Initinal note: I don't know what the problem is with the line spacing below. Apologies. Also, posting this is a reverse jinx, so relax.
The dawn of time through 1984: There are no 15 seeds. The field is 53 teams in 1984. Play-in games made this number work.
1991: Richmond defeats Syracuse 73-69
The Richmond Spiders, presumably named by Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie fans, announced their existence to the basketball world in 1984, when they defeated 5th-seeded Auburn as a 12 seed. The Spiders repeated the trick in 1988 as a 13 seed, beating 4th-seeded defending champ (and future NIT non-qualifier) Indiana, whose coach no doubt berated his players for their pathetic and shameful failure, because tough love was the only kind of love a man could show at the time. In 1991, the Spiders outdid their past upsets, becoming the first 15 seed to win an NCAA tournament game by overcoming Big East Champ Syracuse and Big East Player of the Year Billy Owens. The world was stunned. Queen Elizabeth reportedly remarked, “Great, my fucking bracket is busted.”
Richmond started the game hot, making 16 of its first 26 shots from the field, and they outshot Syracuse 49% to 45.5% for the game. The Spiders also made 18 of 22 free throws, besting the Orangepersons’ (as they were still called) 14 of 19. Richmond more-or-less held even on the boards, losing the rebounding battle by only five. I cannot find the turnover numbers for the game, but the Baltimore Sun reported that the Spiders looked “well coached” while Syracuse was “undisciplined.”
Richmond’s coach, Dick Tarrant, reported after the game that he compensated for the talent discrepancy between the two teams by frequently switching defenses, which he believed caused Syracuse to be off balance. Tarrant was informed by Verne Lundquist that 25 million people were watching the game by the end, which caused Tarrant to think, “My God, if my guys knew that, they might have run off to the john with diarrhea.” (This quote is real.)
1993: Santa Clara defeats Arizona 64-61
Pac-12 champion Arizona began the 1993 tournament ranked No. 5 in the country. They were the 2nd seed in the West Regional behind Michigan. They would none-the-less lose to West Coast Conference Champion Santa Clara and a young Canadian guard named Steve Nash (who had ten points and four assists).
Santa Clara out-rebounded Arizona 50 to 36 and outshot them 37.7% to 31% from the field. Despite this, the Wildcats led 46-33 with 15:26 remaining in the game. At that moment, Arizona’s best player, Chris Mills, was whistled for his fourth foul. He sat for the next ten minutes. Santa Clara took advantage and managed to win despite missing several free throws that could have clinched the game (some of them missed by Nash).
Santa Clara gained the crowd as the game wore on. They were adopted by neutral fans and even Vanderbilt’s band. Said their coach: "Both teams had about 400 fans. The other 11, 000 became Santa Clara fans…It really began to build as our guys hung in there."
Wildcat coach Lute Olson said after the game, “My hair has gone white. I must answer to the name Lute. Yet still the gods torment me.” He would have to wait to 1997 to win a championship and proudly rename himself “Rodney.”
1997: Coppin State defeats South Carolina 78-65
I can find relatively little about this game, probably because the 2 seed in question was South Carolina. The Gamecocks were the regular season SEC champs and 30 point favorites. They’d defeated reigning national champ Kentucky twice. Coppin State, in turn, was the first MEAC member to make the Big Whatever (as it was dubbed in the ‘90s by Ethan Hawke). Coach Fang Mitchell none-the-less told his team that they could win. And they did win. And that’s so special! If you care about that sort of thing. I mean…it’s not important…do you have a cigarette?
CSU out-rebounded South Carolina by eleven (or ten depending on the source). They shot similar percentages from the field and from three, but CSU shot 34 free throws (making 26) to South Carolina’s 16 (of which they made 13). I can’t find the turnover numbers, so I’m chalking the victory up to the free throw difference. I hope you’re happy.
1998: Richmond defeats South Carolina 62-61
Okay, Richmond was a 14 seed that year. But its coach was John Beilein, so I snuck this in.
