The 10 Biggest Ever First-Round Upsets in the NCAA Tournament
The single elimination NCAA Tournament—unlike the NBA’s best-of-seven playoffs—is completely unpredictable. No team gets homecourt advantage, every game counts, and no one wants to go home early. Thus, the tourney—and especially the opening round—sees plenty of upsets like second-ranked Michigan State falling to lightly regarded Middle Tennessee on March 18. Yet the Spartans aren’t the only team to suffer a first-round shocker. They’re just the latest.
Here are the 10 biggest first-round upsets since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985:
10. 2012: Norfolk State (15) Over Missouri (2), 86–84
How’s this for debuts? Norfolk State, in their first ever NCAA Tournament game, became just the fifth 15-seed to ever beat a 2-seed when they shocked a 30-win Missouri team in an absolute offensive slugfest.
The high-scoring affair featured six 20-point scorers—three on each side—while both teams hit better than 50 percent from the floor. Spartan center Kyle O’Quinn led all players with 26 points and 14 rebounds as the Tigers were badly out-rebounded 35–17.
Amazingly, Norfolk State pulled off this upset without a single bench player registering a point.
9. 1997: Coppin State (15) Over South Carolina (2), 78–65
Eddie Fogler’s Gamecocks had won 19 of 21 games and were heading into their first-round contest with the Eagles as 30-point favorites. To make it seem even more improbable, Coppin State’s best player, Terquin Mott, was limited by a sprained ankle.
Despite the bum ankle, Mott contributed 11 points and 11 rebounds as the Eagles took a 55–54 lead with just over six minutes left and never looked back. The epic win was just the third ever by a 15-seed.
8. 2001: Hampton (15) Over Iowa State (2), 58–57
Led by future NBA point guard Jamaal Tinsley, the Cyclones had won back-to-back Big 12 Conference titles and were coming off a regional finals appearance the previous season. But they quickly found themselves in a dogfight with a team that was making its first ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Iowa State led 57–56 in the final seconds before Hampton senior forward Tarvis Williams’s turnaround jumper in the lane went in with 6.9 seconds left to put the Pirates ahead. The Cyclones had one last chance, but Tinsley missed a difficult running lay-in (through traffic) with a second left. With the win, Hampton became the fourth 15-seed to upset a 2-seed.
7. 2007: Virginia Commonwealth (11) Over Duke (6), 79–76
Normally, an 11-seed beating a 6-seed is not considered much of an upset, but when that 6-seed wears “Duke” across its jersey, it becomes the exception.
Mike Kzryzewski’s program hadn’t lost in the first round since 1996 (they were seeded eighth that year) when they ran into VCU in 2007. But following the graduations of J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams the year before, the team had clearly taken a step back and the Rams took full advantage of the opportunity.
Five VCU players scored in double digits, including 22 points from sophomore guard Eric Maynor—who hit the game-winning jumper with 1.8 seconds left—as the Rams pulled off the improbable win.
6. 1996: Princeton (13) Over UCLA (4), 43–41
The defending champion Bruins had plenty of talent left in the tank from the previous season, and may have been looking past the Ivy League champions when they stepped on the court in this memorable first-round matchup. They soon found themselves playing at Princeton coach Pete Carril’s methodical half-court pace—and not playing it very well.
Tigers freshman forward Gabe Lewullis scored off a now-memorable backdoor play with 3.9 seconds left on the clock to win this thriller, which stunned the Bruins and sent coach Carril off to retirement in style.
5. 2005: Bucknell (14) Over Kansas (3), 64–63
Kansas had made the Final Four two of three previous seasons and had won 21 straight first-rounders before matching up with unknown Bucknell in 2005. Should have been just another day at the office for one of the winningest programs ever, right? Wrong.
The Jayhawks had been the preseason No. 1 team in the country that season but after a 20–1 start to the season had faltered down the stretch, losing five of their last eight. Still, few expected Bucknell, which had never won a tournament game, to give them a problem.
But as the game stayed close, the Jayhawks tightened up. Bucknell center Chris McNaughton banked in a hook shot to put Bucknell ahead 64–63 with 10.5 seconds remaining in a back-and-forth final minute. After a Jayhawk miss and then a Bucknell missed free throw, Kansas had one final chance with just 2.4 seconds left. Alas, Big 12 Player of the Year Wayne Simien’s last-second jumper from just inside the arc rimmed out at the buzzer and the upset was complete.
4. 2016: Middle Tennessee (15) Over Michigan State (2), 90–81
Tom Izzo is known for his prowess in March and April. The Spartans head coach doesn’t always get the five-star recruits that other powerhouse programs get, yet his Michigan State teams have made the Final Four seven times in his 21 seasons.
This time around, Izzo was one of the favorites as his second-ranked team—featuring Big Ten Player of the Year Denzel Valentine—was a trendy pick to win it all.
But whether it was not being used to being one of the tournament favorites or not, the Spartans quickly found themselves down 15–2 less than five minutes into the game and had to play catch-up the rest of the way. Although Izzo’s team closed the gap to a single possession numerous times, they never could get over the hump as the Blue Raiders pulled away in the final minute to pull off the upset.
3. 1993: Santa Clara (15) Over Arizona (2), 64–61
The Wildcats were ranked sixth nationally and were heavily favored to beat the Steve Nash-led Broncos in this shocking NCAA opener.
Nash wasn’t the well-known, two-time NBA MVP that he is today, though someone must have seen it coming after his team somehow absorbed a 25–0 run by the Wildcats and hung on for the second ever win by a 15-seed over a 2.
Nash hit just 1 of 7 shots but made 8 of his 10 free throws, and it was just enough to win.
Contributing to the loss for Arizona was guard Damon Stoudamire’s 0-for-7 shooting from the floor as the team hit just 31 percent of their shots on the day.
2. 2012: Lehigh (15) Over Duke (2), 75–70
Even the best can have a bad day.
Coach K has 12 Final Four appearances and 5 national titles, but despite that, his Blue Devils weren’t up to the task in their 2012 opener against lightly regarded Lehigh.
Lehigh’s leading scorer C.J. McCollum put up 30 points while dishing out 6 assists in the monumental upset, and the Mountain Hawks held Duke to just 6 of 26 3-point shooting.
As bad as Duke’s outside shooting was, it was their second-half defense that really did them in. The Blue Devils, who led 30–28 at the half, gave up 47 points to the Patriot League champs after halftime to lose the game.
1. 1991: Richmond (15) Over Syracuse (2), 73–69
The first ever win by a 15-seed team came six years after the tournament field expanded from 48 to 64 teams, and Syracuse was the unlucky culprit.
Richmond had made a name for itself three years earlier knocking off the defending champion and fourth-seeded Hoosiers in the first round of the 1988 tourney on its way to the regional semifinals.
The ‘Cuse meanwhile were led by All-American Billy Owens, who averaged 23.3 points and 11.6 rebounds per game that season.
Owens played the entire 40 minutes for the desperate Orange, scoring 22 points and grabbing 7 rebounds, but Jim Boeheim’s club hit just 5 of 21 shots from 3-point land in the groundbreaking loss.