Top 5 Upsets In NCAA Tournament History

by Bernard Frei on March 28, 2019

March Madness

If you’re a basketball fan, March is simply one of the best times of the year. Whether your an NBA nut or can’t bear to watch anything other than college basketball, we all unite every year around March to enjoy a month of nonstop basketball mayhem. From watching future NBA superstars to cheering on your hometown team there’s something here for everyone. But, it goes without saying that the best part of March Madness is the upsets. The Cinderella teams, buzzer beaters, and busted brackets. They’re what make March Madness truly magical. Anything can happen at any moment and you don’t want to miss a second of it. With that being said, the 2019 NCAA Tournament is turning out to be a bit chalky. In fact, its the lowest number of 4 or under seeds we’ve seen in the Sweet Sixteen since 2009, which also only had four. In the time since, every NCAA tournament has had at least seven seeds ranked 4 or below in the Sweet Sixteen with 2014 having as many as ten. So to cheer ourselves up we figured why not make a list of the top five upsets in NCAA tournament history!

5.  VCU(11) beats Kansas(1): 71-61 (2011, Elite Eight)

a group of people playing a game of football

2011 was the very first year for the “first four”. The tournament expanded from its traditional 64 teams to 68, with the “first four” having to win a play-in game just to get to the first round of the tournament. Many pushed back on the idea of the “first four”, arguing that teams like Virginia Commonwealth University weren’t worth the effort and didn’t “deserve” a spot in the tournament. VCU would quiet those opinions in short fashion. VCU started by knocking off 11 seed USC in the “first four” to reach the round of 64. Still, people passed this off as a bit of luck and some classic USC disappointment. Next, they knocked off 6 seed Georgetown and suddenly everyone’s eyes were on VCU. They took down 3 seed Purdue to reach the Sweet Sixteen and 10 seed Florida State fell on their way to the Elite Eight. Finally, VCU faced the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks. Shaka Smart’s now famous “havoc” defense got VCU an early lead and they managed to hold on until finally, VCU had booked their spot in the Final Four. From the First Four to the Final Four, a win over 1 seed Kansas was the cherry on top of a magnificent tournament for VCU.

4. NC State(6) takes down Houston(1): 54-52 (1983, National Championship)

a man standing in front of a crowd

After a disappointing season in the ACC NC State managed to sneak into the big dance after winning their conference tournament. Touting Jimmy V’s famous “survive and advance” mantra, NC State had powered themselves past teams like Virginia and North Carolina in order to make it to the tournament. Down came Pepperdine, UNLV, Utah, Virginia, and Georgia on NC State’s improbable run to the national championship game. From barely making it into the tournament to upsetting three higher ranked teams on their way to the final, NC State could have stopped there and been remembered forever. But that wasn't enough for Jimmy V and the “Cardiac Pack”, named so because of their penchant for last-second come-from-behind wins. They faced Phi Slama Jama in the final. A Houston team who had been ranked at the top essentially all year long and were led by future NBA superstars Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. For the boys from Raleigh, it seemed like an insurmountable task. But long before Jimmy V had contracted cancer and made his famous “Don't Give Up” speech, he had been living every word of it for years. NC State refused to quit and a last-second put-back dunk by Lorenzo Charles off a desperation heave from Dereck Whittenburg turned airball sealed the deal in the dying moments.The North Carolina State Wolf Pack were National Champions. On top of that, NC State was the original “Cinderella”, popularizing the term to the point we still use it today.

3. MTSU(15) beats Michigan State(2): 90-81 (2016, First Round)

a basketball player jumping up in the air

Going into the 2016 NCAA Tournament Michigan State was seeded 2nd and was a very popular pick for the National Championship. In fact, amongst NCAA Brackets Michigan State was picked 2nd most to win the NCAA Tournament with 22% of all brackets picking them to win. That's ahead of teams like the 1 seeded North Carolina, Virginia, and eventual champions 2 seed Villanova. So, you can imagine the absolute shock and horror that came when MTSU managed to bust all of our brackets in the first round of the tournament. MTSU became one of just eight 15 seeds to ever topple a 2 seed. The Spartans were unable to keep up as MTSU shot 57.9% from 3-point range on 19 attempts. Denzel Valentine’s six turnovers didn’t help either as MTSU notched a comfortable win against Michigan State. MTSU would go on to get stomped in the round of 32 by Syracuse, but that first round game is a loss Mr. March himself, Tom Izzo, and our bracket pools won’t forget anytime soon.

