The 8 biggest upsets in NCAA March Madness tournament history

By Andrew D

March 09, 2023

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It's here again! Everyone's favourite college sporting event that figuratively and literally drives the whole country into a state of madness. Yes, it's time to dance once more...

When watching the NCAA March Madness tournament and laying nonsensical bets, we are always brought back to Earth by one thought:

These are kids...

Assuredly, they are some of the fittest, most talented, and athletically gifted kids anywhere, but they're still youngsters. They haven’t been cauterised into hardened individuals yet by the rigours of the NBA. Not always able to ‘dig deep’ and find something within themselves when the writing is on the wall. When the storm that needs to be weathered has arrived with full force and threatens to blow the roof off. 

When the pressure starts to bite, not all of them are ready to handle it. And that’s perfectly normal and ok. But it’s also why we see some terrific upsets from time to time and there is still always a shimmer of hope that the underdogs can turn over the big boys.

And that’s what grabs people’s attention

The biggest upsets, the clutchest shots, the most emotional reactions. We live for that stuff and are happy to throw our hard-earned money at online bookmakers to keep our interest at its peak. March Madness is now one of the biggest sports betting events in the world in terms of how much money is wagered every year. More than 17% of all American adults plan to place a bet on March Madness this year. That’s 45 million people. Estimates reckon that the total amount wagered might be as high as 3.2 billion dollars. 

Do you think all of that money is being wagered on the favourites? 

It is the crazy underdog upsets that people love to see and they are what puts the ’Madness’ into March. Here are the biggest upsets in history from our point of view:

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Santa Clara (#15 ) vs Arizona (#2): West Regional, 1993

Heading into the 1993 NCAA post-season, the Arizona Wildcats had six future NBA players and were flying high. Arizona went 24-3 in the regular season, and this included a superb streak of 19 back-to-back wins at one point. They took the Pac-10 title and seemed destined to go far in the postseason. Then they met the Santa Clara Broncos. An unimpressive team who posted a winning record of 15-11 for the regular season, even getting hammered to the tune of 29 points by Stanford, the worst team in the conference.

They found something deep inside and thwarted the Wildcats on the night, keeping them to a 31% success rate in their shooting.

One future legend of the NBA was present for Santa Clara that night, a certain Canadian guard named Steve Nash. He went on to become one of the best players the league had ever seen. Nash played his role in the game that night and the Broncos kicked out the Wildcats, 64-61.

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Lehigh (#15) vs Duke (#2): South Regional, 2012

The Duke Blue Devils entered the first round of the NCAA March Madness tournament as -12.5 favourites to beat the Lehigh Mountain Hawks. They were 27-7 for the regular season and looked pretty unstoppable.

Future Portland Trail Blazer CJ McCollum had a huge hand in the game for Lehigh. He scored an almost unbelievable (for college basketball) 30 points and the Blue Devils were missing their best distance shooter, Ryan Kelly. Consequently, they hit just 6 of their 26 attempted 3-point shots and this was instrumental in their loss.   

The Mountain Hawks became only the sixth team ever to advance in the tournament starting from the #15 seed when they won the matchup 75-70 and stunned the college basketball world. 

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Kansas (#6) vs Oklahoma (#1): Final, 1988

Two teams that were very familiar with each other, both playing in the Big Eight, the Kansas Jayhawks and the Oklahoma Sooners had little else in common. 

Conference champions Oklahoma were 35-3 and averaged 100 points per game during the regular season. Led by Mookie Blaylock, Harvey Grant and Stacey King, the Sooners won those 35 games by an average of 20 points a game. That’s a wide margin in the NBA but in the much lower-scoring college leagues, it’s colossal. 

Included in the Jayhawks’ record of 18-11 that regular season were 2 losses to the Sooners. They slumped into the post-season, losing 8 of their last 17 games and few people gave them any chance of winning so much as one game, let alone the whole shebang. 

