TEAM FAN SHOPS
Onions: March 18th, 2004 - 16 Biggest First Round Upsets in NCAA Tournament History
When the NCAA expanded its Division I basketball tournament to 64 teams in 1985, it certainly couldn’t have had any idea what fun it was creating.
Since the first 64-team field began play that March, the tourney has taken off in ways few could have imagined. Its emergence led to the NCAA signing a mind-boggling $11 billion contract just for its top division basketball tournament. It also practically made a struggling cable network. Before its college basketball coverage exploded in the mid-80s, ESPN was still a struggling network searching for its niche nationally.
The tourney has also quickly turned the term ‘office pool’ into a part of the national lexicon. Ten years ago, the only time you may hear that term was if there was a leak in a roof somewhere. Now, everyone hears office pool and immediately remembers the cardinal rule about always pick a 12 seed to upset a 5 seed.
The NCAA Tournament has grown from a mostly regional, hard-core fan event into a national mania. History would have been greatly altered, though, if the tourney had never proven to be so unpredictable when it
expanded to 64 teams.
If Navy, Arkansas-Little Rock or Austin Peay had never marked those first few years of the larger field with stunning performances, ESPN might be showing Australian Rules Football reruns at all hours of the day. How many of the Quinnipiacs, Sacramento States and Hamptons of Division I would have moved up to that level if not for the financial incentive the D-I tourney now carries? And what would the purpose be of an office pool if everyone knew who would win?
The Final Four was starting to become a national event in the 1980s, but the entire NCAA Tournament as a whole was still strictly regional, much like the college baseball postseason now. When smaller schools began doing the unthinkable and started bouncing top 10 teams from the tourney, the NCAA Tournament acquired its reputation for being the event with Cinderellas and true underdogs, and it became a three-week national happening.
Because they have had such an impact on history (and because it’s just fun to relive the past) this is a list of 16 of the biggest upsets that have occurred in the first round in NCAA Tournament history. For our purposes, games considered were from 1979 and after, the first year seeds were used to rank teams. It was also the first year the tourney ever included a sixth round. Before that, what is now the first round didn’t exist; the tourney started with what is now the second round.
Besides the fact that most of the results of these games were shocking, what’s also interesting is so many of the teams that pulled upsets almost never had the chance to. Many didn’t necessarily have monster seasons preceding their big wins. Some dominated their leagues, but many were just good teams in lightly regarded conferences. Fun facts and assorted tidbits like this are called ‘Oddballs.’
The order of the games on this list is purely subjective, the opinion of one person who has followed the NCAA Tournament for 17 years, enjoys researching it and has seen or watched tapes of almost all of the games. Or, in a few cases maybe just remembers where he was when he heard the score of the game. In general, games are placed in an order of historical significance, with the quality of the game or memorable moments also playing a factor. Surely there are games some people might remember as more or less important to them than others, but hopefully it’s a fun history lesson, if nothing else.
And now, the revealing of the 32-team field…
#14 Cleveland State 83, #3 Indiana 79
#14 Arkansas-Little Rock 90, #3 Notre Dame 83
It was really these upsets that launched the NCAA Tournament’s reputation for having unknown teams surprise well-known powers, and both happened on the same day. Cleveland State's win over Indiana was seen by everybody, or at least everyone with cable and ESPN. It’s stunning nature would be part of the climax in the best-selling book “A Season On The Brink.” UALR's win over Digger Phelps' boys wasn’t in a book, but was just as unexpected and added to the wackiness on a memorable day.
Both teams were virtually anonymous coming into the 1986 tourney, but Cleveland State had a terrific regular season. The Vikings were 27-3 in and won the Association of Mid-Continent Universities title, but the league didn't have an NCAA automatic bid. They got the last at-large bid in the field, though, as a 14 seed. Eric Mudd, Clinton Ransey, Clinton Smith and Ken (Mouse) McFadden were all double-figure scorers for an exciting team that ran and pressed all the time, something unheard of then. In the next few years, noted fullcourt coaches Rick Pitino and Jerry Tarkanian actually took some of their cues from Viking coach Kevin Mackey. CSU harassed the Hoosiers with their quickness and ability to get up and down the floor and led the whole game. The Hoosiers had no answer for Ransey, who had 27 points in the game.
