Until the day a 16-seed comes up with a historic win (they’re 0-132 in NCAA tournament history), the 15-seed is the ultimate (plausible) underdog.

15-seeds have played 132 first-round games vs. a 2-seed. They’ve won eight times. The first came in 1991, when Richmond took down Syracuse 73-69; the most recent when Middle Tennessee downed Michigan State 90-81 in 2016.

Here's the full list:

Year Seed Team Final AP ranking Record Conf Score
1991 15 Richmond NR 22-10 CAA 73
1991 2 Syracuse 7 26-6 Big East 69
1993 15 Santa Clara NR 19-12 WCC 64
1993 2 Arizona 5 24-4 Pac-10 61
1997 15 Coppin State NR 22-9 MEAC 78
1997 2 South Carolina 6 24-8 SEC 65
2001 15 Hampton NR 25-7 MEAC 58
2001 2 Iowa State 10 25-6 Big 12 57
2012 15 Norfolk State NR 26-10 MEAC 86
2012 2 Missouri 3 30-5 Big 12 84
2012 15 Lehigh NR 27-8 Patriot 75
2012 2 Duke 8 27-7 ACC 70
2013 15 Florida Gulf Coast NR 26-11 A-Sun 78
2013 2 Georgetown 8 25-7 Big East 68
2016 15 Middle Tennessee NR 25-10 CUSA 90
2016 2 Michigan State 2 29-6 Big Ten 81

So what does it take for a 15-seed to pull of the improbable? We looked at the season stats and box scores from those eight games to find out.

The answer: Free throws matter, experience matters, 3-pointers do not.

Free throws

The biggest difference in every 15-v-2 upset was free throws. In all eight upsets, 15-seeds shot more free throws. In six, they made more, highlighted by FGCU’s ridiculous line of 30-for-44 against Georgetown.

15-seed 18.88 18.88 27.63 68.33%
2-seed 22.88 13.38 19.75 67.72%

Strangely enough, the 15-seeds that won haven’t been lights out at the line. The eight teams averaged a free throw percentage of 69.3 during the regular season and 68.3 in the 15-v-2 games. For reference, 225 of 351 teams are at or above 70 percent from the line so far this year.

Even at sub-70 percent, shooting an average of 28 free throws per 15-v-2 matchup makes a huge difference. The 15-seeds scored an average of 25 percent of their total points from the charity stripe, as opposed to 19 percent for the 2-seeds.

But all the talk about free throws can boil down to one simple stat: In 15-v-2 upsets, 15-seeds won by an average of 5.9 points, and hit an average of 5.5 more free throws.


It’s one of the most hypothesized theories for why smaller teams pull off major upsets in the NCAA tournament: They’re simply more experienced.

And in the case of 15-v-2 upsets, the theory proves true.

To examine this, we took the level of experience for each player (one for freshman, two for sophomore, etc.) and multiplied it by the minutes that player played in the game. For example, since there are 200 total minutes in a regulation game (40 minutes each for five players), a team composed of all seniors would have a score of 800, while a team of all freshman would have a score of 200.

Through seven of these games (full stats were not available for Richmond vs. Syracuse), the 15-seed teams had an average score of 616.9, while the 2-seeds’ score was 565.4.

  Arizona-Santa Clara SCAR-Coppin St Iowa St-Hampton Missouri-Norfolk St Duke-Lehigh Georgetown-FGCU MSU-MTSU
15-seed 520 618 662 686 609 571 652
2-seed 538 529 641 702 494 434 620
Difference -18 89 21 -16 115 137 32

While raw talent is always a necessity, in high-pressure situations, nothing is more valuable than a player with plenty of minutes under his belt.


Here’s one where popular opinion may prove false. Upsets come at the hand of hot sharpshooters, right? Not in these cases.

In the eight upsets, 15-seeds averaged fewer than six made 3-pointers per game, and no 15-seed hit more threes than their 2-seed opponent.

  FGM FGA FG% 2PM 2PA 2P% 3PM 3PA 3P%
15-seed 25.3 55.5 45.5% 19.4 37.6 51.5% 5.9 17.9 32.9%
2-seed 24.5 57.0 43.0% 17.5 35.0 50.0% 7.0 22.0 31.8%

Instead, the underdogs opted for more high-percentage shots, shooting an average of 38 two-pointers per game. Only one 2-seed had a better field goal percentage than their opponent — 2001 Iowa State.

So, if you're feeling bold and want to predict the ninth-ever 15-v-2 upset this year, your ideal candidate should draw a lot of fouls, shoot decently from the line, and have an experienced roster. And a little luck never hurt.

Here are a few more observations from the data:

• Three of the winning 15-seeds came out of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, which has sent 12 total 15-seeds to the tournament. On the other side of the coin is the Ohio Valley Conference, which is 0-11 as a 15-seed.

• Low scoring games favor the upset. The average total score for all 15-v-2 games is 142.2, but that drops to 114.6 in upsets.

• Along those lines, while the average margin of victory in a 15-v-2 upset was 5.9 points, the average margin for all 15-v-2 games is -16.3 points.

• Eleven 15-v-2 games have been decided by one shot (three points or fewer). The 15-seeds are 3-8 in those games.

• Only one of the 15-seeds who pulled off the upset had a win over the top 25 before the tournament — 1991 Richmond, which beat No. 14 Georgia Tech 73-71 at home in the third game of the season. Combined, the eight 15-seeds have a 1-7 regular-season record against the Top 25.

Daniel Wilco has worked at the AJC, Sports Illustrated, and SEC Country. His writing has also appeared on SI.com, Men’s Health, and The Cauldron.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NCAA or its member institutions.