Most Common March Madness Upsets

The NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament, aka March Madness, plays out over the course of three action-packed weeks and captures the imagination of the nation in the process. 

March Madness upsets are some of the most memorable moments in the storied history of the tournament. Some of them raised eyebrows only slightly; others totally shook up the landscape and destroyed brackets from coast to coast. As a bettor, if you can spot one of those game-changers before they happen, you can really cash in.

So how do you pick big (or little) upsets from a loaded bracket? What can you notice before tipoff to see one coming? Which specific seeds are more likely to deliver the biggest surprises and destroy your hopes in your March Madness bracket contest? We have the answers below.

March Madness brackets explained

Before you can pick the right upsets, you have to understand how the bracket itself gets constructed. Selecting the teams is only part of the job for the NCAA selection committee. They also have to make sense of the field of 68 teams while laying out a clear-cut path to resolution.

The bracket helps them do just that. First, eight teams compete for the four regional 16th-seeded spots, in what has come to be known as the “First Four.” These games take place a couple of days ahead of the tourney, with winners advancing to the main event.

March Madness Selection ShowThe four winners complete the bracket, which is divided up into four quadrants: East, South, Midwest, and West. Each region has 16 teams, which are seeded from 1 to 16. Matchups are based on seeding as follows for the first round:

March Madness first-round pairings

  • 1 vs. 16
  • 2 vs. 15
  • 3 vs. 14
  • 4 vs. 13
  • 5 vs. 12
  • 6 vs. 11
  • 7 vs. 10
  • 8 vs. 9

The tournament is single elimination. Winners advance to the next round throughout the event, with the field ultimately getting whittled down to two squads, which square off in the national title tilt. For each round, there is a maximum number of games that can be held.

March Madness games by round

  • Opening Round: 4 games
  • First Round: 32
  • Second Round: 16
  • Third Round (Sweet 16 teams): 8
  • Fourth Round (Elite Eight): 4
  • Final Four: 2
  • National Championship: 1

All told, it’s 67 games from the opening tip of the First Four through to the finale. Each game will attract a large amount of betting volume, with interest rising even higher as the tournament advances.

You can bet on each March Madness game in several ways, including moneylines, point spreads, totals, props, and live (in-play) betting. Bettors can also hit the futures odds market to bet on the team to win it all.

Do top seeds always win in March Madness?

The modern era of college basketball’s signature event began in 1985. That was the year that the NCAA Tournament field expanded to 64 teams. The dance floor became even more crowded beginning with the 2011 edition when the First Four games were added.

Since that point, the 68 top college basketball programs in the nation battle annually with the national championship serving as the prize. There have been plenty of memorable upsets through the years, but the higher-seeded teams also have a history of winning. For example:

  • Since 1985, there have been 70 possible spots in the title game. A team seeded #1-4 has accounted for 61 of them.
  • The lowest-seeded team to ever make it to the final was slotted at 8th, a feat that has happened three times.

In the early rounds, the higher-ranked clubs have a very solid overall track record. If we look at just the first round, here’s the overall winning percentage of 1-4 seeds in the modern era.

March Madness round one winning percentages

  • 1 seed: 99%
  • 2 seed: 94%
  • 3 seed: 85%
  • 4 seed: 79%

As you drop further down the scale, the winning percentage drops. Teams in seeds 5-7 win around 60 to 65% of the time in round one, while 8-9 seeds even out at about 50/50.

Once you get down to the 10 seed or lower, it’s around 39% or less. The lowest seeds (15,16) have the toughest time, at 6% and 1% respectively.

In short, if you’re looking for upsets in round one, they’re most likely to come against 5-8 seeds. A loss by a 1-4 seed can happen, but it’s not something you can bank on. So when making an upset call for March Madness, be sure that you’ve built out a realistic case and don’t get cute about it.

How to find March Madness upsets before they happen

There is no one single secret to finding an NCAA March Madness upset, but rather several pieces of the puzzle that help to form the story. As you research the matchups, you’re essentially looking for clues and building your case every step of the way.

Start of NCAA basketball gameFor upset potential, make note of what you find in the following three key areas:

1. Matchup advantages

This will be part of your overall research anyway, but specific advantages may not be properly accounted for in the betting odds. Examples include overall shooting percentages, depth of rotation, size advantages, and defensive efficiency. Little clues like this can add up to a potential upset in the making.

Advanced analytics have come to college basketball in a big way, and they can sniff out an underseeded team poised for a big upset. Loyola-Chicago, an 11 seed in 2018 that went all the way to the Final Four, comes to mind as a team that the analytics rated highly, but that was dramatically underseeded.

2. Playing styles

Not all playing styles are created equal, and some can just be downright frustrating for opponents to deal with. For example, a really fast-paced team can be tough to defend, while those that slow things down to a snail-like pace can also create headaches. The proverbial matchup nightmare could be a recipe for an upset if a high seed runs into a team with a problematic style.

3. Current form

Each year, there are low-seeded teams that enter the tournament on a hot streak. Some high seeds back in while not playing all that well. This can be a big clue to lean on in the early rounds, especially when a team playing well with nothing to lose finds a tense, struggling, power-conference heavy hitter. Although it has proven to be fallible from time to time (talent does win out most of the time), it has made for quite a few of those classic “one shining moments.” If you find a match-up like this that the seeds aren’t reflecting, circle it.

