In the 2019 NCAA DI women's volleyball tournament, there were two pretty big upsets with Cincinnati taking down No. 6 Pittsburgh (No. 1 in RPI) and Louisville defeating No. 2 seed Texas in a five-set showdown. We gathered and ranked what we think are 10 of the greatest upsets in the history of the tournament since its inception in 1981.
For this list, we considered each team’s RPI entering the NCAA tournament, the conferences each team came from, the location of the upset and whether or not they received an at-large or an automatic bid.
10. 2007: Sacramento State over Minnesota (first round)
In the final year of six straight Big Sky championships and NCAA tournament bids, Sacramento State pulled off the biggest upset of the 2007 tournament when it beat at-large Big Ten team Minnesota in four sets.
In the final RPI rankings of the season, Minnesota finished 31st and Sacramento State finished 55th. We can only assume that gap was much greater on selection day. Regardless, a Big Ten team getting beat in the first round by a team from the Big Sky was unprecedented. The Big Sky hasn’t advanced in the tournament since the 2007 Hornets, who lost to No. 1 Stanford in the second round.
9. 2000: Southeast Missouri State beat North Carolina (first round)
North Carolina might not have been a national seed, but as the automatic bid from the ACC, losing in the first round to the Ohio Valley champion is shocking. Now, the Redhawks were undefeated in the OVC that year, but were 6-8 in the nonconference season.
RPI rankings do not exist from 2000 in the NCAA’s archive, so we weren’t able to compare their actual rankings at the time of the upset. The Redhawks lost to No. 14 Florida in the next round.
8. 2002: Temple beat No. 12 overall seed Penn State (second round)
Can you imagine Penn State losing on its home court in the second round of the tournament today? Me neither. But in 2002 — six years before Penn State would win the first of four straight national championships — the A-10 champs rolled out of Rec Hall with the upset of the tournament.
To date, it is Temple’s only trip to the regional semifinals. The Owls have not made it to the NCAA tournament since 2002.
7. 2013: American beat No. 16 Duke (second round)
Any time a national seed gets beat in the first weekend, it’s an upset. When it comes to an automatic bid in straight sets, it’s a bit more shocking. Especially when considering this American team upset Georgia in the first round before beating the Blue Devils to advance to the regional semifinals.
Ranked 45th in RPI to start the tournament to Duke’s No. 12 RPI ranking, American provided the biggest surprise of the first weekend and the only time a national seed has lost to a team from the Patriot League. The Eagles, who won 34 games that year, also took a set from No. 1 Texas before losing in the next round.
6. 2019: Louisville over No. 2 Texas (third round)
Louisville pulled off an upset of No. 2-seeded Texas to advance to the program's first appearance in the final eight of the tournament. Texas was a strong favorite going in. The Longhorns sported very strong offensive numbers and held the No. 1 spot for a good portion of the second half of the regular season. The thing about Texas this season was that no one had beaten them at Gregory Gymnasium. Their crowd was unmatched. Many predictions had Texas cruising through to the national semifinals.
Louisville took the first two sets 25-22 before losing the next two. But the Cardinals finished off the upset with a 15-12 win in the fifth set. The Cardinal were led by a career-best 23 kills from redshirt freshman Aiko Jones. This win was the biggest upset of the 2019 volleyball tournament. Following the win, the Cardinals fell to Minnesota.
5. 2014: BYU beat No. 2 Texas (national semifinal)
There have been just a handful of teams that have made it to the national semifinals as an unseeded team. But only BYU made it to the national championship match after beating the second-ranked Longhorns in four sets.
The Cougars also beat No. 11 Arizona, No. 6 Florida State and No. 16 Nebraska to make it to the semifinals. They would fall to Penn State in the title match, but their run is still remembered well four years later. Most didn’t give BYU a chance against Texas, which entered the match with two losses.
4. 2011: Kansas State beat No. 2 Nebraska (second round)
Winners of the Big Ten in its first year as a member, Nebraska was a hot pick to win the national championship. But Big 12 at-large selection Kansas State wanted to give a proper farewell gift to its former conference opponent.
No. 2 seeds get upset in the tournament, no doubt. It just rarely happens in the first weekend, to Nebraska, in front of about 8,000 people in Lincoln. Kansas State was 26th in RPI entering the tournament, so the Wildcats were a solid team. This was just a game that stopped the volleyball world still.
3. 2015: American beat Kentucky (first round)
Yes, American was still good after its 2013 run, and it pulled off a more shocking upset against Kentucky, which was 21st in RPI. The Eagles were 77th despite an undefeated Patriot League season.
It seems that when American pulls off these upsets, the match isn’t ever in doubt. It swept the Wildcats before losing to Ohio State in straight sets in the second round. Kentucky was 21-9 that season.
2. 2012: Michigan beat No. 2 Stanford (regional final)
Like 2014 BYU, Michigan is one of the unseeded teams to advance to the national semifinals. Both runs were incredible, but this one was a greater upset for it came basically on the road — in California — against the No. 1 RPI team, Stanford. Michigan was 31st in RPI.
The Wolverines had lost 11 times in the regular season, but when it came to the tournament, they were unstoppable, knocking off the Cardinal in four sets.
1. 2010: Missouri beat No. 5 Northern Iowa (first round)
This is still the highest seed to lose in the first round since teams were seeded 1-16 beginning in 2000, so naturally it had to be the top upset in tournament history.
At 30-2 and an RPI ranking of fourth, some felt the Panthers were deserving of a top-four seed. Nonetheless, the Missouri Valley champs couldn't defend home court in the first match of the tournament against a Missouri team that snuck into the tournament. Missouri went on to lose in the regional semifinals to No. 12 Duke, but this result is about as close as volleyball has come to the basketball equivalent of a double-digit seed knocking off a No. 1 seed.
Honorable mention upsets:
2019: Cincinnati over No. 6 Pittsburgh (second round)
1995: Michigan State over Hawaii (regional final)
2005: Santa Clara over No. 4 Arizona (regional final)
2005: No. 15 Tennessee over No. 2 Penn State (regional semis)
2006: Middle Tennessee State over Louisville (first round)
2010: No. 16 Purdue over No. 1 Florida (regional semis)
2010: Tulsa over No. 13 LSU (first round)
2010: Washington beat No. 2 Nebraska (regional semis)
2013: Purdue over No. 4 Missouri (second round)
2014: Arkansas Little-Rock beat No. 16 Kansas (first round)