Now that Super Bowl 53 is (mercifully) in the rearview mirror, we have officially reached the end of football season. Now, we can look ahead to a summer of baseball as well as the NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs. The Masters will be upon us before long, as well. Before all of that, though, comes March Madness.
The NCAA tournament is less than a month away, and it’s never too early to start thinking about what has become one of the biggest annual sports betting events in the United States. When you think of March Madness, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Upsets, of course.
Big-name programs struggling against teams you’ve never heard of is what makes the NCAA tournament must-see TV every year. The NCAA’s selection committee tries its best to properly seed all 64 teams ahead of the Big Dance, but every year some seeds wind up looking downright foolish once the dust has settled. A no-name ousting a blue blood program seems to happen at least one time every March.
The best thing about March Madness upsets is that people rarely see them coming. For that reason, handicapping the NCAA tournament can be incredibly difficult. Given the massive talent discrepancy between big-name teams and also-rans in college basketball, you will still see some pretty hefty spreads even in the postseason. What are some of the biggest betting upsets in March Madness history?
Perhaps the most notable alum of little Weber State University is Portland Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard. Over a decade before Lillard first stepped foot on the school’s campus in Utah, though, Weber State pulled off one of the most shocking upsets in the history of the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats went up to Seattle and defeated heavily-favored North Carolina 76-74 in the first round of the 1999 tourney.
North Carolina is arguably the most prestigious program in college basketball. However, it’s also fair to say that the 1999 roster was nothing special, at least by the Tar Heels’ lofty standards. This team didn’t have guys like Vince Carter or Antawn Jamison, who left for the NBA a year prior. This was before Raymond Felton, Sean May, and Rashad McCants. The turn of the century was a pretty dark time in North Carolina’s illustrious history.
Even so, nobody expected the Heels to lose to Weber State in ‘99. This marked UNC’s 25th consecutive appearance in the tournament, and the program’s talent advantage was expected to carry them deep into the tourney. North Carolina was the No. 3 seed in the West Regional. The Wildcats were 14th.
The Tar Heels, who entered the game as heavy 15-point favorites, had absolutely no answer for Harold Arceneaux. Arceneaux was on fire all game long, and he finished with a game-high 36 points, 20 of which came in the second half. The Wildcats wound up hanging on for the 2-point win. Ed Cota, Brendan Haywood, and co. didn’t have enough in the tank to overcome an early deficit.
It was quite the anomaly for North Carolina. That game remains the program’s only loss in the first round of the Big Dance since the NCAA did away with first-round byes back in 1982. Nobody has beaten North Carolina that early in the tournament since then. So, UNC remains a safe bet early in the tournament…unless they happen to run into Weber State.
Nothing screams “March Madness upset” like a directional state school rising up and knocking off one of the most well-known programs in college hoops. Back in 2016, Middle Tennessee State came out of nowhere to topple Tom Izzo’s Michigan State squad 90-81 in their first-round clash. The Spartans had been tabbed as one of the favorites entering the tourney. Michigan State was a No. 2 seed, and just about everybody’s bracket had them easily getting through No. 15 MTSU in that round of 64 clash.
Michigan State was a 16 ½-point favorite entering the game. They wound up losing by 9 points.
There were around 13 million brackets entered on ESPN.com’s “Tournament Challenge” that year. 22.3% of said brackets had Michigan State advancing to win the national title that year. Only Kansas (25%) was a more popular championship pick. Needless to say, MTSU’s first-round upset was quite the bracket-buster. About a fifth of the entire field saw their brackets crushed on the first day of the tournament.
Michigan State entered the tournament as 9-2 favorites, which was tied for the best odds of all despite their status as a No. 2 seed.
ESPN’s David Purdum reported at the time that more money was bet on Michigan State to win it all at the Westgate SuperBook than any other team in the field. Michigan State spent most of that season as the No. 1 team in the country before star player Denzel Valentine went down with a knee injury in December. A wobbly run of form would cost the Spartans the No. 1 overall seed in the tourney, but the betting public was still incredibly bullish about Izzo’s squad.
Per Purdum, the William Hill sportsbook in Nevada took just 78 moneyline bets on Middle Tennessee State to win the game straight-up. The biggest bet was a $265 wager that wound up cashing out at $5,300. One Michigan State bettor put $150 on the moneyline with the Spartans listed as -7000 favorites. Winning the bet would have won the bettor just $2.15.
Purdum says that 18% of all money bet on tournament winners at William Hill that year came in on Michigan State. One particularly aggressive bettor wagered $50,000 on the Spartans winning it all, a bet that would have won $325,000. Caesars took 513 bets on Michigan State to win in the first round that year. Conversely, there were just 4 bets on the Blue Raiders.
Middle Tennessee State wasn’t really anything special, either. The team went 13-5 in Conference USA play, and they were beaten during the regular season by underwhelming teams like Murray State and Georgia State. Middle Tennessee State averaged just 72.9 points per game during the regular season, which ranked 189th in the nation.
Michigan State didn’t even play poorly in the game, at least on offense. The Spartans finished the game having connected on 56% of their looks from the field, and they knocked down 11 of their 24 looks from long range (45.8%). The Blue Raiders were just…better. The margin of victory would have been even greater if MTSU had been able to hit a free throw. Middle Tennessee State went just 13-for-21 from the charity stripe in the game.