If you keep those three points in mind while researching, there’s a good chance you’ll walk away with a couple of high-potential upset picks to feel good about.

What’s the biggest upset in March Madness history?

The most stunning upset in the history of March Madness actually happened not too long ago. It was in 2018, when the 1-seeded Virginia Cavaliers stepped on the court as 20.5-point favorites over the 16-seeded UMBC Retrievers. The unknown program wasn’t viewed as anything resembling a threat to one of the tourney favorites, but things broke much differently.

In fact, UMBC almost covered the spread in the completely opposite direction with a shocking 74-54 victory. The Cinderella story came to an end in round two with a 50-43 loss to 9th-seeded Kansas, but that didn’t take away from the legendary accomplishment.

UMBC is the first — and to date still the only — 16 seed to win a game at March Madness.

If we go down one more notch in the seedings, 15 seeds have managed to pull off a first-round win eight times to date. Here’s a look back at those stunning upsets.

  • 2016: Middle Tennessee over Michigan State, 90-81
  • 2013: Florida Gulf Coast over Georgetown, 78-68
  • 2012: Norfolk State over Missouri, 86-84
  • 2012: Lehigh over Duke, 75-70
  • 2001: Hampton over Iowa State, 58-57
  • 1997: Coppin State over South Carolina, 78-65
  • 1993: Santa Clara over Arizona, 64-61
  • 1991: Richmond over Syracuse, 73-69

Interestingly, a 1-2 seed has been knocked out early five times over the past decade alone.

While upsets aren’t very likely in the early rounds for top-seeded clubs, it can happen. When trying to pick out your upset spots, look for higher-seeded teams that could be the most vulnerable, but don’t try to force an upset call that just isn’t there.

Final Four Cinderella stories

The vast majority of spots in the Final Four have been captured by teams seeded 1-4 in modern times. A 5-8 seed has pulled it off less frequently, and there’s a rather dramatic drop off once we get to 9 seeds and lower.

Since 1985, just six teams seeded lower than 8 have made the Final Four. Here’s a peek at those Cinderella stories and how they came to a close.

  • 1986 LSU, 11 seed: After taking down Purdue in the opening round, LSU picked off the top three seeds in the Southeast region to advance to the Final Four. The dream came to an end with an 88-77 loss to Louisville in the semifinals.
  • 2006 George Mason, 11 seed: The George Mason run began with an upset win over Michigan State and culminated with a victory over top-seeded Connecticut in the regional final. They fell to defeat at the hands of Florida by a score of 73-58 in the semis.
  • 2011 VCU, 11 seed: VCU went on a memorable run all the way from the First Four. They picked up a 10-point victory over Kansas, the 1 seed, in the West final before finally losing steam with an 8-point loss to Butler in the semifinals.
  • 2013 Wichita State, 9 seed: Wichita State stunned top-seeded Gonzaga in round two and proceeded to knock off second-seeded Ohio State in the regional final. The air came out of the balloon with a 4-point loss to Louisville at the Final Four.
  • 2016 Syracuse, 10 seed: The Orange knocked off the 7, 15, and 11 seeds before being paired up with Virginia in the regional final. It was a 68-62 victory for Syracuse, but the program came back to earth with an 83-66 loss to North Carolina in the semis.
  • 2018 Loyola-Chicago, 1 seed: The South region was busted up pretty good in 2018. Loyola-Chicago squared off with the 9 seed, Kansas State, in the regional final, winning 78-62. The music stopped with a 69-57 loss to Michigan in the semifinals.

How to bet on March Madness in NY

BetMGM Sportsbook appIf you feel good about a potential upset pick and you want to put an actual bet down on it rather than just use it for your bracket contest, options abound for betting on March Madness in and from New York.

You can bet at a retail sportsbook upstate, of course, but you can also get your bets down with an online sportsbook or sportsbook app in neighboring NJ and PA. New York residents can jump on the offerings across the border but still do all of the legwork and research in New York state beforehand. Here’s what you need to do.

  • Click on our exclusive links to begin the registration process.
  • Follow the prompts to get your account all set up.
  • Download the iOS or Android app from the NY online sportsbook.
  • Log in to the app.
  • Claim your free bets or bonus offer and make your first deposit

You can complete all five steps in mere minutes. Setting up and managing your account can be done at home in NY, but you’ll have to be within the borders of NJ to place bets. Geolocation tracking software helps the operators verify that you are where you say you are. Once you have all of your March Madness bets in, head back home to enjoy the games.

House rules for betting on college basketball

When betting on college basketball at a sportsbook, there are clear-cut rules of the road to follow. The rules cover how bets are placed and settled, as well as circumstances that may impact the proceedings. Here are the main points to be aware of.

  • All placed bets will be active once the contest tips off. In the event of a complete cancellation, bets will be voided and refunded.
  • Settlement of all wagers is based on official results and statistics. Bets are graded promptly once results are known and outcome disputes aren’t entertained.
  • If the tournament as a whole is called off, futures bets will be voided and refunded. For a slight delay to a later date, bets will remain in place.

While that covers the majority of instances at the top of the list, we encourage you to review the house rules at the books you play on, in full detail. Unexpected things can happen, so it’s best to understand how they’re handled to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

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