Ranking the 10 Biggest Upsets in March Madness History
The NCAA tournament is coined March Madness because things don't go as planned. Anyone filling out a bracket last year got a taste of the craziness when both Duke and Missouri went down in the Round of 64. The year before last, Butler and VCU participated in the Final Four.
Every season, underdogs turn into Cinderellas and the upsets don't stop until the final 40 minutes has run out. For a basketball fan, it is undeniably the best time of the year.
Since the early '80s, some of the greatest teams in college basketball history have been stunned during March Madness. In the spirit of March, there is no better way to kick off the Madness than to recount 10 of the greatest upsets in the NCAA tournament history. This list does just that.
10. Kansas over Oklahoma (1988)
Lost in the midst of Danny Manning's 1988 heroics is the magnitude of this championship game upset. Oklahoma was a monster of a team. The Sooners averaged over 100 points a game and won by more than 20 points a night.
The Sooners frontcourt was awesome. Future All-American Stacey King led the way with and stud Harvey Grant playing alongside him. Running the point was future NBA All-Star Mookie Blaylock.
They played fast and were almost invincible that season. Going into the final game, Oklahoma was 35-3, had won the Big 8 title, and was a top seed in the tourney. On top of that, it had beaten Kansas twice already that season.
Kansas was unranked and ended the regular season 18-11. The Jayhawks lost eight of their last 17 games and did not look good going into the NCAAs. They got a sixth seed in the tournament.
They didn't have anywhere near the NBA talent that Oklahoma had, save one guy, Danny Manning. But the Wooden Award winner was about all they needed. Behind his 31 points and 18 rebounds, Kansas won the national title by amassing one of the greatest upsets college basketball history.
9. Texas Western over Kentucky (1966)
If college basketball was followed the way it is today, this might not be considered an upset at all. Kentucky, the eastern powerhouse known by all, was ranked first in nation. Texas Western (now Texas El Paso), the team from out west, was largely unknown.
But Texas Western was good. The team entered the tournament with only one loss on its resume. It was 28-1 and ranked third in the country when it played the top-ranked Wildcats in the final. While most consider it an upset, the Miners were the better basketball team.
Texas Western grabbed the lead from the start and never let go. Kentucky had good games from both of its All-Americans Pat Riley and Louie Dampier, but it was not enough against the balanced Miners. Texas Western got solid contributions from all five starters and became the first team in history to win the title with an all African-American starting lineup.
It makes the list because it is of such great historical significance. It pitted perennial power Kentucky against a nobody in Texas Western. It had tradition playing an upstart. But most of all, it had a racist white coach in Adolph Rupp defeated by an all-black starting lineup. It was a shock to the basketball world and sign of basketball's future.
8. Norfolk State over Missouri (2012)
This was only the fifth time in NCAA history that a No. 15 seed had knocked off a No. 2 (it then happened later in the same day to Duke). Add to that history that Missouri was a 30-game winner and could have been a No. 1 seed, and this upset becomes more compelling.
Norfolk State was more than a 21-point underdog with good reason—every major conference school they played that season they lost to. Against Marquette, the Spartans lost by 31 points.
Missouri, however, was a powerhouse. The Tigers played in the tough Big 12, which had three Top 10 teams and six tournament teams. They won the conference regular-season title as well and the conference tournament, finishing with a 30-4 record. The final poll had them ranked No. 3 in the nation.
In a game where both teams made more than 50 percent of their shots, neither team could pull away. In dramatic fashion, Norfolk State came away with a two-point victory in one of the biggest bracket busters there has ever been.
7. George Mason over UConn (2006)
Connecticut was arguably the best team in the nation. At 30-3, it had pounded nearly every ranked team it had played. The Huskies annihilated the best conference in the country. They were ranked no lower than No. 3 the entire season.
The Huskies had four future NBA first-rounders and a fifth who went early on in the second. They had won two of the previous eight national championships and had an all-time great as head coach.
George Mason was not ranked but for a week in February. It had no NBA players on its roster. The tallest player on the team was 6'8''. It did not win the CAA conference tournament and many media personalities were critical of George Mason's at-large bid.
