The 10 Biggest Underdog Victories in March Madness History
Everyone loves an underdog. Whether it’s an intrinsic desire to root for the little guy or a hedge against laying the favorite, sports fans can’t help but crave the come-out-of-nowhere victory. This propensity is strongest during March Madness, that annual springtime tourney that pits NCAA Division I college basketball teams against one another in a drive toward the national championship.
What we have come to know as March Madness began in 1939, when it featured just eight teams. By 1951, that number doubled to 16. It doubled again in 1975, and yet again in 1985, before finally settling on the 68 first-round contenders we now see each year. According to the Sporting News, the first mention of the moniker “March Madness” was in the Illinois High School Athlete magazine, where high school official Henry V. Porter opined, "A little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel.”
The term’s association with the NCAA can be traced to the 1982 tournament, when CBS announcer Brent Musburger claimed he purloined the term from local car dealer commercials that aired during his time broadcasting Illinois state high school games (which also led to a lawsuit that resulted in the eventual trademark of the term itself).
One aspect of March Madness that’s open to less debate is that the annual sporting event is a standout with its high possibilities of having an unknown or undervalued team coming out of nowhere to score a major upset.
Leveraging AP Men’s Basketball polls from 1950–2021, BestOdds has come up with a list of some of the greatest and most unexpected underdog wins in the history of the NCAA championship tournament. AP polls are determined by a nationwide panel of sports writers and broadcasters who vote weekly, in a simple points system, to decide the AP Top 25. A team receives 25 points for each first-place vote, 24 for second place and so on through to the 25th team, which receives one point. The rankings are set by listing the teams’ point totals from highest to lowest.
Here, teams were ranked by their standing in the polls going into March Madness, with teams that had poorer standings ranking higher on the list. (Lower numbers in the poll indicate a better expected performance, with 1 being the top pick, so a higher number indicates a poorer standing, and thus an underdog victory.) Ties were broken by the team’s preseason standing in the polls. The preseason favorite for that year is also included. From 1949–1960 and 1969–1989, the poll included 20 teams, from 1961–1968 the poll included 10 teams, and from 1990–present the poll has 25 teams.
So without further ado, here are 10 of the biggest underdog victories in NCAA March Madness history.