The Biggest NCAA Tournament Bracket Upsets of the 2010s
Brackets were busted.
#5: Norfolk State over Missouri (2012)
The Missouri Tigers entered the 2012 NCAA Tournament with some hype. Why wouldn’t they as a two seed? Not only were they a two seed, but they were playing Norfolk State out of the humble MEAC in the Round of 64.
Had you known Mizzou would lose, 86-84, to Norfolk State in the first round, your bracket would have looked quite different. I mean, unless you didn’t believe in Mizzou in the first place, which is fine, but surely you didn’t see this one coming.
2012 was (as of 2019) Norfolk State’s only NCAA Tournament appearance, and it helped shape the course of the big dance that season. Florida demolished them in the second round, but they scored a big one for the MEAC, a conference not used to NCAA Tournament success.
#4: Mercer over Duke (2014)
Duke has had more than its share of successes in NCAA Tournament history. In recent times, the failings have been just as pronounced. Back in 2014, just two years after another upset you will see here, the Blue Devils lost again in a first-round upset. This one came against the Mercer Bears, the Atlantic Sun champions from Macon, Georgia. With the win, the Atlantic Sun Conference as a whole was responsible for a major tournament upset in consecutive years.
In this tournament, Duke was a three seed while Mercer earned a 14. It did not stop Mercer from bagging a 78-71 win over the towering Blue Devils, leaving the fans in Durham to feel like it was, in the words of Yogi Berra, déjà vu all over again. Hell, this game was in Raleigh; it might as well have been at Cameron Indoor.
Some, like the folks at FiveThirtyEight, would say this loss was more inexplicable than the one higher up the list.4
#3: Middle Tennessee over Michigan State (2016)
In the 2016 tournament, if you could pick maybe five teams that were guaranteed not to go home in the first round, you’d take all the one seeds and then Michigan State next. Izzo’s Spartans could sometimes make the Elite Eight in their sleep if they wanted. Some thought they were headed straight for the Final Four after cruising through the Big Ten tournament. You can imagine the bracket disaster that unfolded when Sparty lost to lowly Middle Tennessee by a 90-81 score.
What makes it even more stunning is that Michigan State never led in the game, forget about winning it.5
Syracuse disposed of Middle Tennessee in the next round, but the absence of Michigan State may have allowed 10-seed Syracuse to go on a magical run to the Final Four.
#2: Lehigh over Duke (2012)
Of our biggest NCAA Tournament bracket upsets of the 2010s, two happened on the same day: the number five game on the list, and then this one. Both involved a 15 seed beating a two. Duke was one of the nation’s best teams entering the dance in 2012, and as a reward, they got placed in the Greensboro regional pod. Less than an hour from Durham, depending on the traffic, this was in essence a Duke home game.
Facing Duke were the Lehigh Mountain Hawks out of the Patriot League, from the Christmas City of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Duke took just a two-point lead into halftime, but Lehigh controlled the second half en route to a 75-70 victory. The Mountain Hawks took the lead with 8:21 to go and never turned back. CJ McCollum for Lehigh led the effort with 30 points.6 As of 2019, this was Lehigh’s only NCAA Tournament victory and McCollum himself would go on to the NBA.
That Duke was the victim on this list twice tells you that (1) they get good seeds often enough and (2) that means nothing. The Blue Devils tend to either flame out right away or win the whole thing.
#1: UMBC over Virginia (2018)
Could it be anything else? The only 16 seed to beat a one in history is UMBC, making this not just the biggest upset of the 2010s, but the biggest in NCAA Tournament history, if not college sports history. Some believed it would never happen, as the gap between one and 16 was too great. Indeed, this was a gap between the top team in the country and the second-best regular season team in the America East Conference.
Virginia’s style of basketball under Tony Bennett emphasizes defense, so a low-scoring game at halftime on March 16 was not out of the ordinary. UMBC and Vriginia were tied, 21-21, at the break, which was somewhat surprising, but the prevailing wisdom suggested the Cavaliers would pull away in the second half. After all, no 16 seed had ever or could ever do that thing.
The problem for Bennett’s Hoos is that they did not pull away. In fact, the Retrievers got some momentum to begin the second half and the buzz became tangible. UMBC built a double-digit lead, and though the Cavaliers would trim that margin, the flood gates opened again. One could see that UMBC’s quest for history was an unstoppable freight train and Virginia collapsed under the magnitude of their fate. In the end, UMBC beat the number one team in the country by 20, a thorough and embarrassing defeat, and the biggest of all the NCAA Tournament bracket upsets.
UMBC went on to lose a close game to Kansas State in the second round. As for Virginia, their enormous shame in 2018 converted into a positive for the future. Not wanting to experience anything like it ever again, the Hoos won a redemptory national championship the following year.
1: Tim Bontemps, “West Virginia admits it overlooked Stephen F. Austin; now it’s headed home,” Washington Post, March 18, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/sports/wp/2016/03/18/west-virginia-admits-it-overlooked-stephen-f-austin-now-its-headed-home/
2: Associated Press, “Georgia State stuns Baylor in NCAA Tournament,” USA Today, March 19, 2015, https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaab/2015/03/19/georgia-state-stuns-baylor-in-ncaa-tournament/25034875/
3: ESPN, “Cornell vs. Wisconsin – Box Score,” ESPN, March 21, 2020, https://www.espn.com/mens-college-basketball/boxscore?gameId=300800275
4: Nate Silver, “Duke’s Lehigh Loss Was Bad, But Mercer Was Worser,” FiveThirtyEight, March 21, 2014, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/dukes-lehigh-loss-was-bad-but-mercer-was-worser/
5: Associated Press, “Middle Tennessee St upsets No. 2 seed Michigan State, 90-81,” NBC Sports Washington, March 18, 2016, https://www.nbcsports.com/washington/ncaa/middle-tennessee-st-upsets-no-2-seed-michigan-state-90-81
6: Duke Sports Information, “Box Score: Lehigh 75, Duke 70,” Duke Men’s Basketball, March 16, 2012, https://goduke.com/news/2012/3/16/205399205.aspx