In the 30 years since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams, there have been 514 upsets through Sunday, involving 183 colleges. Here is your complete guide to those 514 upsets, by college, by team, and by tournament.
Ranking the tournaments by upset
This research — which relied on Sports-Reference.com for data — was prompted by a simple question. In light of the rather dramatic upsets the tournament has seen so far, is 2014's tournament the most upset-riddled in history?
The short answer is that, no, it isn't. At least not yet.
But it also depends on what you mean by the most upsets. If you're just looking at raw counts, the most upsets occurred in the 1999 tournament, in which there were 23 upsets — that is, 23 games in which lower-seeded teams beat higher-seeded teams. But that includes things like the 9-seed beating the 8-seed (or the 4-seed beating the 3-seed) — matches that one would expect to be close. The most upsets in a tournament excluding a one-ranking difference occurred in the 2006 tournament, when it happened 17 times. Here, we graphed it.
(The gray bars on top indicate the number of one-seed-difference games in this and all future graphs.)
But then there's another consideration. A 15-seed beating a 2-seed is more exciting and interesting than a 4-seed beating a 2-seed. We can evaluate the excitement quite simply: by subtracting the two. That gives us what we'll call the "upset value." Looking at upset value, the tournament with the most big upsets was in 1986. (Taking out the one-ranking difference doesn't matter as much here, since they don't count for many points anyway.) Here's the graph of upset value.
This is the first time that we see how this tournament is really faring. The 2014 tournament is 18th in the all-time list of upset value — but with four rounds remaining. When you only compare the total through the second round, the 2014 tournament ranks 11th.
Again, that's aggregated upset value. If you look at the average upset value per upset — that is the average spread in each upset, it looks a little different. The 2014 tournament has the third-highest average spread in history. But, again, that's because we're still early. Later upsets are more likely to be of the 4-seed-beats-1-seed variety, which will drag the average down.
How seeds tend to fare
You know how they usually say that an 8-seed playing a 9-seed is a toss-up? Well, it is. In the 30 tournaments since 1985, there have been 120 8-seed vs. 9-seed matches. 9-seeds have won 61 of those, or 50.8 percent. Only 10-seeds have seen more upsets than 9-seeds, but since so many of the 9-seed wins were one-ranking differences (11.9 percent of all upsets were 9- over 8-seeds), the 10-seed victories are more impressive.
No 1-seed has ever won an upset, for obvious reasons. No 16-seed has either, for perhaps equally obvious reasons.
Incidentally, the breakdown of upsets by round is pretty straightforward. About half of the upsets came in round one, the round with the most matches. Just over a quarter came in round two. About a quarter came in every other round.
The best colleges at upsets
But let's get to the point. Which schools have the most upsets — or have lost the most upset matches? A point of clarification is important here. The data below only addresses upsets. If a 2-seed beats a 9-seed, it's not reflected in the figures below, because it's not an upset.
We separated out those schools that have been in at least five upset matches, just as a baseline. And here, according to the data, are the schools that have the best upset record.
- Butler (9-0, 100%)
- Louisiana State (7-1, 87.5%)
- Auburn (6-1, 85.7%)
- Richmond (5-1, 83.3%)
- Seton Hall (5-1, 83.3%)
- VCU (5-1, 83.3%)
- Dayton (4-1, 80%)
- Tulsa (7-2, 77.8%)
- WVU (6-2, 75%)
- Iowa State (5-2, 71.4%)
It makes sense that less well-known programs would be more prominent here: if they win, it's usually an upset, and if they lose, it isn't. Butler, while winning top billing here, isn't the school with the most upset wins. That honor goes to Villanova, which has upset opponents 12 times.
If you're curious about upset-famous schools, some insight: Gonzaga is 8-5, putting it in 17th place (among schools with five or more appearances). George Mason is 4-0 and Florida Gulf Coast (made famous recently) is 2-0, both of which are below the margin for our cut-off. Ohio State, alma mater of your humble author, is 4-12, a 25 percent win record. Which is perhaps why your humble author was not surprised that OSU lost to Dayton, listed above.
The worst colleges at upsets
Let's get to the fun stuff. Which schools have the worst track record in upset games in the tournament? Voila.
- UMass (0-5, 0%)
- Cincinnati (1-11, 8.3%)
- Pitt (1-10, 9.1%)
- Illinois (2-12, 14.3%)
- New Mexico (1-6, 14.3%)
- BYU (1-5, 16.7%)
- Georgia (1-5, 16.7%)
- UVA (1-5, 16.7%)
- Oklahoma (3-14, 17.6%)
- Indiana (3-13, 18.8%)
Oh, UMass. Again, notice that this list is heavy with regular contenders. You need to be ranked high a lot in order to be upset a lot.
But here's the data you've been waiting for. How do perennials like Kentucky and North Carolina do? Well, UNC is just off the list above, at 4-13 over the years in upsets. Kentucky is 6-12.
And then there's Duke. Duke, Duke, Duke. Duke has the distinct honor of being the most-frequently upset team in NCAA tournament history, having been upset 19 times since 1985. Nineteen times! The next closest is Oklahoma, with 14.
Think about this: If you win an upset match, you can go on to win another upset match later in the tournament. If you lose one, you're done. So Duke has been upset in about two-thirds of the NCAA tournaments that have had 64 teams. Meaning one of two things. Either Duke is regularly over-seeded, or Duke sucks. You may choose to believe whichever option you wish.