The Ultimate Guide to 2021 March Madness Upsets

There have been upsets galore during 2021 March Madness. Will there be more in the Sweet 16? Find out in our NCAA Tournament upsets guide.

Posted: Mar 23, 2021 11:50 AM ET Updated: Mar 23, 2021 11:50 AM ET
Oral Roberts Golden Eagles
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If there’s one thing March Madness is known for it’s the upsets. And the 2021 NCAA Tournament hasn't disappointed.

This year's Big Dance saw nine double-digit seeds upset their way into the Round of 32, including a No. 15, No. 14, two No. 13s, a No. 12, two No. 11s and two No. 10s. As we enter the Sweet 16, the No. 15, No. 12, and two No. 11 seeds are still standing.

Upsets are a huge reason why basketball fans love betting on March Madness and you'll need to select a few if you plan on winning your bracket contest. Before the Round of 16 games tip off, we share some tips on how to identify possible upset teams and give our favorite upset picks for the Sweet 16 matchups.

Most likely upsets in 2021

Almost everyone's 2021 March Madness bracket has been blown up by these big upsets. Here's a quick rundown of those surprise results from the first two rounds and the moneylines (odds to win outright) for those upset winners:

Round of 64 upsets

• No. 15 Oral Roberts (+1,100) over No. 2 Ohio State
• No. 14 Abilene Christian (+350) over No. 3 Texas
• No. 13 Ohio (+260) over No. 4 Virginia
• No. 13 North Texas (+280) over No. 4 Purdue
• No. 12 Oregon State (+350) over No. 5 Tennessee
• No. 11 Syracuse (+130) over No. 6 San Diego State
• No. 11 UCLA (+150) over No. 6 BYU
• No. 10 Maryland (+155) over No. 7 UConn

Round of 32 upsets

• No. 15 Oral Roberts (+320) over No. 7 Florida
• No. 8 Loyola-Chicago (+260) over No. Illinois
• No. 11 Syracuse (+155) over No. 3 West Virginia
• No. 12 Oregon State (+220) over No. 4 Oklahoma State
• No. 7 Oregon (+180) over No. 2 Iowa

Luckily, we have sports betting to lean on. Our betting analysts are making picks for every single game of the tournament. Here is their favorite potential upsets for the Sweet 16 on Saturday and Sunday:

No. 12 Oregon State (+7) vs No. 8 Loyola-Chicago

While they are led by Ethan Thompson and Jarod Lucas, what makes Oregon State dangerous is that they don’t rely on any one player. On top of that, while Krutwig will be a problem in this game, Oregon State at least has a man to at least body him up in Roman Silva.

Additionally, in a game this close it’s good when the underdog is a good free-throw shooting team—and Oregon State is one of the best in the tourney, hitting 76 percent of its attempts. One of these miracle runs will continue on into the Elite Eight, but Oregon State is getting enough points here to side with the underdog.

No. 11 Syracuse (+6) vs No. 2 Houston

How have the Orange done it? Well, shooting the lights out for one. But more importantly, the fabled Syracuse zone that wasn’t supposed to be as good this season (and frankly isn’t as long and athletic on the baseline as they normally are) has given opponents fits in the tourney so far, limiting them to 36.5 percent shooting from the field.

While Houston is a very strong team and should have an edge on the offensive glass, the injury to Jarreau is concerning, as the Cougars would miss him at both ends of the floor. And the Syracuse zone just makes teams stupid. On top of that, Houston is just 1-4 ATS in its last five games as 9.5-point faves or less.

No. 4 Florida State (+2.5) vs No. 1 Michigan

Leonard Washington loves to switch up his looks on the defensive end, mixing man, zone and hybrid strategies to keep opposing playbooks scrambling. The Seminoles force teams to play beyond their planned sets and freestyle with the basketball—something Michigan isn’t exactly great at.

Florida State allows less than 12 assists against per contest and can hold their own on the glass when the Wolverines do toss up misses. The Noles own a rebound rate of 53.3 percent (38th) and have the size and experience to match up well with Juwan Howard’s squad.

The average number of upsets each year

On average, there have been 12.7 total upsets each year at the NCAA Tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, per NCAA.com. This is assuming that an upset is defined as when a team two seeds lower beats a higher-seeded team (i.e. a nine seed beating an eight seed would not be considered an upset). The most total upsets in one tournament was 19 at the 2014 tournament and the fewest was four at the 2007 tournament.

Heading into the Sweet 16 of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, we've had 14 qualified upsets (nine in Round of 64, five in Round of 32).

