Sports Reference Blog

The 10 Biggest March Madness Upsets

Posted by Jonah Gardner on March 16, 2016

You've done the research, read the tea leaves, reviewed the charts in our paradigm-shifting blog post on how seeding affects tournament performance, and locked in your March Madness bracket. Now all that's left to do is sit back, invent a creative excuse to give when your boss asks why you need Thursday and Friday off work, and watch as a college that sounds like the name of a fictional school from a novel about MFA students eliminates your top seed of choice.

Upsets are a crucial part of the fabric of the NCAA Tournament. In a differently structured postseason, like one where teams played multiple best-of-7 series over the course of a couple months, the team that's favored on paper would win a lot more. But what fun would that be?

So, as we head into the weekend most primed for upsets, let's take a look back. Here are the 10 biggest March Madness upset wins in history. And perhaps we can find some lessons to identify who might be this year's March Madness Cinderella team.

To measure the size of an upset, we used Simple Rating System, a stat that uses point differential and strength of schedule to measure team strength. SRS is calculated over the course of the season, with a score of 0 representing an average team. College Basketball Reference has SRS going back to 1949-50, so that's as far back as our list goes. Also, note that the SRS scores include the results of the upsets in question.

Got it? Then let's bust some brackets.

10. 1952 NCAA Tournament: St. John's 64 -- Kentucky 57 

Over 30 years before the 1985 St. John's Red Storm's famous Final Four run, the school accomplished an arguably more impressive feat. It's not that St. John's was a weak team this year; their SRS of 11.42 was 14th best in the nation. Instead, what made this so unexpected was the dominance of Kentucky. The 1952 Kentucky Wildcats had an SRS of 27.21 and were led by future NBA star Cliff Hagan. The Wildcats also beat St. John's earlier in the year, to claim the #1 ranking from the then-AP leaders at St. John's.

But the Wildcats had no answer for Bob Zawoluk's 32 points, despite having held him to just 7 points in their first meeting.

St John's would go all the way to the 1952 National Final (the deepest run in school history), but would lose to Kansas.

9. 2011 NCAA Tournament: Morehead State 62 -- Louisville 61

SRS had the 2011 Louisville Cardinals pegged as the country's 13th best team. Their SRS of 18.60 was 15.79 points higher than Morehead State's 120th ranked SRS of 2.81. Both teams were in the Top 40 in Defensive Rating, a fact which accounts for the game's low score. Neither team's Offensive Rating cracked 90 in the game and future NBA star Kenneth Faried went 4-17 for Morehead.

In the end, Faried's dominant, 17-rebound performance on the glass and Terrance Hill's 21 points would be enough to eliminate the Cardinals. The Eagles would be eliminated in the next round by their fellow Cinderella, Richmond. Louisville would recover from the disappointment, making the 2012 Final Four and winning the 2013 NCAA Championship.

8. 2015 NCAA Tournament: Alabama-Birmingham 60 -- Iowa State 59

Our #8 game comes from the Round of 64 in last year's tournament. SRS believed the 2015 Iowa State Cyclones to be a 16 point favorite over the Blazers, but another defensive slugfest (Alabama-Birmingham barely cracked 85 in ORtg) led to the upset.

Despite conventional wisdom suggesting that you pick underdogs who shoot 3s, Alabama-Birmingham shot just .167 from behind the arc in this game. However, they out-rebounded Iowa State by 51-34. UCLA would knock the Blazers out in the next round, while Iowa State is looking to bounce back as a 4-seed this year.

7. 1986 NCAA Tournament: Arkansas-Little Rock 90 -- Notre Dame 83

Arkansas-Little Rock were 1.40 points above average, per SRS, putting them as the 121st team in the country. They were 16.2 points behind the 14th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Yet the Trojans shot over 62% from the field, winning this shootout as Pete Myers and Myron Jackson combined for 51 points and 12 boards.