Considering Michigan State was one of the most popular picks to go on to win it all that year, Middle Tennessee State knocking them off makes this one of the biggest betting upsets in the history of the Big Dance.
There must be something in the water when it comes to Baltimore and upsets in the NCAA tournament. Back in 1997, Coppin State, which isn’t all that far from UMBC, pulled off what was one of the most noteworthy upsets in March Madness history when they toppled heavily-favored South Carolina in the first round.
Coppin State had never won an NCAA tournament game before, but that didn’t matter. Despite entering the game as 20 ½-point underdogs, the Eagles would go on to smack the Gamecocks, 78-65. Coppin State didn’t lead the game until a Danny Singletary floater put the Eagles up 55-54 with about 6 minutes to play, but it was a lead they would never surrender.
South Carolina was the SEC regular-season champions, but that didn’t keep Coppin State from out-rebounding them 41-30. The last time Coppin State had faced a Division-1 opponent, they were crushed by 36 points at the hands of Illinois. Needless to say, there wasn’t a whole lot of reason for optimism when it came to the Eagles’ chances of pulling the upset here.
Quick, what does “UMBC” stand for? At this time last year, you would have had no idea. However, little UMBC put themselves on the map in March of 2018 with their Cinderella run in the tourney. The Retrievers made history last year when they became the first No. 16 seed to ever beat a No. 1 seed in the first round when they knocked off top-seeded Virginia.
This wasn’t the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history in terms of pregame point spread, but I feel comfortable saying this is the biggest upset we’ve ever seen in the tourney. UMBC (which stands for the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, by the way), entered the game as 20 ½-point ‘dogs against the Cavaliers. Entering the game, 16 seeds were 0-135 all-time against 1 seeds.
Usually, whenever there’s an upset of that magnitude, the underdog manages to squeak past by the skin of their teeth. That was not the case in this game, however. This was an absolute mauling. The game was tied at 21-21 at the half, but the second half was absolutely dominated by the Retrievers. UMBC outscored the Cavaliers 53-33 in the game’s second 20 minutes on their way to a 74-54 drubbing.
As you may imagine, there was not much betting action at all on the Retrievers heading into the game as one of the lowest seeds in the field. Virginia was so heavily favored in the game that some sportsbooks reportedly didn’t even offer a moneyline on the game. However, there were some fortunate souls that decided to place low-risk, high-reward wagers on UMBC pulling the upset.
ESPN’s Darren Rovell reported on Twitter shortly after the game that one bettor at the Venetian’s sportsbook in Las Vegas put $800 down on the Retrievers to win the game outright at 20/1. That bet paid out $16,800.
There were reportedly just 134 wagers in all bet at William Hill that had UMBC toppling the Cavaliers. Most were small, though. The biggest bet was for $100 and paid out $2,500 in winnings.
As a 20 ½-point underdog, UMBC winning the game by 20 points marks the biggest swing we’ve ever seen in the tournament. Virginia wasn’t just any No. 1 seed, either. Tony Bennett’s team was the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, and they entered the Big Dance as prohibitive betting favorites to win the national championship. Getting obliterated by 20 points by an unknown program was the most shocking thing the NCAA tournament has ever seen.
The Retrievers were the first team to score at least 70 points in a game against Virginia all season. Virginia had not allowed a team to score at least 50 points in a half since 2013. UMBC barely even made it to the tournament in the first place. It took a buzzer-beater against Vermont in the final of the America East championship game for the Retrievers to even earn a spot in the bracket. Without that, they wouldn’t have even been a part of the field.
The Retrievers’ Cinderella run would come to a close in the round of 32 against Kansas State, but UMBC’s incredible triumph at the expense of Virginia will be remembered forever.
Unlike lots of underdogs that have pulled historic March Madness upsets, Norfolk State had a future NBA player on its roster when it pulled off what may be the biggest betting upset in tourney history. Future New York Knick and current Indiana Pacer Kyle O’Quinn helped lead the Spartans to a triumph over the Missouri Tigers back in the first round of the 2012 tournament.
They did so after being listed as 21-point underdogs by oddsmakers prior to tipoff. Norfolk State wound up winning 86-84 despite the fact that this was the first NCAA tournament game in the history of the little program. Mizzou was a No. 2 seed, but they were no match for the No. 15-seeded Spartans that year.
Norfolk State became the first 15-seed to beat a No. 2 since Hampton accomplished the feat back in 2002. At the time, the Spartans were just the fifth No. 15 seed to advance past the first round since the tournament’s field was expanded to 64 teams back in 1985. Interestingly enough, the Spartans were the third team out of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference to win in the first round as a No. 15 seed, with Coppin State and Hampton being the others.
The Tigers were listed at +1200 to win the NCAA tournament that season, which gave them the fifth-best odds of any team in the field. Norfolk State wasn’t even listed as a betting option, which goes to show just how off-the-radar they were coming into the tourney.
Norfolk State’s Cinderella run didn’t last long — they were throttled by 34 points in the second round by Florida — but their status as one of the biggest betting underdogs to ever win an NCAA tournament game is sealed forever.
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