Everybody loves an underdog. Unfancied and undervalued, David beating Goliath captures the attention of the sporting world. Douglas v Tyson, Leicester City winning the English Premier League, or the Miracle on Ice. But how often does the underdog actually defy the odds and win? According to oddsshark.com, upsets happen around 25% of the time in NCAA basketball. Along with NCAA football, this is the lowest percentage of underdog wins in American sport. In the NBA, it rises to over 30%; a one-in-three chance for a smaller or unfavored team to get the victory. Looking at NBA betting odds, for example, it is clear to see there are huge disparities in odds in some of the matchups. Given the comparatively low percentages of upsets in college basketball, the odds of an underdog emerging with the win are even higher. However, from time to time, miracles do happen. Let’s take a look:
Villanova 66 – 64 Georgetown, 1985
The Georgetown Hoyas were the 1984 champions, and with Patrick Ewing returning for the 1985 season, all signs pointed towards Georgetown retaining their championship. They came into the championship game on a 35-2 record, with defeats to St. John’s and Syracuse their only losses. Villanova was the eighth seed and wasn’t expected to make it into the final four, never mind the championship game. The Wildcats beat 1 and 2 seeds on their way to the final, but a Georgetown team with Ewing would surely prove too strong. Villanova, led by coach Rollie Massimino, played a near-perfect game. Defensively they kept Ewing to 14 points, and offensively they shot 78.6% from the field, and 90% in the second half. Ewing maintains that despite this incredible attacking performance, the Wildcats did not deserve to beat his Hoyas: “We made a mistake, turned the ball over, and the better team did not win the game… I said it then, and I’ll say it now.”
UMBC 74 – 54 Virginia, 2018
Virginia Cavaliers were a number 1 seed, in addition to being the number 1 seeded team in the entire tournament. They had the best defense in the tournament, averaging a concession of just 53.4 points per game. Their record going into the matchup with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) was 31-2. The Retrievers were 16 seeded and had an unenviable 24-10 record. Before this game, when number 16 seeds came up against no.1 seeds the numbers were 0-135 in favor of the top seeds. As NCAA.com put it, the Retrievers were “as doomed as turkeys on Thanksgiving.” At halftime, the teams were level 21-21. Unlike most other upsets, the underdogs of UMBC destroyed the favored Cavaliers 53-33 in the second half. Speaking after the game, there were contrasting emotions. Jarius Lyle, who led his team to victory with 28 points, said “it’s always exciting to make history.” A devastated Kyle Guy of Virginia said, “there’s not really a whole lot that can prepare you for this kind of feeling.” Guy and his teammates would go on to need a police escort back to their hotel following death threats straight after the full-time buzzer.
Stephen F. Austin v Duke, 2019
Duke hadn’t lost at home for 20 years and was unbeaten in 2019 until Stephen F. Austin came to the Cameron Indoor Stadium. In 2018 the Lumberjacks had a 14-16 record and as a result, were highly unfavored. Going into the game, the odds had SFA at 85/1, or +8500. These were the highest odds over a five-year period for what ended up being a winning team in a game of NCAA Basketball. Duke had a 15-point lead in the first half but, by the break, the Blue Devils were only up by five, 45-40. The lead changed hands in the second half, and Gavin Kensmil was able to tie the game for the Lumberjacks in the final minute. Overtime favored Duke, with their home crowd. However, a breakaway lay-up from Nathan Bain beat the buzzer and gave SFA a famous 85-83 win, ending a 150-game home winning streak for Duke in the process.