Year after year, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament delivers excitement and surprise more reliably than any other sporting event. The first week is an overstuffed buffet table, with game after game after game vying for attention, live cut-ins following scoreboard updates, glass slippers being thrown around like half-court shots, brackets looking like golden tickets or suddenly going up in flames. The power teams tend to take over in the second week, and the third is usually an A-list only affair, though never before to the extent of last year’s convention of number-one seeds.
Even after a full season of practices and games, rivalries and conference races, a college basketball team is a collection of young men with egos and hormones and attitudes that they cannot yet fully control. So it shouldn’t be surprising that great teams sometimes come out flat, or lesser talents summon their best selves in the adrenalized atmosphere of win-or-go-home. We expect it in general, but we never know where and when the lightning will land.
Though the first round offers the biggest canvas for the shocking result, our list of surprises includes a game from the second weekend as well, and even a Final Four or two. We have only considered games since 1985, when the tournament adopted its current 64-team form. If we’d gone back further, Jim Valvano’s guiding of NC State past Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma in 1983 – with a team that barely squeezed into the tournament in the first place – would top the list. While seeding plays a part in evaluating these games, it’s not the only thing; Hampton’s victory over Iowa State in a 15-vs.-2 matchup in 2001 doesn’t make the list because, well, it was against Iowa State.
The Top 10 March Madness Shockers follows. Enjoy, remember, and think twice before you grab the remote to switch away from Michigan State-Robert Morris or Louisville-Morehead State.