March Madness: 5 Biggest Upsets in Tournament History

Villanova Wildcats celebrate
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Outside of the confetti falling, the cutting of the nets, and the “One Shining Moment,” the NCAA tournament is most recognized as being the sporting event where underdogs come to shock the world. And when we think about all the darks horses over the years that have gone out of their way to bust our brackets, we tend to fixate on the statements made by the lower seeds; the Cinderella stories of those obscure programs that toppled the college basketball elite.

But the truth is, upsets come in all shapes and sizes. And all a team needs is one game to secure its place in history. As we inch closer to this year’s big dance, we have no doubt that this year’s tournament will feature plenty of shocking upsets. However, as far as history is concerned, these five games remain the most memorable of them all.

5. Tigers shock the Wildcats

In the 1986 NCAA Tournament, the No. 11 seed LSU Tigers took the Southeast Region by storm, knocking off three higher seeds on their way to a berth in the Elite Eight. Unfortunately, with a date set up with the top-seeded Kentucky Wildcats, a team that had beaten the Tigers three times already that season, it appeared as if the Cinderella run was over for the team Baton Rouge.

Good thing no one told them that. Behind a balanced offensive effort that featured four players scoring in double figures, the Tigers stunned the Wildcats 59-57, becoming the lowest seed — at the time — to ever reach the Final Four. While Dale Brown’s group would end up losing to Louisville in the national semifinal, its toppling of the Kentucky Wildcats, to this day, still remains one of the greatest upsets in tournament history.

4. Texas Western topples Kentucky

On March 19, 1966, the No. 3-ranked Texas Western Miners — now the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) — did more than just defeat the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats 72-65 in that year’s title game, they made history. For the first time ever, a team featuring an all-black starting lineup would take the floor in an NCAA championship game. And by toppling legendary coach Adolph Rupp — a man who refused to recruit black players — and college basketball’s ultimate blue blood, coach Don Haskins and his Texas Western players sent a clear message to the rest of the country: Change was coming.

3. Duke downs UNLV

There was no one who believed the Duke Blue Devils had a shot of beating the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in the 1991 Final Four. UNLV, coached by Jerry Tarkanian and led by Player of the Year Larry Johnson, was 34-0 on the season, the No. 1-ranked team in the country, and in the midst of a 45-game winning streak. Plus, this group had embarrassed the Blue Devils 103-73 in the national championship game the year before. This contest was expected to be more of the same.

Except, it wasn’t. Behind 28 points from Christian Laettner, Duke shocked world, defeating the once-deemed invincible Runnin’ Rebels by a score of 79-77. The Blue Devils would go on to defeat the Kansas Jayhawks in the national championship game; the first of their eventual back-to-back titles.

2. The Wolfpack win on a prayer

The Houston Cougars were expected to dunk all over the North Carolina State Wolfpack in the 1983 National Championship Game. After all, there was a reason Clyde Drexler and company were called “Phi Slamma Jamma.” Yet, in the end, it was coach Jim Valvano’s Wolfpack that would “dunk” their way into the history books.

With four seconds left and the game tied at 52-all, NC State’s Dereck Whittenburg launched a pray from 35 feet out, hoping for a miracle. While the ball fell short, the miracle was answered when Lorenzo Charles jumped up, snagged the ball, and dunked it home with a second remaining on the clock, giving the Wolfpack an improbable 54-52 victory.

1. Villanova stuns Georgetown

The only way a team was going to prevent center Patrick Ewing and the 1984-85 Georgetown Hoyas from capturing their second straight national championship was to be perfect. And while perfection is almost impossible to attain, in the 1986 title game, the Villanova Wildcats were as close as you could get.

Behind 17 points from Dwayne McClain and 16 points from Ed Pickney, the 10-loss Wildcats shot 78.6% from the field as a team, on their way to 66-64 upset victory. History will show this win as a No. 8 seed taking down a No. 1 seed. But if we look to be more accurate, this victory more closely resembled David defeating Goliath.

Statistics are courtesy of SR/College Basketball.