Biggest College Basketball Postseason Upsets

Last Saturday in the second round Horizon League Tournament, Youngstown State defeated Oakland in one of the biggest upsets in postseason history. The ninth-seeded Penguins, who entered the game with a 12-20 record, closed +13.5 on the spread and +795 on the moneyline against the top-seeded Grizzlies. Although this was a historically significant upset, it didn’t crack the top ten upsets of the 2016-17 college basketball season.

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This past season featured several unthinkable upsets, including five teams who closed at greater than 20/1 on the moneyline at Pinnacle. That’s the most upsets of that size in our historical archive, which dates back to the start of the 2004-2005 college basketball season.

Although Youngstown State’s upset was the largest postseason upset to date, there were 34 larger moneyline payouts during the 2016-17 college basketball season. That said, it’s worth noting that we have tracked lines for over 3,500 games during the regular season and fewer than 200 games during the postseason (which includes all tournament games).

This was clearly an unbelievable accomplishment for Youngstown State, but I wanted to know how it stacked up against some of the all-time postseason upsets. To accomplish this, I combed through our historical database to find the biggest postseason upsets of all-time.

Tournament Date Underdog Favorite Underdog Moneyline Underdog Spread Final Score
American East 3/2/16 Hartford Albany +3750 +18.5 68-59
NCAA 3/16/12 Norfolk State Missouri +2250 +21 86-84
NCAA 3/18/16 Middle Tennessee State Michigan State +1529 +16.5 90-81
WAC 3/14/13 Texas State Denver +1139 +16 72-68
Pac-12 3/8/07 California UCLA +1040 +15 76-69
WAC 3/10/05 Boise State Nevada +1030 +15 73-72
NIT 3/16/10 Jacksonville Arizona State +1025 +14.5 67-66
Conf USA 3/10/05 South Florida Cincinnati +992 +14.5 80-68
NCAA 3/19/15 UAB Iowa State +991 +14 60-59
Big Ten 3/13/14 Northwestern Iowa +929 +13.5 67-62
NCAA 3/18/10 Ohio Georgetown +925 +14 97-83
NCAA 3/21/14 Mercer Duke +843 +13 78-71
NIT 3/18/14 Robert Morris St John's +843 +13.5 89-78
NCAA 3/18/05 Bucknell Kansas +820 +13.5 64-63
Horizon 3/4/17 Youngstown State Oakland +795 +13.5 81-80

As you can see, Youngstown State’s victory actually ranks as the 15th biggest upset in college basketball postseason history. The most surprising result came last year when 7-seed Hartford knocked off 2-seed Albany in the quarterfinals of the American East Tournament.

The second biggest moneyline upset in our database occurred nearly five years ago when 15-seed Norfolk State knocked off 2-seed Missouri in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This is one of just eight instances in which a 15-seed defeated a 2-seed, including last season when Middle Tennessee State (closed +1529) knocked off Michigan State.

Although there have been several major postseason upsets over the past thirteen seasons, it’s not advisable to take these massive underdogs. Since 2005, moneyline underdogs of +800 or greater have gone just 14-335 (4%) with -153.94 units lost in tournament games. Sportsbooks often have significant liability on these large moneyline underdogs — especially in postseason games as bettors look for big one-time payouts on Cinderella teams.

In addition to charging prohibitive juice, sportsbooks will often shade their lines to account for the inevitable influx of public money on large underdogs. Although most bettors won’t (and probably shouldn’t) lay these massive favorites on the moneyline, bettors would have actually earned +5.99 units by fading moneyline underdogs of +800 or greater during the postseason.

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David Solar

David Solar is the Content Manager at Sports Insights. He specializes in sports betting analytics and creating data-driven betting systems. He can be reached directly at david@sportsinsights.com or on twitter at @TheDavidSolar.

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