryant and Lawrence Wright), these Braves held opponents to 40.4% shooting from the field.

2016 Stephen F. Austin (14-seed): The 14-seed recorded a 14-point win over third-seeded West Virginia thanks to 33 points from Thomas Walkup (team-high 18.1 points per game).

1997 Coppin State (15-seed): Get up and go! At 79.1 points per game, the Eagles were a tough team to put away, especially with four experienced upperclassmen averaging double figures.

1995 North Carolina A&T (16-seed): John Floyd averaged a team-high 17.3 points while shooting 47.3% from distance and 58.1% from the field.

For what it’s worth, I run a Final Four power-ranking formula every season to help predict the bracket results. Based on Joe Lunardi’s final bracketology for the season, here are my top-ranked 2020 teams at each seed line — teams that, with the right run, could have had a chance to join the above exercise.

1 Kansas: They spent the majority of the season leading my overall ranks thanks to ranking 10th in the field in rebound percentage despite the grueling schedule.
2 Creighton: The team that ended the regular season atop my power ranks, the Bluejays ranked fifth (among teams in the field) in both eFG% and opponent free throw rate.
3 Michigan State: Sparty ranked second in the nation in assist-to-turnover percentage, and they entered the Big Ten tournament winners of five straight (four against top-25 opponents).
4 Oregon: You want star power and versatility? Payton Pritchard led the Ducks in points AND assists 18 times this regular season (including his final four games).
5 Michigan: Michigan played the toughest schedule according to KenPom, so its top-30 mark in terms of both offensive and defensive efficiency is impressive.
6 BYU: Offense isn’t everything, but the Cougars were top-three among tourney-bound teams in assist percentage, assist-to-turnover rate and eFG%.
7 Arizona: This team won 20 regular-season games despite Nico Mannion struggling to find consistency. The Wildcats’ upside as a 7-seed was nothing short of elite if the fantastic frosh shined under the bright lights.
8 Saint Mary’s: The Gaels struggled with Gonzaga, but there is no shame in that. Jordan Ford averaged 29.6 points over his final five games of 2020 and was trending in a great direction for an NCAA tournament run.
9 Florida: A Final Four threat to open the season struggled at times, but with Keyontae Johnson flashing offensive versatility and rebounding tenacity over the final five weeks of the season, this was a team with more upside than any 9-seed in recent memory.
10 Utah State: The Aggies ranked inside the top-10 tournament teams in assist and rebound percentage, giving them the feel of a team that had the potential to pull off more than one upset.
11 East Tennessee State: The Buccaneers would have entered tournament play winners of 12 straight and with four different players leading them in scoring in their final five games. They offered more threats than your standard double-digit seed.
12 Richmond: If the Spiders could have qualified and avoided an elite rebounding team, Richmond and Blake Francis’ 17.7 points a night had a chance to bust many a bracket.
13 North Texas: The Mean Green made 76.9% of their free throws this season, 19th-best in the nation and making them a threat in any close game.
14 Belmont: I was buying the Bruins’ elite assist-to-turnover rate over a weak strength-of-schedule grade, especially with Nick Muszynski showing high-end upside in three of his final four games.
15 Little Rock: Not many players in the nation offer the versatility of Markquis Nowell, as he averaged 17.2 points, 4.9 assists and 2.2 steals per game.
16 Winthrop: The schedule wasn’t difficult, but the sixth-best rebounding rate in the field would have given the wrong favorite some trouble in the first round.

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