NCAA Tournament 2018: Ranking the Biggest Bracket-Busters Through Round of 32

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMarch 19, 2018

NCAA Tournament 2018: Ranking the Biggest Bracket-Busters Through Round of 32

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    Loyola-Chicago teammates celebrate after defeating Tennessee.
    Loyola-Chicago teammates celebrate after defeating Tennessee.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images


    A history-making first round set the tone. But based on what happened in the round of 32, the underdog isn't just a retriever.

    Barring something bananas, the No. 16 UMBC Retrievers squad that downed the No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers will be the story of this tournament. History isn't made too often.

    We hadn't heard the last of the big upsets, though, as the theme continued over the weekend in a big way. After a fairly quiet Saturday, the floodgates opened Sunday and unleashed a monstrous wave of deadly bracket-killing energy.

    Note that while Kentucky and Kansas State can be considered bracket-busters because the majority of bracketeers didn't pick them to this point, both were "expected" to advance by the round of 32. Yes, UK has gone deeper in the tournament than Arizona, but Kentucky's taking down Buffalo to get this far is no shocker. And sure, KSU eliminated a UMBC squad with momentum, feistiness and (what seemed to be) an entire nation behind it, but taking down a No. 16 seed won't get you on this list—no matter how good that No. 16 seed proved to be.

    At this point few brackets are still anywhere close to intact. If your entire Final Four is still alive after Sunday, well done, unicorn.

    With the round of 32 complete—and as we all take a breath—here's a ranking of the upsets that occurred over the weekend, including quick game recaps and a look at each one's impact on the nation's office pools. They are listed in order of magnitude.


    Statistics courtesy of unless otherwise noted.

No. 5 Clemson Tigers

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    Elijah Thomas (left) and Gabe DeVoe
    Elijah Thomas (left) and Gabe DeVoeDonald Miralle/Getty Images

    Turning point: I'm going to level with you: There wasn't one.

    The fifth-seeded Clemson Tigers defeated their fellow Tigers, No. 4 Auburn, 84-53. Early on it was tied at 13, and that was about as much intrigue as anyone could squeeze out of this one. It was all Clemson in all conceivable ways. 

    At one point, according to NCAA stats, Clemson went on a 41-9 run. Forty-one also was the size of Clemson's largest lead. Auburn had 19 points at halftime. Yikes.

    This wasn't the world's biggest upset, but it was an upset nonetheless, and it's noteworthy for how it went down.

    Bracket impact: Again, this isn't UMBC-Virginia, but it will cause some heartburn for plenty of bracketeers.

    According to statistics from the ESPN Tournament Challenge, 50.4 percent of participants selected Auburn to reach the Sweet 16, compared with just 35.3 percent for Clemson. 

    What we'll remember: Credit Clemson for coming to play and playing well. Its defense in particular was ferocious, holding Auburn to 17-of-66 (that's 25.8 percent) from the floor. Clemson dominated the boards, pulling down 50 to Auburn's 32. 

    What's next: For Auburn, soul-searching. For Clemson, the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks loom on Friday. 

No. 11 Loyola-Chicago Ramblers

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    Clayton Custer
    Clayton CusterTony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Turning point: Another Loyola-Chicago upset, another clutch late jumper. Against the Miami Hurricanes, it was Donte Ingram just before the buzzer. On Saturday it was Clayton Custer with about four seconds remaining. His shot got a friendly bounce, and it bounced the No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers, 63-62.

    Bracket impact: According to the ESPN Tournament Challenge statistics, a grand total of 9.5 percent of all entries had the Ramblers reaching the Sweet 16. That percentage balloons to 64.3 percent for Tennessee.

    What's more, 27.6 percent had the Vols in the Elite Eight, and 5.5 percent put them in the Final Four. So this spelled trouble for plenty of brackets. Hopefully, Loyola-Chicago's inspired play—and let's not forget Sister Jean—serves as a balm for all the wounded egos and wallets.

    What we'll remember: I could just refer you back to the shot, but instead I'll point to the Ramblers defense. This is the second straight game it held its opponent to 62 points. Kind of eerie, especially when remembering that Tennessee and Miami both averaged about 74 points per contest this season. Talk about symmetry.

    What's next: A fellow underdog in No. 7 Nevada. That happens Thursday. More on Nevada momentarily.

No. 7 Nevada Wolf Pack

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    Cody Martin
    Cody MartinAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    Turning point: Do you know when the Nevada Wolf Pack got their first lead of the game? There were 9.1 seconds left when Josh Hall got a long offensive rebound and converted a floater in the lane to give his team a 75-73 edge on the No. 2 Cincinnati Bearcats. That was also the final score.

    Bracket impact: This is a big one, but it won't put as many bracketeers behind the eight ball as others. Among the four No. 2 seeds, Cincinnati was the least popular Final Four selection with 13.6 percent of ESPN bracket entries putting it there. The Bearcats were a heavy favorite to get out of the first weekend, though, with 77.4 percent selecting them for the Sweet 16.

    What we'll rememberAccording to David Worlock, the NCAA's director of media coordination/statistics, this 22-point comeback tied for the second-largest in NCAA tournament history.

    The Bearcats jumped out to a 10-0 lead. They were up 22 with 11 minutes to go. Nevada was a done dada. 

    But in that final 10:30, Cincinnati scored a total of eight points. The Bearcats went 3-of-15 from the field during that stretch. No points at all in the final 2:39. There were fouls and turnovers. All credit to Nevada for forcing that poor play and sloppiness with its defense (including five steals) and knocking down shots of its own.

    Even with that Wolf Pack effort, this one was marked by the failure of a team that simply took its foot off the gas down the stretch after building a big cushion early. 

