For the first 25 years or so of the expanded bracket era of the NCAA Tournament — when the field expanded to 64 teams for the 1985 tournament — the idea of picking a 15 seed to upend a 2 seed was pretty crazy. It happened, from time to time.
Now, though? Picking a 15-over-2 is still bold, but not crazy. More on that in a moment.
You probably will be tempted to make one of those picks this year. After all, a 16 seed finally beat a No. 1 seed (sorry for bringing that up, Virginia fans), so anything really is possible. And in the return of the NCAA Tournament, after a year off during the COVID-19 pandemic, don’t we all really expect crazy stuff to happen?
Here’s a complete breakdown of the history of 15 vs. 2 upsets in the NCAA Tournament, including the most memorable underdog runs and important numbers to know while filling out your March Madness bracket.
History of 15 seed vs. 2 seed upsets in NCAA Tournament
Only eight No. 15 seeds have ever won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament, but four of those games — two in the same year! — have happened in the past decade, and there is a key reason for that surge. Heading into the 1991 NCAA Tournament, a handful of No. 14 seeds had pulled off shockers, but No. 15 Richmond’s epic upset of No. 2 seed Syracuse in 1991 just might be the first truly stunning I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened first-round upset.
Steve Nash — future two-time NBA MVP — led Santa Clara to the second 15-over-2 upset two years later, and coach Fang Mitchell’s 15th-seeded Coppin State squad upended South Carolina in 1997. Hampton became the fourth 15 seed to win, in 2001, and then there was a gap of more than a decade.
On the same day of the 2012 tournament, two — TWO! — No. 15 seeds won first-round games. Norfolk State knocked off Mizzou, and then a couple hours later, Lehigh upended Duke in Greensboro, N.C., just an hour away from the Blue Devils’ campus. Then it happened again in 2013 (Florida Gulf Coast) and again in 2016 (Middle Tennessee). So what sparked that change? Look to the First Four.
The NCAA Tournament expanded from 64 teams to 68 teams for the 2011 tournament, adding four more at-large teams and introducing the First Four games. Under that new setup, suddenly there were SIX teams on the No. 16 seed line — the teams with overall seeds 65, 66, 67 and 68 play for the right to face the No. 1 seed — which means two teams that would have, in the pre-2011 tournament, been 15 seeds were suddenly 16 seeds. And two teams that would have been 14 seeds became 15 seeds, and so on and so forth. See how that raised the quality of the teams at the back end of the seed list?
That’s how Lehigh — featuring future NBA star C.J. McCollum — played as a 15 seed and upset Duke in 2012. And that’s how Middle Tennessee State, a very good, veteran team was a 15 seed despite finishing second in C-USA in the regular season and winning the automatic bid with a tournament title for the conference ranked 20th of 32 leagues in KenPom’s ratings. Before the expansion, no way teams of that caliber would have wound up on the 15 seed line.
|1997||Coppin State||South Carolina||78-65|
|2013||Florida Gulf Coast||Georgetown||78-68|
|2016||Middle Tennessee||Michigan State||90-81|
15 seeds vs. 2 seeds by the numbers
- 8-132: Record for 15 seeds vs. No. 2 seeds
- 5.7 percent: Overall winning percentage for 15 seeds since 1985
- 3.8 percent: Winning percentage for 15 seeds in 64-team era (1985-2010)
- 11.1 percent: Winning percentage for 15 seeds since expansion to 68 teams in 2011
- 13: Largest margin of victory for a 15 seed; Coppin State over South Carolina (78-65)
- 1: Smallest margin of victory for a 15 seed; Hampton over Iowa State (58-57)
- 0: Buzzer-beater wins for 15 seeds
- 1: 15 seeds to win at least two games
Has a 15 seed ever won March Madness?
You already know the answer to this one. No, a 15 seed has never won the NCAA Tournament. And we’ll go out on a limb here and say it’s never going to happen. But that doesn’t mean 15 seeds haven’t impacted the March Madnesst. Who can forget the magical run of Florida Dunk Coast — err, Florida Gulf Coast — into into the second weekend of the 2013 NCAA Tournament?
The high-flying Eagles destroyed Georgetown in the opening round — they led by 19 points midway through the second half — and then beat No. 6 seed San Diego State in the second round by 10 points. That victory made FGCU the first 15 seed in NCAA Tournament history to make the Sweet 16; Coppin State narrowly missed out in 1993, losing its second-round game to Texas, 82-81.
The other six 15 seeds to advance? They lost their second-round games by an average of 19.3 points.
Lowest seed to win the NCAA Tournament
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, we’ve seen four double-digit seeds reach the Final Four:
- 11 seed LSU in 1986
- 11 seed George Mason in 2006
- 10 seed Syracuse in 2016
- 11 seed Loyola Chicago in 2018
All four lost before reaching the title game. Only four teams seeded lower than the No. 3 seed line have ever won the national title: one 4 seed (Arizona in 1997), one 6 seed (Kansas in 1988), one seven seed (UConn in 2014) and one 8 seed (Villanova in 1985). No 5 seed has ever won. The Villanova story is the stuff of legend; a plucky, methodical 8 seed that reached the title game by grinding out a series of narrow wins (three by three points or fewer) and facing off against the might Georgetown Hoyas in the championship game.
It’s considered by some as the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history. But here’s the thing: It makes for a great David and Goliath story, but Villanova was pretty darn good. In the 1985 and 1986 NBA Drafts, three starters from that 1985 team went in the top 30 picks (Ed Pinckney at 10 and Dwayne McClain at 27 in 1985 and Harold Pressley at 17 in 1986; Gary McLain went in the seventh round in 1985). Factor in that Villanova had already played Georgetown tough TWICE that year — losses by only two points and seven points — and, sorry, it doesn’t make for a top-five all-time upset.
It does, though, make for a pretty cool championship story.