By: Jeffrey Newholm
This year has been one of the craziest in recent memory in college basketball. There is so much parity and so little separating the top teams that I think there is a very real possibility a 16 seed finally rises up and beats a one. I tried to do some men’s bracketology a while back, but so much has changed since then it already belongs in the trash. So that got me to thinking: what have been the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA tournament? I’ve put together a list of the top five upsets in the history of the men’s tournament, in my purely subjective and absolutely debatable opinion. As a bonus, I’ll list the top three upsets of the women’s tournament too (just the top three because there are far fewer upsets in the women’s tournament and the sport is much younger). The top three for the men should all be familiar, but for my first two I brought back some forgotten gems:
5. Richmond-Syracuse, 1991 opening round
To this day a 16 seed has not beaten a one, and until 1991 a 15 seed had never won either. True, the Spiders had pulled shockers before, but considering Jim Boeheim’s Orangemen (this is so long ago they were still the Orangemen) hadn’t lost a first round game in 13 years, this seemed too big a hill climb. But the Spiders took command of the game and led throughout, only to have the top dog make the inevitable run to cut a double-digit deficit to one. The Spiders, however, made enough free throws down the stretch to hold off the Orangemen and pull of the, at the time, biggest upset in the history of the tournament. These days a 15 wins so frequently it’s not that surprising anymore. but the Richmond Spiders paved the trail for many Cinderellas to come.
4. Villanova-Georgetown, 1985 Final
Spoiler: the Hoyas are going to be on this list a few times. Over the last few years Georgetown has suffered some stunners in the first round, but their loss to the Wildcats may be the one that hurt the most. The ’85 Hoyas, led by Patrick Ewing, were supposed to go down as one of the greatest teams of all time, and their championship matchup against the 24-10 and eighth seeded Wildcats was supposed to be a coronation. Instead ‘Nova shot a blistering 78% from the field, including an insane 90% in the second half. Usually the asterisk next to one of these upsets is “well, but then they got killed in the second round”. But the beautiful thing for ‘Nova was that there was no round after this. The upset clinched the most unlikely title in NCAA history.
3. Lehigh-Duke, 2012 opening round
March 16th, 2012 produced a day of upsets unlikely to ever be equaled when two #2 seeds went down. Earlier that fateful Friday Norfolk State knocked off Missouri, but Missouri had a huge up year and is hardly a basketball blue-blood. One would think that playing in Greensboro would be a huge advantage for the Blue Devils, but this turned out not to be the case when legions of Tar Heel trolls came out to support the Mountain Hawks. While one usually pictures a dramatic shot to be the final dagger in the favorite’s hart, I remember the Hawks led almost the entire game and Duke was never in a position to win. The Mountain Hawks haven’t been heard from since-this was the classic one shining moment upset.
2. Uconn-George Mason, 2006 elite eight
This game is #2 on my list but #1 in my heart for what it meant for me. Putting the regional 20 miles away from Mason’s campus didn’t seem like a big deal seeing as the 11th seeded Patriots had never won an NCAA tournament game. In fact the Pats weren’t even supposed to be in the tournament and were the most controversial at-large selection. The #1 seeded Huskies were a popular pick to win everything but had several huge scares leading up to the elite eight, needing a big rally to knock off Albany in the first round and overtime to beat Washington in the sweet sixteen. The Huskies had a huge size advantage but their luck finally ran out when, after two missed Pats free throws, Denham Brown’s three that would have won the game clanked off the rim. Why is this game important to me? Well it just so happens that my dad got his law degree from George Mason so he was able to get tickets for him and myself to attend the final four. And what a final four it was, as not a single #1 seed could be found in Indianapolis. 2006 will go down as one of the zaniest, upset-filled tourneys in the history of the big dance.
