The NCAA Tournament really is unique to everything else in the sports world. It’s a three-week, 68-team tournament that pits some of the biggest, most historically successful schools of all time against the tiny, scrappy midmajors. More often than not, Goliath is triumphant. More speed, more size, more talent and most of the time, better coaching leads these schools vying for a national championship over schools just happy to be there.
However, not a year goes by where we don’t have an underdog that it feels like it belongs on the court with anyone, and it’s these upsets that are just as memorable as the title games. Over the last five years, we’ve seen some of the biggest and some of the most hilarious upsets in NCAA history. Below, we have the biggest upset from each of the last five seasons, starting with last year, when we saw a No. 16 beat a No. 1 seed for the first time in history.
2018: UMBC (16) beats Virginia (1)
Last year may have given us the biggest upset in the history of the NCAA Tournament as it was the first time a 16-seed beat a No. 1 seed. Virginia wasn’t just a No. 1 seed, but they were the No. 1 team in the country heading into the tournament. UMBC showed up to play and absolutely smacked Virginia to the tune of 74 – 54. The score was tied at 21 at the half, but Jairus Lyles went off in the second and the UMBC held tight for the huge win.
2017: South Carolina (7) beats Duke (2)
2017 wasn’t a big year for huge upsets. There were a few minor upsets in the first round (USC over SMU, Middle Tenn. over Minnesota), but nothing so staggering that it shook the whole country’s bracket. However, the second round wasn’t too kind to a pair of ACC teams. Florida State (3) dropped their matchup with Xavier and Duke was the highest seed that didn’t make it out of the first round. Sindarius Thornwell did it all for South Carolina, dropping 24 points with six rebounds and five dimes. He got to the free throw line 12 times, slowing down Duke’s game and allowing the Gamecocks to grind out the biggest upset of the tournament. To add insult to injury, North Carolina would go on to win the whole thing.
2016: Middle Tenn. (15) beats Michigan State (2)
Unlike 2017, the 2016 tournament was ripe with first round upsets. Yale beat Baylor by 4, UALR upset Purdue in double overtime, Wichita St. got the best of Arizona and Hawaii beat No. 4 Cal by 11. Even with all of these upsets, none paled in comparison to Middle Tennessee beating the Tom Izzo led Michigan State Spartans by nine. Middle Tennessee scored the first two points of the game and never trailed — and the only tie was at 2-2. Michigan State made a push early in the second half, pulling within two without 17:24 left to play, but that’s as close as they’d get for the remainder of the game. The win was a complete team effort from Middle Tenn with five guys scoring in double figures (Reggie Upshaw led everyone with 21).
2015: UAB (14) beats Iowa St. (3)
Two 14 seeds advanced through to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2015. There was Georgia St., who beat Baylor by a single point. And then there was UAB, who also won by a point over Iowa State. We’re going with the UAB win here because it was the more improbable of the two. UAB had a middling 19-14 record on the season and was expected to go down fairly easily to Iowa State, who was ranked No. 9 in the country heading into the tournament. The game’s heroes were Robert Brown, who drilled an absolutely huge shot from distance to put UAB up one with 26 seconds left to play. After Iowa State scored, William Lee knocked down a jumper, then made a pair of free throws that would give the Blazers the edge to close out the game.
2014: Mercer (14) beats Duke (3)
One would think that Harvard advancing over a program like Cincinnati would be the biggest upset of any tournament, but when Duke goes down in the first round, that’s always to going to take top billing. Mercer was down by a point at the end of the first half. This was a Duke team that featured Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood and Quinn Cook. It was only a matter of time that Duke would go on a run and put Mercer away. Instead, the Bears turned things up on the defensive end in the last five minutes of the game and pulled off an improbable upset. Duke was up five points with less than five left to play and Mercer outscored Duke by 13 over the last 4:35. Not only did Mercer beat Duke, but the Bears delivered one of the most memorable tournament moments of all time after the game when the team was hitting the nae-nae courtside in celebration of the win.