Arkansas-Little Rock wasn’t quite as strong in the regular season (22-11) but it had talent, too. Future NBA'er Pete Myers led them with 29 against ND, while Michael Clarke rung up 27 more. TAAC player of the year Myron Jackson also had 16 in the first half, and he would be a draft choice of the Dallas Mavericks later that year. UALR beat the Fighting Irish with scorching shooting-over 50% for the game-but it was still a back-and-forth affair until they forced David Rivers into some late turnovers and converted free throws while they spent much of the final two minutes at the line.
Unbelievably, Cleveland State very nearly made it to the Elite Eight as a 14 seed. The Vikings defeated #6 St. Joseph's in the second round, then lost by a point to #7 Navy in the East Regional Semifinals when David Robinson scored a winning basket with five seconds left. Think about just how shocking that would be if it happened today. UALR didn't leave the tournament quietly, either. It took N.C. State two overtimes to finally get rid of the Trojans in the second round.
Oddball: The tourney almost was UALR's only basketball hurrah and so far has been about the only one for Cleveland State. Though many thought Arkansas-Little Rock was on the same path that Alabama-Birmingham took from unknown upstart to national power in the early 80s, the program would be slowed by financial problems. They enjoyed success over the next few years, making the NIT Final Four in 1987 and NCAA Tournaments in 1989 and 1990. In 1988, though, the school's athletic department was running in debt and sports at Little Rock were almost dropped. Coach Mike Newell left for Lamar in the early 90s, and UALR hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since he left. Cleveland State hasn’t been to the NCAAs since its Sweet 16 trip, and NCAA violations uncovered a few years after their magic run landed the Vikings on a stiff probation in the late 80s. Mackey lost his job in 1990 due to drug use and, though sober for over 10 years now, hasn’t coached in college since. Coaches like Mike Boyd, Shawn Hood (a reserve guard on that 1986 team) and Rollie Massimino have tried to revive the CSU program, but for now it is still regarded as a Horizon League doormat, albeit a potential sleeping giant.
One final note: While UALR hasn’t made much noise in the NCAAs since 1986, several players from that team would do so a few years later. Paris McCurdy and Curtis Kidd were freshmen on the 1986 Trojan team, but a year later they would both transfer to Ball State. They helped lead the talented Rick Majerus-coached Cardinals to a national ranking and a win in the 1989 NCAAs, and the next year Ball State upset higher seeds Oregon State and Louisville to get to the Sweet 16, where they lost to eventual national champion UNLV by just two points.
3) 1987 #14 Austin Peay 68, #3 Illinois 67
It's very tempting to make it a three-way tie at the top, but the edge goes to the other two games only because they were the trendsetters. This was another of those defining TV moments for the NCAA Tournament. Years ago, before the tiring overuse of the term "mid-major" had developed, Dick Vitale worked in the ESPN NCAA Tournament studio and told the audience that the tourney was for the "best" 64 teams. Hard as it may be to believe now, at that time he frankly had no use for the Idaho States, Austin Peays, or any of the other "little guys." Vitale was so certain Austin Peay couldn't beat Illinois that he announced he would stand on his head if the Governors somehow beat the Fighting Illini. Well, they did, and Vitale did. It was statements like Vitale's followed by upsets like this (as well as ESPN's superb coverage of the tourney at this time) that displayed the charm of this event to an entire nation.
Austin Peay needed a 30-foot shot by Richie Armstrong at the buzzer of the OVC final against Eastern Kentucky just to get to the NCAAs. Their flair for the dramatic continued in the tourney. The first half ended with five points scored in the final second. Illinois made a pair of free throws with one second left, and after the second make the Governors’ Tony Raye took the ball out from the basket, stepped across the end line with one foot and in one motion threw a one-handed 70-foot pass to Lawrence Mitchell, who caught it, squared up and banked in a three to tie the game at the half. AP continued to hang around in the second half, refusing to go away, and Raye hit the go-ahead free throws with two seconds left in the game. Austin Peay’s Darryl Bedford had an outstanding overall game, as the 6-foot-8 post player hit for 24 points, including five three-pointers while shooting a set shot that bewildered the Illini for its form and for the fact it was coming from a player so big. In the first year of the three-point line, post players didn’t usually shoot from the half-moon line unless their name was Brad Lohaus.
