Michigan State is NCAA Tournament’s All-Time Giant-Killer

Michigan State NCAA Tournament Record Tom Izzo
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

As Lourawls Nairn’s 3-pointer ricocheted off the rim, the buzzer sounded at TD Ameritrade Center in St. Louis to give Middle Tennessee the eighth-ever win for a 15-seed over a 2-seed in NCAA Tournament history. With a Second Round berth for the third time in program history, the Blue Raiders also gave Michigan State a bitter dose of their own medicine.

A year earlier, Tom Izzo led 7-seed Michigan State to the program’s ninth Final Four with a First Round win over 10-seed Georgia and three wins over higher seeds: (2) Virginia, (3) Oklahoma, and (4) Louisville. Those were the Spartans’ 15th, 16th, and 17th wins in the tournament as a lower seed. And in 2019, they added an 18th win–over 1-seed Duke in the Elite Eight–en route to their 10th Final Four. 

Entering the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Michigan State has played more games as a lower seed than any other team in college basketball: 34. The Spartans are 18-16 in those games, leading all teams in most upset wins and best upset winning percentage (.529). Villanova is the only other team with an above-.500 record in at least 20 games as a lower seed (17-16, .515).

Since Michigan State’s current 22-game tournament appearance streak began in 1998, they’ve played at least one game as a lower seed in 14 of the 22 tournaments, including five of the last seven tournaments. While they weren’t betting underdogs in each of those cases–perhaps most notably as a 7-seed 2.5-point favorite over 4-seed Louisville in the 2015 Elite Eight–they are underdogs in the bracket.

“Yeah, personally, I don’t like it,” Izzo said of his program’s giant-killer reputation before 9-seed Michigan State played 1-seed Kansas in the Second Round of the 2017 tournament. “…That means we’re a bad seed a lot of time, so I don’t feel as good about that as maybe I should.”

Izzo is right: Since the Spartans were a 1-seed in three straight years from 1999-2001, they’ve been a 1-seed only once since (2012). Over those 18 years, they’ve been the lower seed in the First Round four times and twice been a double-digit seed. And barring a run in this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament, Michigan State will be a double-digit seed for the third time since 2002. 

They’re an 11-seed in the latest edition of Bracketology, just four spots away from being out of the field, and projected to face 6-seed Oklahoma. It’s worth noting the Sooners are one of the worst higher seeds in tournament history, losing 16 of 47 games (.660). 

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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL and college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @DoughtyBetMGM