The 10 Most Shocking Upsets in Final Four History

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistApril 3, 2013

The 10 Most Shocking Upsets in Final Four History

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    If No. 9-seeded Wichita State wins Saturday's NCAA tournament semifinal game against Louisville, the No. 1 overall seed, it will go down as one of the biggest upsets in Final Four history.

    That's a big "if," however.

    Several teams that faced similar challenges in the Final Four did pull off stunning victories in the national semifinals or finals.

    We count down the 10 most shocking upsets in the final two rounds of the NCAA tournament, when the pressure and exposure are at their highest levels.


    Note: Seeding information unavailable for tourneys prior to 1979.

10. Cincinnati over Ohio State, 1961

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    It may seem odd to have a victory by a team ranked No. 2 included in the 10 most shocking upsets. But Ohio State was no ordinary No. 1 team in 1961.

    The Buckeyes returned four starters from a club that had breezed through the NCAA tournament the previous year, winning each of their four 1960 postseason games by at least 17 points. Future Hall of Famers Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek, as well as future NBA players Larry Siegfried and Mel Nowell, had led Ohio State to the 1960 title. All four were back with the 1961 squad, which was ranked No. 1 every single week of the 1960-61 season.

    Ohio State came into the title game with a 27-0 record and was a prohibitive favorite against No. 2 Cincinnati, according to a New York Times article.

    The Bearcats were a good team, but they no longer had Oscar Robertson, who had been national Player of the Year in 1959 and 1960.

    Much like Villanova did 24 years later against Georgetown, Cincinnati slowed the pace in the 1961 championship game, waiting for high-percentage shots.

    Lucas, the 1961 national Player of the Year, had 27 points for the Buckeyes, but Cincinnati big men Paul Hogue and Bob Wiesenhahn played pivotal roles late in the game. The teams were tied 61-61 at the end of regulation, but Cincinnati dominated the overtime and won, 70-65.

    Cincinnati proved it was not a fluke when it beat Ohio State in the 1962 title game as well.

9. Texas Western over Kentucky, 1966

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    Over the years, the magnitude of the upset Texas Western pulled off by beating Kentucky, 72-65, in the 1966 title game has been inflated somewhat because of the game's historical significance.

    Texas Western (now known as Texas-El Paso) was a very good team that year. The Miners were 28-1 and ranked No. 3 in the country. But they had been less than dominant in the NCAA tournament, winning twice in overtime to get to the title game. Plus, the Miners had none of the basketball heritage that Kentucky possessed.

    Kentucky was ranked No. 1, and it had beaten No. 2 Duke in the semifinals. The Wildcats were perennial national powerhouses under Adolph Rupp, having won four NCAA championships.

    The Miners became the first team to start five African-American players in a national title game. The fact that they beat a favored Kentucky team that had no black players on its roster made the upset a milestone.

8. Seattle over Kansas State in 1958

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    Seattle came into the 1958 national semifinals with a 21-5 record and a No. 18 Associated Press ranking. It had barely beaten unranked California in overtime in the previous round, and the Chieftains did not figure to present a challenge for Kansas State.

    The Wildcats were ranked No. 3 in the country and had taken out No. 2-ranked Cincinnati earlier in the tournament.

    However, Seattle had one commodity that made an upset possible: Elgin Baylor.

    Baylor scored 23 points and pulled down 22 rebounds as Seattle stunned Kansas State, 73-51, in the semifinals.

    As surprising as the Chieftains' victory was, it was Seattle's total dominance of the contest that made the outcome so shocking.

7. City College of New York over Bradley, 1950

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    On paper, the victory by unranked City College of New York over No. 1-ranked Bradley in the 1950 NCAA championship game should be ranked as the biggest Final Four upset ever. It still deserves inclusion in our top 10, but two factors mitigate the magnitude of the upset:

    First, the 1950 NCAA tournament was played at Madison Square Garden, making the finals almost like a home game for CCNY.

    More significant, however, were the results a week earlier in the National Invitation Tournament, also held at Madison Square Garden. That's when the CCNY Beavers pulled off the real shockers. 

    CCNY was 17-5 in the regular season and the last of the 12 teams invited to the 1950 NIT. But it proceeded to knock off No. 12 San Francisco, No. 3 Kentucky, No. 6 Duquesne and Bradley to win the NIT title.

    The NIT was the more prestigious postseason event at the time, and winning the NIT earned the Beavers an invitation to the eight-team NCAA tournament.

