After Denzel Valentine collapsed, Michael Jordan cried, and Middle Tennessee State was done celebrating their 90-81 win over Michigan State, people started to contextualize the historic upset. Michigan State was a two-seed, sure, but they were among the favorites to win the whole shit. The NCAA said they were the second-most popular pick to win it all. Middle Tennessee State have a geographic indicator in their name (and a weirdly unacademic one, at that) and looked like a skidmark on the way to a Spartans championship. It was surely one of the most surprising upsets in recent memory, but precisely how historic it was depends on who you ask.
FiveThirtyEight says MSU is the best team to have lost their opening game, but that MTSU’s victory was only the third-largest upset in tournament history. Nate Silver’s methodology (yes, the Spartan himself wrote the blog) was a fairly straightforward Elo comparison, and those numbers had MSU as the second-best team in the country. However, MTSU isn’t the pushover their name or seeding would suggest, thus the magnitude of their upset doesn’t touch Norfolk State over Missouri.
NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster begins with the assumption that Michigan State was the NCAA Tournament favorite, and thus grades the upset as the most shocking ever. His methodology is decidedly less analytical, and doesn’t take into account how underrated Middle Tennessee was, but he is right that MSU doesn’t usually lose early in March.
Fox Sports’ conclusion on the matter is “probably?”, but they classify it alongside George Mason over UConn in 2006. Yahoo Sports has it as the greatest first round upset ever, but takes into account the higher stakes later in the tournament and also has George Mason’s win in the number one spot. Dick Vitale wouldn’t put a number on it, but he raised his hand to indicate a high water mark and said he’d “rate it as one of the all time shockers.”
For our money, Middle Tennessee State’s larger athletic budget and under-seeding sort of prevent this from being the biggest upset ever. They have a football program, and their head coach Kermit Davis has been around college basketball forever. MTSU has never had a losing record under his reign, and much like Hawaii, their easy schedule masked how good they actually were.
That said, when Hawaii takes down Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen, we’ll have to re-evaluate this all over again.