SI Vault
Jack McCallum
March 15, 1999
Though this may not be the year that a No. 16 seed finally knocks off a No. 1, rest assured that, just like death and taxes, upsets will happen. Herewith is our surgeon general's list of the 10 leading causes
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
March 15, 1999

Anatomy Of An Upset

Though this may not be the year that a No. 16 seed finally knocks off a No. 1, rest assured that, just like death and taxes, upsets will happen. Herewith is our surgeon general's list of the 10 leading causes

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

The 10 Greatest Tournament Upsets






N.C. State 54

Houston 52


The Wolf pack's victory over Akeem and Co. (above) is the granddaddy of them all


Villanova 66

Georgetown 64


No. 8 Wildcats are still the lowest seed to win the championship


Santa Clara 64

Arizona 61


The 15th-seeded Broncos had not won a tournament game since 1969


LSU 59

Kentucky 57


By beating No. 1 Wildcats, Tigers became lowest seed (11) ever in Final Four


Princeton 43



Bruins were defending champs when 13-seed Tigers showed them the (back)door


Texas Western 72

Kentucky 65


How many games literally change the complexion of a sport?


Coppin State 78

S. Carolina 65


The nation met a coach named Fang and a 15th-seeded team with bite


Cleveland State 83

Indiana 79


No. 14 Vikings' Mouse McFadden roared against the third-seeded Hoosiers


St. Joseph's 49

DePaul 48


Fall of top-ranked Blue Demons and stars Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings


Boston College 75

N. Carolina 72


This loss kept No. l-seeded Tar Heels from Sweet 16 for first time since 1980

This is the week the NCAA tournament goes to the 'dogs. Since 1990 the first and second rounds have produced 49 major upsets, which, for argument's sake, we will define as a victory by an underdog seeded at least five places below its opponent. Eleven majors occurred in the last two years alone. So for the time being forget about Duke—you have a week, probably two, to brush up on your spelling of Krzyzewski and your pronunciation of Battier. It's time to stand up and ponder whether a team that sounds as if it was named after a British butler can put a hurting on big, bad Auburn. Go-o-o-o-o-o Winthrop!

Most glorious are the upsets that appear to be inexplicable. In 1993, for example, during 15th-seeded Santa Clara's 64-61 West Regional shocker over No. 2-seeded Arizona, the Broncos surrendered 25 unanswered points during one surreal nine-minute span that stretched from late in the first half to early in the second. Yet somehow they survived. Former Marquette coach Al McGuire (a two-legged manifestation of inexplicability) swears that his Warriors owed their Cinderella run to the 1977 national championship to a fistfight he had with forward Bernard Toone at halftime of Marquette's first-round game against Cincinnati. Says McGuire, "The fight just seemed to clear the deck." But those examples aside, certain patterns run through most major upsets, and we're going to tell you what they are. We'll even walk out on the plank and tell you who we think will pull off shockers this year. Herewith our anatomy of an upset:

1. The higher seed comes into the NCAAs under a bad sign. Playing miserably at the end of the regular season or in the conference tournament after a successful year is one way a high seed can be primed for an upset. Worrying about where it's playing is another no-no for the higher seed. In 1996 defending national champion UCLA thought that by virtue of having won the Pac-10 by three games, it was going to be kept in the West, probably in Tempe. Instead the Bruins got shipped to Indianapolis. "That really threw us for a loop," says coach Steve Lavin, who was then an assistant to Jim Harrick. "In our minds, there was no justice." The result: little effort. UCLA, seeded fourth, was back-doored out of the tournament 43-41 by 13th-seeded Princeton. Five years earlier, after Syracuse became the first No. 2 seed to lose to a No. 15 by falling 73-69 to Richmond, Orange coach Jim Boeheim said he wasn't that surprised because Syracuse had been distracted by an NCAA investigation that eventually resulted in sanctions. "It had been a tumultuous year even though we had won 26 games," says Boeheim.

This year? Having played itself out of a possible second seed by losing in the semis of the Conference USA tournament, Cincinnati might not feel real warm about getting moved to Boston in the East.

2. Conversely, the underdog comes in on a roll. Perhaps that 1993 Santa Clara team didn't fold against Arizona because it had won six of its last seven West Coast Conference regular-season games and three straight in the league tournament. "Any team that comes in hot, I put a star by its name," says senior guard Ryan Robertson of Kansas, a perennial high seed that has gone down in second-round flames three times in the last decade. "If a team that finished strong doesn't get psyched out by the NCAA glitter, it will do well."

This year? Delaware got a 13th seed by winning 13 straight. Beware the Blue Hens.

3. The lower-seeded team, even if it comes from a no-name conference, has competed against big names during the season and is no NCAA tenderfoot. Before 13th-seeded Valparaiso, from the Mid-Continent Conference, upset fourth-seeded Mississippi of the SEC last season, the Crusaders had already played Purdue and Stanford. So what if they had lost to both? Ole Miss was old hat. Tennessee-Chattanooga, which in 1997 pulled off two upsets (over No. 3 Georgia 73-70 and No. 6 Illinois 75-63) as a 14th seed, had played Missouri and Penn State and was making its fourth NCAA appearance in five years. Upset specialist Dick Tarrant, whose Richmond teams shocked Charles Barkley and Auburn in '84, defending NCAA champion and No. 4 seed Indiana and No. 5 Georgia Tech in '88, and Syracuse in '91, routinely scheduled big boys like North Carolina, Oregon, Providence and Wake Forest to compensate for the lack of competition in the ECAC South and Colonial Athletic Association.

This year? Murray State, No. 13 in the South, is an NCAA regular.

4. The lower-seeded team is better prepared mentally. Invariably, the favorite's coach tries to convince his guys that the underdog is formidable, and the underdog's coach tries to convince his guys that the favorite is beatable. There isn't a textbook way to do either. Utah's Rick Majerus, facing a first-round game with overmatched No. 14 San Francisco last year, told his third-seeded Utes to pack for only a one-night stay when they traveled to Boise, Idaho, for the first game of the West Regional. The message was clear: Look beyond the Dons and you could be going home early. Majerus's players may have smelled a little ripe, but they took care of business in Boise, routing San Francisco 85-68 and then beating Arkansas two days later to begin their run to the national final. Sometimes, though, all the preaching in the world doesn't get through. Sonny Smith, now special assistant to the athletic director at Virginia Commonwealth, said that when he was coaching Auburn in 1984, he just couldn't persuade Barkley to take Richmond seriously. "You give him a great player and Charles would eat him alive," says Smith, "but Richmond was a difficult sell." And a difficult opponent—the 12th-seeded Spiders won 72-71.

Dennis Sprague, a sports psychologist in Lexington, Ky., who has worked with Kentucky's football and basketball teams, says that getting an underdog to believe it can beat a favorite is more difficult than getting a heavy favorite to buckle down for a weak opponent. Besides, a powerful team will often win even if it doesn't respect its foe, while a double-digit 'dog will almost never triumph if it isn't at a mental peak. Still, even players on favored teams, says Sprague, are susceptible to the consequences of catachalmines, chemicals released by the brain in times of tension, which create what he calls "pre-competitive anxiety." (We call it nerves.) A starter on the Wildcats' 1996 NCAA championship team was so overloaded with catachalmines before the tournament that Sprague had to hypnotize him to calm him down. The player (whom Sprague won't identify) went on to have an outstanding tournament.

Continue Story
1 2 3