2. Villanova(8) over Georgetown(1): 66-64 (1985, National Championship)

a group of people standing in front of a crowd

In 1985 Georgetown was nothing less than a juggernaut. They were the top seed in the tournament and the defending champions. Led by future all-timer Patrick Ewing, Georgetown looked like they might stroll to a second consecutive title. Georgetown dominated their way to the championship game with double-digit wins in four of their five games leading to the final. This included a 77-59 drubbing of perennial powerhouse St. John’s in the Final Four which many thought to be the true title match and that the winner would inevitably go on to win the National Championship. Villanova, on the other hand, couldn’t have been further from a juggernaut. In fact, if the tournament hadn’t expanded to 64 teams for the first time in 1985 Villanova probably wouldn’t have made the tournament at all. Nova barely slipped through their first three games, winning by a combined margin of only 9 points. This included a win over 1 seeded Michigan in the second round. It didn’t get any easier for Villanova after that. In the Elite Eight they had to take down a 2 seed North Carolina side and in the Final Four managed to knock out another 2 seed in a Memphis State squad led by Keith Lee. Finally, in the Championship game, Nova came up against the unstoppable Georgetown. Many thought it a foregone conclusion that Georgetown would win so no one expected what was coming next. Villanova played the perfect game. They shot 79% from the field and only missed a single field goal attempt in the second half. Villanova center Ed Pinckney outscored and outrebounded the seemingly unstoppable Patrick Ewing. It was a perfect storm and even today Villanova is the lowest seed to ever win the NCAA Tournament.

1. UMBC(16) tops Virginia(1): 74-54 (2018, First Round)

a group of people watching a football ball

You knew this was coming. UMBC is the first and only 16 seed to ever defeat a one seed in the first round. If you’re in a category all by yourself, then you’re making the top of our list. Virginia had dominated teams all season with their unbreakable defense and smart play. After some disappointing tournament runs in previous years it finally felt like this might be the year Virginia puts it all together in the postseason. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, it was not to be. What makes this upset so unbelievable isn’t simply the fact that it was a 16 seed over a 1 seed. Its the manner in which UMBC won. They ran Virginia out of the gym. It wasn’t even close. No buzzer beater, no last gasp half court shots or crazy foul calls. The Cavaliers were missing De’Andre Hunter, but when you’re playing a 16 seed there are no excuses. UMBC was a 20.5 point underdog heading into the game. When it was finished they had won by 20. This is a performance we may never see the likes of again.

 

Honorable mentions:

FGCU(15) over Georgetown(2): 78-68 (2013, First Round)

a basketball player in front of a crowd

It's difficult to make a list of NCAA Tournament upsets and not put Florida Gulf Coast’s Victory over Georgetown on it. This is the game that gave us “Dunk City”, one of the most fun Cinderella squads in recent memory. FGCU had put together a motley crew for their bout against 2 seed Georgetown and most didn’t give them a second thought about winning. Sherwood Brown, their star player during their run, started his career as a walk-on so you won't find him on any recruiting sites. FGCU point guard Brett Comer, who had 24 assists in their two tournament games, came to FGCU having never played point guard before coming to the school. Chase Fieler who had the signature dunk off the backboard didn’t even know how to jump off two feet in-game when he arrived at FGCU. By comparison, Georgetown had future #3 pick in the draft Otto Porter Jr. on their squad. What made this upset so special was the style they did it in. FGCU managed a 10 point win by throwing up alley-oops and slamming down crazy dunks. They were incredible to watch and looked like they were just messing around out there. That alone makes it one of the most entertaining upsets of all time, but we didn’t feel like it was quite enough to make our list.


Davidson(10) beats Gonzaga(7): 82-76 (2008, First Round)

a basketball player with a crowd watching

Many will remember this game as the day Steph Curry entered our lives. While Davidson made it all the way to the Elite Eight that year, defeating teams such as Wisconsin and Georgetown on their way, we felt like the first round upset over Gonzaga quantified this Cinderella team the best. This was Steph Curry's announcement party. The three time NBA champion and two time NBA MVP wasn’t a highly touted recruit coming out of high school and despite his dad’s successful NBA career, he didn’t receive that many offers. For the most part, no one even knew his name. That all changed when Steph exploded on college basketball’s biggest stage to drop 40 points in an upset of Gonzaga in the first round of the 2008 tournament. It was simply extraordinary. It was like watching a magician. Curry defied gravity out there. For most of us, this was the first time we had seen Curry play. That quick release and high arch that we’re all so accustomed to now were totally foreign back then. Soon we realized that no matter how he shot the ball, there was a good chance it was going in. Steph dominated the second half, dropping 30 of his 40 points to put away the Zags. By the end of the game, he was shooting 63.6 percent from the field and was 8-10 from beyond the arch. When the final buzzer went off, every basketball fan in the country knew the name Steph Curry, and that was simply the beginning.

 

Knox Ashford, a content writer for Vintage Sports, is a regular contributor to the site including stories, product descriptions, and video scripts. You can follow him on twitter @KnoxVSports for regular updates.

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