Oddball: Austin Peay wasn't even an example of a team being great all year and just being ripped by the NCAA Selection Committee with a bad seed. The Govs were an average team for most of 1986-87, finishing tied for fourth in the Ohio Valley Conference with an 8-6 record. They went into the OVC Tournament at 16-11, and likely wouldn't have made any kind of postseason Armstrong hadn't hit his buzzer-beater in the OVC championship.
4) 1991 #15 Richmond 73, #2 Syracuse 69
Another breakthrough moment, because this was the first time a #15 seed ever toppled a #2 seed. It was important, too, because this was a year when three play-in games were played before the tourney, since the number of Division I conferences had swelled to 33 and the automatic bid total was frozen at 30. Some thought maybe this was a time to just cut some perceived fat out of the field, anyways, since 15 & 16 seeds so far hadn’t won in the tournament. It was wonderful to see the Spiders prove otherwise, and with this being the first year CBS had rights to all games the first two days of the tourney, the nation got to see the finish of this stunner on national TV in primetime. If his previous successes hadn't done it already, this game also finally earned Dick Tarrant the national recognition as a top of the line coach that he had richly deserved for years anyways.
Richmond led this entire game and hit free throws down the stretch against a Syracuse team that included names like Billy Owens, LeRon Ellis, David Johnson and Adrian Autry. Curtis Blair was the star for the Spiders, introducing himself to the nation with 18 points and six assists. The result wasn’t as surprising when put in context; besides UR’s history of giant-killing and the fact that it 15 of 17 coming into the tourney, the Orange were struggling coming into the NCAAs. They were knocked out of the Big East tourney early by Villanova, and swirling rumors about an impending probation put the team on edge. A 26-6 year has seldom ended in such sour fashion.
Oddballs: Richmond was thisclose to not making the tourney. The Spiders barely won the CAA Tournament over George Mason, beating the Patriots 81-78. Also, even though the team returned all but one player in 1991-92, the Spiders lost out in the CAA tourney and didn’t even make the NCAA field. Oh, and maybe one reason why Tarrant was one of the best at motivating his team to win games many thought it shouldn’t was because he had a pretty good freshman basketball coach when he was attending college at Fordham. Guy by the name of Vince Lombardi.
5) 1993 #15 Santa Clara 64, #2 Arizona 61.
Surprising for its shock value, emotional for the Santa Clara campus as it came shortly after the school announced it was dropping its history-rich football program, this game will still always be remembered first and foremost as the coming out party of a certain Canadian point guard. Steve Nash was just a skinny freshman with a short haircut typical of many his age at the time, but he impressed many with his poise in leading a team that got red-hot in the West Coast Conference Tournament and carried it over against the fifth-ranked team in the country. With his height (6-5) and all-around guard skills, as well as his boondocks background, he became an instant national hit, and over his four years at SCU would lead the Broncos to three NCAA Tournaments, including two as an at-large team.
This wasn’t your typical lower seed upset because the game featured some incredible ebbs and flows. The Broncos jumped out to a big lead early, but then put themselves in trouble by going scoreless while the Wildcats scored 25 unanswered points! Usually, that guarantees doom for any underdog trying to take down a titan, but as quickly as the odds stacked an Eiffel Tower against them, Santa Clara turned it back around. The Broncos grabbed a late lead in the back-and-forth game, Arizona missed a wild 30-foot three-pointer at the buzzer, and the Broncos had an improbable win. By the way, quick trivia: what did both the 1991 Richmond team and the 1993 Santa Clara team have in common, besides their seeding? Answer: both were taken out in the second round by John Chaney’s Temple Owls, who more than capitalized in both seasons and scored two of Chaney’s four Elite Eight appearances at Temple.
Oddball: Santa Clara was 15-11 in the 1992-93 regular season and finished only third in the West Coast
Conference. Pepperdine was the league’s regular season champion, but the Broncos beat them in the WCC final in San Francisco.