When building out your bracket, you may want to consider the average number of upsets per round:

Round Average number of upsets (1985-2019)
First Round 6.1
Second Round 3.6
Sweet 16 1.7
Elite Eight 0.5
Final Four 0.2
Total upsets 12.7

First Round upsets

As we saw above, most of the upsets at March Madness come in the First Round — which really shouldn't be a surprise as the First Round has the most amount of games. But nailing the First Round upsets also helps you shape your bracket, so it's crucial to get a few of these right. Let's have a look at each of the First Round matchups (all numbers since 1985 and courtesy NCAA.com).

No. 16 over No. 1

Don't even bother slotting one of these upsets into your bracket  — it has only happened once in tournament history (0.7 percent of matchups) when UMBC shocked Virginia in 2018.

No. 15 over No. 2

This has been a bit more common, occurring nine times (6.4 percent) since 1985, including No. 15 Oral Roberts stunning No. 2 Ohio State in the opening round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

No. 14 over No. 3

A No. 14 seed has taken down a No. 3 seed 22 times in tournament history (15.7 percent), with No. 14 Abilene Christian knocking off No. 3 Texas in the opening round of the 2021 Big Dance.

No. 13 over No. 4

Now we're climbing over 21 percent (21.4 percent to be exact) as a No. 13 seed has won 30 times in the First Round. This happened once in 2019 when UC Irvine beat Kansas State and most recently occured in 2021 with No. 13 Ohio stunning defending champ No. 4 Virginia.

No. 12 over No. 5

Every year you'll hear about the 12-over-5 trend. This is always a popular bracket upset and it paid off for those who gambled on it in 2019 when three No. 12 seeds advanced. However, just one of those No. 12 seeds escaped the opening round in 2021 (Oregon State). Overall, a No. 12 seed has won 51 times (36.4 percent) since 1985.

No. 11 over No. 6

This happens just slightly more often than the 12-over-5 upset at a clip of 38.6 percent or 54 total times since 1985. Two No. 11 seeds have not only won their opening round matchup but also advanced to the Sweet 16 of the 2021 NCAA Tournament: UCLA and Syracuse. 

No. 10 over No. 7

This has been the most common upset, happening 57 times or 40.7 percent of the time, which shouldn't be a surprise as these teams are more evenly matched on paper.

Tips for predicting March Madness upsets

When looking for teams to circle as having the potential to pull off an upset, here are a few factors to consider:

Scout The Schedule Strength of non-conference schedule

Most March Madness upsets involve schools from smaller conferences, so it’s tough to measure the level of competition. However, many mid-majors will take on power-conference opponents during non-conference play at the beginning of the schedule. Go over any early games against notable opponents and see how those small schools held up.

Basketball Pace mismatches

Pace and tempo are big X-factors that have played into plenty of March Madness upsets. Get a grasp on a team’s style of play and how it clashes with its opponent, and whether it can impose that pace and style in the opening matchups.

Basketball Net 3-point and foul shooting

For a March Madness upset to occur, the underdog usually has to play near-perfect basketball. That means making big shots and not leaving any points on the table. A number of notable NCAA Tournament shockers have been fueled by hot hands beyond the arc and solid free-throw shooting. Measure those two metrics when scanning for potential upsets.

Sleeper Superstars

Fans of March Madness can likely name some small-conference stars from years past off the top of their heads (Ali Farokhmanesh anyone?). Those lesser-known talents jumped into the national spotlight following notable NCAA Tournament upsets but had been making plays for their respective programs all season long. Sometimes having the best player on the floor is all you need to spark a Big Dance shocker, so take a close look at the big guns from the small conferences. 

Biggest March Madness upsets

The 10 biggest March Madness upsets since 2000:

Honorable Mention: Duke vs Indiana (+13) 2002 / Duke vs Mercer (+13) 2014

Funny enough, a pair of Duke losses tie for the 10th biggest upsets since 2000. It’s even funnier if you’re among the legions of Duke haters.

The No. 1 Blue Devils blew a 17-point lead to lose 74-73 to the No. 5 Hoosiers in the Sweet 16 of the 2002 tournament - a finish best known for Jay Williams missing the free throw on a potential game-winning 4-point play.

Twelve years later, the No. 3 Dukies were stunned 78-71 by No. 14 Mercer in the Round of 64 with the little-known Bears out of the Atlantic Sun Conference cashing in as +850 moneyline underdogs. This upset was just two years removed from the Blue Devils’ loss to Lehigh as 11.5-point chalk in the opening round of the 2012 tournament.


No. 10: Wichita State vs Marshall (+13.5) 2018

The No. 4 Shockers were established March Madness mavens at this point, garnering a lofty 13.5-point spread versus No. 13 Marshall. The Thundering Herd exploded out of the break and dropped 47 points in the final 20 minutes of the game to win 81-75.


No. 9: Georgetown vs Ohio (+13.5) 2010

The No. 4 Hoyas couldn’t employ their methodical offense and got run out of the gym by the up-tempo Bobcats, who scored 97 points en route to this No. 14 over No. 4 upset. Ohio paid out at +900 on the moneyline.


