March Madness Betting: What History Tells Us About Likely Upsets

OddsShark.comFeatured ColumnistMarch 18, 2014

Villanova's JayVaughn Pinkston, left, and Seton Hall's Jaren Sina fight for a lose ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the Big East Conference tournament at Madison Square Garden, Thursday, March 13, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Picking the biggest upset in March Madness history depends on your perspective and the context.

George Mason’s 2006 upset of UConn was huge because it sent an 11 seed to the Final Four at the expense of a top seed. Ditto in 2011 when No. 11 VCU upset No. 1 Kansas.

And from the perspective of pure hype and of shattering auras of invincibility, Duke’s 1991 upset of powerhouse UNLV and Villanova’s 1985 upset of Georgetown were jaw droppers.

But when you look at upsets based purely on the point spread, none have been bigger than Norfolk State's 2012 shocker against Missouri.

When a basketball team is laying three touchdowns at the betting window, you know it’s a long shot. And when the victim is a 30-4 team that was ranked No. 3 in the nation and probably should have been a No. 1 seed, the magnitude of the upset is amplified.

It was just the fifth time a 15th seed had beaten a No. 2 seed (and it happened again a few hours later when Lehigh beat Duke) and it saw the MEAC champion Spartans win outright as 21.5-point underdogs.

You could almost hear the shattering of brackets across the country. For sure, you could see the crumpled-up pool sheets filling trash bins.

Since 1995, there were 66 games with bigger point spreads, according to the Odds Shark college basketball database. And while many had covered the spread and several had come close to knocking off the higher seeds (Belmont lost 71-70 to Duke in 2008 as 20-point pups), none of the underdogs had won outright.


Santa Clara in 1993

In 1991, Steve Nash was a skinny freshman for 15-seeded Santa Clara. Facing No. 2 Arizona and a 19.5-point spread in Vegas, the Broncos pulled a 64-61 shocker in what was the first tournament win by a 15th seed.


Can Milwaukee win as a 15 seed?

With three victories by 15 seeds over the past two Marches, bracket poolies looking for the next big upset should go East. Villanova was upset in the Big East tournament by Seton Hall and the Wildcats are riding money-losing streaks of 0-5 ATS in the tournament and 1-6 ATS in their past seven first-round games.

At No. 15, Milwaukee has won and covered five straight games to end their season, and they have won outright six of the past eight times they were underdogs (7-1 ATS). The Panthers get 16.5 points from most sportsbooks monitored by


8 seeds are 8-0 when underdogs vs. 9s

Two No. 8 seeds are underdogs against their first-round foes in the No. 9 slot. Historically, the higher-seeded teams have taken great offence at this perceived slight from oddsmakers.

The past eight times No. 9 seeds were favored against No. 8s, the 8th seeds covered the spread. If that betting angle continues this year, it means Colorado will upset Pitt in the South and Gonzaga will defeat Oklahoma State in the West.

Colorado will have to buck a negative trend to make it happen as the Buffaloes are 2-12 SU in their past 14 games as underdogs.


Upset Trends for 2014 bracket

Western Michigan gets 13 points from oddsmakers against Syracuse in the South Region, and the Broncos come in riding a 9-2-1 ATS streak in their past 12 games. The Orange, on the other hand, are 1-6-1 ATS in their past eight games and a bankroll-draining 2-7 ATS in nine recent games as favorites.

Tulsa is another hot team that should make bracket contestants and Vegas bettors very nervous. They hit the Madness riding a 17-3 ATS streak and they are 6-0 ATS in first-round games since 1996.

UCLA, however, looks like a solid No. 4 seed and are 10-3 ATS, laying 9.5 points against the Golden Hurricane.

And could Louisville be in trouble as the No. 4 seed in the Midwest? Oddsmakers are giving the defending champions lots of respect on odds to win the title, placing them ahead of three No. 1 seeds, but they face a No. 13 seed that has been money in the bank as an underdog.

Manhattan has won 11 of its last 12 games and boasts a staggering 15-2 ATS mark in 17 recent games as underdogs. Oddsmakers are giving the Jaspers 16 points to work with.


Biggest spreads since 1995

Duke has faced six of the nine biggest tournament point spreads since 1985, all between 32 points and a whopping 46.5 points (against Florida A&M in 1999).

Kansas faced two of those nine huge spreads—Kentucky the other one. Interestingly, favorites covered at a 6-3 clip in those games.

1999-03-12 Florida A&M vs. Duke

-46.5 Final Score 99-58

1998-03-13 Prairie View A&M vs. Kansas

-37 Final Score 110-52

1997-03-13 Jackson State vs. Kansas

-36 Final Score 78-64

2001-03-15 Monmouth vs. Duke

-34.5 Final Score 95-52

2000-03-17 Lamar vs. Duke

-34 Final Score 82-55

1996-03-14 San Jose State vs. Kentucky

-33.5 Final Score 110-72

2002-03-14 Winthrop vs. Duke

-33.5 Final Score 84-37

2004-03-18 Alabama State vs. Duke

-33 Final Score 96-61

1998-03-13 Radford vs. Duke

-32 Final Score 99-63


Biggest 2014 Spreads

Virginia opened as 20-point favorites against Coastal Carolina and Arizona was giving up 21 against Weber State. Florida may end up being the biggest chalk, but they have to wait for Albany and Mount St. Mary’s to decide the South Region’s No. 16 seed.

Wichita State is the other top seed and they await the Cal Poly vs. Texas Southern winner.