With the field officially selected for this year’s NCAA Final Four tournament, millions of people across the continent, including plenty that know zilch about college basketball, will undergo the task of filling out their brackets – whether they’re for office pools, friendly wagers or online competitions. It sure would be nice if the higher seeds just won all the time because it would make predicting winners a whole lot easier, but we all know that’s not the way this thing works. Upsets happen, and they happen fairly often.
The NCAA actually published an article at the end of February detailing the nature of upsets, pointing out that, on average, there are six first-round upsets every year that come at the hands of 10-15 seeds, while most Final Four teams are at least a 7 seed. The art in winning a bracket is determining which of those lower seeds will be responsible for upsets and which of those higher seeds will run the table.
It is a delicate art, though, particularly because there’s at least one shocking first-round upset every year, and that one bracket-busting loss can almost immediately destroy hopes of winning a pool. While there’s no way to predict which team that will be in 2016, the following are some of the more notable first-round upsets of the last 25 years:
#15 Richmond upsets #2 Syracuse (1991) – This particular first-round shocker was significant because it was the first time that a 15-seed had ever won an NCAA Final Four tournament game. It wouldn’t be the last time that Richmond would play spoiler to a significantly higher seed (they did it again in 2011 as a 12-seed when they beat 5-seed Vanderbilt en route to a Sweet Sixteen appearance), but this particular upset was such a huge deal because it never had been done before. Syracuse was a monster in the Big East that year, and it all came crashing down the first game of the tournament. Six other 15 seeds have done it since, but there was a time when this particular brand upset seemed as unlikely as a 16-seed upset. There still hasn’t been one of those, but as Richmond once proved, it just takes one to burst the bubble.
#15 Santa Clara upsets #2 Arizona (1993) – In retrospect, watching Steve Nash and Damon Stoudemire go at it in a game that proved to be unexpectedly thrilling might have been the single most interesting college basketball game to attend that year, especially since the game ended up being so close. Things stayed tight to the very end, with Santa Clara missing four free-throws in the game’s final moments to help keep Arizona in the game. Stoudemire missed a desperation three-pointer at the buzzer that would’ve tied it, and Nash’s Santa Clara team stole a win away from one of the early 1990s’ most stacked college rosters.
#13 Princeton upsets #4 UCLA (1996) – While a 13-seed toppling a 4-seed doesn’t seem quite as impressive as a 15-seed upset, this one was particularly shocking because it came the year after UCLA won the National Championship. It was a hell of a game, too, tied in the game’s final moments and won on a backdoor cut and layup that has held up as one of the more exciting finishes in tournament history.
#15 Coppin State upsets #2 South Carolina (1997) – Coming into this game as 30-point underdogs, Coppin State ended up embarrassing the Gamecocks in a 13-point win, proving that the betting experts were wrong in assuming they were 43 points worse than reality that game. It was the first time Coppin State had ever won in tournament competition, and they ended up losing their second-round game to Texas by just one. They could’ve been one of history’s more improbable Cinderella teams, but that upset over South Carolina was enough to enshrine them as one of the more storied upsets in NCAA tournament history.
#14 Weber State upsets #3 North Carolina (1999) – While this wasn’t exactly the golden era of North Carolina basketball, the Tar Heels came into the 1999 tournament having won their first-round game every single year since 1978. After Dean Smith but before Roy Williams, this Brendan Haywood-led roster massively disappointed in a shocking loss to Weber State. North Carolina has had its highs and lows in the past 15 years, but they’re one of college basketball’s most storied programs. Losing like they did in 1999 truly was a shock.
#15 Hampton upsets #2 Iowa State (2001) – Down by 11 to Jamaal Tinsley’s Iowa State team well into the second half, the Hampton Pirates chipped away at the lead until the crowd in Boise started to realize the possibility of a pretty significant upset coming together before their very eyes. Up 57-48 with seven minutes to go, Iowa State didn’t score a single point the rest of the game, which was just enough for that Cinderella Hampton team to eke out a one-point victory.
#14 Bucknell upsets #3 Kansas (2005) – It’s always shocking when Kansas loses a first-round matchup, but they had a rough stretch in the mid-aughts that started with this upset to the Bucknell Bison, courtesy of a last-second, banked-in hook shot by Bucknell’s Chris McNaughton. Wayne Simien did have a chance to sink a shot at the buzzer but clanged the attempt and sent the Jayhawks home much earlier than expected.
#13 Bradley upsets #4 Kansas (2006) – The next year wasn’t any better, as Kansas stepped into the tournament hoping to redeem themselves, only to lose immediately to Patrick O’Bryant’s Bradley squad out of Peoria, Illinois. To make it even sweeter for the Braves, Bradley won again in the second round, toppling #5 Pitt on their way to the Sweet Sixteen.
#14 Northwestern State upsets #3 Iowa (2006) – If anyone was gutsy enough to have selected Kansas over Bradley, there definitely wasn’t anybody with the gumption to also select this upset, which not only was outrageous but also very entertaining. Northwestern State’s Jermaine Wallace hit a fade-away three-pointer at the buzzer to shock the Hawkeyes, who at one point in the second half held onto a 17-point lead.
#15 Lehigh upsets #2 Duke (2012) – There’s nothing spiteful college basketball fans love more than a good Duke loss in the tournament, and they got their crown jewel in 2012 thanks to a 30-point explosion from future Portland Trail Blazers star C.J. McCollum. We now know exactly what he’s capable of as a scorer, but four years ago he was just the best player on a college team nobody had ever heard of, until they felled the mighty Blue Devils on the largest stage possible.
According to statistical trends, at least six more surprising upsets on the horizon for this year’s tournament, and millions of basketball fans (or just millions of people who put a few bucks down on a bracket) will watch later this week to see how it all pans out.
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.