The 10 biggest upsets in Men's March Madness history
Each year during March Madness, some of the most stunning upsets in all of sports occur. These are the 10 biggest upsets in NCAA basketball tournament history.
The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, better known as March Madness, is always one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated U.S. sporting events. Its sheer unpredictability makes for phenomenal viewing, and its rich tradition of upsets rivals that of any other sport in the world.
In 2018, the tournament registered its first 16th-seed upset when UMBC defeated No. 1 seed Virginia. Prior to that game, no 16th-seeded team had ever defeated a top seed over the 33-year history of the 64-team tournament. In beating the Cavaliers, UMBC undoubtedly spoiled almost all the tournament-prediction brackets filled out by fans. However, that’s exactly what we love about March Madness. Anything can happen on the court, enabling low-seeded schools to make runs to the Elite Eight and beyond.
The lowest seed to win the NCAA tournament was the 1985 Villanova Wildcats, who won their championship in the 64-team bracket’s inaugural year.
Golden State Warriors legend Steph Curry was part of one of the best Cinderella stories in March Madness history. The Davidson Elite 8 run in 2008 featured a thrilling win against heavily-favored Georgetown, as the Wildcats overcame a 17-point second-half deficit to advance. This is just one example of the many great stories and bracket upsets found in previous NCAA tournaments.
Today’s list looks at 10 of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history, including defeats suffered by the likes of the Duke Blue Devils, Kentucky Wildcats, and Georgetown Hoyas. College basketball fans will remember some of these games from recent years, while others from the more distant past rank among the biggest upsets in sports history.
Honorable MentionNo. 15 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles vs. No. 2 Georgetown Hoyas -- 2013 South Regional First Round
Closing NCAAB betting lines: Florida Gulf Coast Eagles +700
Final score: Florida Gulf Coast 78, Georgetown 68
The Florida Gulf Coast Eagles were in only their second year of tournament eligibility when they went up against the second-seeded Georgetown Hoyas at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center in 2013.
Making their first NCAA appearance, the Eagles played with vigor -- catching the Hoyas off guard to take a two-point lead at halftime. That lead clearly boosted their confidence, because they turned in an even more impressive second-half effort.
Georgetown was considered one of the best defensive teams in the nation -- allowing an average of roughly 55 points per game in 2012-13. The Eagles managed to surpass that number with almost 10 minutes remaining in the second half.
As the clock ticked down, Florida Gulf Coast iced the game from the free-throw line, turning a four-point lead into 10 while chants of “Eagles! Eagles!” filled the arena. This was another embarrassing exit for the Hoyas, who had routinely slumped at the tournament since reaching the Final Four six years earlier.
FGCU went on to defeat the South Regional’s No. 7 seed, San Diego State, in the second round to add to one of the tournament’s best small-school stories.
Ranking the 10 Biggest Upsets in Men's March Madness History
- No. 11 George Mason Patriots vs. No. 1 Connecticut Huskies – 2006 Elite Eight Washington Regional
Closing NCAAB betting lines: George Mason +320
Final score: George Mason 86, UConn 84 (OT)
In 2006, the George Mason Patriots became just the second double-digit seed to win an NCAA tournament regional championship. George Mason engineered one of the greatest March Madness upsets by defeating top-seeded UConn to reach the Final Four.
The Patriots had been on a remarkable run -- beating both Michigan State and North Carolina to reach the Elite Eight. Eight-point underdogs heading into the game at Washington’s Capital One Arena, the Patriots found themselves trailing the Huskies by nine points at halftime.
They came back in the second half to take a 74-70 lead in the game’s final minute but couldn’t hold off UConn in regulation time. The game went to overtime, where the Patriots grabbed the lead with three minutes remaining and never looked back on their way to the Final Four.
- No. 15 Oral Roberts Golden Eagles vs. No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes -- 2021 South Regional First Round
Closing NCAAB betting lines: Oral Roberts +1000
Final score: Oral Roberts 75, Ohio State 72 (OT)
Oral Roberts became the March Madness surprise of 2021 when the Golden Eagles knocked off the second-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes.
Prior to that year, No. 15 seeds had only beaten No. 2 seeds eight times in tournament history. The Golden Eagles raised that number to nine by toppling Ohio State 75-72 in overtime at Purdue’s Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind.
Oral Roberts' Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor, who rose to prominence during the tournament, proved too much for the Buckeyes to handle. The duo put on an impressive shooting display, combining for 59 of the Golden Eagles' 75 points on their way to the tournament’s second round
Oral Roberts continued its run by eliminating the seventh-seeded Florida Gators in Round 2 before falling to Arkansas in the Sweet 16.
