No month offers as much to the fan of the upset and the underdog as March, and no round of the Big Dance offers as much potential for an upset as the first round when the best teams in the nation face the teams that just barely squeaked into the tournament. Sure, there are other rounds with upset potential, and yeah, these first-round games are often over well before the final buzzer, but when they’re close, they’re as exciting as anything you’ll see all year. And when they end up in an upset? That’s sports history, baby. Let’s take a look at some of the great teams who never were as we try to figure out which of these choke artists fell the hardest.
Duke 2012 – N0. 2 Seed
The Blue Devils entered the Big Dance in 2012 expecting to simply outpace and out-coach their way to another title. Led by Coach Mike Krzyzewski and a rotation of skilled scorers that included Austin Rivers, brothers Mason and Marshall Plumlee, and Seth Curry, Duke was coming off another dominant season and were looking forward to a long tournament run. Then, in the first game of the tournament, they ran into 15th-seeded Lehigh.
Playing in Greensboro, NC, less than an hour from Duke’s home stadium, the odds seemed stacked against Lehigh from the beginning, with Duke being favored going in by 12.5 points. That clearly didn’t sit well with Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum, who kept his team in the game while Duke’s poor shooting stalled them from ever pulling away.
McCollum and the Mountain Hawks would eventually pull away in the second half behind a suddenly-raucous Greensboro Coliseum crowd, as he finished with 30 points to lead Lehigh to a stunning 75-70 victory.
Kansas 2005 – No. 2 Seed
The 2005 Kansas Jayhawks may go down as one of the great what-could-have-been teams in recent college basketball history. Led by seniors Wayne Simien and Keith Langford, two players who had combined to average over 34 points-per-game, Kansas began the season with a strong 20-1 record and was and viewed as perhaps the most seasoned team entering the season’s final stretch. Then things just started to…unravel.
Kansas would lose five of its next eight games after that 20-1 start, including back-to-back overtime losses by a combined three points. This would seem to indicate that Kansas could have easily won more games than it did, except they lost the next game to No. 21 Oklahoma by five. Then, three games later, they lost again. Then, in the Big 10 Tournament, they lost again. So can you guess what happened when they entered the tournament to face 14-seeded Bucknell? They lost, by one point on a last-second hook shot by Chris McNaughton.
At least those Jayhawks were, you know, consistently disappointing. That counts for something! (It doesn’t.)
1993 Arizona – No. 2 Seed
This Arizona Wildcats team may not have had any historically big names on it, but it was still flat-out stacked with scoring. Four players averaged over 11 points-per-game for the Wildcats in ’93, with Chris Mills chipping in over 20 per game as the Wildcats went 22-1 to end their season. They were a damn good team, and they really did look it for stretches of their first-round game against 15-seed Santa Clara. At one point, the Wildcats even went on a 25-0 run. 25 straight points. And they lost. How?
Well, there might be two decent-to-good reasons. First, Santa Clara had a guy named Steve Nash playing point guard, and he’s pretty good. Second, Arizona failed to score a point for 15 minutes straight in the second half. It ended up being only a 3-point victory for Santa Clara, but it still marked only the second time that a 2-seed was eliminated in the first round.
Syracuse 1991 – No. 2 Seed
Who better to follow up Arizona’s exit in ’93 than the original 2-seed chokers in Syracuse? The Orange were in the unprecedented territory when they met 15-seed Richmond in the 1991 tournament. Led by Billy Owens, a first-team All-American who would go on to be the third overall pick in that year’s NBA draft, the Orange were looked to make a deep run. Instead, they just made history, becoming the first 2-seed to ever get bounced in the first round of the tournament. Richmond surged up and down the court, securing a quick lead that they would not relinquish. By the end of the game, over 25 million viewers were watching at home, as CBS had switched its broadcast over to watch Richmond became the first 15-seed to ever win a tournament game.
Duke 2014 – No. 2 Seed
Duke needed to appear twice on this list because…well because they just did. It’s Duke. They can handle it.
This 2014 Duke squad was basically the perfect assemblage of upperclassmen and incoming talents; led by two future first-round picks in Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, Coach K built his rotations around Parker’s dynamic size and the system knowledge of his guards Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton. And those rotations really worked.
Despite a late-season loss to Wake Forest, Duke was viewed as having its most fully-assembled team in years. Even in their first-round matchup against 15-seed Mercer, Duke looked, if not overwhelming, at least strong throughout. They held a five-point lead late in the second half, just needing to pull away a bit to secure their trip to the next round. Enter: a 20-5 run by Mercer. You read that correctly: Mercer went on a 20-5 run against Mike Krzyzewski-led team with the season on the line.
And that, my friends, is why Duke needed to be on here twice.
What did we get wrong? What did we get right? Want to reminisce about some March Madness trauma you feel we overlooked? Leave us a comment and let us know which Duke choke job we foolishly overlooked!