6) 1984 #12 Richmond 72, #5 Auburn 71
Quite possibly the father of the modern era upset. This one came the year before the NCAA expanded the tourney field from 48 to 64 teams. Even as one of the lowest seeds in the tourney, the Spiders still were a 12 seed. 5-vs.-12 games are famous for surprises nowadays, but back then they didn’t happen. The Spiders upended some serious star power for the Tigers. Charles Barkley and Chuck Person both went on to long, prosperous NBA careers. Many forget that Richmond, though, had a decent match for those two with Johnny Newman, who played a number of years in the NBA himself and was no slouch at Richmond.
In what would develop into a Richmond NCAA Tournament trend, the Spiders jumped out. They led by 17 at the half and even stretched the lead out further before Auburn started coming back. In fact, the Tigers might have won the game if it had gone an extra minute, but Richmond hung on at the end. Newman led the Spiders with 26 points, and one of the better names in NCAA history, Bill Flye, had 19 points for Richmond. The game started a legacy of upsets at Richmond that continued through 1988 (Indiana), 1991 (Syracuse) and even 1998 (South Carolina). The 1988 win was a payback win, because after the Spiders beat Auburn the Hoosiers knocked the Spiders out the 1984 tourney in the second round, 75-67.
Oddball: Many don't remember or mention it, but the NCAA had play-in games in the early 80s, too. The Spiders had to play in one of those just to get to this game against Auburn. They defeated Rider, 89-65, in a game in Philadelphia.
7) 1990 #14 Northern Iowa 74, #3 Missouri 71.
One of the most underrated upsets of all-time. It would be hard to find a game with a better finish, yet this isn’t one of those finishes that you see every year like the shots of, say, Bryce Drew of Valparaiso (1998) or Tarvis Williams of Hampton (2001). The Panthers controlled most of this game against a Missouri team that was ranked No. 1 for part of 1989-90 but slumped in its final few games. Northern Iowa led by 12 with five minutes to play, but the Tigers came back. Nathan Buntin’s three-point play in the final minute had Mizzou poised for at least overtime, a situation that would have favored the Tigers since UNI’s Jason Reese and his 18 points and 15 rebounds had fouled out. However, with Northern Iowa holding for the final shot of regulation, an unlikely hero emerged. Maurice Newby had played well in the first half but had been on the bench much of the second half, but he was in the game on the final possession and, with the clock running under five seconds, he launched a cold-blooded 25-footer from the left wing that banged in. The clock expired, and the University of Nothing Impossible (as one spectator sign called it) had beat a team that spent much of the season ranked in the top 5 in the nation. The TV call of Newby’s shot by Mike Patrick and Dan Bonner is also one of the best ever. You could hear both gasp when Newby put up the seemingly poor shot. Bonner, after the final horn noted that “he hasn’t played in 10 minutes!”
Oddball: Northern Iowa scored a huge win in December of that season over Iowa in front of more than 20,000 fans at its UNI-Dome. However, the Panthers finished just fourth in the Mid-Continent Conference, but benefited from hosting the league tourney. They beat league champion SW Missouri State in the semifinals and knocked off #2 seed Wisconsin-Green Bay, 53-45, to get the NCAA bid.
8) 1999 #14 Weber State 76 #3 North Carolina 74.
This one had the feel of so many Carolina games before: underdog opponent runs out to big lead, outplays UNC for much of game, Tar Heels roar back late to win and reinforce a Notre Dame football-like mystique about them-call it the Luck of the Heels. And yet, there at the end was a team finally squashing the mystique, and it was none other than unheralded Weber State, led by Harold Arceneaux. “The Show” became an overnight sensation with his 36 points. He and his Weber teammates blew out to a big lead in the second half and then showed remarkable poise down the stretch, staying one step ahead of Carolina even as the Tar Heels made their expected late run. There have been many teams before who didn’t fare so well against a late Tar Heel comeback.