This was Notre Dame's 7th strongest team, according to SRS, in school history. Of the 6 above it, only one, the 1978 Fighting Irish, made a Final Four.

6. 1992 NCAA Tournament: East Tennessee State 87 -- Arizona 80

The 1992 Arizona Wildcats had 4 10+ PPG scorers on the team and a future NBA Rookie of the Year, Damon Stoudamire, coming off the bench. According to SRS, they were the 5th best team in the nation and essentially tied with Ohio State for the highest rating in their bracket.

In the end, none of that mattered to ETSU. Despite being 17.45 points worse by SRS, the Buccaneers held Arizona to a .368 Field Goal Percentage, even while giving up 76 Field Goal Attempts while taking just 51.

5. 1967 NCAA Tournament: SMU 83 -- Louisville 81

(While we couldn't find footage of the game, here's the newsreel from that year's final):

Louisville fans will be thrilled to see their team make a second appearance on this list, although only older ones will likely remember this one. SRS rated the 1967 SMU Mustangs to be almost 18 point underdogs against Wes Unseld and the 1967 Louisville Cardinals. In fact, SRS considered the Cardinals the 2nd-best team in the nation.

However, the Cardinals couldn't make their free throws, shooting just .357 from the stripe vs SMU's .563 Free Throw Percentage. That, plus a 30-point game from Denny Holman, was enough to send the Mustangs to the next round, where they'd lose to Houston.

4. 2005 NCAA Tournament: Bucknell 64 -- Kansas 63

The 2005 Kansas Jayhawks seemed like they were underseeded; their SRS of 20.68 was the 6th best in the nation. Yet, despite facing the 127th-strongest team in the nation, and having an SRS advantage of 18.56 points, the Jayhawks led by just 3 points at halftime and couldn't hold off the Bison in the 2nd half.

Wayne Simien's 24 and 10 weren't enough to push the Jayhawks forward, while Bucknell would go on to be eliminated by Wisconsin in the Second Round. Kansas is the 2nd most successful school to appear on this list. Their 97 tournament wins are 5th all-time, behind Kentucky, Duke, UNC, and UCLA.

3. 1993 NCAA Tournament: Santa Clara 64 --- Arizona 61

Credit where it's due; unlike the other repeat teams on this list, Arizona managed to have back-to-back gut-wrenching losses with largely the same team. The 1993 Arizona Wildcats were actually slightly worse than the 1992 vintage, boasting an SRS of 20.50 rather than the 24.15 the previous year. However, they were 19.09 points stronger than the Broncos, who were barely 1.40 points above average.

While it may be tempting to chalk up this upset to the presence of Steve Nash, the freshman went 1-7 with just 4 assists for Santa Clara. However, while the Broncos shot .377 from the field, that still beat Arizona's .309. The result is yet another underdog making this list by winning ugly.

2. 2001 NCAA Tournament: Hampton 58 --- Iowa State 57

The 2001 Iowa State Cyclones are actually the weakest team to make this list for losing their game. Their 15.90 SRS was just 20th in 2001 and the Cyclones were probably overseeded at #2. However, they were also 19.57 points better than the Hampton Pirates, who were actually 3.67 points below average.

The Pirates shot under .390 from the field and Tommy Adams and Lasean Howard went a combined 0-10 from behind the arc, but in the end, the Pirates put the clamps on the Cyclones and moved on.

1. 2012 NCAA Tournament: Norfolk State 86 --- Missouri 84

With an SRS of 19.77, the 2012 Missouri Tigers were 23.45 points stronger than Norfolk State, who had a -.3.68, the lowest score of any team on this list. The Spartans were not able to crack the top 200 in SRS and scored more than the 84 points the Tigers put up in this game just one time all season, and that was in double overtime.

Missouri shot better and kept their turnovers down, but Norfolk dominated on the offensive glass, riding a 45.2% offensive rebounding rate to victory. They had as many offensive rebounds as assists and future Knick Kyle O'Quinn's 26 points were enough to put them over.

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