The NCAA Tournament, aka March Madness, will begin its 2019 edition on March 19.
March Madness is one of the greatest sporting events on the planet. The combination of a single-elimination format, the potential for upsets, the potential for buzzer-beaters, and the highest of stakes means that drama can strike during any game and any matchup.
But all March Madness bettors know an upset that doesn’t work in their favor can be a money pit nightmare. So, ahead of listing the five biggest upsets in the history of the basketball tournament, what truly makes an epic upset?
What makes a historic March Madness upset?
The essential aspect of any upset is the unexpected. So, the list below doesn’t only include cases of lower-seed teams defeating higher seeds.
Seeding the tournament is an imperfect practice. A 25-win, mid-major team might receive a lower seed than a big conference team with a worse record due to the mid-major team’s lower strength of schedule.
The problem with this approach to seeding is that strength of schedule does not necessarily diminish a team’s abilities. So, sometimes a lower seed’s victory is not an upset, but merely a reflection of a truly good team seeded too low.
Instead, upsets occur when both teams’ histories would suggest a different outcome. In some cases, the entire history of the tournament suggested that the other team would win.
Each of these five games has its section and description. However, for those who are in a hurry, here’s a quick list of them:
- UMBC over UVA: 2018
- Richmond over Syracuse: 1991
- Villanova over Georgetown: 1985
- NC State over UH: 1983
- Duke over UNLV: 1991
UMBC defeats UVA: 2018
It would be difficult to argue that this game is not the greatest upset in the history of the tournament. Last year, the 16-seeded University of Maryland – Baltimore County made history by winning its opening game against the top-seeded University of Virginia.
In 136 contests between No. 1 and No. 16 seeds, the 16-seed has won precisely once — this time. Before the Terriers win, 1-over-16 was the surest of bets in all of the sports.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of UMBC’s historic victory is the final margin. Far from a buzzer beater, the Terriers ran the Cavaliers off the court, winning 74-54.
UMBC went on to lose its next game, a nine-point defeat at the hands of Kansas State. However, the school can rest comfortably in the knowledge that its place in history is forever secure.
Richmond beats Syracuse: 1991
Before UMBC, the highest seeds ever to win an NCAA Tournament game were 15 seeds. So far, a No. 15-seeded team has won its opening match eight times. None of those victories was more shocking than the University of Richmond‘s escape from the Syracuse Orangemen.
Richmond’s win gets the nod as the most significant because of its status as a trailblazer. Much like UMBC, the Spiders had to contend with the knowledge that no team had ever accomplished the task of defeating a No. 2-seeded team in the first round.
The game itself looks more like the kind of game that would yield a huge upset. Syracuse came out flat, and Richmond took an eight-point lead into halftime.
From there, Richmond slowed the game’s pace down and clung desperately to its lead. In the end, the plan worked, and the Spiders sneaked into history with a 73-69 win.
Villanova beats Georgetown: 1985
In more recent times, a Villanova win over Georgetown would barely make the news. However, back in 1985, the Wildcats’ two-point victory over the Hoyas was the embodiment of the impossible.
Villanova defeated Georgetown 66-64 after a grueling two halves of play. In doing so, the Wildcats became the only No. 8 seed ever to win the national championship.
What made the “Cats” run so much more improbable was that the team caught fire seemingly out of nowhere. Villanova limped into the tournament with 10 losses on its record, including a 15-point meltdown against St. John’s directly before the tournament.
The Georgetown team Villanova defeat had been the prohibitive favorite most of the season. All five of its starters went on to play in the NBA, including all-time great center Patrick Ewing.
But, in the end, it was the Pennsylvania team that had its date with destiny.
NC State beats UH: 1983
Two years before Villanova’s miracle run, North Carolina State University played out a similar drama with the University of Houston. If anything, the manner in which NC State prevailed has stayed with the American sports conscience far longer.
To recap, the No. 6 seed Wolfpack were locked in a tight battle with the top-ranked UH Cougars. The Cougars boasted a high-flying lineup that featured two future NBA Hall-of-Famers (Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon), which had allowed the team to earn the nickname “Phi Slama Jama,” in reference to its aerial prowess.
However, the game came down to a 44-second stretch in which the teams were locked in a tie, and NC State allowed time to dwindle into the single-digits. With about six seconds remaining, NC State’s Dereck Whittenburg launched a long shot from nearly the half-court line, but his shot missed the goal entirely.
NC State’s Lorenzo Charles stayed alert, though, and rose up to put the ball back on a quick slam dunk. The score put NC State up by two with no time remaining and secured the school’s second (and most recent) championship.
Duke beats UNLV: 1991
As is the case with Villanova, a deep March Madness run is not a surprise for Duke University. However, there was a time when Duke was merely a perennial also-ran.
That narrative changed in 1991 when Duke captured its first title in school history. To do so, the team had to defeat one of the all-time great teams in the national semifinals.
The University of Nevada-Las Vegas entered the 1991 tournament as the defending national champions and undefeated. Its five starters each went on to have NBA careers, and the team’s towel-biting coach, Jerry Tarkanian, was one of the best-ever to roam the sidelines.
So, the Runnin’ Rebels had plenty of confidence and swagger entering the tournament. The Final Four matchup with Duke likely didn’t cause much concern, since UNLV had defeated the same team by 30 points in the national championship game the year before.
However, some key additions to the Duke squad meant that the Blue Devils could hang with the champs. Two key free throws by Christian Laettner with 12.7 seconds remaining sealed the most improbable of victories, and handed UNLV its only loss of the entire season.