Oddball: Arceneaux had another 32 points in Weber State’s second round game, an overtime loss to Florida. If the Wildcats had won, it would’ve resulted in a Weber State-Gonzaga regional semifinal matchup. Our guess is this game would’ve resulted in the smallest viewing audience for a regional semifinal game in NCAA history, with CBS probably showing this game to about .3 percent of the nation.
9) 1993 #13 Southern 93, #4 Georgia Tech 78.
Hardly anyone saw this game because it was one of those West Regional odd games out in the CBS lineup. Due to the time differences, games at western sites often start during CBS’s second round of games in its afternoon doubleheader, and that leaves one game going while most networks break away from their coverage in the early evening for Oprah and the local news. Usually, the game placed in this spot is one deemed “expendable,” rarely featuring a big TV draw but also a game judged to be light on its upset possibility. This one seemed to qualify.
It started predictably, too, with Georgia Tech running out to an early lead as expected. The ACC Tournament champion Yellow Jackets (who were only 16-10 before a surprising run through that tourney) led by 15 in the first half, and it seemed Travis Best and friends were on their way to an expected rout. Then, something crazy happened. The Jaguars just flat-out took over. The team that led the country in scoring that year averaging just under 98 points a game, fought back and took the lead for good midway through the second half and actually pulled away from Tech. Jervaughn Scales was a monster for Southern with 27 points and 18 rebounds.
Oddball: Often unmentioned about this upset is how Southern was very, very fortunate to receive its seed. It’s very probable that #13 seed they got wasn’t for the Jaguars but for Jackson State. The Tigers were the “in” small school in 1992-93, led by Lindsey Hunter and playing a tortuous non-conference schedule. JSU lost road games to the likes of Western Kentucky, Illinois, Memphis State, Arkansas and Kansas but still rolled through the Southwestern Athletic Conference in the regular season and won 21 of 22 before the conference tourney final. Whether they would deserve an at-large spot if they lost in the SWAC tourney final was the hot debate on Selection Sunday, but the SWAC may have decided that for the committee when it held its title game while the pairings were being announced on TV. The committee gave the winner of the Jackson State/Southern game a #13 seed, obviously an estimation that the Tigers would win as no SWAC team had ever had a seed better than a 15 since the first 64-team field in 1985.If JSU lost, it was headed to the NIT, and that’s exactly what happened. The Jags would’ve more than likely been a 15 or even 16 seed on their own merits-they were only 20-9 in the regular season with four non-Division I wins, even after blowing out Jackson State in the SWAC final.
Final note: Jackson State went on the road in the first round of the NIT and upset none other than Connecticut, before bowing out of that tourney against SW Missouri State.
10) 1989 #14 Siena 80, #3 Stanford 78.
An upset, but also simply an incredible story. Siena spent part of its season playing in front of literally no one after a measles outbreak on campus forced a quarantine. One of the great TV games of all time was the 1989 ECAC North Atlantic Conference title game on ESPN, when Siena and Boston University played at the Hartford Civic Center in front of no one but team members, officials and a few media. Siena won that game, but only on a last-second basket. Siena also played part of the 1988-89 season with no nickname after ditching the ‘Indians’ nickname for something more politically correct. That just added to the sense of mystery around this team.
The game itself featured two teams who were flat-out strangers to the NCAA Tournament (it was Siena’s first appearance ever, while Stanford’s last visit had been when it won the title in 1942). It wasn’t a shock to see 24-4 Siena topple a Cardinal team that was considered somewhat vulnerable all season, despite the greatness of Todd Lichti. Skinny sophomore Mark Brown busted out on the national scene with a career-high 32 points, the last two the winning free throws with three seconds left. Oh, and the Siena fans were indeed allowed to travel to the game in Greensboro, N.C.
Oddball: Siena might have made its NCAA debut a season before if not for one of the all-time head-scratching losses in conference tournament history. The Indians went 23-4 in the 1987-88 regular season, 16-2 in the ECAC North Atlantic. Somehow, though, the then-Indians were upset in the tourney quarterfinals by #9 seed New Hampshire, a team that was 3-24 in the regular season, 2-16 in the league, and was featured in Sports Illustrated’s college basketball preview the next year for how often it lost.
11) 1997 #15 Coppin State 78, #2 South Carolina 65.