    They showed the first victory over Bradley was no fluke by beating the Braves, 71-68, again in the NCAA title game.

    The critical play, according to a Sports Illustrated account, came in the closing seconds with CCNY leading 69-68. Bradley star Gene Melchiorre was racing down court with what would have been a go-ahead basket. But CCNY's Irwin Dambrot intercepted him near the basket, and a collision occurred. No call was made, Dambrot came up with the ball, and CCNY survived.

    CCNY is still the only team to capture NIT and NCAA titles in the same season.

    However, less than a year later, a district attorney investigated a number of college players, including several from CCNY, in a point-shaving scandal, according to the Sports Illustrated article. One of the CCNY players, Ed Warner, was put in jail as a result. CCNY canceled the rest of its 1950-51 season, and its basketball program was never the same. 

6. Arizona (4) over Kentucky (1), 1997

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    Arizona entered the 1997 NCAA tournament with a 19-9 record after finishing fifth in the Pac-10 and losing its final two regular-season games.

    Momentum was not on the Wildcats' side.

    Nonetheless, they pulled off a string of upsets in the NCAA tournament that culminated with the 84-79 overtime victory over Kentucky in the finals.

    Arizona had already beaten two No. 1 seeds, Kansas and North Carolina, to get to the final. Its victory over the No. 4-ranked (nationally) Tar Heels in the semifinals might have ranked among the top Final Four upsets had it not been for the Wildcats' performance in the finals against Kentucky, the defending national champion and another top-seeded team.

    Two other factors heightened the significance of the upset:

    A significant portion of the crowd of 47,028 in Indianapolis consisted of Kentucky fans, making it a virtual Rupp Arena North, according to the The Baltimore Sun.

    Also, Arizona had to rebound in the overtime after Kentucky hit two three-pointers in the final minute of regulation to overcome a four-point deficit.

    The Wildcats won despite not making a single field goal in overtime. All 10 of their points in the extra period came from the free-throw line.

    Miles Simon led the winning Wildcats with 30 points, while four Kentucky players fouled out.

5. Dayton over North Carolina, 1967

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    Dayton's surprising run to the 1967 championship game often gets overlooked amid a season and era dominated by UCLA.

    The Flyers entered the 1967 NCAA tournament unranked in both the Associated Press and UPI final regular-season polls. In the tournament, they squeezed by Western Kentucky in overtime, Tennessee by one point and Virginia Tech in overtime to earn a semifinal matchup against powerful North Carolina.

    The Tar Heels had won the Atlantic Coast Conference title and were ranked No. 4 nationally. They featured a team of stars, including Larry Miller and Bobby Lewis, and were coached by Dean Smith.

    Dayton had but one star, Don May. But May produced the game of his life against the Tar Heels, scoring 34 points on 16-of-22 shooting as the Flyers not only beat North Carolina, but did it decisively, 76-62.

    Dayton lost in the title game to UCLA, 79-64, but that did not diminish its accomplishment in the semifinals.

4. Kansas (6) over Oklahoma (1), 1988

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    Kansas' victory over Duke in the 1988 semifinals was surprising, but not as shocking as its upset of Oklahoma in the title game.

    The Jayhawks, coached by Larry Brown, had lost 11 games and were unranked entering the NCAA tournament.

    Oklahoma came into the championship game with a 35-3 record, a No. 4 national ranking and a No. 1 seed. The Sooners featured three players (Stacey King, Harvey Grant, Mookie Blaylock) who would become first-round NBA draft picks, and they had beaten Kansas twice during the regular season.

    But in the title game, they could not handle Kansas' lone star, Danny Manning. He collected 31 points, 18 rebounds, five steals and two blocks as No. 6-seeded Kansas stunned the Sooners, 83-79.

3. Duke (2) over UNLV (1), 1991

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    Even though Duke was seeded No. 2 and ranked No. 6 in the country, it was a heavy underdog against UNLV in the 1991 semifinals.

    The Runnin' Rebels seemed invincible. They had won 45 games in row and were 34-0 heading into the semifinals. That run included a decisive regular-season victory over No. 2-ranked Arkansas on the Razorbacks' home court.

    The Rebels returned four starters from their 1990 national championship team that had overwhelmed Duke 103-73 in the title game. Three of UNLV's 1991 starters would be among the top 12 picks in the 1991 NBA draft, including Larry Johnson, who was the No. 1 overall selection.

    Cedric Ceballos, then playing in the NBA after facing UNLV in 1989-90 while at Cal State Fullerton, told me during the 1990-91 season that the Rebels could give some NBA teams a run for their money.

