Michigan State: biggest March upset ever?
As the clock ticked down on Michigan State’s season after a shocking upset to Middle Tennessee State, America was stunned, with decimated brackets just one day into the tournament. The Spartans had been one of the tournament favorites and seemed a sure bet to make the Final Four. They were as hot as any team, and most thought they were robbed of a 1 seed. This was as close as we’ve come to a 16–1 upset and felt like the best team in the modern tourney era (since the field went to 64 teams in 1985) to lose in the first round.
So where does the Michigan State upset rank in modern tournament history? Here are the 25 biggest March Madness upsets, ranked from #25 to #1…
25. #14 Old Dominion vs #3 Villanova, 1995 round one
Nova was celebrating the 10th anniversary of its miracle title run (we’ll get there) and featured future #8 NBA draft pick Kerry Kittles. The Monarchs won in triple overtime, the only such game in the modern era.
24. #14 Mercer vs #3 Duke, 2014 round one
This game gets forgotten, overshadowed by a Duke loss further down this list. It’s more impressive now looking back on a talented but underachieving Duke roster that featured Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, both now on the verge of NBA stardom. Mercer’s five seniors had a late 20–5 run to spring the upset in Raleigh, NC, just 25 miles down the road from Duke’s campus.
23. #14 Northwestern State vs #3 Iowa, 2014 first round
Northwestern State trailed by 17 with only 8 minutes left before unleashing a hellish comeback, capped by Jermaine Wallace’s buzzer-beating fadeaway three to give the Demons the victory.
22. #10 Davidson vs #2 Georgetown, 2008 round two
You could practically make a top 10 list of just Georgetown upsets; this was the first of five straight Hoya exits to double digit seeds. It was also the national coming out party for Stephen Curry, whose 25 second half points helped overcome a 17 point deficit. Curry scored 40 against Gonzaga and upset #3 Wisconsin too before falling just short of the Final Four.
21. #9 Wichita State vs #1 Gonzaga, 2013 round two
Everyone knows Wichita now, but this was the upset that started it all. Led by Cleanthony Early and Tekele Cotton, Wichita also featured two plucky freshmen guards Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker who would go on to delight us for years. Gonzaga was the AP #1 team at 32–2. The Shockers rolled all the way to the Final Four and a 34–0 record and 1 seed the following season.
20. #9 Boston College vs #1 North Carolina, 1994 round two
“Boston College” is still a dirty word around Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels have been a 1 seed a record 12 times in the modern era and have never lost to a team below a 2 seed before the Final Four… besides this. BC’s senior core had gone 1–15 in the Big East their freshmen year and came a long way to knock off this talented Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse squad.
19. #1 Wisconsin vs #1 Kentucky, 2015 Final Four
It’s crazy that a 1 seed winning could be considered a top upset, but this could look more and more incredible as time passes. UK was 38–0 and ranked #1 wire-to-wire and featured 4 lottery picks (possibly 5, pending Tyler Ulis this year) including #1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns. Perhaps no team in the modern era was as talented. This same Wisconsin team had just lost to a very different 8 seed UK team the year before in the Final Four. Revenge was sweet.
18. #15 Norfolk State vs #2 Missouri, 2012 first round
Mizzou entered the tournament 30–4 behind a high-flying offense and was a 21.5 point favorite in this game before Norfolk’s Kyle O’Quinn put up a monster 26 points and 14 rebounds to lead the Spartans to victory. Their win was eclipsed just hours later by a second 15–2 upset by Duke.
17. #14 Weber State vs #3 North Carolina, 1999 first round
This is UNC’s only first round loss in the modern tournament era. Weber State was led by Harold Arceneaux’s 36 points including two game-winning free throws in the final minute.
16. #14 Bucknell vs #3 Kansas, 2005 first round
Kansas had entered the year as the preseason #1, led by seniors Keith Langford and Wayne Simien. The upset win was not only the first ever tournament win for the Patriot League; it was also Bucknell’s first postseason win ever in their 110-year basketball history.
15. #6 Kansas vs #1 Oklahoma, 1988 national championship
Danny and the Miracles led an unremarkable 21–11 Jayhawks team from a rather disappointing season all the way to a title. Danny of course was Danny Manning, who had 31 points, 18 rebounds, and 5 steals to cap off perhaps the greatest individual tournament ever.
14. #14 Cleveland State vs #3 Indiana, 1986 first round
Indiana had already won the title in 1981 and went on to win it again in 1987 with much of the same core that lost here in the first round. Cleveland State was the lowest seed ever to win at the time and remains one of two 14 seeds to get to the Sweet 16 ever.
13. #11 LSU vs #1 Kentucky, 1986 Elite 8
The modern tournament was still figuring out its rules and seeding, so that helped these Tigers who were underseeded and lucked into playing their first two games on their own home court. Still LSU coach Dale Brown helped his team defeat 6, 3, 2, and 1 seeds and become the only seed below 8 to make the Final Four in the first 20 years of the modern tournament.
12. #15 Lehigh vs #2 Duke, 2012 first round
This was the big Duke upset that overshadowed both the Mercer-Duke (#24) and Norfolk-Missouri (#18) upsets above. Though shocking at the time, the upset has not aged well. Duke’s roster featured Austin Rivers and a pair of Plumlees, while Lehigh was led by 30 points, 6 boards, and 6 assists from then-unknown guard CJ McCollum.
