March Madness 2023: The 10 greatest upsets of all time from the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament

The 2023 NCAA Tournament produced perhaps the biggest upset in event history with 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson stunning 1-seed Purdue in the first round. Slacks have always been a part of March Madness, but now teams with increasing odds seem to be doing the impossible. The Knights, who got into the Big Dance due to a technical problem and were the smallest team in Division I, outscored the Boilermakers and pulled off the biggest run-spread setback in tournament history.

While FDU wasn’t the first 16 seed to take down a 1 seed, the list of such teams that pull off the seemingly impossible is quite short. So short, in fact, that you can summarize such disruptions in a tight list. Those results are a big part of what makes the NCAA Tournament so great. March Madness would be less crazy without them. Once in a while a game comes along early in the tournament and unfolds how few would predict. Of course there’s the Holy Grail — a No. 16 seed beats a No. 1 seed, something that has only happened twice now.

Even if the early setbacks ruin your braces, it’s still exciting.

Below are the 10 craziest, most drastic upsets the first weekend of the tournament has ever produced.

March 14, 1997

The depth of Coppin State was a big reason for this dismay. The Eagles bench outscored the Gamecocks’ reserves 40–17. Danny Singletary led the way with 22 points. Two Coppin State starters didn’t even score in 10 minutes of play, and neither team shot well from outside the arc. Coppin State was 2 of 13 and South Carolina hit 4 of 20 from outside the arc. Coppin State jumped into the lead late in the game after trailing quite a bit, but over the stretch they looked like a team that had been leading all day. Coppin State just looked faster than South Carolina, going to the line 34 times to South Carolina’s 16. It was a huge shock to the SEC champions and an abrupt end to their first tournament appearance since 1989.

March 14, 1991

Again, we come to the first time one of these major disruptions happened. The Richmond Spiders made their fifth appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Syracuse, on the other hand, made its ninth in a row under Jim Boeheim. The Orange had better scorers – and it showed – with Billy Owens leading everyone with 22 points. Banking game, a running theme on this list, was the difference. Syracuse only got three points from its reserves and Richmond was able to outlast the Orange in a massive, unprecedented upset.

22 March 2013

Not only did Florida Gulf Coast manage to take down Georgetown, but they also beat No. 7 seed San Diego State afterwards. The Eagles came into this game as a solid team, with three players posting double-digit averages and a 26-11 record. Georgetown boasted future NBA player Otto Porter. For the Hoyas, it was Markel Starks who stole the show, dropping 23 points. But Florida Gulf Coast let both Sherwood Brown and Bernard Thompson score over 20 points en route to a 10-point victory. The Eagles, nicknamed “Dunk City”, became one of the most fun teams to watch all month. They dunked five times against Georgetown, including an exclamation mark from an alley-oop within the final two minutes.

7. (15) Oral Roberts defeats (2) Ohio State, 75-72

March 19, 2021

Only eight times in NCAA Tournament history did a No. 15 seed defeat a No. 2 seed competing in the 2021 event. Oral Roberts made it nine by defeating Ohio State 75-72 in overtime behind a legendary performance by the duo Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor. The two combined for 59 points in the win, and the Golden Eagles weren’t done there.

ORU defeated No. 7 seed Florida in the second round before being eliminated in the Sweet 16. Both Abmas and Obanor played all 45 minutes of regulation and overtime and combined for 10 total 3-pointers. Abmas was the top scorer in the country entering the game and was already known by some for his ability to rack up points. But the game was a real breakthrough for Obanor, who transferred to Texas Tech after the season.

March 18, 1993

A point guard named Steve Nash came off the bench for Santa Clara in this. However, although he played a solid game, he was not Santa Clara’s ace in the hole. Nash scored 10 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Pete Eisenrich scored 18 and led the way to Santa Clara despite a wild finish. The Arizona press was hard to break, but Santa Clara shot on the line well enough to hold. Pac-10 Player of the Year Chris Mills was held to 19 points and an Arizona team with six future NBA players was eliminated in the first round in Salt Lake City.

March 18, 2016

This game was a big part of ex-Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis’ rise. The Blue Raiders faced the No. 2 Spartans, led by Denzel Valentine. How did Middle Tennessee get this victory? With score depth. This was not an example of a mid-major just moving the ball better or playing basketball flawlessly. MSU assisted Middle Tennessee 20-16 and had only four turnovers left. But all five Blue Raider starters finished in double digits, with Reggie Upshaw leading by 21 points. Middle Tennessee never really backed off in this game, usually leading by three to eight points, but MSU simply couldn’t stop the Blue Raider offense.

4. No. 15 Saint Peter’s defeats No. 2 Kentucky (85-79)

March 17, 2022

This was an overtime thriller for all ages. It was only the 10th time ever that a No. 15 seed beat a No. 2 seed, and being one of the sports giants on the losing side made it all the more memorable. Saint Peter’s was conceded a total of 47 points by guards Daryl Banks III and Doug Edert, a career high for Banks and the fourth 20-point game of Edert’s career.

It was the first-ever NCAA Tournament win for Saint Peter’s, a private school with approximately 3,500 students in Jersey City, New Jersey. For Kentucky, the heartbreaking defeat meant the program would likely be at least four calendar years between Big Dance victories. The Wildcats missed the 2021 NCAA Tournament and there was no NCAA Tournament in 2020, making an Elite Eight run in 2019 the program’s last significant post-season success.

3. (15) Lehigh defeats (2) Duke, 75-70

March 16, 2012

This was the other big setback in 2012. Duke had a roster that included eight future NBA players and looked poised to take a deep run. It was 27-7 overall and finished second in the ACC. But Lehigh, led by future NBA star CJ McCollum, showed that quality is more important than quantity. He dropped 30 points as Duke was booted in the first round for the first time since 2007. Lehigh held the game close to the halfway mark and maintained a small lead on the stretch for the win.

2. (16) UMBC defeats (1) Virginia, 74-54

March 16, 2018

One of the wildest upsets in tournament history, not only because the No. 16 seed beat a No. 1 seed, but also because of the score. What the hell happened to the Cavaliers? Historically, almost all of the 15 seeds that won did so with the skin of their teeth. UMBC was utterly dominant over Virginia in a 20-point win. The first sense of “it’s happening” came at half time when the game was tied at 21. UMBC came out of the locker and proved that this was indeed going to happen. They dropped 53 points in the second half, nearly equaling Virginia’s total for the game, and Virginia had no answer. The game snowballed and Virginia landed in the pantheon of disappointment, not only becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16, but doing so in absolutely brutal fashion.

1. (16) Fairleigh Dickinson defeats (1) Purdue, 63-58

March 17, 2023

For decades, no 16-seed could upset a 1-seed. Now it has happened in the space of five years. While UMBC will always be the first to do it, there are a few indications that Fairleigh Dickinson’s monumental victory over Purdue in the 2023 NCAA tournament was even more significant historically. No, the Boilermakers were not the No. 1 overall seed like Virginia (the Knights were the No. 68 team, though). And no, the Knights didn’t chase them out of the arena with a five-point win.

However, by pretty much any other measure, the FDU’s upset in the first round was the biggest in NCAA Tournament history. It marked the biggest upset by spread (23 points) and even by size: the Boilermakers ranked as the No. 1 team in adjusted height, according to KenPom, as the Knights finished last in Division I. It was as close to a David vs. Goliath game as could be. FDU also came to the Big Dance due to a technical issue, after losing to Merrimack in the NEC Tournament title game; However, as Merrimack is still advancing to Division I, it was ineligible for the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the automatic bid went to the knights.

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