Last year, after the cancellation of the NCAA tournament, I used the time I typically spend watching the tournament to conduct several historical analyses of past tournaments. Aside from ranking every NCAA tournament by its overall quality which I recently posted on this blog, I also also analyzed the number and magnitude of upsets in every round of every NCAA tournament. There have been articles written such as this which compare NCAA tournaments to each other by number of upsets but none that have comprehensively analyzed the issue like this. I have personally gone through every tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985 and counted and calculated every upset for every round.
My raw data is displayed in the eight diagrams below. Under that, you will see the results of my analysis and conclusions as to which tournaments have produced the most/least upsets and best/worst upsets (based on total seed differential) overall and for every round of the tournament. Every upset for each tournaments is listed under the respective year on this spreadsheet. They are color coded by round and the numerical value in each cell is the seed differential for that upset. For instance, 16 seeded UMBC beat top seeded Virginia in the first round of 2018, so there is a 15 seed differential for that upset that will be listed in light orange (the color of the first round) for the 2018 column. By adding up all of the seed differentials for a particular tournament you can determine that tourney’s “upset quotient” which is highlighted in yellow below the list of the individual upset values. Without further ado, here is the full list of upsets by tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams. You will soon see this year’s tournament produced an historic magnitude of upsets.
NCAA Tournament with the Most Overall Upsets: 1999 (23)
- This doesn’t even include the massive title game upset of UConn over Duke because both teams entered the game as # 1 seeds. Gonzaga’s deep tourney run as a ten seed in 1999 has a lot to do with this ranking.
NCAA Tournament with the Fewest Overall Upsets: 2007 (11)
- In my opinion, this was the least enjoyable NCAA tournament I witnessed in my lifetime, and one of the main reasons for that was the lack of upsets.
NCAA Tournament with the Biggest Overall Upsets (based on total seed differential for all of each tourney’s upsets): 2021 (128)
- This year’s tournament blew away the previous top mark of total seed differential upsets (or upset quotient as I refer to it) for an entire tournament which was 111 in 2014. The fact that this tournament tied the record for lowest seed ever to make Sweet 16 (Oral Roberts), Elite 8 (Oregon State), and Final Four (UCLA) had a lot to do with that as did the fact that this was the first tournament ever in which four 13 or lower seeds won first round games (Abliene Christian, North Texas, Ohio, and Oral Roberts).
NCAA Tournament with the Smallest Overall Upsets: 26 (2007)
- Not only did 2007 produce the fewest number of upsets, but the lack of major upsets (biggest upsets were 5 seed differentials) gave this tournament the lowest upset quotient. In fact, almost every other tournament’s first round produced a greater upset quotient than the entire 2007 tournament.
NCAA Tournaments with the Most First Round Upsets: 2001, 2016 (13)
- Both of these upset-driven first rounds saw 11 and 12 seeds post a .500 or better record against 5 and 6 seeds.
NCAA Tournament with the Fewest First Round Upsets: 2000 (3)
- It was shocking how chalky the first round was in 2000, as the only result that was kind of a surprise was 11 seeded Pepperdine’s win over Indiana. Fortunately for fans, the second round in 2000 got wild.
NCAA Tournament with the Biggest First Round Upsets: 2016 (71)
- Even though the 2016 and 2001 NCAA tournaments tied for most total first round upsets, the upset quotient for 2016 is six points higher thanks to Middle Tennessee’s upset over Michigan State as a 15 seed (13 point seed differential) and Stephen F. Austin’s win over West Virginia as a 14 seed (11 point seed differential).
NCAA Tournament with the Smallest First Round Upsets: 2000 (11)
- See commentary above for fewest first round upsets.
NCAA Tournament with the Most Second Round Upsets: 2000 (9)
- The inverse correlation between upsets in the first round and upsets in the second round of a particular NCAA tournament is obvious. Clearly, a chalky first round will produce more second round teams that are good enough to pull off upsets and vice-versa. The 2000 tournament is a great example of this phenomenon as lower seeded teams only won 3 out of 32 first round games but then came back and won 9 out of 16 games in the second round.
NCAA Tournament with the Fewest Second Round Upsets: 1991 (0)
- Shockingly, the higher seeded team won all 16 second round games in the 1991 NCAA Tournament. This can partly be explained by the fact that teams seeded 13, 14, and 15 all earned spots in the second round of that particular tourney.
NCAA Tournament with the Biggest Second Round Upsets: 1990, 2000 (45)
- Just one year before the perfectly chaky second round of 1991, the 1990 NCAA tournament produced a slew of upsets, most famously Loyola Marymout’s win over Michigan as part of their Cinderella tourney run to honor fallen teammate Hank Gathers. The 2000 Second Round was just as wild as 10th seeded Gonzaga beat 2nd seeded St. John’s and two 8 seeds (UNC, Wisconsin) beat 1 seeds (Arizona, Stanford).
