We say it every year, do we not? This is the craziest March Madness we’ve ever seen. But really. 2016 has been a major bracket buster, especially for anyone who had Michigan State winning it all. Six double-digit seeds making it past the first round. Yet despite all the alleged parody in basketball, 15 of the 16 left, come from major conferences. The lone exception: Gonzaga. A perennial mid-major that had to win their conference tournament just to get in.
In honor of Middle Tennessee, Stephen F. Austin, Northern Iowa, Gonzaga, Syracuse and Hawaii, here’s a breakdown of the 10 greatest first-round upsets in tournament history.
March 16, 2012: 15-seed Lehigh Mountain Hawks over 2-seed Duke Blue Devils, 75-70
The Mountain Hawks came soaring into the 2012 NCAA Tournament, riding an eight-game winning streak. But Duke was much more than a notch above their competition in the Patriot League. It was practically a home game for Duke in Greensboro, but the Mountain Hawks played with them every step of the way, pulling off the first-round shocker. And they weren’t the only 15-seed to pull off an upset that year (You’ll know who that team is later).
March 18, 2005: 13-seed Vermont Catamounts over 4-seed Syracuse Orange, 60-57 (OT)
In what is quite arguably one of the greatest tournament games, the Catamounts from the one-bid America East Conference, took down a powerhouse from Central New York. For the third-straight year, Vermont was dancing, but this time, they weren’t one-and-done. They matched up well against Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone. It took an extra session, but the Catamounts pulled it off, and let coach Tom Brennan ride off into the sunset. Brennan finished his 19-year career with a losing record, but helped guide the Catamounts to their first-ever NCAA tourney win in his final season. In the back-and-forth battle, Taylor Coppenrath, the local star affectionately known as “Vermont’s native son”, sank a game-tying three with less than a minute left in regulation. In overtime, it was back-to-back threes from Germain Mopa Njila, the Cameroon native, and T.J. Sorrentine, who announcer Gus Johnson famous said hit one “from the parking lot.”
10. March 17, 2006: 14-seed Northwestern State Demons over 3-seed Iowa Hawkeyes, 64-63
The Hawkeyes finished second in the Big Ten, and won the Big Ten Conference Tournament. They were poised for a deep tourney run. That is, until Southland Conference champion Northwestern State got in the way. It wasn’t so much the magnitude of the win, as much as the comeback, and the shot, that shocked Hawkeye nation. The Demons from Natchitoches, La., were down 17 with eight and a half minutes left, before storming back. Down by two, the Demons’ Jermain Wallace was stuck in the corner with time running out. He shot a fadeaway three from the baseline, falling out of bounds, but hitting the biggest shot of his career, and the biggest shot in Demons’ program history. The Hawkeyes then-coach Steve Alford, is all-too-familiar with tournament upsets. In 1986, he was on the Indiana squad that lost to Cleveland State, also a 14-seed. And history repeated itself for him a few years later (we’ll get to that game later). 2006 was a memorable one. It’s the same year cinderella 11-seed George Mason made it all the way to the Final Four.
9. March 22, 2013: 14-seed Harvard Crimson over 3-seed New Mexico Lobos, 68-62
The prestigious Ivy League school is known more for molding future U.S. Supreme Court Justices and Presidents than basketball stars. But against Steve Alford’s New Mexico Lobos squad, Harvard got their first-ever NCAA tourney win. Yes. That’s the same Alford whose team lost seven years earlier to Northwestern State, when he was the head coach at Iowa. It was also a New Mexico team that dominated the Mountain West, winning the regular season and conference tournament titles. They were a popular pick to make it to the Final Four. Instead, the Crimson busted everyone’s bracket. According to statistics site FiveThirtyEight, Harvard had a 9.8 percent chance to win. But it wasn’t all fun and games for the Crimson. Before the season started, they lost two co-captains because of an academic scandal that involved more than 100 students.
8. March 21, 2014: 14-seed Mercer Bears over 3-seed Duke Blue Devils, 78-71
The only advantage the Mercer Bears had was experience. They started five seniors against a Blue Devils team that only started one senior, and was prone to offensive dry spells. But this was the same Blue Devils team led by freshman Jabari Parker (the 2nd overall pick by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2014 NBA draft) and Rodney Hood (a first-round pick in the 2014 NBA Draft). That didn’t matter, as the Bears carried a chip on their shoulder. Just a year before, the Bears lost on their home floor in the Atlantic Sun Championship to the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles. Then they had to watch those Eagles turn into national darlings, as they made an unprecedented run to the Sweet 16. #DunkCity became a national phenomenon. Fast-forward to 2014, and the shoe is on the other foot; the Bears beat the Eagles on their home floor, locking a trip to the dance for the first time since 1985. If you weren’t already upset about your busted bracket, the Bears’ post game “Nae Nae” dance might have did you in. It was the second ugly first-round loss for Duke in three years. In 2012, they lost to 15-seed Lehigh Mountain Hawks, a private school in Bethlehem, Pa. (see honorable mentions).