Like Southern’s win for the SWAC, this one had particular meaning to its conference. Before this shocker by the Eagles, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference was 0-15 in the NCAA Tournament, and it was reminded of its winless NCAA record every year in March. Coached by Ron “Fang” Mitchell, Coppin came up with a beautiful performance against a South Carolina team that was considered a Final Four candidate but showed its postseason inexperience (the Gamecocks would do the same next year, losing to #14 seed Richmond in the first round). Danny Singletary scored 22 points and Antoine Brockington had 20 as these two thoroughly outplayed the Gamecocks’ outstanding backcourt of Melvin Watson, Larry Davis and B.J. McKie. Coppin also outrebounded the Gamecocks, 41-30. They came back from a seven-point deficit in the second half and pulled away down the stretch to not only win but also make it look bad at the end. The Eagles weren’t a fluke, either, losing by just one against Texas in the second round. CBS was so impressed it lined up a national TV game for Coppin State against Arizona the next season, the only time a MEAC school has ever made a regular season appearance on the network.
Oddball: The Eagles barely even made it to the NCAAs and were almost knocked out of the MEAC tourney. Twice. Number nine seed Maryland-Eastern Shore had Coppin down by 19 in the second half of the teams’ quarterfinal, and the Eagles needed overtime just to get by 15-13 North Carolina A&T in the tourney final. Mitchell had told many in the past that the MEAC was actually a tough conference that never got very good seeds to actually do much damage in the postseason. His team proved it this year, just like a future conference member would four years later.
12) 2001 #15 Hampton 58, #2 Iowa State 57.
The NCAA tourney celebration that closest resembles Jim Valvano’s running around after N.C. State won the 1983 title was when Steve Merfeld was being held up by a player, kicking and screaming in jubilation after the Pirates pulled this one off. The final result was a shock, but so was the way it came about. The Pirates were all but dead with seven minutes left in the game. After a close first half, the Cyclones had finally pulled out to a nine point lead and looked ready to put away a tiring Hampton team. But then, Iowa State couldn’t score. ISU had zero points in those final seven minutes. Hampton labored on offense, too, but closed in slowly. Star center Tarvis Williams scored in the lane to finally give them the lead with 6.9 seconds left, and Jamaal Tinsley’s frantic coast-to-coast driving layup came up short, giving the MEAC its second-ever NCAA win and second as a 15 seed.
Oddball: Marseilles Brown is the brother of current Mount St. Mary’s coach Milan Brown and the tiny 5-foot-6 point guard who fed Williams for his game-winning basket. He played in two of the better postseason upsets in recent years, and for two different schools. He also played for Richmond when the #14 seed Spiders upset South Carolina in the first round of the 1998 tourney.
13) 1998 #13 Valparaiso 70, #4 Mississippi 69.
Simply because there will be few shots in NCAA tourney history more memorable than the one in this game. You all know the shot made by Bryce Drew, you remember the reaction of Drew diving Pete Rose-style across the floor-heck, you probably even remember the name Valpo gave the play (“Pacer”, for the uninformed). What you might not remember is Ole Miss could’ve at least been on its way to overtime if star Ansu Sesay had made even one of two free throw attempts with four seconds left in the game. Also often forgotten is the entire second half of this game was classic status-worthy, with three ties and nine lead changes.
Was this a huge upset? Compared to some that aren’t on this list (East Tennessee State’s 1992 win over Arizona, for example), not necessarily. Ole Miss had never won an NCAA Tournament game in its history, and this was one of those trendy upset picks by the so-called experts. The Rebels were good, though, having won at eventual national champion Kentucky in the regular season. Furthermore, this game was so good-and the final shot so sure to be remembered forever-that it will always be one of those signature upsets as long as there is an NCAA Tournament.
Oddball: Valparaiso didn’t exactly start the 1997-98 season on a high note. The Crusaders lost by 10 points to Division III Bethel College in their season opener. In fact, VU was only 10-9 in January after a loss to St. Louis, but the Crusaders ripped off 11 straight wins coming into the NCAAs and wouldn’t lose until a Sweet 16 game against Rhode Island.