To make it even more shocking, perhaps, George Mason didn't come from nowhere—it was the fourth round and the element of surprise was gone. Yet the Patriots pulled off one of the biggest modern-day upsets when they beat UConn to advance to the Final Four.
6. Richmond over Syracuse (1991)
Before 1991, No. 2 seeds were exactly like 1 seeds in the first round: undefeated. A No. 15 seed had never won. Leave it to Jim Boeheim and Syracuse to change all that.
After a great season where the Orange finished 25-5 in the Big East and held a ranking of seventh in the nation, they were poised to make a deep run. Their opponent, Richmond, was also playing good basketball, winning 13 of 14 including the Colonial Athletic Association's championship.
On this night, the Spiders shocked the college basketball world. They shot out to an eight-point halftime lead and never relinquished it. When the final horn sounded, the perfect bubble for No. 2 seeds in the first round was burst.
5. Virginia Commonwealth over Kansas (2011)
Kansas started off the year 18-0. The Jayhawks had talent everywhere on the court, including five NBA draft picks. During the course of the their 32-2 regular season, they played in a conference with five other ranked teams and only lost twice.
They beat Texas, a Top 10 team, twice and handled teams like Arizona, UCLA and Memphis with ease. The program had won the national title three years before and looked like the favorite to do so again.
VCU was not ranked, started the season 10-5, didn't win the conference tournament and didn't have a single NBA player on the roster (Eric Maynor was gone).
Limiting Kansas to 35 percent shooting from the floor and less than 10 percent from three-point range, VCU pulled off another great upset to reach the Final Four.
4. Santa Clara over Arizona (1993)
What makes this upset shocking is not only how good this Arizona team was, but how mediocre the Santa Clara Broncos were. With Chris Mills, who won the Pac-10 POY, Khalid Reeves, Damon Stoudamire, Ed Stokes, Ray Owes and Reggie Geary, the Wildcats had six future NBA players playing significant time.
This translated to a great regular season. The Wildcats finished the season at 24-3, including a 19-game winning streak, and won the Pac-10 with a 17-1 conference record. The Wildcats finished the season ranked fifth in the country.
However, on this Friday night in Salt Lake City, the Wildcats just happened to have trouble with Santa Clara.
Santa Clara didn't win the West Coast Conference in the regular season. In fact, to end the regular season, the Broncos were barely over .500 with a 15-11 record. They lost to teams like San Diego (twice), Pepperdine and Stanford (who finished last in the Pac-10) by 29. They had one NBA player, Steve Nash, who was just a freshman and averaged less than 10 points. To be frank, this was not a good team.
The Broncos, however, managed to play stout defense and limit the Wildcats to just 25 percent shooting in the second half and 31 percent for the game. Adding to the Wildcats' problems, Mills picked up his fourth foul very early and sat for 10 minutes. When the horn sounded, Nash and Santa Clara shocked Arizona 64-61.
3. Duke over UNLV (1991)
This Final Four contest was a rematch of the championship obliteration from the season before. In that 1990 final, UNLV beat Duke like a drum. There has never been a more lopsided score. Behind their stars Larry Johnson, Anderson Hunt, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony, UNLV was the first and only team to score more than 100 points in a championship game.
Moving into the next season, UNLV just got better. Returning all its stars, the Rebels were ranked No. 1 to open the season—and then never lost. Victories came by a ridiculous margin of 29.4 points a game, and they waltzed into the tournament with a record of 30-0. In 14 of those games, they had scored more than 100 points and averaged 97.7 on the season.
No one was able to match up with the team that started three future top-12 NBA draft picks, including the No. 1 overall in Larry Johnson. UNLV smashed everyone during its 34 wins and run to the 1991 Final Four.
Duke, on the other hand, had lost three of its top four scorers. While a better team than the year before, the gap only seemed to be wider this time around.
After a 30-point loss the year before, it was up to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to get his team to believe it could compete at all with the undefeated Rebels, who had won 45 straight games at that point.
His offense practiced against six and seven defenders to emulate the Rebels, whose long athletic team appeared to be in all places at once. He convinced his team the pressure was on UNLV because it had not been in a close game all season.
