Last night, Michigan State became the first top seed to fall in the 2012 NCAA tournament, but the Spartans’ loss to Louisville was far from the biggest upset in this year’s Big Dance. This edition of March Madness will go down in history as one of the toughest years ever for teams that appeared to be prohibitive favorites.
Few tournament results in recent memory have been more jaw-dropping than the performance of 15th-seeded Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks stunned No. 2 seed Duke, and only a hard-fought loss to Xavier kept them from becoming the first No. 15 in history to make the Sweet 16.
Herein, a closer look at Lehigh’s stunner and the rest of the 25 biggest surprises in the last decade of March Madness action.
Kentucky had earned its No. 1 seed in 2004 with a physical defense and a balanced offense with five double-figure scorers. Even a 13-3 record in SEC play, though, couldn’t prepare them for their second-round NCAA foe.
Alabama-Birmingham, under the leadership of current Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, featured a lethal full-court press headlined by Carldell “Squeaky” Johnson.
After edging Washington in a high-scoring first-round duel, the Blazers forced 16 UK turnovers and shot 44.4 percent from long range. Even then, they needed a Mo Finley jumper with 12.2 seconds on the clock to upend the heavily favored Wildcats.
Led by Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis, Notre Dame put together quite the offensive juggernaut last season. Unfortunately, they ran into the worst possible matchup in the Round of 32.
Florida State’s defense had limited opponents to 36.3 percent shooting, the best figure for any team in a decade.
After grinding past fellow defensive powerhouse Texas A&M in the second round, the 10th-seeded Seminoles locked down No. 2 seed Notre Dame, holding the Irish to 30.6 percent shooting and 18 points below their season average.
Finding a weakness in Kansas’ 2009-10 squad was no easy task. The Jayhawks had size (6’11” junior Cole Aldrich), shooting (freshman Xavier Henry and his .418 three-point accuracy) and leadership (senior point guard Sherron Collins).
Unfortunately for Kansas, those same virtues made for an equally valid description of ninth-seeded Northern Iowa.
Facing the top-seeded Jayhawks in the second round, the Panthers held KU to 6-of-23 long-range shooting and put the game away in the final minute on Ali Farokhmanesh’s iconic three-point bomb.
By 2004, longtime bracket-buster Gonzaga was establishing itself as a serious national contender.
Naturally, the deepest team in Zags history—featuring freshman Adam Morrison along with Blake Stepp and Ronny Turiaf—then proceeded to find itself on the wrong end of a Cinderella story.
The 10th-seeded Nevada Wolf Pack had a talented freshman of their own in 6’11” Nick Fazekas, and he paired with sweet-shooting Kirk Snyder to take down Michigan State in the first round.
Then Nevada’s offense caught fire against the No. 2 seed Zags: Four starters scored 16 points or better, led by Kevinn Pinkney, who doubled his season average to pour in 20.
Bruce Pearl’s 2004-05 Milwaukee squad didn’t have much size, but the Panthers’ perimeter game was tough to beat.
All five starters averaged at least a steal per game, and senior Ed McCants led a long-range barrage that finished 22nd in the nation with 262 three-pointers made.
After lighting up Alabama in the first round, the 12th-seeded Panthers took on the vastly superior frontcourt of No. 4 seed Boston College.
Even NBA-bound Craig Smith and Jared Dudley, though, couldn’t save the Eagles from hot-shooting Adrian Tigert (7-of-7 from the field) as Milwaukee advanced to the Sweet 16.
Second-seeded Georgetown opened the 2008 NCAA tournament by throttling UMBC, 66-47.
The defending Final Four squad had lost standout Jeff Green, but the return of massive center Roy Hibbert and sweet-shooting Jonathan Wallace (.447 from long range) had the Hoyas poised for another deep tourney run.
All of that changed, though, when Georgetown ran into red-hot Stephen Curry of the 10th-seeded Davidson Wildcats.