Their secret weapon Danny Manning contributed: 

  • 31 points 

  • 18 rebounds

Kansas won the game 83-79 and cemented one of the least-expected upsets in the whole of March Madness tournament history.

George Mason (#11) vs Connecticut (#1): East Regional Final, 2006

When they rocked up to the 2006 NCAA March Madness ‘Big Dance’, the George Mason Patriots had never won a single March Madness game in their entire history. By the time they met the Connecticut Huskies in the East Region final, they had already pulled off two major upsets when they dispatched:

  • Michigan State

  • North Carolina

By knocking out the Huskies, George Mason became the first team seeded in double-digits to reach the Final Four.

Facing a UConn team that included six 2006 NBA Draft picks, they found themselves behind by as many as 12 points during the game. They hung on, pulled it back and squeezed through 86-84

Norfolk State (#15 ) vs Missouri (#2): West Regional, 2012

The Missouri Tigers had a very impressive season before heading into the NCAA post-season tournament. They were:

  • 30-5 for the season

  • Big 12 conference champions

They also boasted two future NBA players, Kim English and Phil Pressey. Bad luck Norfolk right? Not so fast…

The Spartans were a staggering +21 underdogs, an almost unimaginable margin. Sure, they hadn’t beaten a single major conference school during the regular season, and had been savagely battered by Marquette to the tune of 31 points. But still, +21 in a knockout tournament? Wow

Their star player Kyle O’Quinn contributed: 

  • 26 points

  • 14 rebounds

Norfolk State pulled off an 86-84 shocker and history was made. 

Oral Roberts (#15 ) vs Ohio State (#2): South Regional, 2021 

Before leading the bizarrely-named Oral Roberts to a shocking victory over Ohio State in 2021, Max Abmas was a little-known name in the basketball fraternity. The Oklahoman team were so under-fancied that it was possible to get line-betting odds of +15.5 before tip-off. 

They promptly matched the Buckeyes point-for-point for 45 minutes and then into overtime (OT), eventually emerging as the winners, 75-72

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Villanova (#8) vs Georgetown (#1): NCAA Final, 1985

The Villanova Wildcats and Georgetown Hoyas, who were defending NCAA Champions, were very familiar with each other. Both plied their trade in the Big East conference and met regularly.  During the regular season, Georgetown had beaten Villanova twice although both games had been tight, tough encounters that went all the way. This should have set a few alarm bells ringing in the bookmaking fraternity and caused them to be a bit cagier with their betting odds. But all of them had Georgetown as the favourites and some bookmakers even gave them line-betting odds of -8. This was to be a mistake. 

Villanova were in sensational form, hitting 22 of their 28 attempted field goals (78.6%). It was still a tight game but the Wildcats prevailed in the end, 66-64.

UMBC Retrievers (#16) vs Virginia Cavaliers (#1): South Regional, 2018

In the history of the NCAA March Madness tournament, only once has a #16 seed knocked out the #1 seed. UMBC did just that in 2018, not by squeezing past the Virginia Cavaliers, but by blowing them out of the water. 

Jairus Lyles scored 28 points single-handedly and the Retrievers won the game 74-54.

It wasn’t just that Virginia were the top seed, they were the dominant force in the college game at the time. Hotly tipped to go on and win the whole tournament after putting together a record of 31-2 that season. They were: 

  • 135-0 against #16-seeded teams in NCAA Tournament history

  • Ranked #1 in the nation with only one game lost in months

There was no way they were going to lose to the lowly University of Maryland Baltimore County. 

Until they did.

Final thoughts

That’s March Madness in a nutshell for you and it serves to remind us why ‘one-game winner-take-all’ competitions are so exhilarating to watch. Form charts are there for little more than reading material once the tournament starts. It is also why you are more likely to throw a single grain of sand into a pile of all the sand on Earth and pick the same one out again the next day than you are to pick a perfect bracket…

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