- No. 15 Santa Clara Broncos vs. No. 2 Arizona Wildcats, 1993 West Regional First Round
Closing NCAAB betting lines: N/A
Final score: Santa Clara 64, Arizona 61
Santa Clara’s 1993 first-round victory over Arizona was just the second time in tournament history that a No. 15 seed defeated a No. 2. The Broncos did it with the help of a young Steve Nash, who was not even one of his team’s starters at the time.
The Broncos were a heavy underdog. Prior to the game, Santa Clara head coach Dick Davey publicly stated that his team’s chances of winning were "not good” and that the game "could get ugly."
For stretches during the game at Salt Lake City, it seemed as if Arizona would win -- especially after the Wildcats went on a 25-0 scoring run. However, the Broncos fought back and eventually knocked out an Arizona team with six future NBA players on its roster.
That improbable 1993 NCAA tournament victory was the first of many career milestones for Nash, a Canadian point guard who went on to win back-to-back NBA MVP awards with the Phoenix Suns.
- No. 15 Saint Peter's Peacocks vs. No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats, 2022 West Regional First Round
Closing NCAAB betting lines: Saint Peter’s +1400
Final score: Saint Peter’s 85, Kentucky 79 (OT)
College basketball fans will remember this game well since it was one of the most recent NCAA tournament upsets.
College basketball powerhouse Kentucky was expecting a deep tournament run as it prepared for its 2022 regional opener against the 15th-seeded Saint Peter's Peacocks at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Wildcats had reason to be confident. St. Peter’s, a small private school of roughly 3,500 students in Jersey City, N.J., had never won an NCAA tournament game, and the Peacocks were +1400 underdogs against Kentucky
Peacocks guards Daryl Banks III and Doug Edert combined for 47 points and outplayed a Wildcats backcourt that included TyTy Washington Jr, who now plays for the NBA’s Houston Rockets. Wildcats forward Oscar Tshiebwe had 30 points and 16 rebounds in the game, but it wasn’t enough to keep Kentucky from being eliminated in Round 1.
In one of the most thrilling overtime games in recent memory, Saint Peter’s secured its first-ever NCAA tournament win, adding its name to an elite list of NCAAB upsets.
- No. 2 Duke Blue Devils vs. No. 1 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, 1991 Final Four
Closing NCAAB betting lines: N/A
Final score: Duke 79, UNLV 77
Defending NCAA tournament champion UNLV entered the 1991 Final Four riding a 44-game winning streak. The Runnin’ Rebels were far and away the favorites to repeat as champions and had made light work of their opposition throughout the 1990-91 season.
UNLV’s unbeaten streak had included a 30-point win over Duke in the 1990 national championship game. One year later at Indianapolis’ Hoosier Dome, the Blue Devils came out for some Final Four revenge. The Duke-UNLV rematch would prove to be one of the best games -- and most remarkable college basketball upsets -- in history.
Coach K led the Blue Devils to a closely contested 79-77 victory, taking them back to the title game. They went on win the national championship that their remarkable semifinal performance against the Runnin’ Rebels made possible.
One of the best college basketball players in Duke history, Christian Laettner, led the Blue Devils with 28 points and seven rebounds against UNLV. Duke next defeated the Kansas Jayhawks in the final for the first national championship in school history and the first for legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski.
- No. 15 Lehigh Mountain Hawks vs. No. 2 Duke Blue Devils, 2012 South Regional First Round
Closing NCAAB betting lines: Lehigh +650
Final score: Lehigh 75, Duke 70
The 2012 tournament featured two first-round March Madness upsets by 15th-seeded teams. Norfolk State took out Missouri in the West Regional, and the Lehigh Mountain Hawks sent Duke home in the South. The latter game, played at the Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina, is remembered as one of the best games of its tournament year
In one of the greatest March Madness upsets, the Mountain Hawks eliminated Coach K‘s 2012 Duke Blue Devils, whose roster was full of future NBA stars. Austin Rivers, Seth Curry and the Plumlee brothers were all a part of a Duke starting five that entered the tournament with high expectations.
The Mountain Hawks were led by a stunning performance from CJ McCollum, who scored 30 of his team’s 75 points. Lehigh’s shocker gave Duke its first Round 1 exit since 2007, as the Mountain Hawks pulled off one of the biggest upsets in March Madness history.
- No. 6 NC State Wolfpack vs No. 1 Houston Cougars, 1983 National Championship Game
Closing NCAAB betting lines: N/A
Final score: NC State 54, Houston 52
The NC State Wolfpack made it to the NCAA tournament championship game in 1983 despite being a No. 6 seed in the West. Coached by Jim Valvano, this team might have been one of the best in school history, but it seemed to have little chance against a Houston Cougars team that featured two future Hall of Famers in Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
Played at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M., this title game presented a unique challenge for both teams due to the city’s mile-high altitude. Olajuwon struggled with the environment, and Drexler was forced to the bench with foul trouble, opening a window of opportunity for Valvano’s team.
