In my last post, I started counting down the top 15 upsets of the 64-team era, which began in 1985, 28 tourneys ago. Since then, a team seeded four or more positions lower than its opponent has downed the favorite 241 times. But only 15 of these stand out as the biggest shockers.
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. We already counted down from 15 to 11. Here are 10 to six:
10. 1988 Championship, (6) Kansas over (1) Oklahoma
The 1988 Kansas Jayhawks are one of only two teams seeded lower than four to win a title. For that reason alone, their upset of top seed and Big Eight rival Oklahoma merits a place on this list. Why isn’t the upset ranked higher? Well, the Jayhawks did have All-American Danny Manning, coaching genius Larry Brown and a home court advantage in Kansas City’s Kemper arena. But Kansas had lost twice already to the Sooners that year and did have to come back from an early second-half deficit to win 83-79. Good thing that Manning was on top of his game. He had 31 points and 18 rebounds in the upset.
9. 2012 opening round, (15) Lehigh over (2) Duke
You might’ve figured this upset to rank higher than nine. For one thing, the wound is still fresh; plenty of people watched their brackets die when the Mountain Hawks took down the Blue Devils. (Why does Lehigh always remind me of that chicken hawk the harasses Foghorn Leghorn?) For another thing, the game was played in Greensboro—virtually a home game for the Blue Devils. And let’s face it: it was Duke.
Another two seed lost that same day—but Missouri doesn’t quite have the cache of Coach K’s vaunted program. But this wasn’t as stunning a 2v15 upset as others. Duke owned just the 17th best efficiency numbers in the tourney field, while Lehigh had the 56th best Pythag value. So the game was really like a five seed playing a 14 seed. Plus, Lehigh had the best player on the floor in C.J. McCollum, who went off for 30 points. Finally, Duke had been a “live-by-the-three, die-by-the-three” team all year long. And they went just six for 26 from three-point range.
8. 2010 second round, (9) Northern Iowa over (1) Kansas
Only four of 112 nine seeds have knocked off a top seed in the second round of the modern tourney. Of those, only the 1994 Boston College Eagles went on to win their Sweet Sixteen game. So why didn’t I pick them instead of Northern Iowa? A couple of reasons. For one, Boston College just had to beat a five seed in the next round following their upset of top seed North Carolina. For another, the Tar Heels weren’t exactly a juggernaut in 1994. Only seven of 112 top seeds have entered the dance with more than five losses and a scoring margin below 14 points a game. The Tar Heels were one of these seven vulnerable top seeds. When Northern Iowa’s Ali Farokhmanesh paused, looked around, said, “Aw, what the heck,” and put the nail in Kansas’s coffin, his squad didn’t slay just any old top-seeded giant. They beat a two-loss juggernaut and the tourney favorites—busting virtually everyone’s bracket in the process.
7. 1986 round two, (14) Cleveland State over (6) St. Joseph’s
Cleveland State was the first of only two 14 seeds to upset a six seed on their way to the Sweet Sixteen. Their upset of St. Joseph’s ranks higher than the Chattanooga upset for a couple of reasons. For one thing, they had to upset Bobby Knight’s Steve Alford-led Hoosiers in round one. For another, they darn near reached the Elite Eight, losing by just one point to David Robinson’s Navy squad. And, of course, the Vikings were the first 14 seed to make magic. The program’s story is also compelling. Just a couple years later, Cleveland State would fall on hard times when coach Kevin Mackey lost his job due to his cocaine addiction.
6. 1986 Elite Eight, (11) LSU over (1) Kentucky
Louisiana State was one of only three 11 seeds to reach the Final Four. Dale Brown’s squad employed what he dubbed the “Freak Defense” to beat SEC rival Kentucky, 59-57—after the Tigers had lost to the Wildcats three times in the regular season. What makes LSU’s feat all the more amazing is the fact that the Tigers had to defeat the top three seeds in their bracket—first three seed Memphis, then two seed Georgia Tech and finally top seed Kentucky—to reach the semifinals. No other squad has made a tougher run to the Final Four. And LSU did it after struggling through a season of defections, injuries, suspensions and ineligibilities.
So now you know the upsets six through 15 modern tourney era. On New Year’s Day, we’ll complete the list, counting down the five most improbable shockers since 1985.