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Men's College Basketball Tournament: Biggest Upsets in History

UMBC's win over Virginia in 2018 is the best upset in Men's College Basketball Tournament history, having been the first time a 16-seed beat a 1-seed. Which other upsets made our list?

Some of the greatest upsets in sports history have come in the Men's College Basketball Tournament, as the single-elimination event allows for near impossible outcomes to become a reality. 

As this year’s edition of the Men's College Basketball Tournament approaches, we have a run through some of the most monumental shocks from past tournaments.

1. UMBC stuns Virginia in 2018

UMBC’s incredible 74-54 win over 1-seed Virginia back in 2018 may just be the biggest upset in the history of the sport of basketball, as it marked the first time in the tournament’s history that a 16-seed beat a top seed. One-seeds were 134-0 in the Round of 64 prior to this matchup.

The Retrievers didn’t just beat the Cavaliers, they dismantled them with a 20-point win to take out a team who had only lost twice all season by a combined total of eight points.

Nobody expected UMBC to win and few even thought they could be competitive In this first round matchup.

They entered the tournament with a 24-10 (12-4 America East) record and had suffered blowout defeats to Vermont and Albany earlier in the season, including a 44-point loss to the latter, but somehow managed to put together a perfect performance to see off Virginia.

UMBC’s fairytale run was ended in the second round, however, as they were sent home by Kansas State.

2. Villanova edge Georgetown in 1985 championship game

While UMBC’s success ranks as the greatest single-game upset, Villanova’s incredible journey to becoming national champions in 1985 is clearly the most unlikely of team runs.

The Wildcats had scraped into the tournament and had an uninspiring 19-10 (9-7) record heading into the tournament, but they clicked into gear in March to complete the ultimate Cinderella story.

Villanova opened the tournament with a close win over Dayton and then produced a huge shock to stun 1-seed Michigan. They made it all the way through to the championship game where they came up against a Georgetown team, led by soon-to-be No. 1 overall draft pick Patrick Ewing and legendary head coach John Thompso, they had already lost to twice earlier in the season.

The Hoyas were expected to prevail, but Villanova produced what has since been labelled as a ‘perfect game’ - shooting 78.6% from the field - to record a 66-64 win and become the first 8-seed to win the men's NCAAB Tournament.

3. Fairleigh Dickinson stuns Purdue in 2023

Five years after the first 16-over-1 upset in the history of the men’s tournament, another one was added to the list.

The 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson Knights were massive underdogs against Wooden Award winner Zach Edey and the 1-seed Purdue Boilermakers, who many tabbed at soon-to-be national champions.

Not so fast, said Tobin Anderson and the Knights.

FDU led at halftime, 32-31, a scoreline we’ve seen between a 16 and 1 before that usually doesn’t stick.

The Boilermakers led by six with 11 minutes left, but FDU stormed back and ultimately held Purdue scoreless for five of the final eight minutes in what ended as a 63-58 win.

4. Gonzaga dominance starts with a shock

Gonzaga are among the big players in college basketball right now and they have reached two national title games in recent years (2017 and 2021) but back in 1999 they were very much the plucky underdogs.

The Bulldogs won their first ever tournament game by seeing off Minnesota, but their run was widely expected to end in the second round against 2-seed Stanford.

The Zags won that game 82-74 and made it all the way through to the Elite Eight, where they went down in a close game to eventual winners Connecticut.

Since then, Gonzaga have qualified for the tournament in every season, reaching the Sweet 16 or better in 11 of those.

5. Kentucky upset sparks #15 Saint Peter’s run

Saint Peter’s unlikely march through to the Elite Eight last year is right up there with the most unlikely of team runs, and it began with a huge upset as they stunned 2-seed Kentucky in overtime in the first round.

The fact the Peacocks had reached the Big Dance was a surprise to most after a 19-11 season but they upset the odds to win the MAAC Tournament. Saint Peter’s were huge underdogs against Kentucky but they managed to keep pace with the Wildcats before pulling clear in overtime to record an 85-79 victory.

The Peacocks backed up that win by seeing off Murray State and Purdue to become the first-ever 15-seed to make it to the Elite Eight, before they fell to a heavy defeat to eventual runners-up North Carolina.

Honorable Mention - 2013 Florida Gulf Coast becomes Dunk City

Nine years before Saint Peter’s incredible run, Florida Gulf Coast had made a similar run through to the Sweet 16, and it started with a 78-68 win over Georgetown. 

FCGU, a 15-seed, put on an electric display in their first round victory, which included multiple high-flying dunks and alley-oops. Their shock performance earned them the nickname 'Dunk City,' a nickname that holds a significant place in modern college basketball lore.

The Eagles had only been competing in Division I basketball for two seasons and the game against the Hoyas was their NCAA Tournament debut.

FGCU went on to become the first 15-seed to make the Sweet 16, where they were bested by the Florida Gators.

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