The favorites usually win, but much of the madness of March Madness comes from upset games.
The most fun aspect of March is the unexpected upset games. The higher-seeded teams usually win, but every year a few underdogs make a big splash. One big upset in the early rounds of the tournament can dash your hopes of picking a perfect March Madness bracket. Some long-shot winners have made big money for bookmakers.
Most importantly, upsets capture our imagination. We love to see that little school from Palookaville, middle-of-nowhere take down the perennial powerhouse. Our internal optimist rallies behind the underdog while the cynic in us watches gleefully as the mighty melts down in a catastrophic loss. What’s the fun in the favorite winning every time? This piece will take a look at the seven most shocking upsets in March Madness history.
Lehigh downs the Blue Devils
• NC State’s 1983 last-second win over Houston is widely considered the greatest upset game of all-time
• While major upsets happen every season, a #16 seed has never beaten a #1, and the national champion is almost always a #1 seed
• #8 seed Villanova become the lowest-seeded team ever to win a national championship when it beat Georgetown in 1985
There have been only a handful of cases of a #15 seed ever beating #2 seed. The most recent happened in 2012 when the little-known Lehigh Mountain Hawks shocked the basketball world by defeating the storied Duke Blue Devils 75-70 in the opening round of play.
The game dashed Duke’s national title hopes just a few months before legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski was the to lead the US to an Olympic gold medal in London. Many of those who bet on sports in America lost big money on this game.
Santa Clara wins Pacific showdown
Another famous case of #15 beating a #2 happened almost 20 years earlier when the Santa Clara Broncos pulled off a stunning comeback to beat the Arizona Wildcats, who were ranked #5 in the nation and featured 6 future NBA players.
The Broncos, despite featuring future NBA star Steve Nash, were “not a good team” according to many analysts. However, in the first round game they rallied from a 13-point deficit to win 64-61, proving that sometimes bad teams can beat good teams.
Duke stuns “unbeatable” UNLV
This was not an upset because Duke wasn’t a highly regarded team (it was), but because the University of Nevada-Las Vegas was believed to be unbeatable. The Runnin’ Rebels hadn’t lost a game all season long, carrying a 34-0 record into the Final Four Matchup. They had scored an average of 97.7 points per game, an all-time record, and featured a roster packed with future NBA players.
In a nail-biter full of lead-changes, brash young forward Christian Laettner scored 28 points to lead the Blue Devils to a 79-77 victory.
George Mason dashes UConn’s title hopes
In 2006 the Connecticut Huskies were everyone’s darling. Featuring a starting lineup of five future NBA players, they hadn’t been ranked lower than #3 all season long. They had won two of the previous eight national championships and were led by all-time great coach Jim Calhoun.
In the Elite 8 matchup they came up against #11 seed George Mason from Washington D.C., a team which many respected but few of those betting on March Madness gave any chance of winning. The Patriots were able to push the game into overtime, where they finally wore down the Huskies to win 86-84. It was the Patriot’s last and only taste of success; they haven’t done anything of consequence since.