Pittsburgh’s second-round loss to Butler on Sunday got us thinking: What teams are the biggest failures in NCAA tournament history? These aren’t the greatest teams never to win a title, mind you. If you want to talk about Phi Slamma Jamma or the Vince Carter Tar Heels, you’ll have to find another room.
There’s a distinction to be made with March’s biggest failures. Namely, you can’t be a failure and also reach the Final Four, because that’s an acceptable achievement for any team. You aren’t exactly losing to chumps in the Final Four. Here is our dirty dozen, in chronological order, of teams that were a first, second or third seed that bowed out in the first or second round.
No. 12 N.C. State, 1956
No. 2 seed overall (24-4). Lost in first round, 79-78 to Canisius. It took four overtimes, but the little school from Buffalo, upset the one of the nation’s top title contenders, and also set a record for the most overtimes in the tournament. Granted, there were just 25 teams in the tournament that year, and Canisius made it through one more round before falling to Temple, but it’s still one of the biggest letdowns for a team expected to contend for a title that had also just won its third consecutive ACC tournament.
No. 11 North Carolina, 1979
No. 1 seed (23-6). Lost in second round 72-71 to No. 9 Penn. It was dubbed “Black Sunday” by Carolina hoops fans (Duke was also knocked out on the same day). The Tar Heels had won nine of their last 10 games before they were abruptly dismissed by the Ivy Leaguers. Penn went all the way to the Final Four.
No. 10 DePaul, 1980-82
No. 1 seed all three years. Lost in second round all three years: 77-71 to No. 8 UCLA, 42-41 to No. 9 St. Joseph’s and 82-75 to No. 8 Boston College The UCLA loss was somewhat understandable. But John Smith’s layup with just seconds left, knocking off the Mark Aguirre-led Blue Demons in 1981, crushed the Blue Demons. In 1982, the great disappointment might have greater for a DePaul squad favored to cruise through its region after going 26-1 with a chance to make up for the previous two years of torment.
No. 9 Kentucky, 1986
No. 1 seed (31-4). Lost in second round 59-57 to No. 11 LSU. The Wildcats had beaten the Tigers three times that season, but the fourth time was a charm, even with three key players out with injuries. At the time, the Tigers, powered by John (Hot Plate) Williams, were the lowest-seeded team to ever reach the Final Four.
No. 8 Syracuse, 1991
No. 2 seed (26-6). Lost in first round, 73-69 to No. 15 Richmond. Syracuse was Kansas in the tournament before Kansas was Kansas in the tournament. And Richmond has made a name for itself in four consecutive decades as a team keen to upset its foes early in the tournament. Just ask this year's crew from Vanderbilt.
No. 7 Arizona, 1993
No. 2 seed (24-4). Lost in first round, 64-61 to No. 15 Santa Clara. Lute Olson’s squad was strong with future NBA first-round picks Chris Mills, Khalid Reeves and Damon Stoudamire. But Santa Clara was stronger thanks to freshman sensation Steve Nash.
No. 6 UMass, 1994
No. 2 seed (28-7). Lost in second round 95-85 to No. 10 Maryland. One year later, the Minutemen would play for a trip to the final four and would lose to Oklahoma State. Two years later, at 35-2, they’d lose in the national semifinal to eventual national champion Kentucky. It was a great stretch for UMass, but it was also equally heartbreaking.
No. 5 Stanford, 1999
No. 2 seed (26-7). Lost in second round, 82-74 to No. 10 Gonzaga. The Mark Madsen-led Cardinal was in the midst of a dominating run, including a Final Four appearance in 1998, but was derailed by a Gonzaga program at the dawn of its days as a bracket buster.
No. 4 Iowa State, 2001
No. 2 seed (25-6). Lost in first round, 58-57 to No. 15 Hampton. The Cyclones were a year removed from losing in the Elite Eight to eventual national champion Michigan State. They were probably over-ranked, but they’ll still go down as massive underachievers. A No. 2 seed hasn't lost in the first round since.
No. 3 Kansas, 2005
No. 3 seed (23-7). Lost in first round, 64-63 to No. 14 Bucknell. The Jayhawks hadn’t missed the second round since 1984 (excluding one season in which they were out of the tournament because of probation). It didn't get much better the next season when Kansas lost again in the first round, this time as a No. 4 seed to Bradley.
No. 2 Kansas, 2010
No. 1 seed (33-3). Lost in second round, 67-65 to No. 9 Northern Iowa. The Jayhawks’ annual tradition of reaching a championship game or flaming out entirely too early held up in this second-round thriller. The lesson? Don’t mess with Ali Farokhmanesh.
No. 1 Pittsburgh, 2011
No. 1 seed (27-5). Lost in second round, 71-70 to No. 8 Butler. Sure, the Bulldogs were coming of a national championship appearance, but the Big East champion Panthers seemed like a lock for the Final Four, and then foolishly fouled away their ticket to the Sweet Sixteen.