When Rebels couldn't run away from Duke early on, they looked like a bully who finally got punched back. The pressure got to UNLV.
In a game that featured 25 lead changes and 17 ties, Duke slowed the Rebels' transition game. The Blue Devils held Larry Johnson to 13 points and Stacey Augmon to six. Duke got great offensive performances from Christian Laettner (28 points), Bobby Hurley (12 and seven assists) and Brian Davis (15 points off the bench).
In one of the greatest upsets in history, Coach K and the Blue Devils avenged their loss to the undefeated team from Sin City en route to winning the national title.
2. Villanova over Georgetown (1985)
In 1985, the Georgetown Hoyas could be rightly called a dynasty. The defending national champion Hoyas were now in their third championship game in four years.
They narrowly lost to North Carolina in 1982 and dominated their way to the 1984 championship. The 1985 Hoyas were better than both those teams.
Behind future NBA players Patrick Ewing, Reggie Williams and David Wingate, Georgetown was ranked No. 1 nearly wire to wire. The Hoyas plowed through an incredible Big East slate of teams to finish with a record of 25-2. The team marched to the national final on a 16-game winning streak and a record of 30-2. The Hoyas were truly college basketball's Goliath.
Playing David was Villanova. The Wildcats started the year off strong, but once the Big East play started, they tanked. In their last 21 games, the Wildcats were 11-10. Against the best teams in the league (Georgetown, Syracuse, St. John's), the Wildcats were 1-6. They compiled a 9-7 record in the Big East and secured a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Therefore, not only was Georgetown an all-time dynasty type of team, but Villanova wasn't really all that good. David vs. Goliath isn't a fair characterization—this game was more like Goliath and David's little sister.
It took the greatest shooting performance in the history of the final and the absence of a shot clock for the Wildcats to get it done. Villanova slowed the pace, got good shots and made an incredible 79 percent of its field goals. Behind the play of Dwayne McClain (17 points) and Ed Pinckney (16), the Wildcats pulled off an upset for the ages.
*This game falls below No. 1 simply because in the two previous matchups that season, Nova had lost one game by two points and the other by seven. The Wildcats had the confidence to beat Georgetown.
1. North Carolina State over Houston (1983)
North Carolina State had a run-of-the-mill regular season. Playing much of the season unranked, the Wolfpack stumbled into the ACC tournament losing two of their last three. They finished the season with a hum-ho 17-10 record. They picked up some steam after winning the ACC tournament, but were seeded sixth.
Houston, on the other hand, was frightening. With soft-shooting lefty Michael Young, a junior who led the team in scoring, senior Larry Micheaux, who averaged nearly 14 points a game, and the uber-athletic Benny Anders, Houston was a solid team with these guys alone.
But then the roster included two of the greatest basketball players to ever take a basketball court. NBA Hall of Famers Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon added a mix of speed, athleticism, size, skill and power that made this one of the best lineups in the history of college basketball.
And they played like it. After two early-season losses, Houston reeled off 26 straight victories. The Cougars roared through their schedule just dunking on people. After one game where the team had 29 dunks, a journalist gave the Cougars one of the coolest nicknames ever, “Phi Slama Jama.”
In its Final Four matchup with second-ranked Louisville, Houston’s prowess was on full display. While the top-ranked Cougars fell behind early, the power of that Houston lineup took hold. Trailing 57-49, they went on 21-1 run and beat Louisville (30-3) by 13.
The stage was set. The No. 1-ranked team in the nation, which hadn’t lost for nearly four months and had a record of 30-2, against the sixth-seeded Wolfpack, who needed overtime in the first round to get by 11th-seeded Pepperdine. The result, in the eyes of everyone outside of Raleigh, N.C., was not in doubt.
As Jim Valvano ran the floor searching for a hug after the game, you could see the pure shock on the faces of the Houston players. It was compete and total disbelief. With great coaching, North Carolina State slowed the mighty Cougars to a snail’s pace and effectively used the Hack-a-Shaq several times. Tied late in the game at 52 points, and in an ironic twist, North Carolina State pulled off the biggest upset in college basketball history by beating Phi Slama Jama on a last-second dunk.