11. #15 Richmond vs #2 Syracuse, 1991 first round
The Spiders held a double digit lead early in the second half but had to hang on for dear life against Syracuse and star Billy Owens, barely surviving for the first ever 15–2 upset in history.
10. #13 Princeton vs #4 UCLA, 1996 first round
This upset felt bigger than the seeds would indicate. Princeton was the underdog Ivy League school, UCLA the greatest program in history and defending national champion. Yet perhaps how it happened that places it among the top all time upsets. Head coach Pete Carill in his final year drew up the perfect play in a tie 41–41 game, and Steve Goodrich hit Gabe Lewullis on the backdoor cut for the winning layup.
9. #15 Florida Gulf Coast vs #2 Georgetown, 2013 first round
We were used to Georgetown upsets by this point, but never quite like this. FGCU had only been a university since 1997 and tournament-eligible only twice. The Eagles ran up and down the court and had a 21–2 run punctuated by multiple alley oops and showtime dunks, earning the nickname Dunk City en route to the only Sweet 16 appearance ever by a 15 seed.
8. #2 Duke vs #1 UNLV, 1991 Final Four
UNLV was the defending national champion and was 34–0, led by Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony, and towel-chewing head coach Jerry Tarkanian. They had defeated this very Duke team by 30 in the previous year’s title game. The Blue Devils broke through en route to the first national title in school history and probably the last time they’ll be considered an “underdog” for a very long time.
7. #15 Coppin State vs #2 South Carolina, 1997 first round
Coppin State was an incredible 30 point underdog in this game before shocking the Gamecocks with a convincing 13 point victory. They nearly advanced to the Sweet 16 as well, falling short by a single point to Texas.
6. #15 Santa Clara vs #2 Arizona, 1993 first round
Arizona entered as 20 point favorites. Santa Clara was led by an unknown floppy-haired Canadian kid named Steve Nash. With the Broncos up 3 and only 7 seconds remaining, the future all-time NBA record free throw % holder stepped to the line with two free throws to ice it… and bricked both. His teammate Kevin Dunne got the rebound and was fouled before missing two free throws of his own! Arizona’s Damon Stoudamire had a tying 3 at the buzzer but it rimmed out and the Broncos survived for the upset win.
5. #9 Northern Iowa vs #1 Kansas, 2009 second round
No 16 has ever beaten a 1, so this remains the most memorable early exit by a 1 seed in tourney history. Kansas was the #1 overall seed, the only such team to lose on the opening weekend. The game was punctuated by one of the tournament’s all time shots when, up 1 with 34 seconds left and 30+ on the shot clock, UNI guard Ali Farokhmanesh pulled up and drained the dagger 3- the ultimate no-no-no-YES moment!
4. #11 George Mason vs #1 Connecticut, 2006 Elite 8
George Mason was a controversial tournament selection, losing its conference tournament and seeing a key player suspended for its first tournament game. They made it anyway and defeated NCAA blue bloods Michigan State, North Carolina, and then this Connecticut team to make the Final Four. Jai Lewis outplayed Rudy Gay, and the Patriots won in overtime just 20 miles from home to become the first double digit seed Final Four team in two decades.
3. #15 Hampton vs #2 Iowa State, 2001 first round
The Pirates were 17 point underdogs and looked the part, trailing 55–44 with a few minutes remaining against one of the tournament’s favorites, a Cyclones team featuring future NBA first round picks Jamaal Tinsley and Marcus Fizer. The Pirates closed the game an epic 14–2 run capped by Tarvis Williams’ jumper in the final seconds to win by one. Hampton coach Steve Merfeld got a lift in one of March’s most iconic celebration photos.
2. #11 Virginia Commonwealth vs #1 Kansas, 2011 Elite 8
VCU was a shocking inclusion into the tournament field with analyst Jay Bilas memorably exclaiming “Do they even know the ball is round?”. VCU survived a play-in game before riding a favorable draw to the Elite 8 where they entered an underdog against tournament favorite Kansas. Second year coach Shaka Smart’s team exploded with a huge 17 point first half lead, and the Rams held on to take down the 35–2 Jayhawks en route to the Final Four.
1. #8 Villanova vs #1 Georgetown, 1985 national championship
Georgetown was the defending national champion and rode national player of the year and #1 NBA pick Patrick Ewing to a 35–2 record, entering this game as prohibitive favorites. They featured the nation’s top defense and held opponents to just 39% shooting. This was the last time conference foes played for a title, and Georgetown had already notched two victories over Villanova.
Villanova had already defeated #1 Michigan, #2 North Carolina, and #2 Memphis just to get here but would still need a miracle. And a miracle is what they got. Georgetown out-shot Villanova 53 to 28 (28 shots! in 40 minutes!!) and Nova’s bench recorded just 1 assist and no points. But the Wildcats shot an incredible 79% for the game including an astounding 90% in the second half, missing just one second half shot. They held on to win 66–64, the perfect basketball game and the greatest upset in NCAA tournament history!
So where does the Michigan State upset rank among the annals? For now, it’s telling that this feels more like The Michigan State Upset rather than The Middle Tennessee Upset. Never before has a team so renowned, so well coached, so sure a bet gone down in the first round. And certainly not like this- not on a bad call or a lucky shot but just flat outplayed all game.
This particular MSU team may not be super memorable in the end, especially if Denzel Valentine is unable to catch on in the NBA. Still, for now this feels like the biggest first round upset ever and that lands it squarely in the top 3 modern era March Madness upsets. That is, of course, until the next game!
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