No. 8: Georgetown vs Florida Gulf Coast (+13.5) 2013

The Hoyas didn’t learn their lesson from four years earlier and found themselves in a pace mismatch with one of the most exciting teams in college hoops that season. The No. 15 Eagles lived up to their nickname “Dunk City” and wore the wheels off No. 2 Georgetown with 54 points in the second half.


No. 7: Iowa State vs UAB (+14) 2015

No. 14 UAB was a near +1,000 moneyline underdog for its Round of 64 date with No. 3 ISU. The Cyclones just couldn’t get right and finished with only 59 points after ranking ninth in scoring on the season. It was their lowest single-game output all year. That’s bad timing.


No. 6: Kansas vs Bucknell (+14) 2005

The No. 3 Jayhawks went 1 for 11 from beyond the arc and turned the ball over 13 times, leading to one of the biggest March Madness upsets of all time. The No. 14 Bison, out of the Patriot League, cashed in as +820 moneyline long shots with their 64-63 victory over KU.


No. 5: Ohio State vs Oral Roberts (+15) 2021

The freshest big betting upset on the list saw the No. 2 Buckeyes turned the ball over 16 times and make just 5 of 23 from beyond the arc while the No. 15 Golden Eagles coughed the ball up only six times and dropped 11 triples, stunning Ohio State 75-72 in overtime as 15-point pups in the Round of 64 of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Oral Roberts’ dynamic duo of Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor combined to score 59 of the team’s 75 total points, including 10 collective 3-pointers. 


No. 4: Michigan State vs Middle Tennessee State (+16.5) 2016

The No. 15 Blue Raiders sparked the shredding of brackets everywhere when they KO’d tournament favorite No. 2 Michigan State in the opening round of the 2016 Big Dance. Middle Tennessee State won 90-81 with 33 of those points coming from 3-point land and was around a +2,000 moneyline underdog to win outright. Many books didn’t even bother posting outright odds, with MSU as high as -9,000 ($100 bet would win $1.11).


No. 3: Iowa State vs Hampton (+17.5) 2001

The No. 2 Cyclones suffered another power outage in this opening-round flop against No. 14 Hampton. Iowa State went 6 for 16 from the foul line and coughed the ball up 17 times in a dismal 58-57 loss to the MEAC champion Pirates.


No. 2: Virginia vs UMBC (+20.5) 2018

This upset marked the first time a No. 1 seed lost to a No. 16 in the history of the NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers’ methodical tempo got in trouble when UMBC went on a 20-6 run in the first five minutes of the second half. Virginia didn’t have the pace or firepower to battle back and lost 74-54 – an incredible 40.5-point cover by the underdog.

That surprising result not only busted brackets and burned UVA backers, but also torched a ton of live bets banking on the Cavs to complete the comeback. The Retrievers were pegged as high as +2,500 moneyline underdogs at some Las Vegas sportsbooks.

“You’re trying to realize that (No. 1 vs. No. 16) was 132-0 coming into the tournament,” Mikal McCulley, who bet $100 on UMBC at +2,000 (winning $2,000), told Covers back in 2018. “And I’m holding a ticket for the first time it happens. That was the only moneyline bet we had on an underdog.”

“It’d be worth more to me in 30 years, and the story that goes along with it if I don’t cash it, than the $2,000,” McCulley said of his plans for the winning bet. “Right now, I’m just gonna hold it. It has to be the best ticket ever, when you hold the first-ever No. 16 seed to upset a No. 1 seed.”


No. 1: Missouri vs Norfolk State (+21) 2012

The Grand Daddy of all March Madness betting upsets saw the No. 2 Tigers ousted in the opening round of the 2012 tournament by the No. 15 Spartans out of the MEAC, who paid out as +4,500 underdogs on the moneyline ($4,500 win on a $100 bet).

Norfolk State played a near-perfect game, shooting 62.5 percent in the second half and turning the ball over only 11 times versus Missouri’s famed pressure defense. The Spartans opened the game on a 15-7 run and never allowed the Tigers to get more than four points ahead on the scoreboard in the back-and-forth contest.

"We were looking for a big long-shot to bet, and the odds on Norfolk State seemed too high,” Derek Daniels, who bet $40 on Norfolk State at 45/1 odds (winning $1,800), told Covers back in 2012. “Everybody near the counter laughed when we made the bet, including ourselves. We still can't believe it hit."

>March Madness betting sites

March Madness is a popular time of the year for sports bettors. Every betting site will offer March Madness odds but the top sites are safe and secure, offer a wide range of banking options, and give you a ton of markets for each game. Check out the best March Madness betting sites in your region.

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