The Surprising Success Of Mid-Major No. 1 Seeds

History is on Gonzaga’s side.

For only the 10th time since the NCAA tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, a non-“Big Six” conference school occupies a prized No. 1 seed. Since the bracket was revealed on Sunday night, analysts have questioned the Gonzaga Bulldogs’ body of work, citing a weak strength of schedule and few quality wins. But it turns out they may have history on their side. Of the nine previous No. 1 seeds from non-“Big Six” conferences, only one HASN’T made at least the Elite Eight.

2. 1987: UNLV Runnin’ Rebels - Big West Conference

How far did they go? UNLV made it to the ‘87 Final Four, where they lost to eventual champion Indiana 97-93.
Who led them there? The Runnin’ Rebels’ best player was Armon “The Hammer” Gilliam, who averaged 23.2 ppg and went on to become the No. 2 overall pick in the 1987 draft.

3. 1988: Temple Owls - Atlantic 10 Conference

How far did they go? Temple made it to the Elite Eight where they lost to the Duke Blue Devils 63-53.
Who led them there? The Owls’ star was freshman phenom Mark Macon, who led the team with 20.6 ppg.

4. 1990: UNLV Runnin’ Rebels - Big West Conference

How far did they go? UNLV won the 1990 National Championship over the Duke Blue Devils in dominating fashion, 103-73.
Who led them there? Rebels headliners included junior college transfer Larry Johnson, who averaged a team-high 20.6 ppg and 11.4 rpg, as well as Greg Anthony (11.2 ppg, 7.4 apg) and Stacy Augmon (14.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg).

5. 1991: UNLV Runnin’ Rebels - Big West Conference

How far did they go? UNLV fell just short of becoming undefeated back-to-back national champs, losing to Duke 79-77 in the title game rematch.
Who led them there? Larry Johnson (22.7 ppg 10.8 rpg), Stacy Augmon (16.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg), and Greg Anthony (11.6 ppg, 8.8 apg) returned to take the Rebels back to the championship game; all three became first-round selections in the 1991 draft.

6. 1996: UMass Minutemen - Atlantic 10 Conference

How far did they go? The John Calipari–coached UMass team reached the Final Four, where they lost to eventual national champion Kentucky Wildcats in the semifinals 81-74.
Who led them there? Wooden Award winner and defensive player of the year Marcus Camby led the Minutemen with 20.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg, and 3.8 bpg. UMass’ Final Four apparence has since been vacated due to NCAA violations.

7. 2002: Cincinnati Bearcats - Conference USA

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How far did they go? Cincinnati is the only team on this list to not reach at least the Elite Eight. The Bearcats bowed out in the second round to the No. 9 seed UCLA Bruins 105-101.
Who led them there? Bearcats guard Steve Logan led the team with 22 ppg and 5.3 apg.

8. 2004: St. Joe’s Hawks - Atlantic 10 Conference

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How far did they go? St. Joseph’s University became an unlikely powerhouse during the 2005-06 season and advanced to the Elite Eight before losing to Oklahoma State 64-62.
Who led them there? The small Philadelphia school featured a dynamic backcourt with future NBA guards Jameer Nelson (20.6 ppg) and Delonte West (18.9 ppg).

9. 2006: Memphis Tigers - Conference USA

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How far did they go? The well-rounded Memphis team played their way to the Elite Eight but lost to eventual national runner-up UCLA 50-45.
Who led them there? The Tiger attack was headed up by the trio of Rodney Carney (17.2 ppg), Darius Washington Jr. (13.4 ppg), and Shawne Williams (13.2 ppg).

10. 2008: Memphis Tigers - Conference USA

Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images

How far did they go? Memphis had the championship in their grasp. If only they could’ve hit their free throws. Kansas guard Mario Chalmers hit a 3-pointer at the end of regulation to send the game to overtime, where the Jayhawks won 75-68.
Who led them there? Chris Douglas-Roberts (18.1 ppg) and freshman sensation Derrick Rose (14.9 ppg).

11. 2013: Gonzaga Bulldogs - West Coast Conference

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How did they get here? The perennial underdog has officially arrived as a national power, earning the first No.1 seed in the program’s history. The Zags have their doubters, but they also have the top seed in what many analysts consider the easiest region of the tournament.
Who has led them so far? The Bullgods have been driven by player of the year candidate Kelly Olynyk (17.5 ppg 7.2 rpg) and Elias Harris (14.9 ppg 7.4 rpg).
How far did they go? We shall see.

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