The top 15 upsets of the 64-team era (5 to 1)

In our countdown of the top 15 tourney upsets, we’re down to the final five. I based these 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. Here are the biggest shockers of the 64-team tourney era:

5. 2012 opening round, (15) Norfolk State over (2) Missouri

This ranking might raise some eyebrows. After all, Norfolk State wasn’t the only 15 seed to topple a two seed last year. Why rate the Spartans’ feat four positions higher? There was a much bigger gulf in the efficiency numbers between the two teams. Whereas the Lehigh win over Duke was tantamount to a 14 seed beating a five seed (see the previous blog post), this was like a 16 seed beating a legit two seed. Norfolk State’s pathetic .3787 Pythag was the worst of all 64 teams in the dance, while Missouri owned the seventh best possession-based stats. How did the Spartans do it? This was a classic case of a favorite having a weakness that played to an underdog’s strength. Missouri had a thin frontcourt, relying on guards for 80% of its points. Meanwhile, Norfolk State was the fourth most frontcourt-dominant squad in the field, relying on big men for more than 65% of its points.

4. 1991 opening round, (15) Richmond over (2) Syracuse

Dick Tarrant’s Richmond Spiders were the first 15 seed to upset a two seed. That alone merits lofty standing on the list of all-time upsets. But the Spiders had to spin their web against a vaunted Syracuse squad led by All-American Billy Owens. Not only that, but the 1991 tourney marked the first year that CBS had rights to broadcast the opening round of the dance. So Richmond’s upset made for prime-time viewing—and went a long way toward igniting the nation’s passion for March Madness.

3. 2006 Elite Eight, (11) George Mason over (1) Connecticut

I rated George Mason’s Elite Eight upset over UConn higher than the LSU upset (#6 in the ranking) for a couple of reasons. For one thing, LSU came from the SEC, while George Mason was a Small conference commuter school with barely any tourney history that some argued didn’t even deserve a bid. (Are you listening, Billy Packer?) For another, the 86-84 overtime win was a great game. The Bulldogs came back on the 30-4 Huskies with threes on six straight possessions that helped erase a nine-point deficit in the second half. Finally, George Mason knocked off two other tourney heavyweights, Michigan State and North Carolina, before their momentous win. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely run.

2. 2011 Elite Eight, (11) Virginia Commonwealth over (1) Kansas

As unlikely a Cinderella as George Mason was in 2006, VCU was even more unbelievable. Not a single number would’ve suggested that Shaka Smart’s 2011 Rams might shock a top seed. Heck, most pundits didn’t even think they belonged in the dance. VCU had the lowest Pythag rating of any 11 seed since the stat was captured in 2004. In fact, they had the 16th worst Pythag of the entire 2011 tourney field. By all rights, they should’ve been a 13 seed. Add to that a rookie team with a rookie coach, no pre-dance momemtum (five wins in last 10), a miniscule 4.1ppg scoring margin, an inability to rebound and defend shots—and you have possibly the worst 11 seed in tourney history. Oh yeah…and they had to play their way into the 64-team bracket. And, finally, here’s the clincher: VCU’s stunning victory over Kansas wasn’t really even close. The Rams owned a 41-27 halftime lead, let Kansas cut it to two with 13 minutes left—then kept the lead above five the rest of the way. Wow.

1. 1985 Championship, (8) Villanova over (1) Georgetown

The greatest upset of the 64-team era happened in the very first year of the expanded dance. Not only is the 1985 Villanova squad the lowest seed to win an NCAA championship, but they accomplished the feat by beating one of the most dominant teams in the modern tourney era—on April Fool’s Day no less. John Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas were a 35-2 juggernaut led by Patrick Ewing. They had already defeated Villanova twice in the regular season. But Rollie Massimino’s Wildcats played what many called “the perfect game,” shooting 79 percent from the field, 90 percent in the second half. Villanova was aided by the fact that this would be the last tourney without a shot clock. But still—even after 27 dances, no team has come close to matching the exploits of Harold Jensen, Dwayne McClain, Harold Pressley, Ed Pinckney and the rest of the 1985 Wildcat squad. And maybe no team ever will.

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