The term “March Madness” is applied to the entire NCAA Tournament, but most of the “madness” occurs during the first two days. This is where all the crazy upsets seem to happen. Sure, there have been a lot of unpredictable things that have happened outside of round one, but the first Thursday and Friday of each tournament has given us the most memorable moments.
Here’s a look (and a salute, if you will) to the great first round upsets in the NCAA Tournament. These games have become some of the greatest games ever in the long history of the tourney. However, first a note. These games originally were called “first round” games. Then once the “play-in games” were instituted, the NCAA decided to call them “second round” games. Now they are back to being called first round games. I can’t explain it, except to say the NCAA, like always, cannot make a rational decision about anything.
5.) Princeton 43, UCLA 41, 1996
The 1995-96 Princeton Tigers, seeded 13th in the Southeast Region, were the champions of the Ivy League. UCLA, under coach Jim Harrick, entered the tournament as defending national champions and the fourth seed in the region. With a little more than six minutes to go in the game at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, UCLA held a 41–34 lead, but would not score again. The result was a 43-41 Princeton win. The Tigers would be eliminated by Mississippi State in round two marking the end of the tenure of head coach Pete Carril, who retired at season’s end. Carril had been at the helm at Princeton since 1967 and retired as the Ivy League’s all time winning-est coach.
4.) Middle Tennessee 90, Michigan State 81, 2016
The Blue Raiders finished the Conference USA regular season in second place, but won the conference tournament to get the automatic NCAA bid. They entered as the 15th seed in the Midwest region. Their opponent, Michigan State, was the number two seed, ranked fifth in the country and favored in many brackets to make it to the Final Four. The win was just the eighth ever win for 15 seed over a number two. The game, at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, saw Middle Tennessee shoot a blistering 11-of 19 from three-point range with all five of its starters in double-figures by the time the upset was complete. Syracuse ended Middle Tennessee’s dream two days later.
3.) Weber State 76, North Carolina 74, 1999
As most three versus 14 seed games look, this one also looked like a big mismatch. Weber State was out of the Big Sky and North Carolina, of course, was from the all-powerful ACC. The Tar Heels ran into a scoring machine named Harold Arceneaux in the opening round of the West Regional at KeyArena in Seattle. Arceneaux finished the game with 36 points, 20 of which came in the second half. In the nail-biting final period, North Carolina’s Ed Cota hit a field goal with 4.5 seconds left, cutting the Wildcats lead to one. Weber State made a free throw and then picked off a desperation pass by the Tar Heels for the win. The celebration did not last long as Florida clipped the Wildcats by eight in the second round.
2.) Georgia State 57, Baylor 56, 2015
Metro Atlanta fans will never forget the sight of Georgia State head coach Ron Hunter falling off his stool when his son, R.J., hit the 3-pointer with 2.6 seconds to go to clip Baylor in 2015. The Bears were 24-9 on the season out of the Big 12 and ranked 10th in the nation. The Panthers earned the right to play in the NCAA Tournament by winning the Sun Belt Conference tournament after also winning the regular season title. The game, at Jacksonville’s Veterans’ Memorial Arena, saw Baylor roll out to a 12-point second half lead only to see the Panthers mount a comeback and win. Coach Hunter, who was on the stool recovering from an Achilles tendon injury, told Sports Illustrated: “I can’t tell you how I feel inside. That’s unbelievable. I wish every dad in America could have that opportunity; what I just experienced with my son.” The Panthers were bounced out of round two by Xavier, 75-67.
1.) Hampton 58, Iowa State 57, 2001
The stunning win by Hampton was only the fourth time in history that a 15 seed knocked out a number two. Little Hampton, the tournament champions of the MEAC seemed no match for Big 12 power Iowa State. However, after trailing by as much as 11 points in the second half, the Pirates went on a 14-2 spurt and won the game on a shot by Tarvis Williams with 6.9 seconds left. They also had to hold on as Iowa State’s Jamaal Tinsley’s potential game winning shot missed. The game, played at Boise State’s BSU Pavillion, is also known for the iconic video clip of Hampton head coach Steve Merfield being lifted in the air by a player during the celebration. Hampton lost in the next round to Georgetown.