Why Are March Madness Upsets Becoming More Frequent? These Are The Key Factors In The Rise

Fairleigh Dickinson celebrates after beating Purdue in March Madness

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The promise of an unlikely upset has always been one of the more intriguing aspects of March Madness, and college basketball fans who crave those improbable wins have been eating very, very well in recent years.

In 2018, the University of Virginia went down in history for all of the wrong reasons when the Cavaliers became the first top-seed to lose to the 16th-seed after UMBC pulled off what was then the most shocking victory to ever transpire in the tournament.

However, that choke job had nothing on what went down when Fairleigh Dickinson absolutely embarrassed Purdue in a first-round matchup that saw the shortest team in college basketball (which was also one of the worst defensive squads in the country) derail the Boilermakers’ national championship dreams in stunning fashion.

That win overshadowed Princeton’s similarly wild defeat of Arizona the previous day and highlighted the fact that college basketball has seemingly entered a new era where no school can be written off once they punch their ticket to The Big Dance regardless of how much the odds seem to be stacked against them.

There have been twelve instances where at least ten teams have pulled off an “upset” (which the NCAA defines as any game where the winning team was ranked at least five seeds below the loser) at some point during the tourney since March Madness expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

Six of those occurrences have transpired in the past decade, with the 14 upsets that were recorded in 2021 and 2022 tied for first place.

As a result, it’s worth taking a closer look at some potential factors that can explain that uptick.

Why are March Madness upsets on the rise?

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There’s really no way to definitively quantify the impact various factors have potentially had on the increase in the number of March Madness upsets. With that said, it’s pretty easy to make the case for a couple that stand out more than any others.

The most obvious is the rise of the internet and the impact technology has had on a team’s ability to scout talent.

There was once a time when college basketball programs needed to devote a ton of time and resources to evaluating the skills of players, but gone are the days when coaches needed to make the trek to tiny high school gyms and AAU showcases to get a closer look at what someone may bring to the table.

There’s obviously something to be said for in-person scouting, but most teams have access to ample amounts of video (which can sometimes stretch back to a player’s middle school days) that they can access with the click of a button, which has made it easier than ever to identify under-the-radar players that may have gone entirely overlooked at one point in time.

That issue is also inextricably linked with another facet that is hard to ignore: the transfer portal.

In 2018, the NCAA introduced one of the biggest game-changers in recent memory when it rolled out the platform that made life infinitely easier for players who previously needed to ask their school for permission and overcome a number of other administrative hurdles if they wanted to take their talents elsewhere.

In 2021, the governing body streamlined the process even more when it officially eliminated the rule that had previously required players to sit out for a full season.

As a result, teams have more freedom than ever to acquire new (and comparatively more proven) talent from other schools and see them make an immediate impact upon arriving.

Being able to harness the aforementioned power of the internet means it’s also theoretically easier for them to keep an eye on players who would be a natural fit for the various schemes they’re running, and while the strategy can certainly be hit-or-miss, it can pay some impressive dividends for the programs that are able to successfully take advantage of it.

You could argue there are other factors that have contributed to the overall increase in parity, but based on how things are currently trending, we can probably expect plenty of surprising March Madness upsets in the coming years.

Connor Toole avatar and headshot for BroBible
Connor Toole is the Deputy Editor at BroBible. He is a New England native who went to Boston College and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. Frequently described as "freakishly tall," he once used his 6'10" frame to sneak in the NBA Draft and convince people he was a member of the Utah Jazz.