The 16 Sweetest NCAA Tournament Upsets of All-Time

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The NCAA Basketball Tournament is the most unpredictable major sporting event.

It involves 68 teams, many of whom didn’t play one another during the regular season, in a single-elimination format.

Unlike in the NBA, where teams prove themselves over the course of a seven-game series, every game in college basketball’s postseason determines which team will go home and which will advance. And unlike in college football, where the nation’s best teams don’t have to take on challengers from lesser conferences, the top college hoops teams must prove that they can outlast the champion of the Sun Belt or the MAC in a one-game, winner-take-all playoff.


No college basketball blue blood wants to see Murray State of the Ohio Valley Conference - and its terrific guard Isaiah Canaan - in a one game tournament scenario.

Because of the NCAA Tournament’s 68-team, survive-and-advance format, the tourney serves as an incubator for upsets. There are no givens.

The nation’s best team can see its season end at the hands of a 9 seed on the tournament’s first weekend. And an 11 seed whose inclusion in the field baffles analysts can advance to the Final Four.

Anyone can beat anyone. And the unlikely wins are what makes March so mad.

So, to get you ready for this year’s tourney, which begins tonight in Dayton, here are 16 of the greatest upsets from the modern era of the NCAA Tournament:

16. (13) Valparaiso 70, (4) Mississippi 69; 1998 First Round

In terms of seeding and talent differential, this upset isn’t on the same level as some of the others on this list. But few upsets have ended in such a memorable fashion.

Valparaiso, the 21-9 champions of the Mid-Continent Conference, kept the game close for 40 minutes. With ten seconds remaining, the Crusaders had the ball, trailing by two. Star guard Bryce Drew, son of coach Homer Drew, missed a three-pointer that would have given Valpo the lead.

Related: See where this moment falls on our list of the 10 Most Memorable March Madness Moments Ever.

Instead, Mississippi came away with the rebound, and Valpo fouled Ole Miss forward Ansu Sesay. Sesay, normally a very good free-throw shooter, missed both shots. In a scramble for the ball following the second miss, Mississippi’s Keith Carter knocked the ball out of bounds, giving Valparaiso possession with 2.5 seconds on the clock.

The Crusaders threw a cross-court pass to Bill Jenkins, who tipped the ball to Drew, who nailed a three-pointer as time expired to give Valpo a 70-69 win.


The Crusaders beat Florida State in the second round then lost to Rhode Island in the Sweet Sixteen.

15. (14) Chattanooga 73, (3) Georgia 70; 1997 First Round

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is best known as the alma mater of Terrell Owens and Dennis Haskins, the actor who played Mr. Belding on Saved by the Bell. But in 1997, the Chattanooga Mocs were known for basketball. (Haskins actually played basketball for the Mocs in the late 1960s and early 1970s.)

Chattanooga, who won the Southern Conference championship with an overall record of 22-10, opened against a Georgia team that went 24-9 in a stacked SEC East. Mr. Belding’s Mocs prevailed, beating Tubby Smith’s Bulldogs 73-70.

Chattanooga would upset sixth-seeded Illinois in the second round before losing to Providence in the Sweet Sixteen.

14. (14) Austin Peay 68, (3) Illinois 67; 1987 First Round

Prior to the 1987 tournament, ESPN’s Dick Vitale had declared Illinois his sleeper pick. The third-seeded Illini’s roster included future first-round NBA draft picks Ken Norman and Kendall Gill along with talented seniors Doug Altenberger and Tony Wysinger. Austin Peay, on the other hand, had started the season 10-10 and managed only an 8-6 record in the Ohio Valley Conference.

The 14th-seeded Governors trailed for much of the first half but managed to tie the game at 32 going into the intermission. When Austin Peay took a second-half lead, Vitale—from the ESPN studio in Connecticut—remarked that he would stand on his head if the Governors ended up winning the game. The Illini nearly spared Vitale the indignity of doing a head-stand when Wysinger hit a jumper with 13 seconds remaining to give Illinois a one-point lead.

The Governors opted not to call time out and managed to get the ball to Tony Raye under the basket with two seconds to go. Norman had no choice but to foul. Raye sank both free throws to give Austin Peay the win.

This happened 25 years ago this week.

Vitale made good on his promise and did the head stand, with some assistance.

Continue reading to relive a moment Indiana fans would just as soon forget, a “miracle” that Kansas fans would love to relive, and to see a classic picture of Dale Brown “cutting” down the nets…with no scissors necessary.

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About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.


  1. Husky fan says:

    UConn’s 2006 team had 4 first-round draft picks – you forgot Hilton Armstrong.

  2. Tinley235 says:

    Great article. It brought back memories. Today is the anniverary of the Valpo upset.

  3. UNLV beats Duke

  4. How about UWGB over Cal in 1994. Jason Kidd got shut down in that game. I think it was a 14-3 match up.

  5. What about KY vs Duke 1992 East Regional Final Christian Laetner last second shot 104-103 OT KY lost?  In KY that is engraved in the Big Blue Nation’s mind forever.