The game came down to its final second. With his team trailing by one point, Wolfpack guard Dereck Whittenburg struggled to get a hold of possession before launching up a desperate shot. His shot (which he later claimed was a pass) fell short. However, it was hauled in and dunked by center Lorenzo Charles with just one second left. NC State won the national championship in one of the all-time biggest NCAA tournament upsets.
- No. 8 Villanova Wildcats vs. No. 1 Georgetown Hoyas, 1985 National Championship Game
Closing NCAAB betting lines: N/A
Final score: Villanova 66, Georgetown 64
The biggest upset of March Madness 1985 came in the national championship game, and it’s considered one of the greatest upsets in the history of the tournament.
The Hoyas were a heavy favorite, led by future Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, who remains one of the best Georgetown basketball players of all time. Ewing and the Hoyas had won the national championship in 1984, and the future New York Knicks star was hoping to cap off his brilliant college career with back-to-back titles.
The Wildcats, who began the tournament as a No. 8 seed in the Southeast Region, had other ideas for Georgetown. Villanova shot a miraculous 79 percent from the floor to stay in the game against the nation’s best team.
Before the final at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Villanova coach Rollie Massimino declared that the Wildcats would need to play a perfect game to win. They shot 22-for-28 from the floor and 22-for-27 from the free-throw line -- coming as close to perfection as possible and ultimately rallying for one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history.
The win made Villanova the lowest-seeded team to win the tournament – a record that still stands -- and was among the earliest major upsets in March Madness history.
- No. 16 UMBC Retrievers vs. No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers, 2018 South Regional First Round
Closing NCAAB betting lines: UMBC +2000
Final score: UMBC 74, Virginia 54
While there have been many upsets in the NCAA basketball tournament over the years, one of the greatest came in 2018 at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C. There had only ever been one 16th-seeded team that ever beaten a No. 1 seed in the tournament’s opening round until 2023 when it happened a second time. The original feat was achieved by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Retrievers who made the seemingly impossible happen.
The historic game was tied 21-21 at halftime, and the Virginia Cavaliers, a national-championship contender at 31-1, suddenly looked like a shell of themselves. What unfolded over the next 20 minutes led to one of the biggest NCAA upsets not just in basketball, but in any sport. The Retrievers scored 53 points against one of the top teams in the nation in the second half. That’s right -- 53 points in one half of a college basketball game against a No. 1 seed.
This was not just the only time a No. 16 seed ever moved beyond the tournament’s first round. It was also instantly regarded as the biggest upset in March Madness history because of the dominance UMBC displayed in making it happen.
The Retrievers delivered an impressive and composed performance, defeating the Cavaliers by a 20-point margin. If you didn’t see this game live or have yet to watch it on video, take the time to experience it all the way to the jubilant celebration at the final buzzer.
- No. 16 Fairleigh Dickenson Knights vs #1 Purdue Boilermakers, 2023 First Round, South Regional
Closing NCAAB betting lines: FDU +2100
Final result: FDU 63, Purdue 58
We have a brand-new number one upset as of the 2023 March Madness tournament, with Sam Dekker also declaring the Fairleigh Dickenson Knights upset over Purdue the greatest upset in tournament history. Until the 2023 tournament, only one 16 seed had ever achieved the upset at the NCAA tournament, and that was the UMBC Retrievers game against Virginia in 2018. Now there’s a new challenger in town, and they’re taking over the top spot.
FDU was +2100 by the time their first-round matchup with the Boilermakers got underway, with Purdue expected to be one of the standout teams at the 2023 tournament. The Knights were 20-15 this season having turned their fortunes around after a disappointing 4-22 season last year.
The Knights played a momentous game defensively, doing everything they could to slow the success of All-American big man Zach Edey. They were ready for the occasion, playing press defense and refusing to allow Purdue to get comfortable at any point in the game. FDU’s head coach Tobin Anderson praised his team and said they had to be ‘unorthodox’, and that’s exactly what they did.
Purdue never had an answer that would take FDU out of the game, and come to the end of the second half the Knights were right there in the lead. Purdue had a three-point attempt to tie the game in the dying moments but missed, and two made free throws iced the game for the Knights.
The win marks one of the most impressive, complete performances by a number 16 seed at the NCAA tournament, and perhaps the best ever. The stunning outcome deserves its place as the new and improved greatest upset in the history of the NCAA tournament. Purdue fans were bemused by what they’d just witnessed, while FDU players, coaches, and fans alike celebrated the moment of madness at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
Parameters for ranking
This list of NCAA tournament upsets considered a variety of factors, including the teams' seeds and the odds the underdog team faced. The historic significance of each upset was the primary criterion for its ranking.
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