2001: Hampton defeats Iowa State 58-57
I didn’t find much on this game either. ISU won the Big 12 in 2001 and featured Big 12 Player of the Year Jamaal “guy who played for the Pacers” Tinsley. Hampton, meanwhile, represented a single island in an archipelago frequented during the summer by New Yorkers who own silk handkerchiefs.
It is tough to make much of the stats in this game, but the Cyclones seem to have lost the game at the line. The teams were close to even in turnovers. ISU shot 40% from the field to Hampton’s 39%. ISU won the rebounding contest by nine. But the Cyclones shot only 6-16 from the line, while Hampton was 13-22.
The fans in Boise, the site of the game, apparently cheered on Hampton throughout the contest. One of Hampton’s players (Marseilles Brown) knew this might happen, because he’d played for Richmond when it beat South Carolina in 1998. He spent the rest of his life transferring from school to school, trying to be part of bigger and bigger upsets, but nothing would ever compete with that day in 2001 when Gatsby himself met him after the game against Iowa State, gave him a manly handshake, and said – with a twinkle in his eye – “Fine match, old sport!”
2012: Norfolk State defeats Missouri 86-84
Missouri was the Big 12 Tournament champ and the 3rd-ranked team in the country at one point during the season. Norfolk State, a school of 5,000, was the champ of MEAC Tournament. Missouri featured a four-guard offense, and Norfolk State was the (presumably) rare 15 seed that was bigger than its 2nd-seeded opponent.
6’10” Norfolk State senior Kyle O’Quinn scored 26 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, leading the way to a 35-23 advantage on the boards. The teams were otherwise very similar: field goals made and attempted, turnovers, and free throws made and attempted were close for both sides. NSU did manage to outshoot Missouri 52.6% to 44.8% from three.
The game took place in Detroit, where Kansas was also set to play. The KU fans present supported NSU both before and during the game, giving them a larger than usual fanbase.
2012: Lehigh defeats Duke 75-70
Duke was neither the ACC regular season nor tournament champion. But they were still a 2 seed, because they are Duke. Lehigh is called the Mountain Hawks, which is pretty cool.
Lehigh won the game at the line, making 25-37 free throws to Duke’s 16-23. The teams shot fairly evenly from the field, though Duke was only 6-26 from three, and the teams also rebounded at a fairly even clip. Lehigh won the turnover battle 8 to 12.
Lehigh was led by two-time Patriot League Player of the Year C.J. McCollum, who had 30 points and 6 assists while reportedly making it into the lane at will. Mason Plumlee (not to be confused with Miles, Mastodon, Mouse, or Manchester Plumlee) and Austin Rivers led Duke with 19 points apiece.
The game was played only 55 miles from Duke’s campus, but it was also the site of the first round game for UNC. Tar Heel fans gladly joined in rooting for the Mountain Hawks.
Coach K said after the game that McCollum was the best player on the court. He also added that it was “a real treat for Lehigh to play against our kids because our kids are so classy and they work so hard and they believe in each other and kids at Duke learn to be men and not just basketball players and I’m so proud of our kids.”
It is considered acceptable to still laugh about this game.
2013: Florida Gulf Coast defeats Georgetown 78-68
They called them the Dynamite Kids. They called them the Florida State Seminoles. They called them delegates to the 1964 Democratic National Convention. But they were all wrong.
They were Dunk City, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, a team of junior Kenny Powerses. Georgetown was merely the co-champion of the Big East during the regular season.
The Eagles outshot the Hoyas 42.9% to 37.5% from the field and 40% to 25.9% from three. They largely held even in turnovers and rebounds. But mostly they played with the sort of yet-unearned confidence found in popular middle schoolers, rappers who start feuds with more established rappers, and dickheads generally. Their brashness, recklessness, and bravado carried them to the Sweet Sixteen, where they lost to Florida because they weren’t that good. I would have hated them if they’d played Michigan.
Don’t play in an arena where your rivals fans happen to be. Don’t be smaller than your opponent. Don’t go extraordinarily cold from the line or the field. Don’t have your star player get into foul trouble. Don’t let your opponent shoot a third more free throws than you. Don’t let your opponent’s star player have the game of his life. And remember to let it all hang loose, like the Dynamite Kids did.