    What's next: No. 11 Loyola-Chicago on Thursday. Which underdog will reign supreme?

No. 7 Texas A&M Aggies

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    T.J. Starks (right)
    T.J. Starks (right)Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Turning point: With 13 seconds before halftime, guard TJ Starks hit a three to put the Aggies up 42-28. That was the score when Texas A&M and No. 2 North Carolina went to the locker room.

    The Aggies had been methodically building a lead, but that shot blew the game open at just the wrong moment for the Tar Heels. It set the tone for Texas A&M to run away in the second half and ultimately win 86-65.

    Bracket impact
    : ESPN bracket statistics showed 6.9 percent of entries tabbed the defending champs to repeat. That may not sound like much, but it made the Heels the sixth-most-popular choice.

    UNC also was selected as a Final Four entrant on 34.4 percent of ballots, and 85.4 percent had them reaching the second weekend. By contrast, only 6.5 percent of bracketeers were bold enough to predict a Sweet 16 berth for the Aggies.

    What we'll remember
    : The first thing was that fears over North Carolina's frontcourt were well-founded. The Aggies outrebounded their opponents 50-36, and 6'10" Texas A&M center Tyler Davis punished UNC with 18 points and nine rebounds.

    The second thing is the margin of victory. According to OddsShark, North Carolina was favored to win by about seven points. The Heels lost by 21 in front of a UNC fanbase that was as silent as the grave for almost the entire second half.

    It's one of the most interesting characteristics of this tournament's spate of upsets. UMBC beat UVA by 20 as well. No. 13 Buffalo defeated No. 4 Arizona by 21. Clemson pasted Auburn by 31.

    Would you have bet that the first No. 16-No. 1 upset would be drama-free at the end of the game?

    The close ones still outnumber the blowouts, but it demonstrates that the difference between the blue bloods and everyone else is continuing to narrow.

    What's next: No. 3 Michigan on Thursday. 

No. 9 Florida State Seminoles

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    Trent Forrest
    Trent ForrestAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    Turning pointThe No. 1 Xavier Musketeers were in control. It wasn't as dramatic as Cincinnati's collapse, but Xavier led 59-48 with nine minutes left and led by nine with 5:37 to go.

    But the Noles chipped away, and with 1:12 remaining, P.J. Savoy hit a three-pointer that put the Seminoles up for good.

    The No. 9 Florida State Seminoles closed the game on an 18-4 run and won it 75-70. 

    Bracket impactWhen the tournament resumes later this week, it will do so with half its top seeds out of action.

    According to the ESPN bracket data, 3.5 percent of entrants had the Musketeers going all the way, making them the ninth-most-popular choice for that honor. On top of that, 47.6 percent had them in the Elite Eight, 21.6 percent had them in the Final Four and nearly everyone—81.5 percent—had them in the Sweet 16.

    What we'll remember: Unfortunately, Xavier had difficulty executing in the final seconds of the game. Down 73-70 with 21 seconds left, Xavier had a chance to tie the game or get a quick two and foul. The Musketeers took their time getting up the court—so, three it is, then. FSU's defense was tight, but center Kerem Kanter shook free at the top of the key. At first glance, that seemed like a good look. Kanter was shooting 34 percent from the three-point line coming into the game. 

    Problem is, he only had 50 attempts. The shot air-balled and went out of bounds.

    A couple of possessions earlier, guard J.P. Macura, who led Xavier with 17 points on an off night from star Trevon Blueitt, went for a dribble drive and plowed into his defender. The referee called a charge. It was his fifth foul. Macura had made two of his three three-point attempts on the evening.

    What's next: All of a sudden, No. 4 Gonzaga is one of the highest seeds left in this tournament. The Seminoles will face the Zags on Thursday.

No. 11 Syracuse Orange

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    Oshae Brissett
    Oshae BrissettElsa/Getty Images

    Turning point: There was a stretch of about three minutes in the second half of Syracuse's 55-53 win over No. 3 Michigan State that tells the whole tale.

    At the 5:43 mark, MSU's Cassius Winston hit a jumper to give the Spartans a 48-43 lead. The next MSU point was a Xavier Tillman free throw with 2:04 left. That free throw made it 50-49—in the Orange's favor. Michigan State never led again. 

    That Syracuse zone was working. Michigan State averaged 81 points per game this season on 50.5 percent shooting. In this contest, it scored 53 points on 25.8 percent shooting. Eye-popping stuff.

    Bracket impact: This one had the biggest impact of all the weekend's upsets, and that's saying something. Even though Xavier had a higher seed than Michigan State, the data show this upset had bigger bracket implications.

    Michigan State was the fourth-most-popular pick to win it all in the ESPN pool, with 8.6 percent of entries taking the Spartans for the title.

    On top of that, 28.4 percent of entrants had them in the Final Four. If Virginia's first-round loss didn't shred your bracket all the way, this might have finished the job. 

    If it's any consolation, there can't be many brackets that still look anywhere close to viable. Four of the top seven picks to win it all on the ESPN challenge—Virginia, North Carolina, Arizona and now Michigan State—are cooked. And Xavier was ninth. Madness indeed.

    What we'll remember: This game was so ugly it was beautiful. Every shot taken seemed to be off-balance, perhaps best exemplified by guard Matt McQuaid's circus shot to beat the halftime buzzer. His initial attempt was deflected, but he jumped up to catch the carom in midair and launch a heave that banked in at the buzzer. That's the kind of game this was. 

    What's next: The Orange will face a familiar foe on Friday in ACC rival Duke. Don't forget that Syracuse had to beat Arizona State in a play-in game to get here. If the Orange topple Duke, that will give them wins over a No. 6 seed, a No. 3 seed and a No. 2 seed in succession—and their first four-game winning streak since before Christmas.


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