    • Jnjnlwreidy says:

      Amen!! Wondering where that was! I think that should have topped the list, Sports Illustrated calls it one of the top games ever! Get with it people!

    • Next time, read the title of the article before you decide to post. I don’t think Duke (a 1 seed) beating Kentucky (a 2 seed) qualifies as an upset.

  6. Donshebib says:

    All these lists  in either NCAA football or basketball are mostly useless because they are  made up by  people who have  little knowledge of NCAA HISTORY.  They are made up for the most part by  people who are too young or whose memory does not go beyond 1980.

    As far as March Madness goes, what about those  upsets of DEPAUL when it had MARK AQUIRE and TERRY CUMMINGS in 1980/81????  How about VIRGINIA with RALPH SAMSON, etc.  These are two of the most obvious ones and they were not that long ago.!!!!  This list is based upon  ranking numbers alone!  The greatest that I can remember and I heard it on radio, up until 2 am was in 1956 when CANISUIS knocked off No 2 NORTH CAROLINA STATE with RONNIE SHAVLICK in triple OT

    • Husky fan says:

       For someone with such a good memory, it’s surprising that you didn’t spell “Mark Aguirre”, “Ronnie Shavlik”, or “Ralph Sampson” correctly.  Also, CAPS LOCK!

  7. Sboutwell28 says:

    how about vermont over syracuse in 2005

  8. Furbiedog says:

    NC State over Houston rates much higher than #7 on the list.  The  “Phi Slamma Jamma” team had Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Michael Young and Micheaux on the team….boasting 131 dunks on the season.  Coach Guy Lewis had said all season that the team with the most dunks wins the game.  He was right in a huge upset to NC State who only got to the big dance by winning the ACC Tournament…..NC State had 2 dunks to Houstons 1 in States 54-52 upset for the national championship.

  9. Totally agree St Joe’s upset over #1 Depaul was huge. Three players from Depaul went onto be stars in the NBA. I rate that by far #1

    #2 To me was NC state win over Houstom

  10. Cswanhart says:

    Old Dominion over Villanova – first round – 1995

  11. Alan Hedrick says:

    I’m an NC State fan, so I believe the 1983 Final victory should be in the top 5.  Also, you wrote that the 1979 North Carolina – Penn game was in Raleigh.  Raleigh didn’t have a large arena at the time, and the photo looks like the Greensboro Coliseum.

    • Joshtinley says:

      The picture is actually from Penn’s Elite Eight game against St. John’s that they won to go to the Final Four. The Sweet Sixteen/Elite Eight that year was in Greensboro. The first two rounds were at the Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh.

  12. News_Dude966 says:

    One story note… I believe the photo caption infers that Winston Morgan played for Cleveland State.  He was an Indiana player– as Feinstein’s book mentions on several occasions.  As for a selection…how about Indiana over Duke in the 2002 Sweet Sixteen?  No one saw that one coming….

  13. Lamar’s upset of Oregon state in the first of 1981 I believe when they hit a shot at half court to win
    at the buzzer. Oregon State was #1 In the country and undefeated at the time

    • Joshtinley says:

      Lamar actually beat Oregon State in 1980 when Oregon State was a 2 seed. In 1981, Oregon State got upset by Kansas State. Both of those would be pretty good additions to the list.

  14. Tbransford says:

    Texas Western over Kentucky in the late 60’s. Significant for two reasons – a major upset over a highly ranked team (#1?), and more importantly the last segregated team of any significance.

  15. How about the Univ. of Northern Iowa upset in the 1st roung over # 1 Kansas a couple of years ago??

  16. Lyle_ernst says:

    I don’t recall the year offhand, but Northern Iowa upset a Kansas team that was seeded 1 or 2, I believe.  Sorry I don’t remember the year, but I do remember the game. A 3-pointer with seconds left iced it for UNI.

  17. NC State over John Wooden/Bill Walton-led UCLA in overtime in the 1974 NCAA semifinal round.
    UCLA was an eight-time defending NCAA champion. It was an era in which the NCAA tournament may have only had 32 teams and many very good teams were forced to play in the NIT.   

  18. NC State’s victory over Houston is very over-rated as an “upset”. Yes, it was a great game.  Yes, it was iconic.  BUT, the Wolfpack was much better than their 10 losses would indicate. They began the year on a roll until they lost Whittenburg to an injury. In fact, in the game in which Whit was injured, the Wolfpack held a 16 point lead over Ralph Sampson’s Virginia team and Whittenburg had, I believe, 27 points at halftime. They lost the lead after the injury.  They then lost 7 of 10 games without him.  However, the team began to learn to play without him, even defeating a Tar Heel team featuring Jordan, Perkins, and Daugherty.  Once Whit came back, they lost the first game as he stumbled about, but then beat a very good Wake Forest team by 41 points, then WFU, UNC, and UVA in the ACC tourney and UVA again in the Elite 8.

    The team was incredibly versatile, winning the ACC Championship using a 30-second clock and 3-point shot and winning the NCAA with no clock and no 3-point shot.  That was a very good Wolfpack team.

  19. How about the Ball State women crushing Tennessee in their 1st NCAA appearance (2009) ?

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