    But in the 1991 semifinals, Duke reversed its embarrassing loss of the previous season by handing the Rebels a 79-77 defeat. The Blue Devils benefited from the fact that UNLV point guard Greg Anthony fouled out with less than four minutes left when UNLV held the lead.

    Christian Laettner finished off a 28-point performance by sinking two free throws with 12.7 seconds left, giving Duke a two-point lead. Anderson Hunt missed a wild three-point attempt on UNLV's final possession to complete the stunning upset.

2. North Carolina State (6) over Houston (1), 1983

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    The dramatic conclusion of North Carolina State's 54-52 victory over Houston in the 1983 championship game made it a particularly memorable upset.

    North Carolina State entered the tournament with an unimpressive 20-10 record, having finished fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference with an 8-6 mark.

    The Wolfpack won three tight games to win the ACC tournament and assure themselves a spot in the NCAA tournament. They pulled out a double-overtime victory over Pepperdine in the first round of the NCAA tournament and won two other games by one-point margins to earn a spot in the finals.

    Houston was ranked No. 1 in the country and had beaten No. 2 Louisville by 13 points in the semifinals. The Cougars' fast-breaking, dunking style and array of athletic talent, featuring Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, earned them the nickname "Phi Slamma Jamma."

    Houston's one shortcoming was free-throw shooting. The Wolfpack exploited that weakness as well as some questionable choices by Houston coach Guy V. Lewis.

    Houston had taken a 42-35 lead midway through the second half thanks to a 17-2 run as the Cougars got the pace to their liking. But Lewis then inexplicably had his team slow to game to a crawl with a spread delay offense, according to Sports Illustrated.

    That enabled the Wolfpack to catch up.

    The Cougars had the ball with the score tied 52-52 when North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano ordered his team to foul with 1:05 left. Houston freshman Alvin Franklin missed the front end of a one-and-one, and North Carolina State held the ball for a last shot. (There was no shot clock then.)

    The final play fell apart, and Dereck Whittenburg hoisted up a 25-foot air ball as time ran down. But Wolfpack sophomore Lorenzo Charles was there to gather in the miss and dunk it as the buzzer sounded.

    The Wolfpack won, 54-52.

1. Villanova (8) over Georgetown (1), 1985

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    Villanova is still the lowest-seeded team to win the NCAA tournament, accomplishing the feat as a No. 8-seeded squad in 1985.

    The significant part is that the Wildcats did it against a powerhouse Georgetown team. The Hoyas were ranked No. 1 in the country in 1985 and returned four starters from their 1984 national championship team, including Patrick Ewing.

    As Roy Johnson of The New York Times noted, the title game "was supposed to be a coronation, a celebration of the mighty Georgetown Hoyas as one of college basketball's greatest teams."

    The unranked Wildcats came into the tournament with a 19-10 record, having finished 9-7 in the Big East, five games behind Georgetown. The Hoyas had beaten Villanova twice during the regular season, but both games were close, with the Wildcats losing in overtime at home and falling by just seven points on the road.

    Villanova had upset Memphis in the NCAA semifinals, but it was assumed the Wildcats would have to play virtually a perfect game to beat Georgetown in the title game. They almost did.

    Georgetown did not play badly. The Hoyas hit 54.7 percent of their shots, outrebounded Villanova 17-14 and committed just 11 turnovers to 17 for the Wildcats. Those numbers suggest a Georgetown blowout.

    But Villanova simply did not miss that night. The Wildcats went 22-of-28, a remarkable 78.6 percent from the field. They were even better in the second half, when they made 9-of-10 shots. The one miss resulted from a block by Ewing, and Villanova's Dwayne McClain claimed in a Sports Illustrated article that the missed "shot" was really a pass.

    The Wildcats also made 22 of their 27 free throws (81.5 percent). And they still won by just two points.

    Like many conferences that season, the Big East had played with a 45-second shot clock in 1984-85. However, a shot clock was not used in the 1985 NCAA tournament. That gave Villanova an advantage, although, as the Sports Illustrated article noted, Villanova exceeded 45 seconds on only two possessions in the title game.

    It was the Wildcats' remarkable shooting that made the difference. McClain was 5-of-7 for 17 points. Ed Pinckney (pictured here with the Celtics) was 5-of-7 for 16 points. Harold Jensen was 5-of-5 for 14 points. Harold Pressley was 4-of-6 for 11 points, and Gary McLain took only three shots, but he made all three plus both of his free-throw attempts.