Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, three teams have entered March Madness with a perfect record. We’re not here to talk about them. We’re here for their antitheses: the teams with the worst records to make an NCAA tournament.
Here’s every team that entered the tournament with a losing or .500 record
|1995||Florida International||11||18||37.93%||16||A-Sun||First Round loss|
|1996||UCF||11||18||37.93%||16||A-Sun||First Round loss|
|1997||Fairfield||11||18||37.93%||16||MAAC||First Round loss|
|1985||Lehigh||12||18||40.00%||16||ECC||First Round loss|
|1999||Florida A&M||12||18||40.00%||16||MEAC||First Round loss|
|2005||Oakland||13||18||41.94%||16||Mid-Cont||First Round loss|
|2014||Cal Poly||14||19||42.42%||16||Big West||First Round loss|
|2016||Holy Cross||15||19||44.12%||16||Patriot||First Round loss|
|2018||Texas Southern||15||19||44.12%||16||SWAC||First Round loss|
|1993||East Carolina||13||16||44.83%||16||CAA||First Round loss|
|1996||San Jose State||13||16||44.83%||16||Big West||First Round loss|
|1998||Prairie View||13||16||44.83%||16||SWAC||First Round loss|
|1986||Montana State||14||16||46.67%||16||Big Sky||First Round loss|
|2012||Western Kentucky||16||18||47.06%||16||Sun Belt||First Round loss|
|1997||Jackson State||14||15||48.28%||16||SWAC||First Round loss|
|2003||UNC-Asheville||15||16||48.39%||16||Big South||First Round loss|
|2004||Florida A&M||15||16||48.39%||16||MEAC||First Round loss|
|2002||Siena||17||18||48.57%||16||MAAC||First Round loss|
|1985||Penn||13||13||50.00%||15||Ivy||First Round loss|
|1987||Penn||13||13||50.00%||16||Ivy||First Round loss|
|1987||Idaho State||15||15||50.00%||16||Big Sky||First Round loss|
|1987||Fairfield||15||15||50.00%||16||MAAC||First Round loss|
|2000||Lamar||15||15||50.00%||16||Southland||First Round loss|
|2015||Hampton||17||17||50.00%||16||MEAC||First Round loss|
Eighteen teams have finished the regular season with a losing record and still secured a bid to the tournament. Six more have gone dancing at an even .500. All but one received a No. 16 seed. None made it past the first round, losing by an average margin of 25 points.
For reference, the average regular-season winning percentage of an NCAA tournament team is 73.5 percent. Over the average of 31 games in a season, that’s a record of 23-8.
But there are plenty of teams that are far from average. The absolute worst record is a three-way tie at 11-18 (37.93 percent). Those would be 1995 FIU, 1996 UCF, and 1997 Fairfield.
Two of those — FIU and UCF — came out of the Atlantic Sun Conference. In 1995, the Panthers went 6-12 in regular-season conference play before winning three in a row to take the conference crown. UCF was 6-10 before they won the title.
Fairfield was even more impressive in 1997 — posting a 2-12 record in the MAAC — good for last place by two games. But the Stags shocked 1-seed Iona (22-8, 11-3 MAAC) in the first round of the tournament, and beat 2-seed Canisius (17-12, 10-4 MAAC) to win the title and secure the auto-bid. They were rewarded with a first-round matchup against 1-seed UNC, which they lost 82-74.
The worst record ever for a team that won an NCAA tournament game belongs to Villanova in 1991. The Wildcats entered the tournament at 16-14, having lost to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament semifinal. But they did own five wins against ranked teams on the year, including three top-10 opponents. That was enough to land them a No. 9 seed after earning an at-large bid. They took down Princeton 50-48, but lost to No. 1 seed UNC 84-69 in the second round.
Not surprisingly, 1985 Villanova — the ultimate Cinderella — owns the distinction of the worst record among championship teams. After winning eight straight to start the season, the Wildcats lost six of their last 11. On Selection Sunday, they sat at 19-10 (65.5 percent) and found themselves as a No. 8 seed.
Then they won six games in a row, by a tight margin of five points per game, en route to knocking off the Goliath to their David in Patrick Ewing and No. 1 seed Georgetown. That Villanova team remains the highest-seeded team ever to win the title.
So, is a below-average winning percentage recommended in March? Not exactly. But it’s not a guaranteed early exit either. If anything, it’s the first ingredient in the recipe for a great Cinderella story.