Is Michigan State’s upset loss the biggest in Tournament history?

By Michael Dixon

The 2016 NCAA Tournament has given us plenty of upsets. On Friday, the biggest one of them all happened when Middle Tennessee State sent Michigan State home after only 40 minutes of basketball.

Traditionally, we see plenty of upsets in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Still, some of them have stood out above the others.

So, what are the 10 biggest first round upsets in NCAA Tournament history?

1991: No. 15 Richmond beats No. 2 Syracuse 73-69

What better place to start than with the first 15 vs. 2 upset in NCAA Tournament history?

Syracuse was loaded with NBA talent, as Billy Owens, LeRon Ellis, and Dave Johnson were the team’s leading scorers. Richmond, on the other hand, had no future NBA players.

Still, the Spiders led the game throughout, taking a 44-36 lead at halftime. Syracuse had a strong second half, getting an attempt to tie it in the final seconds.

At the time, it was the biggest upset in tournament history.

1993: No. 15 Santa Clara bears No. 2 Arizona 64-61

How did Santa Clara beat Arizona? Well, they had Steve Nash. Maybe they didn’t know it then, but a team with Steve Nash winning a game shouldn’t be considered a massive upset, right?

No. Not right at all.

Nash didn’t have an especially great game. He would go on to be one of the best shooters in NBA history, but Nash was a terrible 1-for-7 from the field, scored only 10 points, and dished out only four assists.

Arizona had another future NBA star at point guard in Damon Stoudamire and like Nash, Stoudamire didn’t have much of a game. He scored six points (all on free throws) and tallied four assists.

Neither team shot especially well. Santa Clara was 23-of-61 from the field while the Wildcats were 17-of-55.

By seeding, this is tied for the biggest upset in NCAA history. How it actually ranks is in the eye of the beholder, but given how poorly both teams played, it’s unquestionably one of the more unique shockers in the history of March Madness.

1996: No. 13 Princeton beats No. 4 UCLA 43-41

The 1996 UCLA Bruins were not as good as 1995’s National Championship winning squad. But before this game, it was hard to think that they’d be challenged by Princeton, especially if the Tigers were going to score only 43 points.

In an era with both a shot clock and a three-point line, winning a game with only 43 is next to impossible. But Princeton held the Bruins to a tie into the game’s final seconds. Then, the Tigers pulled through, making the winning basket with a play that defines Princeton basketball, the backdoor cut.

The game should never have been at that point. The Bruins averaged better than 77 points per game in 1996. Even on a poor offensive night, scoring better than 43 shouldn’t have been much of a problem. The fact that they didn’t and lost makes this one of the bigger upsets in the tournament’s history.

1998: No. 4 Valparaiso beats No. 13 Mississippi 70-69

The NCAA Tournament never fails to deliver drama. Thanks to the single-elimination format, things are never more dramatic than when the ball is in the air as time is expiring. When the shot in question decides a David vs Goliath battle, it’s even better.

In 1998, Bryce Drew and Valparaiso gave us maybe the greatest first-round buzzer beater in tournament history.

The Crusaders, specifically Drew, lived by the three in that game. The buzzer beater was his 11th three-point attempt on the night and the fourth to drop.

Valparaiso continued the run for another game, defeating Florida State in the Round of 32 before finally bowing out to Rhode Island in the Sweet 16.

2001: No. 15 Hampton beats No. 2 Iowa State 58-57

The 2001 Iowa State Cyclones had five players average 10-plus points per game. In their first-round game against the Hampton Pirates, no Cyclones player had more than 10.

It still seemed as though they might prevent an upset, as Iowa State led by one point in the final seconds. Then, Hampton’s leading scorer Tarvis Williams got the ball in the paint and scored his last two points of the night.

A late effort from Jamaal Tinsley missed and the Pirates had pulled the upset.

In many ways, the way that this game was played was more shocking than the result. Hampton averaged more than 77 points a game while Iowa State was better than 79. The fact that neither team even topped 60 was pretty surprising.

It’s one thing to pull a big upset. It’s quite another to pull a big upset playing a game out of your comfort zone.

2007: No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth beats No. 6 Duke 79-77

By seeding, there have certainly been bigger upsets and nobody would say that Duke’s 2006-07 team was their most talented. Still, Duke entered the 2007 tournament having advanced to at least the Sweet 16 in eight consecutive years.

Nobody told Virginia Commonwealth and Eric Maynor.

With a game-winning jumper, Maynor and the Rams ended the Blue Devils’ tournament stay well earlier than they were used to — something Duke would experience again five years later.

2012: No. 15 Lehigh  beats No. 2 Duke beats 75-70

Duke was very nearly a No. 1 seed in 2012, but a late-season loss to North Carolina and a short stay in the ACC Tournament relegated them to a No. 2.

Still, the Blue Devils looked like a lock to get into the second round. They were not only highly ranked, but playing in nearby Greensboro.

None of that mattered to Lehigh. They got a monster game from future NBA star C.J. McCollum, who scored 30 for the Hawks. He was complemented nicely by Gabe Knutson’s 17 points.

The Hawks played Duke close throughout the game, but the Blue Devils led the game at halftime. Lehigh won the game with a 47-40 second half.

This was the second 15 vs. 2 upset of the 2012 tournament, as Norfolk State had upended Missouri earlier in the day. Both Lehigh and Norfolk State bowed out in the second round. A No. 15 seed the following year did not follow suit.

2013: No. 2 Florida Gulf Coast beats No. 2 Georgetown 78-68

In March of 2013, America met Dunk City.

Florida Gulf Coast stampeded past the Otto Porter led Georgetown team, who were absolutely no match for the Eagles. Sherwood Brown and Bernard Thompson led Dunk City with 24 and 23 points respectively, leading one of the more impressive upsets in NCAA history.

In actuality, Florida Gulf Coast was a 15 seed in name only. To date, they’re the only 15 seed to make it into the Sweet 16, as they beat San Diego State in the Round of 32. At no point in either game did the Eagles resemble an underdog.

2015: No. 14 Georgia State beats No. 3 Baylor 57-56

As was the case in 1998 with Valparaiso, the coach’s son buried a game-winning three pointer for the underdog, as R.J. Hunter buried a deep three in the final seconds to secure the win. In a nice twist of fate, Scott Drew, the brother of Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew, was Baylor’s coach.

Very much like this year’s upset at the hands of Yale, the Bears got a great game from Taurean Prince (18 points), but got very little else from the rest of their offense. Unlike the loss to Yale, Baylor did out-rebound Georgia State.

Hunter played the entire game for the Panthers, but saved the game’s greatest moment for final seconds, busting brackets around the country with one cold-blooded three. He also provided one of the 2015 tournament’s most indelible images as his three caused his coach and father, Ron, to literally fall off of his stool on the sidelines.

2016: No. 15 Middle Tennessee State beats No. 2 Michigan State 90-81

We can always get sucked in by recency bias, but this might be the biggest first-round upset in NCAA Tournament history. The Spartans were the eighth No. 2 seed to fall to a 15 seed. But prior to the seeding, few would have argued against the Spartans being a top seed.

Middle Tennessee State dominated the Spartans throughout. Michigan State never led in a game wasn’t even equal from the point the score was tied at two.

Also, unlike many other big upsets, the Raiders were not sparked by one player having a great game. While Reggie Upshaw and Giddy Potts had 21 and 19 respectively, all five Middle Tennessee State starters had 11 points or more.

The Raiders were aided by phenomenal three-point shooting, as they made 57.9 percent of their shots from beyond the line.

Until  a No. 16 seed actually does defeat a top seed, this has to be considered the biggest upset in tournament history.