Since they lost their second game of the NCAA Tournament to a talented but mostly unheralded mid-major and barely squeaked by a 16-seed (Southern, champions of the SWAC, maybe the worst conference in Division I) in their first game, there has been a good deal of talk about the Gonzaga Bulldogs (32-3) being the worst #1 seed of all-time. As with most conversations that involve the words "of all time," there's some overinflation, here. There's some validity, too. There's also one not-very-advanced statistic that suggests Gonzaga is not at all the worst; how much comfort this provides Kelly Olynyk and them right now is an open question. But the numbers are the numbers.
The number I'm talking about is point differential, and by that metric Gonzaga is not even the third-worst one seed in the 64-team era. After winning by six points in the first round, the Bulldogs lost by six in the second, giving them a point differential of (deploys calculator) 0. Not ideal, obviously, but also tied for just fourth-worst for a #1 since the tournament expanded in 1985.
In that first year, the Michigan Wolverines eked by Fairleigh Dickinson 59-55, before getting Rollie Massimino-ed by Villanova 59-55, for a PD of 0, equaling Gonzaga's. Villanova went on to win the tournament as a #8, so that Michigan team shouldn't really be considered in the running for worst #1. They ran into a March Madness Thing, and mostly were just in the wrong arena at the wrong time.
In 1991, another Big 10 team, Ohio State, was actually outscored as a #1 seed. They beat Towson, 97-86, and Georgia Tech, 65-61, but lost big to St. John's, 91-74. Though they scored one bucket less than their opponents (236-238), for a PD of -2, their eventual demise came in the less embarrassing third round. Ultimately, the outgunned Buckeyes were a Sweet 16 team and clearly weren't the worst #1 ever.
In 1996, a third Big 10 team, Purdue, edged #16 Western Carolina 73-71, and Gene Keady's team, perhaps shaken by that near-disaster, ended up losing to Georgia in the second round, 76-69. In all, Purdue was outscored by five points. Those Boilermakers (-5) would make The Final Four of underperforming top seeds based on point differential, a group that also features the rather successful '91 OSU team (-2), and this year's Gonzaga squad (0), who would win (lose?) a tie-breaker against the '85 Wolverines (0) for their spot.
But all of the above would lose the trophy for underachievement to the red-faced then-Redmen from St. John's, 1986 Edition. Led by Wooden Award winner Walter Berry, St. John's entered the tournament with a 30-4 record and what seemed a richly deserved seed. After a comfortable win against Montana State, 83-74, they were crushed by #8 Auburn, 81-65, racking up a -7 point differential in the process.
The case against this year's Gonzaga team was that they had a relatively weak strength of schedule, came from a not-so-elite conference, and couldn't dominate in the early rounds. But if they want to argue against the critics, this excellent team might simply point to the scoreboard with their long-haired heads held... well, not quite so low.
Oh, and the best #1's? The most dominant by point differential is also the one that caused your author the most heartache. Having beaten my beloved UMass Minutemen (+59) in the National semis, the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats won the tournament with a combined +129. I believe this to be an all-time high. For those who remember that team, it's not quite a surprise, which is maybe equally impressive.
The rest of the Final Four of Blowout Kings is somewhat difficult to choose, although the 2009 champion UNC squad, at +121, obviously makes the group.
But of the next three best point runner-uppers, only one team, UNLV in 1990, actually won the tournament. On the strength of their three 30-point wins over Arkansas Little Rock, Loyola Marymount (131-101!) and Duke, and because they won the trophy, I've decided to select them at +112 over 1993's Kentucky team at +123, which lost in the National semis.
The last team to make this particular fab foursome, after edging Kentucky at the buzzer in the East Regional, is 1999's Duke bunch, also at +123. Stupid Duke. Incidentally, they lost in the final to UConn, which was only +67. Stupid UConn.
If you were wondering, this year, the remaining #1s are at +19 (Kansas), +27 (Indiana), and +57 (Louisville). Only the Cardinals have a shot at breaking into the all-time top four. If they happen to average 18-point victories in their next four games, and win the championship, they'd tie Kentucky at +129. Stupid-Brilliant Pitino.