The sophomore superstar demolished the Hoya defense for 30 points and five assists, while foul trouble limited Hibbert to six points and helped the Wildcats move on to what would eventually be an Elite Eight finish.
The 2003 Butler Bulldogs won one of the ugliest March Madness games in recent memory, topping fifth-seeded Mississippi State 47-46 in the first round. Unlike many No. 12 seeds, though, Butler wasn’t done after one victory.
Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals had earned a No. 4 seed (and a first-round romp over Austin Peay) behind a Reece Gaines-led horde of three-point gunners.
Against Butler, though, the Cards got a taste of their own medicine as the Bulldogs drained 14-of-22 from beyond the arc (led by Darnell Archey’s 8-of-9 long-range shooting and 26 points).
Mid-major teams often have to play at a size disadvantage, but surprising Dayton faced no such problems in 2002-03.
The Flyers, with seven-footer Sean Finn at center and 6’9” Keith Waleskowski (12.7 points, 8.2 boards a night) at PF, finished 24-5 and earned a program-record No. 4 seed.
Once in the Big Dance, though, the Flyers fell victim to a phenomenal offensive performance from a smaller 13th-seeded Tulsa squad.
The Golden Hurricane had been a three-man offensive team all year, and in this game their trio of scorers—Jason Parker, Dante Swanson and Kevin Johnson—combined for 64 points on a ludicrous 25-of-38 shooting from the floor.
Like many of Kevin Stallings’ best Vanderbilt teams, the 2007-08 Commodores revolved around a terrific perimeter scorer. The 6’6” senior Shan Foster and his 20.3 points a game helped Vandy earn a No. 4 seed (in spite of a shaky 10-6 SEC record).
Although Foster had an off night against 13th-seeded Siena in the first round—he scored just 13 points—the real key to Vandy’s collapse was the defense (or lack thereof).
Saints guard Kenny Hasbrouck torched the Commodores for 30 points, while teammate Tay Fisher came off the bench to shoot 6-of-6 from the field in a Siena rout.
The arrival of freshman point guard Trey Burke transformed this year’s Michigan Wolverines into a serious Big Ten contender. Burke and sophomore Tim Hardaway Jr. combined for 29.4 points and 6.7 assists a night in John Beilein’s dangerous offense.
Against 13th-seeded Ohio, though, Burke turned out to be the second-best point guard on the floor.
Bobcat star D.J. Cooper lit up the fourth-seeded Wolverines for 21 points and five assists, sending Ohio on its way to the Sweet 16.
Prior to 2008, Cornell had two NCAA tournament appearances in program history. By 2010, the Big Red was making their third consecutive trip to March Madness.
Seniors Ryan Wittman and Louis Dale led a veteran squad that topped the nation in three-point shooting (.430) but only managed a No. 12 seed.
After shredding No. 5 seed Temple in the first round, Cornell squared off with fourth-seeded Wisconsin, boasting some three-point snipers of its own (led by junior Jon Leuer) as well as the nation’s fourth-toughest defense.
Even the Badgers proved no match for a battle-tested Big Red squad that shot an astonishing 61.1 percent from the field to become the Ivy League’s first Sweet 16 representative since 1979.
Youngsters John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor were already big factors in the offense, but Jermaine Beal was the focal point of Vanderbilt’s 2009-10 squad.
The 6’3” senior’s team-high 14.6 points and 3.1 assists a night led Vandy to a second-place finish in SEC play and a No. 4 seed in March.
Vanderbilt’s offense almost did the job in the first round against 13th-seeded Murray State, but the Commodores shot a wretched 17-of-29 from the free-throw stripe.
That left the door open for the Racers to steal the game at the end, and senior Danero Thomas obliged with a 15-foot buzzer-beater that sent Vandy home in the first round of March Madness for a second straight year.
Few teams have looked the part of the big-conference bully better than the 2007-08 UConn Huskies.
