11 Biggest Upsets in NCAA Tournament History
Ahhh, March Madness! There really is something fantastical about this time of year, isn’t there? Something in the air? Something that magically transforms people with no knowledge of college basketball into heralded geniuses who suddenly have little extra cash lining their pockets? Kind of pisses you off, doesn’t it?
Well, as Carlos Santana once said, those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Or in other words, before you fill out your bracket, maybe you should take a look at the most famous March Madness upsets to see if you can make any sense of it all. Maybe there is a pattern or indicator that will make you look like a genius for once.
So here, without further ado, are the 11 Biggest Upsets in NCAA Tournament History
11. #15 Hampton over #2 Iowa State, 58-57 – First Round, 2001
Iowa State finished the 2001 season ranked #10 in the AP Poll, so maybe their #2 seed was a little generous. Still, Hampton had never been to the tournament before. Oh, and did I mention Iowa State lost on a missed layup with 1.2 tics left on the clock? Ouch. The one point victory meant the Hampton Pirates beat the spread by a whopping 17.5 points! (Another famous #15 seed, Coppin State, beat the spread by 18.5 points over South Carolina in 1997. But the final score of that game, 78-65, was not nearly as exciting.)
10. #15 Richmond over #2 Syracuse, 73-69 – First Round,1991
The Richmond Spiders messed up every office pool in the country in 1991 by becoming the lowest seed to ever win a first round game.
Photo: Sports Illustrated
9. #15 Santa Clara over #2 Arizona, 64-61 – First Round, 1993
The greatest of the #15 seed victories (there have been only four), Santa Clara beat a real powerhouse that was ranked #6 nationally. Freshman guard and future NBA MVP Steve Nash nailed six straight free throws late in the game to help his Broncos beat the spread by a tournament record 19.5 points.
Photo: AP via collegehoopsjournal.com
8. #2 Duke over #1 UNLV, 79-77 – Semifinal Game,1991
Since it is illegal to talk about college hoops without mentioning Duke and/or Mike Krzyzewski, I’ll slide this upset in at #9. Those born after 1982 might wonder, “why is a #2 beating a #1 considered a huge upset?” They might also wonder, “who the hell is UNLV?” Well, kids, the Rebels from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas were, in the early 90s, one of the greatest NCAA basketball teams of all time. They won the 1990 championship against Duke by 30 points, then went undefeated (27-0) the next year. More than any other team in recent memory, UNLV was considered invincible. Yet, with a ferocious defensive performance, Duke managed to do the impossible, defeating the UNLV and putting an end to their 45-game winning streak.
Photo: AP via collegehoopsjournal.com
7. #9 Boston College over #1UNC, 75-72 – Round Two, 1994
North Carolina was not just a #1 seed in 1994. They were the #1 team in the country, and they had made an amazing 13 consecutive Sweet 16 appearances. This was a team and a program in its prime. So when the Tar Heels were defeated in the second round by the unranked BC Eagles, who had cracked the top 25 only seven times all year—never reaching higher than #18—it was a pretty big deal.
Photo: Sports Illustrated
6. #11 LSU over #1 Kentucky, 59-57 – Elite 8, 1986
Kentucky was ranked #3 in the nation and considered a championship favorite heading into the 1986 tournament. LSU, on the other hand, was unranked after losing three key players and being hit hard by a chicken pox epidemic (no kidding). Even after a huge Sweet 16 win against #2 seed Georgia Tech, LSU were still underdogs against the Wildcats, having already lost to them three times that season alone. But thanks to something called “The Freak” defense, the Bayou Tigers defeated UK and became the lowest seed to make the Final Four until…
Photo: AP via Wall Street Journal
5. #11 George Mason over #1 UConn, 86-84 (OT) – Elite 8, 2006
The best Cinderella story this decade, little George Mason University of the just-as-little Colonial Athletic Association Conference captivated the sporting world in March of 2006 with their thrilling run to the Final Four. Though an eleven seed had been to the Final Four once before (see above), that team was from a major collegiate athletics power in a major conference. This time around it really was David vs. Goliath, a little-known team made up of unknowns up against a nationally renowned program with top players. It would have been a huge deal if the GMU Patriots defeated the Connecticut Huskies in the opening round; it was unthinkable in the Elite 8. And what a game.
4. Canisius College over #2 NC State, 79-78 (OT) – First Round, 1956
This is basically the 1950s equivalent of something we have never seen in the 64+ team era: a #1 seed losing in the first round. Of course, technically, there were no seeds in 1956. Only 25 teams were invited to the dance back then, with each conference sending only one. Needless to say, the #2 ranked NC State Wolfpack were heavy favorites to trample the unranked Canisius Golden Griffons. But Canisius managed to pull off an incredible quadruple overtime victory—easily the greatest upset of the era.
Photo: North Carolina State University
3. Texas Western over #5 Kentucky, 72-65 – Championship Game, 1966
The Kentucky Wildcats were not as dominant as some of the other overthrown favorites on this list. After all, they were only #5 in the nation heading into the tournament. Still, they were pretty damned good. And this team, with its unabashedly racist head coach, Adolph Rupp, was heavily favored against Texas Western and its all-black starting five. Nevertheless, Texas Western (now UTEP) beat Kentucky in a barn-burner of a game. While they were not the first National Champions to start black players (Loyola University Chicago won it all in ’63 starting three black players), they were the first with an all-black starting lineup, and the biggest underdog champions until…
2. #6 NC State over #1 Houston, 54-52 – Championship Game,1983
The ’83 Houston Cougars were led by two future NBA legends in Hakeem “the Dream” Olajuwon and Clyde “the Glide” Drexler. The Cougars finished the regular season as the #1 team in the nation and were collectively known as “Phi Slama Jama,” so named for the fast-paced showmanship of their game. Going into the championship game, Olajuwon boldly predicted “the team with the most dunks will win.” The NC State Wolfpack were hardly nobodies at #16 in the nation, but it took an impressive late-season streak just to get them to that ranking, and nobody thought they had a chance against Houston. So it was quite a shock to see Lorenzo Charles dunk the winning two points in the last second of the game, and then see Wolfpack coach Jimmy Valvano running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
1. #8 Villanova over #1 Georgetown, 66-64 – Championship Game,1985
The NC State win over Houston may have the most well-known on-court celebration in the history of March Madness, but this game is definitely the biggest upset. Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas won their first NCAA Championship in 1984 and were widely expected to repeat in ’85, beginning and ending the regular season ranked #1 in the nation. Villanova, meanwhile, didn’t make a single appearance in the Top 20 all season. So how did they manage to defeat the mighty Hoyas and become the lowest seed to ever win an NCAA Championship? Well, not having to worry about a shot clock certainly didn’t hurt—it was the last NCAA game played without one. But really it all came down to hot-shooting: the ‘Nova Wildcats shot 78% from the field against nation’s best defense, enough to get a standing ovation from their opponents after the game.