7. March 15, 2001: 15-seed Hampton Pirates over Iowa State Cyclones, 58-57
This one will make Hawkeyes fans feel a little bit better. The Cyclones won the Big 12, and featured future first-round NBA picks Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley. But these Pirates from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) had a lot of fight, and pulled off quite the upset. The Pirates’ Tarvis Williams hit a game-winning turnaround jumper with 6.9 seconds left. Jamaal Tinsley then drove to the basket, but missed the lay-in as time expired. Of course this “shining moment” is most memorable for when a Hampton player is captured lifting Pirates coach Steve Merfeld up from behind. It was the Pirates’ first-ever appearance in the tournament. This was also a year of upsets; like this year, six double-digit seeds won in the first round.
6. March 19, 2005: 14-seed Bucknell Bison over 3-seed Kansas Jayhawks, 64-63
The pride of Lewisburg, Pa. took down a perennial powerhouse with five scholarship players, tough defense and a lot of heart. In the school’s 110-year history, the Bison made two trips to the dance, losing both times. In fact, they were the first team from the Patriot League to ever win an NCAA tourney game. The Bison’s Chris McNaughton banked in a hook shot over Wayne Simen with 10.5 seconds left to give Bucknell the lead. Simien missed a 15-footer at the buzzer, sending the Jayhawks home in the first round.
5. March 19, 1993: 15-seed Santa Clara Broncos over 2-seed Arizona Wildcats, 64-61
It was one of the biggest upsets since the tournament began seeding teams in 1979. The Arizona Wildcats were led by legendary coach Lute Olson, and slated to make a deep tourney run. The year before, they lost to East Tennessee State as a 3-seed. As a 15-seed, Santa Clara entered the tournament for only the second time in the past 23 years. But they did have an unknown freshman named Steve Nash, who became a future NBA. The Broncos overcame a 13-point second-half deficit to pull off the opening round stunner. But they sure made it interesting. Up 64-61, Steve Nash missed two free throws with 7.3 seconds left. Teammate Kevin Dunne grabbed the offensive rebound, and was fouled with five seconds left. Then he missed both free throws. Damon Stoudamire missed a 23-footer as time expired, giving the Broncos the improbable win. In case you were wondering, Steve Nash doesn’t miss free throws often. He only retired last year with the best free-throw percentage in NBA history (90.43 percent).
4. March 23, 2013: 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast Eagles over 2-seed Georgetown Hoyas, 78-68
Florida Gulf Coast who? The high-flying act from the Atlantic Sun, getting their first-ever NCAA tourney bid, and making quite the entrance. Tenacious defense, great guard play, athletic big men, and the coach with the super model wife. Let me introduce you to “Dunk City.” The pride of Fort Meyers, Fla. opened its doors in 1997. A school so new, it wasn’t eligible for the NCAA Tournament until 2012. Nobody knew about it, until this team showed up. Georgetown, on the other hand, was making their 29th NCAA tourney appearance, with one national championship under its belt, and five Final Four appearances. The Eagles used a memorable 21-2 second-half run that got “Dunk City” started. The magical run culminated with a win over San Diego State in the second round, and a Sweet 16 appearance.
3. March 14, 1997: 15-seed Coppin State Eagles over 2-seed South Carolina Gamecocks, 78-65
The Coppin State Eagles were a 30-point underdog to the SEC regular-season champion South Carolina Gamecocks, and given a 5.4 percent chance of winning. Neither the Eagles or their conference (the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) had ever won an NCAA tournament game. The Gamecocks were considered a serious Final Four threat, but not to the Eagles. They not only beat the Gamecocks, but pretty handsomely, pulling away late in the second-half after trailing for most of the game.
2. March 18, 2016: 15-seed Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders over 2-seed Michigan State Spartans, 90-81
Middle Tennessee State sent millions of people’s brackets into the trash cans. The Blue Raiders faced a Michigan State Spartans team that many picked to win it all. How many? Nearly 25 percent picked the Spartans to win it all. In fact, in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, 97.8 percent of people who filled out brackets picked Michigan State to beat the Blue Raiders. To put that in perspective, out of 13 million brackets, 286,000 picked the Blue Raiders to win. 61.8 percent even picked Michigan State to advance to the Final Four. Part of it had to do with coach Tom Izzo’s postseason resume, the fact the Spartans won the Big Ten conference tournament and that they were an experienced team, led by senior Denzel Valentine. But the Blue Raiders dominated from the start, and never trailed. 5.5 percent chance of winning. No problem.
1. March 17, 2012: 15-seed Norfolk State Spartans over 2-seed Missouri Tigers, 86-84
The buster of all bracket busters. If you picked Norfolk State to beat the Missouri Tigers, come see me because you just might see the future. Nobody gave the Spartans a chance over the Tigers. Okay, a few thousand. Seventy-seven thousand, four-hundred people to be exact, out of 6.45 million. That’s right. 98.8 percent of people who filled out brackets for the ESPN Tourney Challenge picked the Spartans. In fact, they had a 1.8% chance of winning, making it, at least statistically, the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history. Led by Center Kyle O’Quinn, the Spartans used some hot shooting and dominated the boards to outlast the Tigers. The Tigers’ Phil Pressey fired up a 3-pointer from the left wing that bounced off the rim, sealing the improbable win. The Spartans became the sixth 15-seed to beat a 2-seed. Out of the six, three of them were from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (Coppin State in 1997 and Hampton in 2001).