14) 1988 #13 Richmond 72, #4 Indiana 69
Notice the "arachnid" theme in a number of these games? As Bobby Knight said at the postgame press conference and Vitale said in the ESPN studio after the game, this really wasn't that big of an upset because Richmond was a very good team. Still, it was. Even though the Hoosiers were minus Steve Alford and Daryl Thomas from their NCAA champion team of the year before and even though IU came into the tourney with just a 19-10 record, defending champions just don't go down to Richmonds, no matter how good the Richmond might be. Just ask the 2003 UNC-Wilmington team, which had defending champion Maryland beaten but for a miracle shot at the buzzer. Richmond did it, though, hanging in early, surging ahead by 10 early in the second half and then retaking the lead after the Hoosiers rallied. Rodney Rice had a basket to give the Spiders the lead with less than a minute left, and the Hoosiers missed a final chance to tie at the buzzer. The Spiders would go to beat #5 seed Georgia Tech in the second round. Like their game with Syracuse in 1991, the Spiders led the entire way against the Yellow Jackets to get to the school's first Sweet 16. Their run ended in the East Regional Semifinals against Temple, the top-ranked team in the country.
Oddball: Indiana was the first defending champion in seven years to get eliminated in its first tourney game the next year. 1980 winner Louisville got dumped in 1981 by Arkansas in the second round, thanks to U.S. Reid's memorable halfcourt shot at the buzzer. This game also marked the second time in three years that the Colonial Athletic Association (formerly known as the ECAC South) had a representative make it to at least the Sweet 16. Navy made it to the Elite Eight in 1986.
15) 1996 #13 Princeton 43, #4 UCLA 41
Was there ever a more appropriate final moment of a head coaching career than the one for Pete Carril? You’ve almost certainly seen the play: time running down, game tied, and from the top of the key Steve Goodrich finds Gabe Lewullis for a reverse layup to give the Tigers the lead and, four seconds later, the win. It gave Carril a deserved upset win in the tourney after near-misses from 1989-92, and it came against the defending champions.
A story from the Princeton Athletic News best sums up how this one played out: “Princeton did not play the perfect game against UCLA, far from it. The Tigers shot 37% from the field for the game and were just 8 for 27 from three-point range and 1 for 5 from the foul line. They were outrebounded by 10. They were just inches away from being finished off with six minutes to go before Charles O’Bannon missed a breakaway layup.” Princeton also fell behind 7-0 before even the first TV timeout, clearly in awe of UCLA’s athletes. However, the Tigers stayed in it and took a few brief leads in the second half. They were down seven with six minutes to go, though, but the Bruins did not score in those final six minutes of the game. UCLA also had a chance to take the lead with less than a minute left when a controversial intentional foul was called on the Tigers’ Sydney Johnson, but Cameron Dollar missed both free throws.
Oddballs: UCLA sandwiched its 1995 title with first round losses in 1994 to Tulsa and in 1996 to the Tigers. Princeton never would’ve been in this game if it hadn’t picked up an overtime win in a playoff with Penn for the Ivy League title the Saturday before. Also, some have been led to believe this was Carril’s only upset in the tourney, but that’s not true. In 1983, his #12 seeded team surprised #5 Oklahoma State in the first round.
16) 2001 #13 Indiana State 70, #4 Oklahoma 68 (OT)
Like some others on this list, this game wasn’t a monster upset, although it was widely assumed the Sooners were too big and strong to lose and the Sycamores too slow and small to win. It was a classic game, though, albeit a grinder with neither team topping 40% shooting from the field. One of the grittiest tourney efforts of all-time was turned in by Sycamore guard Kelyn Block as the Missouri Valley Conference yet again upstaged the Big 12, this after a regular season in which the MVC won the majority of the games between the two leagues. In a monster collision with Hollis Price late in the game, Block had three teeth knocked out or chipped, yet after sitting out a few minutes, came back in overtime to score five of his 17 points and lead the Sycamores to the win. He would get a root canal soon after the game. (Price, incidentally, tore a tricep tendon on the play) This was also a game that Indy State trailed in by 13 in the second half. The Sycamores got to the line 17 more times than the Sooners to make up for OU hitting an uncharacteristic eight three-pointers. The win was Indiana State’s first in the NCAA Tournament since the Larry Bird team made the championship game in 1979.