With 7’3” shot-blocker Hasheem Thabeet in the middle and athletic juniors Jeff Adrien and A.J. Price leading the offense, Jim Calhoun’s squad didn’t appear to have much to worry about against 13th-seeded San Diego.
The WCC tournament champs took the Huskies to overtime behind a monster shooting night from Gyno Pomare (10-of-12 from the field).
With 1.2 seconds left in the extra session, De’Jon Jackson drained a jumper from the elbow that gave the Toreros the only March Madness win in program history.
Last year’s Louisville squad didn’t have much in the way of star power, but the team followed coach Rick Pitino’s blueprint to a T. Louisville finished in the top six in the nation in three-pointers made (309), assists (608) and steals (327).
Armed with a No. 4 seed, the Cardinals looked ready for a strong postseason when they faced little-known in-state rival Morehead State.
Instead, double-double machine Kenneth Faried gave the Eagles 12 points and 17 boards to keep the game close, allowing Demonte Harper to drain the game-winning trey that sent Morehead State to the Round of 32.
Although Butler had come within inches of the 2010 national title, the Bulldogs finished a pedestrian 23-9 the next year.
The loss of NBA draftee Gordon Hayward had left Brad Stevens’ team vulnerable enough that they landed a mere No. 8 seed in the 2011 tournament.
Of course, once they made the Big Dance, the Bulldogs managed an even more surprising effort than their previous national runner-up season (when they’d been a No. 5 seed). They highlighted another run to the title game with a third-round nail-biter over top-seeded Pitt.
Shelvin Mack’s ill-advised late foul appeared to have handed the Panthers a win until Matt Howard rebounded a missed free throw, weathered an even dumber foul from Nasir Robinson and nailed the game-winning free throw with less than a second to play.
Two years removed from a national championship, the 2004-05 Orange were a veteran squad led by athletic senior Hakim Warrick and junior sharpshooter Gerry McNamara.
In a rarity for a zone-defense team, Syracuse also finished 13th in the nation in rebounding en route to a 27-6 record and a No. 4 seed.
Vermont, a 13th seed making its third straight NCAA tournament appearance, was undaunted by the bigger Orange front line.
Germain Mopa Njila capped a lights-out 9-of-10 shooting performance for the Catamounts by hitting the go-ahead three-pointer in OT, then picking up a steal to set up T.J. Sorrentine for another three-ball that put Syracuse on ice.
With bruising PF Wayne Simien holding down the middle and lanky wings such as 6’5” J.R. Giddens and 6’4” Keith Langford outside, Kansas finished fifth in the nation in field goal defense in 2004-05.
A rare second-place Big 12 finish was still good enough for Bill Self’s squad to earn a No. 3 seed.
In the first round of the tournament, though, senior Simien didn’t get nearly enough help around his own 24-point, 10-rebound effort.
Only one other Jayhawk scored in double figures, and when Bucknell standout Chris McNaughton feathered a hook shot over Simien in the waning seconds, the 14th-seeded Bison earned their first-ever March Madness win.
Wake Forest certainly wasn’t hurting for talent in 2008-09. The Demon Deacons boasted three future first-round draft picks—Jeff Teague, James Johnson and Al-Farouq Aminu—on a squad that went 24-6 and earned a No. 4 seed.
Facing 13th-seeded Cleveland State (and its own future first-rounder, Norris Cole), Teague imploded with seven turnovers—more than the entire Vikings roster.
Cole poured in a team-high 22 points and Cedric Jackson added 19 on 3-of-4 shooting from long range to send Cleveland State to the second round.
John Thompson III’s Georgetown had one of its most impressive weapons yet in 2009-10 when they faced Ohio.
The 6’11” sophomore Greg Monroe had the passing skills to dish out 3.8 assists a game on top of the 16.1 points and 9.6 boards he contributed to the Hoya attack.
Monroe and sharpshooting guards Austin Freeman and Chris Wright helped the Hoyas knock down 50.8 percent of their shots against 14th-seeded Ohio, but even that wasn’t good enough.