1.Florida Gulf Coast x2
I think in and of itself the Eagles’ upset of Georgetown doesn’t rank as #1 seeing as this was the Hoyas’ fourth straight tournament loss to a double-digit seed. The way the Eagles pulled the upset, however, catapults them much higher on the list. The fifteenth seeded “Dunk city” Eagles went on a shocking 21-2 run in the second half and had a 19 point lead with only 12 minutes to play. The Hoyas tried to mount a furious rally but it proved too little, too late. Call it cheating if you wish but I had to give the Eagles the top spot as they followed one stunning upset with another, knocking off San Diego State to become the first 15 seed to reach the Sweet Sixteen. The Eagles fought hard against Florida, but the clock eventually struck midnight on the team’s Cinderella run. Like the Mountain Hawks, it seems unlikely Dunk City will have a revival tour seeing as coach Andy Enfield left for greener pastures and the team has yet to return to the big dance. But at least the Eagles can’t be accused of only having one shining moment. No, it was TWO shining moments.
Top three women’s upsets
3. Tennessee – Ball State, 2009 opening round
This one may be the biggest shocker just in terms of the names: mighty Tennessee losing to Ball State? No, 2009 wasn’t that great a year for the Vols. The defending champs lost all their starters and ten games, although eight were to ranked teams. The team probably wasn’t a contender to return to the final four, but Pat Summit was still confident her fifth seeded team could make a Cinderella run. Considering the Vols entered the game 42-0 in the tournament’s opening weekend, few thought the team could fall so low as to lose to the Cardinals. With the team only down one at the half, Vols nation figured the first half was just a precursor to a big run. And indeed it was-a big run for Ball State. By the time the final horn sounded, the Vols were staring at an unthinkable 16 point deficit. The silver lining for Duke after their embarrassing losses to Lehigh and later Mercer is that the team bounced right back up the next year. Sadly the Vols still haven’t returned to the Final Four and despite my optimism in my season preview are probably looking at a five seed again this year.
2. Stanford – Harvard, 1998 opening round
In the history of division one this game marks the only time a 16 has beaten a one. However, I still only rank it as the second biggest upset because it was the result of a perfect storm of flukes, several of which everyone was aware of going into the game. First of all, it was pretty mean for the committee to give Harvard a 16 seed seeing as they went 22-4 and had the country’s leading scorer. Secondly, two Stanford star players suffered season ending injuries before the game, and to make matters worse the other players starting playing tight, paranoid a career-threatening injury would befall them as well. Even with all these factors in the Crimson favor, Harvard still faced a three point deficit with time running out but was able to ice the upset with a game-ending 7-0 run. To this day a 15 or 14 has still never won in the women’s tournament, but for all those saying it’s boring and predictable, remember that the men’s tournament still hasn’t seen an upset of this magnitude.
1.Baylor – Louisville, 2013 Sweet 16
Granted a five beating a one may seem a tame upset by men’s standards, but I think given the full context of this game it’s still a shocking upset. The 2012 Baylor Lady Bears were one of the greatest teams of all time, finishing 40-0 behind Brittany Griner and a strong cast of supporting stars. Griner would go down as the NCAA’s all time leader in blocks and dunks, and surely no one was going to stop her her senior year. The Bears picked up an early loss to Stanford due in large part to a key player missing much of the game, but rallied to win 32 in a row going into the regionals. Louisville was an also-ran in the Big East behind UConn and Notre Dame and was a massive 24 point underdog to the Bears, a 75-1 favorite. But the Cards shut Griner down with a well-designed zone and tied the NCAA tournament record for threes in a game, racing out to a 17 point game with less than ten minutes to go. When the threes stopped falling the Bears mounted a massive comeback, managing to take the lead with only nine seconds to go. All the Bears needed was one more stop and the game would just end up being a wake-up call for the tourney’s top seed. But then the unthinkable happened: Griner was whistled for a foul. Louisville’s Monique Reid made both free throws, and the Bear’s quest to defend their title was over stunningly soon. The shock-waves sent from this game are so big they’re still being felt today. The Cards managed to pull two more upsets and advanced to the title game, but they ran out of gas and lost to Uconn by 33. Uconn has since romped to two more titles and are favored to win their record fourth straight title this year. Should the Huskies complete the feat, they’ll owe a big debt to the Cards for knocking off the mighty Bears.
You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsAndBoltsSP.