In the Sweet 16, the difference in seed lines generally shrinks, so in a very real sense, upsets are not supposed to be as earth-shaking as they are in earlier rounds. Yet, seeing a takedown of a top seed by a 4 or 5 that’s: A) way too small in the paint; B) not nearly quick enough at any position; or C) clearly one year away from putting all the pieces together is jarring, and nothing less.
In the upcoming Sweet 16 games pitting top seeds against 4 seeds, Michigan State over Virginia would not be an upset, period. San Diego State over Arizona would be a noticeable upset, but the Aztecs and Wildcats enjoy such familiarity that one could readily imagine a close game. Moreover, Arizona will not have Brandon Ashley, who was in the lineup when the Cats clipped Los Aztecs earlier in the season. (The rematch angle also enhances SDSU’s chances.)
UCLA over Florida? Hmmmm… that might be an upset worthy of inclusion on the following list — the list of greatest upsets involving a number one seed:
5 – MISSISSIPPI STATE OVER CONNECTICUT, 1996
In 1994, Connecticut might not have had its best team, but it somehow managed to lose to Florida as a 2 seed. UConn star Donyell Marshall — needing to hit just one foul shot late in regulation to give his team the win — missed two to send the game to overtime, and the Huskies couldn’t rev themselves up in Miami against the Gators, who fed off the energy of the crowd.
In 1995, Connecticut went to the West Regional in Oakland. The Huskies reached the Elite Eight before losing to UCLA, but another team at that same regional was Mississippi State, which lost to UCLA in the Sweet 16. The Huskies knew who the Bulldogs were. There was an awareness in the Connecticut camp of how dangerous MSU could be in 1996, when the best Ray Allen team of the Jim Calhoun era took the court at Rupp Arena, intent on avoiding a stumble before the Final Four.
The Huskies didn’t bring their best game to one of college basketball’s great arenas. That’s putting it mildly.
Allen went 3-of-14 in the second half. Connecticut was never able to establish its up-tempo style of play. Darryl Wilson of Mississippi State stole the show, pouring in 27 points for the Bulldogs, who controlled the contest and ultimately limited the Huskies to 55 points. In a season when UConn was supposed to finally get to the Final Four, yet another upset got in the way.
4 – VIRGINIA OVER KANSAS, 1995
Kansas suffered so many surprising tournament losses under Roy Williams in the 1990s, but this was one of the two biggest Sweet 16 losses for the Jayhawks during the decade. Greg Ostertag became an NBA player a lot of fans liked to laugh at, but in 1995, he was part of a powerful Kansas team that had the chance to play a virtual home game at Kemper Arena in Kansas City. In the women’s tournament, teams play home or semi-home games all the time, but Kansas used to play Midwest Regionals at Kemper, and other programs used to enjoy similar home-court advantages.
It needs to be said that the 1995 Arkansas Razorbacks — a legitimately great team — awaited in the Elite Eight and might have been able to stop Kansas short of the Final Four anyway. Yet, it’s hard to deny the claim that Virginia’s Junior Burrough — who smoked Ostertag on that Friday night and led the Cavaliers to victory — made it a lot easier for Arkansas to get out of the Midwest and advance to the national title game in 1995. Virginia enabled Arkansas to come within one win of repeating as a collegiate national champion.
3 – ARIZONA OVER KANSAS, 1997
Come on now.
Arizona trailed 13th-seeded South Alabama by 10 points with just over 7:30 left in the first round before escaping with a win. The Wildcats then slid by the 12th-seeded College of Charleston by four points in the second round. Talented but raw and very young, the Wildcats were just beginning to learn how to play together. Mike Bibby, Michael Dickerson, Miles Simon — this team was just coming together. The Wildcats, entering the 1997 NCAA Tournament, had never won a Big Dance game outside the West Region. Arizona also entered the 1997 tournament having failed to get out of the first round in consecutive seasons since 1991. The Wildcats, you can see, did quite well just to get out of Memphis (the subregional pod site) and earn a trip to Birmingham for the Southeast Regional.
Kansas — 34-1 Kansas; Paul Pierce-Raef LaFrentz-Jacque Vaughn Kansas — was supposed to hammer the young pups from Tucson.
It’s a shock 17 years later.
2 – INDIANA OVER NORTH CAROLINA, 1984
The best North Carolina team of the Michael Jordan era was taken down by an Indiana side that lacked star power… unless you consider Dan Dakich a star. Indiana was then knocked off by Virginia in the Elite Eight, and that Virginia team made the Final Four without Ralph Sampson, one year after its own best team failed to make the Final Four in 1983. The early 1980s were remarkable within the larger history of college basketball precisely because Michael Jordan and Ralph Sampson made only one Final Four apiece. That’s simply staggering.
Of course, we all know why great teams failed to make the Final Four before 1986: no, not just the smaller tournament field, but also because of the lack of a shot clock.
1 – INDIANA OVER DUKE, 2002
First of all, Duke was installed as a double-digit favorite, even though the location of this game (Rupp Arena, a place proximate to Bloomington, Ind., and a building in which Duke will never be loved) enabled a partisan crowd to cheer vigorously against the Blue Devils.
Second, Duke gained a 29-12 lead in the first half.
Third, Duke was defending its 2001 national title with almost everyone back for the repeat ride: Jason Williams. Mike Dunleavy, Jr. Carlos Boozer. Chris Duhon. Daniel Ewing. The Blue Devils were fully loaded and ready to “repeat their repeat” from 1992.
Fourth… Duke gained a flippin’ 29-12 lead in the first half, fer gawsh sakes!
There was simply no way Duke was going to lose this game, especially after getting a 17-point lead (seventeen!) midway through the first half. Upset? Don’t be intellectually unserious. That kind of talk just makes you look bad. It’s patently fool———–
Wait a minute.
Never has a 1 seed lost in a more improbable way as a heavyweight in the Sweet 16.
The postscript: Indiana’s coach on that night, Mike Davis, never came close to duplicating that 2002 run to the national championship game. Davis enjoyed a magic carpet ride and then tumbled downward on the coaching ladder, falling to UAB and then to his present place of employment, Texas Southern.
The comeback; the quality of Duke’s team; the coaching matchup; the Vegas line — everything about Indiana-Duke 2002 makes it an appropriate choice as the greatest Sweet 16 upset of a No. 1 seed since the NCAA tournament began to be seeded in 1979.