The last three tournaments have been the most upset-laden in 27 years. In 2010, we saw a ninth-seeded Northern Iowa squad knock off top seed Kansas. The next year, 11 seed VCU shocked the Jayhawks. And last year, on the same day, 15 seeds Norfolk State and Lehigh pulled off shockers against two seeds Missouri and Duke.
All of these improbable Cinderella moments got me thinking: what have been the top 15 upsets of the 64-team era, which began 28 years ago in 1985? I sifted through the 241 upsets—which I define as any game in which an underdog knocks off a favorite seeded at least four positions higher than it—narrowed my initial list down to 30 games…then made the tough calls to rank the top ten from that list.
I based my rankings on four factors: the unlikelihood of the upset, the character of the Cinderella, the quality of the opponent and the specific circumstances of the game. Last year’s dance added two upsets to the list. I’m posting the list in three parts over the New Year’s holiday. Here are upsets 15 to 11:
15. 1985 Final Four (8) Villanova over (2) Memphis State
If the Wildcats’ 1985 upset over Georgetown for the championship was, as some have called it, “the perfect game,” the Final Four match-up that got them there could be called “the perfectly ugly game.” Villanova knocked off a 31-4 Memphis State squad, led by All-American Keith Lee, 52-45. The Wildcats shot just 42% from the field, were outrebounded by six, and went more than seven minutes without scoring. How ugly was it? Villanova’s best player, Easy Ed Pinckney, battled the flu all night and finally threw up on the court in the final minutes. Tigers coach Dana Kirk also had a bad taste in his mouth over the 26-9 disparity in free-throw attempts. When asked about Villanova’s style of play, Kirk famously groused, “If they’re Cinderella, then Cinderella wears boots.”
14. 1997 opening round, (15) Coppin State over (2) South Carolina
Fifteen seeds have upset two seeds in the opening round of the tourney just six times in 112 games. I only put four of them on my top 15 list. (My apologies to Santa Clara, which beat Arizona, and Hampton, which knocked off Iowa State; both of those two seeds were softer than your average two.) Coppin State’s victory over South Carolina was the third time a 15 seed sprung a first-round surprise, but it was the most convincing thumping. Ron “Fang” Mitchell’s Eagles turned a close game into a 78-65 laugher. And it wasn’t like the Gamecocks were a soft two seed. They had beaten eventual 1997 runner-up Kentucky twice in the regular season, the same Wildcat squad that won the title in both 1996 and 1998.
13. 2002 Sweet Sixteen, (12) Missouri over (8) seed UCLA
The 2002 Missouri Tigers are the only team seeded lower than 11 to reach the Elite Eight. They would be higher the top ten list if it weren’t for the fact that Tigers didn’t have to beat a top seed to make their historic run. Eighth-seeded UCLA had already done the dirty work of upsetting top seed Cincinnati in the bracket. Still, the Tigers did have to beat five seed Miami and four seed Ohio State to set up their matchup with the Bruins. And Quin Snyder’s squad, which had suffered through a disappointing and inconsistent regular season, scored a convincing 82-73 victory. They even gave rival Oklahoma a good game in the Elite Eight, losing just 81-75.
12. 1997 round two, (14) Chattanooga over (6) Illinois
Only two 14 seeds have made it through the first weekend of the tourney. Both of them defeated six seeds to get there. Chattanooga was the most recent longshot to do it—and the Mocs own the distinction of beating a Power conference team. Rallying from a seven-point deficit early in the second half, Chattanooga made it look easy, scoring a 75-63 win against the Fighting Illini.
11. 1990 Sweet Sixteen, (11) Loyola-Marymount over (7) Alabama
Six 11 seeds have reached the Elite Eight. Three of them—LSU, George Mason and VCU—even got to the Final Four. By seed differential alone, Loyola-Marymount’s upset of Alabama doesn’t seem like such a shocking upset. But when you consider that the Lions made their inspiring tourney run just weeks after Hank Gathers, the nation’s leading scorer and rebounder, had collapsed on the court and died, their performance is all the more amazing. The highest scoring team in the history of the modern era—a 124.8 point per game average—Loyola-Marymount came into the Alabama game on the heels of an astounding 145-115 blowout of defending champ Michigan. The Crimson Tide did their best to slow down Paul Westhead’s “five-second shotclock” offense, but the Lions prevailed 62-60. Interestingly, the game wasn’t decided until Robert Horry, later to earn the moniker “Big Shot Bob” for his NBA exploits, missed an off-balance 13-footer at the buzzer.