Where does UMBC over Virginia rank among greatest sports upsets of all time?

There are so many ways to contextualize UMBC’s stunning 74-54 win over Virginia in the NCAA tournament on Friday night. And yet none on its own can really do the upset justice.

There was the 0-135 record of 16-seeds against 1-seeds. There was the point spread – Virginia by 20.5 – and the money line – Virginia -4500, if it was listed at all. There were Virginia’s ranking, No. 1 no matter where you looked, and UMBC’s, 188 on KenPom. There were UMBC’s 20-plus-point losses earlier in the season to powerhouses such as Vermont and Albany.

Yes, the team that just pulled off the impossible really did lose 83-39 to Albany less than two months ago. Seriously.

But the only way to truly contextualize UMBC’s historic victory is to place it in historical context. Where does it rank among the greatest sports upsets of all time?

If we limit the list to somewhat mainstream American sports, and to single games or events, surely UMBC over Virginia is among the top six. But it’s ranking can be debated.


6. Appalachian State over Michigan, college football

Was Appalachian State’s Week 1 victory over Michigan in 2007, sealed by a blocked field goal on the final play of the game, more surprising than UMBC over Virginia? Yeah, probably. Was it more unlikely? Yes. Appalachian State went in, unofficially, as a 33-point underdog. It came out a 34-32 victor.

But in the end, this was an early-season football game, which means it A) carried more unknown variables going in, and B) wasn’t as consequential as 16-over-1 in the postseason.

5. Chaminade over Virginia, men’s basketball

Virginia’s other shocking loss was more incomprehensible and unbelievable than its 2018 NCAA tournament disaster. In 1982, the Cavaliers, with the indomitable Ralph Sampson, lost 77-72 to Chaminade, a Hawaiian NAIA school with an enrollment of 900. There was no betting line, no media coverage, no awareness, not a single thought that the top-ranked team in the nation could lose. And yet it did. It remains the most inexplicable upset in college basketball history.

But there was so much mystery and mystique around the game – it wasn’t televised or caught on video, so fewer than 4,000 people have ever witnessed it – that it’s tough to judge. There are urban legends that have been crafted. There’s so much we don’t know about the circumstances and possible explanations for how the heck this happened that it’s difficult to rank it among the three greatest sports upsets of all time.

4. UMBC over Virginia, men’s college basketball

Let’s fight through recency bias and assess UMBC’s stunner fairly. And yes, it was a stunner. But was it as unfathomable as many people felt it was in the aftermath? Probably not.

It was as earth-shaking as it was because 16 over 1 had never been done before. But just because it hadn’t been done before didn’t make it near-impossible. Several 16-seeds had come close. And when you consider that, over the years, 135 had entered games against top seeds with, on average, roughly a 2 or 3 percent chance to win – just as UMBC did – it’s actually somewhat surprising that none had.

There are also reasons UMBC over Virginia was more likely than most potential 16-over-1s. Virginia was missing a key player. It also plays a style and a pace conducive to fluky outcomes. Its system neutralizes talent advantages. Underdogs only have to sustain extraordinary performance for relatively fewer possessions. So there were reasons to think a UMBC upset was possible.

What made it so remarkable was the margin of victory. UMBC didn’t just win as a 20.5-point underdog; it covered the spread by a whopping 40.5 points! In a way, though, the thoroughness of the victory downplays how great an upset it was. UMBC would have been able to pull it off even with a flawed performance. So while it will go down in college hoops history, it doesn’t quite top the all-sports charts.

3. Mississippi State over UConn, women’s basketball

Yes, it was the Final Four, and yes, Mississippi State was a No. 2 seed. It wasn’t some plucky underdog. But it was an underdog – a massive one. Because anybody was, and still is, a massive underdog against UConn.

The Huskies carried a 111-game winning streak into the 2017 Final Four, and appeared to be cruising toward a national title. They were 21.5-favorites, and -7,000 on the money line. Both those numbers were bigger than Virginia’s against UMBC. UConn’s track record was also much stronger. The stakes were much higher. And the finish – a Morgan William buzzer-beater – was more dramatic. So William and the Bulldogs still take the crown for biggest college basketball upset of all time.

2. Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson

Not only had Tyson never lost when he stepped into the ring against Douglas in 1990; of his 37 wins in 37 fights, 35 had been by knockout. He had a longer and more comprehensive track record of dominance than anybody else on this list. That’s why Douglas was a 42/1 underdog – and even those odds were, according to reports, only offered at one or a few Las Vegas casinos. It was a foregone conclusion that Tyson would make quick work of his overmatched opponent.

And then, well, he didn’t. Douglas knocked out Tyson in the 10th round. For those who weren’t alive to experience it – and for those who aren’t boxing fans – it’s difficult to comprehend just how shocking Douglas’ victory was.

1. Miracle on Ice

It was college kids against pros. It was amateur Minnesotans against the mighty Soviets. It was the sporting extension of a political rivalry. And it was a game the USSR simply couldn’t lose. There was seemingly no way. The Soviets had won the past four Olympic golds. They’d won 17 of 20 world championships between 1963 and 1983. They’d smashed the U.S. in a warmup game weeks earlier.

But in 1980, the American kids shocked the world. They won 4-3 in the Olympic medal round, and ultimately took gold. The Miracle on Ice was dubbed “the greatest upset in sports history” at the time, and it probably still stands as such.

Also considered: New York Jets over Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, USA over England at the 1950 World Cup, 16-seed Harvard over 1-seed Stanford in women’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament, Rulon Gardner over Alexander Karelin at the 2000 Olympics.

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer and college basketball for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.

More March Madness coverage from Yahoo Sports:
UMBC shocks Virginia, first 16-seed ever to beat a No. 1
What is UMBC? Everything you need to know about the university
UMBC’s upset eliminated last perfect bracket in Yahoo Sports Tourney Pick’em
Where UMBC’s upset of Virginia ranks among all-time greatest upsets
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