Every March, millions of college basketball fans and gamblers spend their hard earned money entering bracket showdowns, pools, and betting spreads, in hopes that they will be able to find that year’s Cinderella team. Resulting in the lost production in excess of $200 million, March Madness is definitely a sports fan’s dream.
There have been plenty of upsets since the tournament’s first season in 1939 and even more once it was expanded to the current 64-team format in 1985. In 2011, there were additional play-in games to determine which bubble teams were going to advance. Typically, these play-in games were between two teams vying for a 15 or 16 seed, but they have more recently became higher ranked match ups between two 8 or 9 seeds.
Throughout the tournament’s rich history, there has never been a 16 seed to upset a 1 seed. However, we have seen several 15 seeds beat a 2 seed, most recently with Florida Gulf Coast during the 2013 season. For some of these underdog teams, the upset brought fame to their small-time programs for a brief period of time before they fizzled out. For others, such the 2011 VCU Rams, making it to the Final Four brought fame and lasting attention, as they are now expected to win their conference tournament and make the big dance nearly every season.
The following is a list of the top 10 biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history. While they cover a span of over 30 years, fans of each program will be sure to never forget that day they were bounced early or made a monumental upset.
10 #13 Princeton defeats #4 UCLA - 1996
Entering the game as 10 point underdogs, it seemed that the cards were stacked against the team as they were paired up against the #4 ranked UCLA Bruins in their first round matchup. Considering the fact that 5 days earlier they had to play a tie breaker against Penn to determine who would advance to the NCAA tournament, the stakes could not have been higher. In a low-scoring affair, the Tigers scored the final 9 points of the game and hit a layup with 3.9 seconds left on the clock to secure a victory, 43-41. The Tigers’ coach Pete Carril went on to retire after the season, but the monumental upset of UCLA will forever link Princeton and UCLA in basketball lore.
9 #13 Valparaiso defeats #4 Mississippi - 1998
The next game on our list comes as a result of Bryce Drew’s last-second shot as he propelled the Crusaders to a 70-69 upset of Mississippi. With Bryce’s father Homer Drew leading Valpo as the head coach, the team went on to defeat Florida State in the second round and lose to Rhode Island in the Sweet 16. The last-second shot was iconic during the 2013 NCAA tournament with CBS showing it repeatedly as Bryce led his team to the big dance as the head coach of the Crusaders before falling to Michigan State 65-54.
8 #14 Bucknell defeats #3 Kansas - 2005
As one of the oldest programs in college basketball history, in the 2005 Syracuse regional they were set to square off against one of basketball’s most successful programs. In just its second ever NCAA tournament appearance, the Bison broke through as the first team from the Patriot League to win a tournament game. The Bison defeated the Jayhawks 64-63, handing them their first first-round exit from the tournament since 1978. Due to the size of the team’s upset, Bucknell went on to win the ESPY for “Best Upset” in July of that summer, adding even more sparkle to a small time team celebrating on the big time stage. Since 2005, Bucknell has gone on to make the tournament three more times, although their only victory was in 2006 against Memphis.
7 #9 Northern Iowa defeat #1 Kansas - 2010
Although it is just at number 9 on our list, Northern Iowa’s 2010 upset of Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks is one of the biggest in history. While there were eight double-digit seeds that moved past the first round that year, knocking off the offensively charged number one Jayhawks was huge. The upset is impressive because if you were to ask most basketball fans what conference UNI is out of, many wouldn’t have a clue. Aside from that, they didn’t just upset a one seed, the upset the overall number one seed, a feat that very few teams can claim outside of the Sweet 16.
6 #15 Florida Gulf Coast defeats #2 Georgetown - 2013
Fresh in the minds of many college basketball fans is probably the tournament run of the 2013 FGCU Eagles. Last season, FGCU beat Georgetown in a high-flying aerial assault on the Hoyas, winning 78-68. What’s even more impressive is that they did this in just their second year as a full-time member of Division 1 basketball. For context, Georgetown had made it to five Final Fours and won one national championship…before FGCU was even in existence. The brand of basketball that FGCU brought to the tournament was electric; they made errant passes, slam dunked over defenders, and then laughed in their opponents' faces afterwards. It was certainly a case of old school vs. new school, with new school prevailing in a big way.
5 #15 Santa Clara defeats #2 Arizona - 1993
After being down by 13 points in the second half, the Santa Clara Broncos pulled off a miraculous upset of the second seeded Arizona Wildcats, just the second 15th seed to knock off a second seeded team. For Arizona, it was the second season in a row the historic program had not made it past the first round. Led by their All-American point guard, Steven Nash, Santa Clara’s upset over Arizona became the program’s first NCAA tournament win since 1970.
4 #15 Richmond defeats #2 Syracuse - 1991
While they haven’t been much of a threat in recent years, Richmond was a well-known bracket buster throughout the 1980s. After beating Charles Barkley’s 5th seeded Auburn team in 1984 en route to the Sweet 16, Richmond was more than capable of doing the same in 1991. On national television and shown during primetime viewing hours, Richmond became the first 15 seed to ever defeat a number 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, winning the game 73-69. While the score may have ended up being just a four-point differential, Richmond dominated almost every aspect of the game. Constantly changing defensive schemes and knocking down jumpers, Richmond built up a 10-point lead in the second half and never looked back, as they entered the tournament record books.
3 #6 NC State defeats #1 Houston - 1982
As we make our way through the list, we start to get into rarefied territory. Not just because they were awesome upsets, but because of what they meant in the context of the sport. In 1982, the number 6 seeded Wolfpack, led by head coach Jim Valvano did the unthinkable; they made it to the National Championship. The Houston Cougars’ high-flying offense was electric; led by Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, downing their opponents by over 18 points per game. In a see-saw match, Coach V’s team ended up coming out on top and cemented their place in college basketball history. On a last-second slam dunk, NC State erupted and stormed the court in pure chaos. While Coach V later passed on at the hands of cancer, his spirit never did. Even today, fans and analysts still recount that magical night in April, when the Wolfpack stunned the sports world.
2 #11 George Mason defeats #1 Connecticut - 2006
In the era of modern bracket busters, no team had more success than George Mason during the 2006 NCAA tournament. Despite losing to Hofstra in the CAA conference tournament, George Mason was still able to grab an at-large bid to enter the tourney. What happened next was not only impressive, but one could argue that there was also quite a bit of magic surrounding the Patriots. George Mason went on to beat Michigan State in the first round, followed by defending national champion North Carolina in the second round. The Patriots went on to beat Wichita State in the Sweet 16, followed by their victory over UConn in the Elite 8, the number one overall seed in the tournament. Despite their efforts, they lost to eventual national champion Florida but they impressed millions of people throughout the country as they knocked off three national powerhouse programs in the process.
1 #8 Villanova defeats #1 Georgetown - 1985
Entering the national championship game as the defending champs, Georgetown knew they were walking into a hornets nest, as Villanova knew they didn’t belong with the big boys. When a team has nothing to lose, it can become a major threat, which is exactly what happened on April 1, 1985. Villanova shot a lights out 79% from the field en route to a 66-64 victory and sent a star-studded Georgetown squad packing. With the Wildcats’ victory, they etched themselves in basketball history as the lowest seed to ever make it to the national championship game, let alone win a national championship.