NCAA Tournament with the Smallest Second Round Upsets: 1991 (0)
- See analysis above for fewest second round upsets.
NCAA Tournament with the Most Sweet 16 Upsets: 2011 (5)
- Butler, VCU, and Kentucky all pulled off upsets here en route to surprise Final Four runs.
NCAA Tournament with the Fewest Sweet 16 Upsets: 2007, 2016 (0)
- The aforementioned 2007 tournament was just dreadful so no surprise that it failed to produce a Sweet 16 upset. For 2016, the craziest first round ever caused a chalky backlash that matriculated into both the Second Round and Sweet 16.
NCAA Tournament with the Biggest Sweet 16 Upsets: 1990, 2002 (15)
- Interestingly, the all-time top upset quotient in the Elite Eight round (2011 tourney) is higher in just four games than these two tournaments produced in eight games. The 1990 tournament would have actually took the top spot by itself here if it wasn’t for a miracle buzzer beater that allowed top seeded UConn to hold off 5th seeded Clemson in that year’s Sweet 16.
NCAA Tournament with the Smallest Sweet 16 Upsets: 2007, 2006 (0)
- See analysis above for fewest Sweet 16 upsets.
NCAA Tournament with the Most Elite Eight Upsets: 2006 (4)
- All four Elite 8 games in 2003 and 2006 were won by underdogs, most notably George Mason’s shocking upset of # 1 seeded UConn.
NCAA Tournament with the Fewest Elite Eight Upsets: 2008, 2002, 1997 (0)
- There were several close calls in each these tournaments, but in the end all of the chalk prevailed in each of these Elite Eights.
NCAA Tournament with the Biggest Elite Eight Upsets: 2011 (18)
- This Elite Eight featured two monster upsets as 11th seeded VCU beat top seeded Kansas and 8th seeded Butler beat 2nd seeded Florida to setup their most unlikely Final Four matchup.
NCAA Tournament with the Smallest Elite Eight Upsets: 2008, 2002, 1997 (0)
- See analysis above for fewest Elite Eight upsets.
NCAA Tournament with the Most Final Four Upsets: 1989, 1991, 2014 (2)
- Only three times have both Final Four games featured upsets.
NCAA Tournament with the Biggest Final Four Upsets: 2014 (12)
- This “Cinderella” 7 vs. 8 seed national title game was setup when UConn knocked off Florida and Kentucky stunned Wisconsin.
NCAA Tournament with the Biggest National Title Upset: 1985 (7)
- The biggest and most famous title game upset occurred just four months before I was born when Villanova played a perfect game to beat Georgetown.
Biggest First Round NCAA Tournament Upset: (16) UMBC defeats (1) Virginia 74-54 (2018)
- The biggest upset in tournament history, and perhaps sports history, was a complete and total blowout!
Biggest Second Round NCAA Tournament Upset: 62 way tie between all upsets with an 8 seed differential
- One somewhat obvious, yet fascinating, fact that I learned by doing this analysis was that there is no possible way to have a second round upset with a seed differential of more than 8. That is because the way the brackets are setup it is impossible for any underdog to meet a team in the second round of the tournament that is seeded more than 8 spots ahead of them.
Biggest NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Upset: (11) LSU defeats (2) Georgia Tech 70-64 (1986), (11) Xavier defeats (2) Arizona 73-71 (2017), (11) UCLA defeats (2) Alabama 88-78* (2021)
- Two of these 11 seeds (LSU and UCLA) were able to parlay their Sweet 16 upset into a Final Four appearance.
Biggest NCAA Tournament Elite Eight Upset: (11) LSU defeats (1) Kentucky 59-57 (1986), (11) George Mason defeats (1) UConn 86-84 (2006), (11) VCU defeats (1) Kansas 71-61 (2011), (11) UCLA defeats (1) Michigan 51-49 (2021)
- Interestingly, all four 11 seeds that have made the Final Four had to beat # 1 seeds (and powerhouse # 1 seeds at that) in the Elite Eight to get there.
Biggest NCAA Tournament Final Four Upset: (8) Villanova defeats (2) Memphis State 52-45 (1985), (8) Kentucky defeats (2) Wisconsin 74-73 (2014), (7) UConn defeats (1) Florida 63-53 (2014)
- Two of the three biggest Final Four upsets in the modern tournament era happened on the same night in April of 2014.
Biggest NCAA Tournament Title Game Upset: (8) Villanova defeats (1) Georgetown 66-64 (1985)
- See analysis above for NCAA tournament with biggest title game upset.