The Bobcats shot .582 from the field, with 2012 hero D.J. Cooper scoring 23 and junior Armon Bassett pouring in a game-high 32 to send Georgetown to a very quick exit.
No. 13 seed Bradley was one of the last at-large teams to sneak into the 2006 NCAA tournament. The Braves had finished in fifth place in the Missouri Valley, but a 22-11 record turned out to be just good enough for a ticket to the Big Dance.
Once his team had arrived, seven-footer Patrick O’Bryant took over to lead a shocking Sweet 16 run.
The Braves opened by taking down Mario Chalmers and fourth-seeded Kansas, as O’Bryant helped Bradley win the battle on the glass (31-29) while senior Marcellus Sommerville scored a team-high 21 to spring the upset.
Steve Alford’s 2005-06 Iowa squad wasn’t the most precise group of shooters, but the Hawkeyes had experience and toughness to burn.
Physical upperclassmen such as Greg Brunner and Adam Haluska led the team to a second-place finish in the Big Ten and a No. 3 seed.
Against 14th-seeded Northwestern State, Iowa led by 17 with under nine minutes to play when the Demons made their second furious comeback of the game.
A missed free throw by Brunner left the door open, and the Demons’ Jermaine Wallace turned an offensive rebound into a fadeaway three-pointer from the corner that gave Northwestern State its only March Madness win outside the play-in round.
By the time George Mason reached the 2006 Elite Eight, it had already far exceeded expectations.
The Patriots had taken down perennial powers Michigan State and North Carolina, but their magical run looked sure to end against the No. 1-seeded UConn and its five future NBA draftees.
Instead, George Mason held its own from the get-go behind 19 points and 12 boards from Will Thomas, and it was the Huskies who needed a sensational last-second shot from Denham Brown just to force overtime.
In the extra session, the Patriots immediately opened another lead, then held on to become history’s second No. 11 seed in the Final Four.
Duke’s ACC tournament loss to Florida State likely made the difference between getting a No. 1 vs. their actual No. 2 seed. Few could have predicted that it would also be the difference between survival and a first-round exit in the Big Dance.
With versatile forward Ryan Kelly lost to a foot injury, Duke’s usually lethal perimeter offense slogged to a 6-of-26 shooting night against 15th-seeded Lehigh.
A couple of magnificent individual performances for the Mountain Hawks—Gabe Knutson’s 17-point, eight-rebound night and star C.J. McCollum’s 30 points and six assists—gave the Lehigh program its first NCAA tournament win and made them the sixth No. 15 seed in history to win a game.
In the first year of the First Four, no at-large selection was more criticized than the VCU Rams. The 23-11 squad had finished a mere fourth in the CAA, but still landed a spot in the NCAA tournament against fellow No. 11 seed USC.
Whether they deserved their tournament berth or not, the Rams certainly proved they were good enough to compete. They became the third No. 11 seed in history to make the Final Four in a run headlined by an Elite Eight win over top-seeded Kansas.
Shaka Smart’s suffocating press negated the Jayhawks’ size advantage by forcing eight turnovers from Markieff Morris alone, and the Rams nailed 12-of-25 three-point tries in a decisive victory.
The only power-conference team ever to win 30 games without landing a No. 1 seed, Missouri has to be wondering what might have been.
The Tigers’ shocking exit from this year’s second round owed a great deal to landing exactly where they did on the bracket, against the one No. 15 seed in the field with a chance to take full advantage of Mizzou’s vulnerability in the middle.
Norfolk State may have finished just 9-6 outside of the MEAC, but 6’10” senior Kyle O’Quinn was the real deal (15.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game).
With O’Quinn dominating the paint to the tune of 26 points and 14 boards, Norfolk State narrowly held off a Missouri comeback to become (by a couple of hours) the first No. 15 seed in a decade to defeat a No. 2 seed.