After a relatively uneventful first round of March Madness, I figured I would give us a chance to reflect on all of the crazy upset finishes we have seen over the last few decades. The art of the upset is something we can all resonate with. The underdog story. Just think of the classic sports movie “Little Giants.” Giants coach Danny O’Shea said it best as he rallied his team at halftime, “Even if those Cowboys are better than you guys, even if they beat you 99 times out of 100, that still leaves…”
That is the beauty of the NCAA Tournament. It only takes one game. 40 minutes. That wonderful time of year where that one North Carolina team from the Colonial Athletic Association can take it down to the wire… Wilmington or Asheville or Greensboro.
It’s that magic time of year where the Stephen Curry’s and CJ McCollum’s become household names after leading their teams to victory in the “Big Dance.”
It’s David vs. Goliath. It’s the birth of “Dunk City.” It’s the Cinderella Story. It’s MADNESS… and we love it!
So here are my top 10 upsets in NCAA Tournament history.
Honorable Mention: 12 Stephen F. Austin def. 5 VCU 77-75 (2014)
Stephen F. Austin has quickly become a disruptive program that no Power 5 team wants to see in the first round of the tournament. The Lumberjacks have two tournament wins in four appearances out of the Southland Conference.
In 2014, they had to go up against the “Havoc” press defense of Shaka Smart’s VCU Rams, who had their own Cinderella story a few years earlier, making the Final Four in 2011 as an 11-seed.
It was a back-and-forth battle all game long, but VCU had a 4-point lead with under 10 seconds remaining. SFA’s Thomas Walkup dished the ball to Desmond Haymon, who pulled up from 3 with under 5 seconds left. He nailed the 3-pointer and got fouled in the process to give SFA a chance to tie it with 3.6 seconds left in the game. Haymon completed the 4-point play to send the game in to overtime, where the Lumberjacks were able to finish off the upset.
No. 10: 14 Georgia State def. 3 Baylor 57-56 (2015)
This game provided not only one of the best finishes in tournament history, but it gave us a genuine “This is why we love sports” moment.
The backstory is that Georgia St. head coach Ron Hunter had recently torn his Achilles celebrating a thrilling victory in the Sun Belt Conference Championship game that sent the Panthers to the “Big Dance.” Well, being that it was their first tournament appearance in 16 years, Coach Hunter was not going to miss this game, so he coached from a stool placed on the GSU sideline.
The Panthers hung around against Baylor until they found themselves down 2 with time running out. Coach Hunter’s son, RJ Hunter pulled up from about seven feet behind the 3-point line at the top of the key and nailed it to take a 1-point lead with 2.6 seconds left.
After seeing his son drain the go ahead, and eventual game-winning bucket, Ron Hunter fell off his stool on the sideline in another celebration casualty, but the look of elation on his face was plenty enough to warm the hearts of basketball fans everywhere.
No. 9: 15 Lehigh def. 2 Duke 75-70 (2012)
According to a variety of basketball metrics, this was the least “impressive” 15-over-2 upsets in NCAA history. That might be because Lehigh had an NBA first-round prospect in CJ McCollum. So why does it make my list?
Well first, it’s not every day that a 15-seed defeats a 2-seed. And second, Duke is one of the most storied programs in NCAA history. The Blue Devils are coached by arguably the greatest basketball coach of all-time in Coach K. Upsetting Duke isn’t just about the players on the floor performing. It’s about coaching and game-planning.
Nevertheless, talent took over in this game, as McCollum scored 30 points against the then-defending national champions.
No. 8: 15 Florida Gulf Coast def. 2 Georgetown 78-68 (2013)
This game was the beginning of something that will be talked about in March year after year, tournament after tournament. The birth of “Dunk City.”
I’m sure some of you are wondering why I have this monumental March moment all the way down at No. 8. Well, it’s because although it is memorable, there were better games than this one. FGCU was the better team in this matchup. Maybe not going into the game, but throughout the contest, it was clear that the Eagles were better than the Hoyas.
FGCU scored 54 second half points to defeat the Hoyas, including a barrage of thunderous slam dunks that had the nation going crazy. What is most impressive, is that Florida Gulf Coast had just become a Division 1 program six years earlier in 2007. Don’t tell them that because they were able to become the highest (or lowest, depending how you look at it) seed to make the Sweet Sixteen.
No. 7: 13 Princeton def. 4 UCLA 43-41 (1996)
Much like the Lehigh-Duke game, Princeton wasn’t just playing a first round game in March. They were going up against the defending National Champions and one of the most storied NCAA programs in UCLA.
In a very low-scoring, methodical game, Princeton was able to hang around all game long. In the final seconds, the Tigers’ Gabe Lewullis received a backdoor bounce pass and finished the go-ahead layup to put Princeton ahead. They were able to survive a buzzer shot by the Bruins en route to pulling off one of the biggest upsets in tournament history to that point.
Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson was a part of that 1996 team and was almost able to lead his Tigers to an upset win against Notre Dame in this year’s opening round.
No. 6: 14 Bucknell def. 3 Kansas 64-63 (2005)
This win was much bigger than your typical 14-3 upset, as the Jayhawks were the preseason No. 1 team in the country. Although they were a 3-seed, many people still had them advancing to the Final Four.
The Bucknell Bison, out of the Patriot League, were not fazed by all of the accolades that Kansas had entering the opening weekend.
After battling for 39 minutes and 50 seconds, Bucknell’s Chris McNaughton made a hook shot over All-American Wayne Simien for the game-winning bucket with 10 seconds left.
No. 5: 14 Northwestern State def. 3 Iowa 64-63 (2006)
I wouldn’t call Iowa a perennial basketball powerhouse, but this was one of the most exciting games in NCAA history. Many viewers probably turned it off though, as the Demons were trailing the Hawkeyes by 17 with 10 minutes left in the second half.
Northwestern St., out of the Southland Conference, never quit and were able to fight their way back to get within 2 points in the final seconds of the game.
Down 63-61, the Demons missed a 3-pointer with 7 seconds remaining, but a lucky bounce off the rim landed in NW St.’s Jermaine Wallace’s hands in the corner. With time running out, Wallace launched a desperation 3 at the buzzer that found its mark to give them the 64-63 upset victory.
No. 4: 13 Valparaiso def. 4 Ole Miss 70-69 (1998)
For all of you millennials and Villanova fans, before you deemed last year’s game-winning shot by Kris Jenkins in the National Championship game “The Shot,” this game was referred to as “The Shot.” Google it.
We don’t really need a backstory for this game, as it is arguably the greatest final play in basketball (Not just NCAA) history.
With 2.5 seconds left, Valpo was down by 2 and had to travel the length of the court for a potential game-tying or game-winning field goal. In basketball’s version of the hook-and-ladder, head coach Homer Drew designed the perfect final play for his son Bryce Drew. A long heave landed in the Crusaders’ Bill Jenkins hands, who immediately relayed the pass to Drew. Drew, with no time to waste, squared up and fired from 3… BANG!
No. 3: 15 Middle Tennessee State def. 2 Michigan State 90-81 (2016)
Heading into last year’s tournament, the big story was how everyone believed the Spartans were robbed of a No. 1 seed. It certainly showed, as more people chose Michigan St. to win it all than all of the No. 1 seeds. So you could say that in a lot of people’s minds, the Spartans were the favorite to cut down the nets.
NOT SO FAST.
Year after year, people make a big fuss about how a 16-seed has never taken down a 1-seed. After this year’s tournament, 1-seeds are 132-0 in the first round. Well, this very well could have been that historic moment if the committee made a few changes heading into opening weekend.
Nevertheless, Middle Tennessee St. dominated this high-scoring game from start to finish. There was nothing that NCAA Player of the Year Denzel Valentine could do to stop the Blue Raiders.
Middle Tennessee State is looking to become this year’s darling as well, following a controlling victory over 5-seed Minnesota in the opening round.
No. 2: 15 Norfolk State def. 2 Missouri 86-84 (2012)
According to FiveThirtyEight, the sports analytics website created by analytics genius Nate Silver, this is the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history. Taking a variety of measureable metrics into account, Norfolk St. was ranked 212th in Division 1, while Missouri was ranked 7th.
Before this game, the last time a 15-seed defeated a 2-seed was 2001. Of course, later that day, our No. 9 upset happened when Lehigh took down Duke. And since then, we saw two more (FGCU, MTSU). So you could say these Spartans started a new trend, as a 15-seed has won at least one game in 3 of the last 5 tournaments.
Norfolk State needed three 20-point scorers (Kyle O’Quinn, Pendarvis Williams, Chris McEachin) to take down the Tigers.
No. 1: 8 Villanova def. 1 Georgetown 66-64 (1985)
David vs. Goliath. The Perfect Game. The Biggest Upset of All-Time.
To me, this was an easy No. 1 pick. It wasn’t a double-digit seed. It wasn’t a first round game. It was the NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP.
Rollie Massimino’s Villanova Wildcats made an incredible run to the title game, but for all intensive purposes, it seemed like it was coming to an end with the Hoyas waiting for them.
With the best player in the nation, Patrick Ewing leading Georgetown, it seemed like an impossible task for the Wildcats. It was almost as if Villanova would have to play, well… a perfect game.
The crazy thing is that 1985 was the year that the tournament officially expanded to 64 teams. Now at 68 teams, the Wildcats are still the highest (or lowest) seed to win it all as an 8-seed.
Sports Writer. Avid sports fan. University of Wisconsin-Whitewater graduate. Currently living in Tempe, AZ.