Oddball: ISU has to be wondering if it isn’t going to be another 22 years before it wins an NCAA game. To say these teams went in separate directions after this game would get you slapped for being too obvious. The following season, Indiana State went 6-22, suffering greatly from the loss of its talented duo of Michael Menser and Michael Renn. Meanwhile, Oklahoma would make the Final Four in 2002.
1989 Georgetown 50, Princeton 49
1989 Oklahoma 72, East Tennessee State 71
1990 Michigan State 75, Murray State 71 (OT)
1996 Purdue 73, Western Carolina 71
This one is for all who say 16 seeds have no place in the tourney. Those who think they shouldn’t (and point to selected lopsided scores of 16-vs.-1 matchups to prove it) need to watch videotapes or just read the box scores of these games. Sometimes, the 16 seeds aren’t very good, but then again, sometimes the fourth-best team in the Big 10 isn’t very good either. If you want a national tournament, though, every conference needs to be represented because even the worst conference champions have proven in the past that they can hang with the best. In fact, East Tennessee State and Princeton led almost the entire way in their games, while Murray State was part of a 1990 tourney that may have faced the deepest field in history. While the Racers took the Spartans to overtime, Towson State was within four of top-ranked Oklahoma late, and fellow #16 Boston University led Connecticut early in the second half on the Huskies’ home away from home in Hartford.
Since this is such a subjective list, it wouldn’t be fair to not acknowledge some of the other upsets in the past that have placed their own stamp on the tourney. It’s not that these games weren’t fun, it’s just that a list can only be so big.
1982 #11 Middle Tennessee State 50 #6 Kentucky 44. Before the 64-team tourney era, and one of first that earned the OVC a reputation as a league to look out for in March.
1985 #13 Navy 78, #4 LSU 55. Which team was the higher seed? Tigers shouldn’t have felt quite as bad about this in later years when they saw just how dominant a player David Robinson became.
1987 #13 Xavier 70, #4 Missouri 69. The start of the Musketeers’ rise from unknown school to the national player they are now. Xavier was led by Byron Larkin, one of the XU all-time greats and brother of baseball’s Barry Larkin.
1987 #13 SW Missouri State 65, #4 Clemson 61. Bears make a good impression in their first NCAA Division I tourney appearance.
1988 # 14 Murray State 61, #3 N.C. State 58. Jimmy V’s postseason reputation takes a hit courtesy of Jeff Martin and the Racers, who almost knocked out eventual champion Kansas in the next round.
1989 #11 South Alabama 86, #6 Alabama 84. The game Jaguar fans wanted for years ends happily. USA rallies from a 19-point deficit and Jeff Hodge hits a three-pointer with five seconds left to give the Jaguars the win.
1990 #12 Ball State 54, #5 Oregon State 53. Gary Payton’s career ends when the Cardinals hit a free throw with no time on the clock to win it.
1992 #14 East Tennessee State 87, #3 Arizona 80. After three straight years of losing in the first round, the Buccaneers break through and force the first of several early exits by the Wildcats over the next few years.
1995 #14 Weber State 79, #3 Michigan State 72. Jud Heathcote’s coaching career ends in unexpectedly quick fashion with a first round loss to the Wildcats.
1995 #14 Old Dominion 89, #3 Villanova 84 (3 OT). The game that almost never ended finally does when Petey Sessoms and the Monarchs wear out Kerry Kittles, the Wildcats and their incredibly ugly uniforms.
1997 #14 Tennessee-Chattanooga 73, #3 Georgia 70. Mocs take a 20-2 lead early, then have to hold on in their first game of a Sweet 16 run.
2002 #13 UNC-Wilmington 93, #4 USC 89 (OT). All the more impressive considering this happened in the pod system era (or error, more precisely). Trojans were thought to be way too athletic for the Seahawks, but it was UNCW’s Stuart Hare who had the dunk of the tourney, going over three USC players for a mean slam in overtime.
Feel free to email Adam with any questions or comments: email@example.com