If there’s one thing March Madness is known for, it’s the upsets. That's especially true in 2023, as all four No. 1 seeds were eliminated prior to reaching the Elite 8 for the first time in NCAA Tournament history.
Last year had a number of double-digit seeds defy the March Madness odds as well, with an 11 seed, two 12 seeds, and another 15 seed causing bracket havoc.
Upsets are a huge reason basketball fans love betting on March Madness, and you'll need to select a few if you plan on winning your bracket contest. With the 2023 tournament underway, we recount the biggest March Madness upsets ever — including two new entries this year — plus some tips on how to identify future possible upsets so you can make the best March Madness bets.
Top 10 Biggest March Madness upsets
The 10 biggest March Madness upsets since 2000:
- Honorable Mention: Ohio (+13.5) over Georgetown (2010)
- Honorable Mention: Florida Gulf Coast (+13.5) over Georgetown (2013)
- Honorable Mention: Marshall (+13.5) over Wichita State (2018)
- 10: UAB (+14) over Iowa State (2015)
- 9: Bucknell (+14) over Kansas (2005)
- 8: Princeton (+14.5) over Arizona (2023)
- 7: Oral Roberts (+15) over Ohio State (2021)
- 6: Middle Tennessee State (+16.5) over Michigan State (2016)
- 5: Hampton (+17.5) over Iowa State (2001)
- 5: Saint Peter's (+18.5) over Kentucky (2022)
- 3: UMBC (+20.5) over Virginia (2018)
- 2: Norfolk State (+21) over Missouri (2012)
- 1: Fairleigh Dickinson (+23.5) over Purdue (2023)
Honorable Mention: Georgetown vs. Ohio (+13.5) 2010
That the 14th-seeded Bobcats notched its first NCAA Tournament win in 27 years — at the expense of Georgetown — is shocking enough, but Ohio was somewhat lucky to even be in the tournament.
It was just the ninth seed in the MAC Tournament, but made an incredible run to the Big Dance and carried that momentum into the opening round, jumping out to a 12-point lead at halftime, holding a 19-point lead in the second half, and holding on for a comfortable 97-83 victory.
Honorable Mention: Georgetown vs. Florida Gulf Coast (+13.5) 2013
The Hoyas didn’t learn their lesson from three 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.
Honorable Mention: 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.
10: 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.
9: 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.
8: Arizona vs. Princeton (+14.5) 2023
The Tigers busted many a bracket on the very first day of the 2023 tournament when they defeated the heavily favored Wildcats. Princeton outscored Arizona by five points in the second half — holding the Wildcats scoreless over the final 4:43 and ending the game on a 9-0 run — to pull off the improbable 59-55 win. It must have felt like déjà vu for Tigers head coach Mitch Henderson, who led the Ivy League school to a shocking March Madness upset over UCLA back in 1996 when he was a player.
7: 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.
6: 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).
5: 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.
4: Kentucky vs. Saint Peter's (+18.5) 2022
Not only does this overtime thriller count as one of the biggest upsets based on the closing line — 18.5 points — but also because the Kentucky Wildcats were on the shortlist of National Championship contenders.
UK coach John Calipari, famous for having a team full of one-and-done freshmen, had one of his most veteran-laden squads in recent memory as the Wildcats entered the 2022 tournament as the third-biggest favorite to win the national title.
They were expected to cruise past the MAAC champion Peacocks but Saint Peter's hung around by playing incredible defense: Kentucky star Oscar Tshiebwe scored 30 points on 11-of-16 shooting but the rest of the roster combined to shoot just 32.6% from the field (15-for-46) — including 26.7% from three — as neither team held a lead larger than six points.
The Peacocks managed to force overtime, where Kentucky crumbled, going 1-for-7 on free throws, while Saint Peter's outscored UK 14-4 over the final 3:23 of the extra frame to pull off the upset.
Not bad for a school with an enrollment of about 3,500 that was making just its fourth NCAA Tournament appearance ever.
3: 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.”
2: Missouri vs. Norfolk State (+21) 2012
This was the Grand Daddy of all March Madness betting upsets, as the No. 2 Tigers were 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."
We say this was the biggest March Madness upset ever because it held that title for 11 years, until...
1: Purdue vs. Fairleigh Dickinson (+23.5) 2023
...the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights said "Hold my Bracket."
If Princeton's win over Arizona was the upset appetizer of 2023... this is most definitely the main course.
Not only is this the biggest ATS favorite to lose in the tournament, but it's just the second No. 1 seed to ever lost to a 16 seed, and while Purdue was considered the weakest of the No. 1s in the bracket... it still had likely Player of the Year winner in 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey.
Then there's Fairleigh Dickinson, which actually lost in the Northeast Conference Tournament title game — but because Merrimack was not eligible for the NCAA Tournament, FDU got a berth into a First Four game, where the Knights destroyed Texas Southern, and then followed that up by being the third straight double-digit seed to end a Purdue run in the Big Dance.
FDU held the Boilermakers to one field goal and five total points in the final 7:09 and managed to keep Edey from attempting a single shot in the final nine minutes of the game, en route to becoming the new king of March Madness upsets.
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||The average number of upsets (1985-2019)|
First Round upsets
As we saw above, most of the upsets at March Madness come in the First Round — which shouldn't be a surprise as the First Round has the most 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 look at each First Round matchup (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 twice in tournament history (1.3 percent of matchups) when UMBC shocked Virginia in 2018 and Fairleigh Dickinson upset Purdue in 2023.
No. 15 over No. 2
This has been a bit more common, occurring 11 times (7.2 percent) since 1985, including each of the last three tournaments — No. 15 Oral Roberts stunning No. 2 Ohio State in 2021 NCAA Tournament, Saint Peter's knocking off Kentucky in 2022, and Princeton toppling Arizona in 2023.
No. 14 over No. 3
A No. 14 seed has taken down a No. 3 seed 22 times in tournament history (14.5 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 (21.1 percent to be exact) as a No. 13 seed has won 32 times in the First Round. This happened once in 2019 when UC Irvine beat Kansas State, and most recently occurred in 2023 with No. 13 Furman stunning 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. Overall, a No. 12 seed has won 52 times (34.2 percent) since 1985, although all four No. 5 seeds won in 2023.
No. 11 over No. 6
This happens just slightly more often than the 12-over-5 upset at a clip of 38.1 percent or 58 total times since 1985.
No. 10 over No. 7
This has been the most common upset, happening 59 times or 38.8 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
March Madness upsets FAQs
In 2012, Norfolk State upset Missouri as 21-point underdogs in what we feel was the biggest upset in March Madness history.
Yes, UMBC became the first and only No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 when it defeated Virginia 74-54 in the opening round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
Yes, nine No. 15 seeds have beaten No. 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
Yes. That occurred for the first time in 2023, when Purdue, Kansas, Alabama, and Houston were all upset prior to the NCAA Tournament's quarterfinal round.