During the first 25 or so years of the NCAA Tournament Expanded Fork era – when the field expanded to 64 teams for the 1985 tournament – the idea of picking a 15 seed to overthrow a 2 seed was pretty crazy. It happened from time to time.
But now? Choosing a 15 over a 2 is always daring, but not crazy. More on that in a moment.
You will probably be tempted to make one of these choices this year. After all, a 16 seed eventually beat a No 1 seed (sorry for bringing that up, Virginia fans), so anything is really possible. And coming back from the NCAA tournament, after a year off during the COVID-19 pandemic, don’t we all really expect crazy things to happen?
Here’s a comprehensive look at the history of 15v2 upheavals in the NCAA tournament, including the most memorable underdog races and important numbers to know while filling your March Madness bracket.
Story of 15 seeds vs. 2 header upsets in NCAA tournament
Only nine No.15 seeds won a first-round game in the NCAA tournament, but five of those games – two in the same year! – have occurred over the past decade, and there is a major reason for this surge. As the 1991 NCAA Tournament approached, a handful of No.14 seeds had managed a shock, but the epic upset of No.15 Richmond against No.2 seed Syracuse in 1991 could well be the first really amazing that I can not believe that – just happened upset in the first round.
Steve Nash – two-time NBA future MVP – led Santa Clara to the second 15-on-2 victory two years later, and the Coppin State team, 15th seeded by coach Fang Mitchell, overthrew South Carolina in 1997. Hampton became the fourth seed to win 15, in 2001, then there was a gap of more than a decade.
On the same day of the 2012 tournament, two – TWO! – Seeds No.15 won the matches of the first round. Norfolk State toppled Mizzou, and then hours later, Lehigh toppled Duke in Greensboro, NC, just an hour from the Blue Devils campus. Then it happened again in 2013 (Florida Gulf Coast) and again in 2016 (Middle Tennessee). So what triggered this change? Look at the first four.
The NCAA tournament grew from 64 teams to 68 teams for the 2011 tournament, adding four more teams overall and introducing the first four games. In this new setup, there were suddenly SIX teams on the No.16 starting line – the teams with the 65, 66, 67 and 68 seeds are playing for the right to face the No.1 seed – this which means that two teams would have, in the pre-2011 tournament, 15 seeds were suddenly 16 seeds. And two teams that would have been 14 seeds became 15 seeds, and so on. Do you see how that improved the quality of the teams at the end of the start list?
This is how Lehigh – along with future NBA star CJ McCollum – played as a 15 seed and upset Duke in 2012. And this is how Middle Tennessee State, a very good veteran team, was. seeded 15 despite his second place in C-USA in the regular season. and winning the automatic bid with a tournament title for the conference ranked 20th out of 32 leagues in KenPom odds. Before the expansion, it was impossible for teams of this caliber to find themselves in the line of the 15 seeds.
The last seed of 15 to ruin the March Madness Bracket Legions was the Summit League champion Oral Roberts, which on day one of the 2021 NCAA tournament upset Ohio State, second seed in the Big Ten and owner of the sixth seed overall. The Golden Eagles needed big games from two upset players: Kevin Obanor (30 points on 9 of 21 shots, 11 rebounds) and Max Abmas (29 points on 10 of 24 shots, 5 of 10 3- shot in point, five rebounds and three assists). No other Golden Eagle has scored in double digits.
|1997||Coppin State||Caroline from the south||78-65|
|2001||Hampton||State of Iowa||58-57|
|2013||Florida Gulf Coast||Georgetown||78-68|
|2016||Middle Tennessee||Michigan State||90-81|
|2021||Oral Roberts||Ohio state||75-72|
15 seeds versus 2 seeds in numbers
- 9-132: Record for 15 seeds against 2 seeds
- 6.3 percent: Overall winning percentage for 15 seeds since 1985
- 3.8 percent: Percentage of wins for 15 seeds in 64 teams (1985-2010)
- 11.1 percent: Percentage of wins for 15 seeds since expansion to 68 teams in 2011
- 13: The greatest margin of victory for a seed of 15; Coppin State over South Carolina (78-65)
- 1: Smaller margin of victory for a seed of 15; Hampton over the State of Iowa (58-57)
- 0: Buzzer-beater wins for 15 seeds
- 2: 15 seeds to win at least two matches
Has a seed of 15 ever won the March Madness?
You already know the answer to this one. No, a seed of 15 has never won the NCAA tournament. And we’re going to come out on a branch here and say it’s never going to happen. But that doesn’t mean that 15 seeds didn’t have an impact on the March Madnesst. Who can forget the magical Florida Dunk Coast – er, Florida Gulf Coast – run in the second weekend of the 2013 NCAA tournament?
The top-flight Eagles destroyed Georgetown in the first round – they led by 19 points midway through the second – then beat the sixth-seeded San Diego State in the second round by 10 points. The victory made the FGCU the first 15 seed in NCAA tournament history to make the Sweet 16; Coppin State narrowly missed in 1993, losing their second-round game to Texas 82-81.
Then there’s Oral Roberts, who shocked second-seeded Ohio State in 2021 with a 75-72 overtime win. The Golden Eagles followed with an 81-78 victory over the 7-seeded Florida.
The other six 15 seeds to advance? They lost their second round games by an average of 19.3 points.
Lowest seed to win NCAA tournament
Since the tournament grew to 64 teams in 1985, we’ve seen five double-digit seeds reach the Final Four:
- 11 LSU seeds in 1986
- 11 George Mason seeds in 2006
- 11 VCU seeds in 2011
- 10 Syracuse seeds in 2016
- 11 seeded Loyola Chicago in 2018
All four lost before reaching the title match. Only four teams ranked below the No.3 bloodline won the national title: a seeded 4 (Arizona in 1997), seeded 6 (Kansas in 1988), seeded seven (UConn in 2014) and an 8 seed (Villanova in 1985). No seed of 5 has ever won. The story of Villanova is a story of legend; a courageous and methodical 8-seed who reached the title game by securing a narrow winning streak (three by three points or less) and facing the mighty Georgetown Hoyas in the championship game.
It’s considered by some to be the biggest upheaval in NCAA tournament history. But here’s the thing: It makes a great David and Goliath story, but Villanova was damn good. In the 1985 and 1986 NBA Drafts, three starters from that 1985 team made top 30 picks (Ed Pinckney at 10 and Dwayne McClain at 27 in 1985 and Harold Pressley at 17 in 1986; Gary McLain is went to the seventh round in 1985). From the fact that Villanova had already played Georgetown TWICE that year – losses of just two points and seven points – and, sorry, that doesn’t make for an all-time upset top-five.
It does, however, make for a pretty cool championship story.