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College Basketball: Top Ten Cinderella Teams

ByBryan Armetta

Published on Wed Mar 31 2021


10 min read

College Basketball: Top Ten Cinderella Teams

On March 22nd, 2021, Oral Roberts University became just the second #15 seed to reach the Sweet Sixteen in NCAA men's basketball history.

While the story of ORU would come to a close against Arkansas the following weekend, their recent success has evoked memories of other classic underdogs in previous tournaments who shocked the world.

Here are the ten greatest Cinderella runs in March Madness history, rated on a combination of unlikeliness, overall team strength, the teams they knocked off along the way, and overall significance.

*Statistics and rankings courtesy of Sports Reference CBB

Honorable Mentions: 2021 Oral Roberts, 2021 UCLA, 2016 Syracuse, 2015 Michigan State, 2013 Wichita State, 2000 Wisconsin, 1988 Kansas, 1979 Penn

10) 2013 - Florida Gulf Coast Eagles

FGCU may have had the shortest run on our list, but it was quite the ride for Andy Enfield's crew.

Winning an automatic bid out of the Atlantic Sun Conference, the Eagles turned the tournament upside down by taking out second-seeded Georgetown 78-68. They then followed it up with another unexpected victory, this time over no. 7 seed San Diego State. Although they lost to in-state rival Florida in the Sweet Sixteen, they became the first fifteen seed to ever make it to the second weekend.

Although they never went on a truly deep run, "Dunk City"and their high-flying brand of play captivated the nation like few other teams have in NCAA history. While the recent success of fellow 15 Oral Roberts takes a bit of the shine out of their story, no one can deny how exciting FGCU's history-making journey was.

9) 2008 - Davidson Wildcats

2008 was the year when America was introduced to the legendary Steph Curry. But before he was an MVP and three-time NBA champion, Curry was just a skinny sharpshooter from a small liberal arts college in North Carolina.

Davidson, that season's Southern Conference champions, entered the tournament as a 10 seed and immediately faced stiff competition. They took down #7 Gonzaga in the first round before punching their ticket to the Sweet Sixteen by taking down #2 Georgetown. To top things off, the Wildcats pulled off a convincing 73-56 victory over #3 Wisconsin, led by Curry's 33 points.

In the Elite Eight, Davidson lost a 59-57 nail-biter to eventual champion Kansas. Still, Steph's impressive string of games put him squarely on the map of both the general public and NBA scouts; he averaged 32 points per game and nearly took down the best team in the nation.

8) 2018 - Loyola-Chicago Ramblers

As Loyola-Chicago embarks on yet another surprise run, it has become easy to forget they made the Final Four just three years ago.

While the teams that the #11 Ramblers beat to reach the national semifinal weren't exactly world-beaters, the way they did it was nothing short of remarkable. Their first three games were each won by a margin of two points or less. First, a 64-62 win over #6 Miami, capped off by a three-point buzzer beater from Donte Ingram. Then, a go-ahead shot with five seconds left by Clayton Custer gave Loyola a 63-62 victory over #3 Tennessee. In the Sweet Sixteen, they took out #9 Nevada by a score of 69-68.

Seemingly getting better as the tournament went on, Porter Moser's crew dominated #9 Kansas State 78-62 before bowing out in the Final Four against #3 Michigan. While they had a miraculous trip to the sport's biggest stage, Loyola-Chicago was quite simply too good to rank higher on our list. Their 31st ranked Adjusted Efficiency Margin, according to KenPom, suggests that the selection committee severely under-seeded the Missouri Valley Conference champions.

7) 2011 - Virginia Commonwealth Rams

Before he became famous for bowing out early in the NCAA Tournament, Shaka Smart led a scrappy VCU team to basketball immortality in 2011.

The Rams weren't exceptional in most areas, ranking near the middle of the pack in traditional offensive and defensive statistics. Where the team excelled was forcing turnovers. Smart's Havoc brand of play emphasized a fast tempo that not only exhausted opponents, but forced them into bad shots and mental mistakes. Perhaps that's why VCU seemed to catch so many opponents off-guard; they cruised to the Sweet Sixteen with three straight convincing victories. After squeaking out a one-point win over #10 Florida State, the Rams took down top seeded Kansas 71-61 en route to the school's first Final Four appearance.

Despite a loss to fellow underdog Butler in the following game, VCU made NCAA history. They were the third eleven seed to reach the Final Four, beating an elite program in Kansas along the way. Additionally, they were, and are still the only, First Four team to make it to the Final Four, winning five games rather than four.

6) 1990 - Loyola Marymount Lions

Other Cinderellas may have gone farther than Loyola-Marymount, but none persevered in the way this group of resilient young men did in the spring of 1990.

During the 1990 West Coast Conference tournament, WCC Player of the Year Hank Gathers collapsed on the court for the second time that season. Due to his abnormal heartbeat, a condition he had been diagnosed with earlier in the year, the incident proved fatal, tragically taking Gathers' life at the age of 23.

Rather than falling apart without their leader, the Lions rallied. As an 11 seed, they picked up wins by outright blitzing their first two opponents, scoring a combined 260 points in just two games. LMU's other star, Bo Kimble, paid tribute to Gathers against New Mexico State by shooting his first free throw left-handed. Head coach Paul Westhead's extreme up-tempo, three-point heavy offense soon ran into a wall in the Sweet Sixteen against a stout Alabama defense. Instead of forcing their own style of play, Loyola-Marymount adapted, winning their lowest scoring game of the season, 62-60, and advancing to the Elite Eight.

Although they lost to eventual champion UNLV, Westhead and the Lions were an unforgettable team that triumphed in the face of extreme adversity. Their coach's revolutionary offense, combined with the brilliant postseason play of Kimble and Jeff Fryer, allowed the Lions to honor their beloved teammate with a triumphant March Madness appearance.

5) 2011 - Butler Bulldogs

Following an appearance in the 2010 title game that came this close to a championship, it seemed as if small-school Butler's best chance at basketball immortality had come and gone. Gordon Hayward, the team's top player, had declared for the NBA Draft, leaving head coach Brad Stevens a significantly less talented roster to work with.

In spite of a downgrade in talent, this season solidified Stevens as one of the premier coaches in the nation. The Bulldogs won out in the Horizon League Tournament to clinch an automatic bid as an #8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Starting with their matchup against #9 Old Dominion, a 60-58 victory, Butler strung together five straight wins to reach the championship game for the second straight year.

During March Madness, Stevens' team excelled in close games, winning three by a margin of three points or less. A roster complete with eight upperclassmen gave Butler the experience needed to stay calm and collected under pressure. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, their 2011 season ended in yet another title game loss, this time an ugly 53-41 affair against UConn. While Butler scrapped together an impressive tournament, the team's previous success makes them a difficult team to place the "Cindarella" label on. Since they had done so well just a year prior, they didn't catch quite as many fans by surprise the next time around.

4) 1986 - LSU Tigers

Before three other teams made it fashionable, the '86 LSU roster became the first double-digit seed to reach the Final Four in NCAA Tournament history.

1986 was a season of triumph in the face of adversity for the Tigers. Despite enduring a difficult year complete with a Chicken Pox outbreak, the dismissal of a top recruit, academic suspensions for multiple players, and winning just eight of the team's final nineteen regular season games. An appearance in the tourney, let alone winning four games, seemed doubtful.

After barely sneaking into March Madness as an #11 seed, LSU somehow got to play games at the Assembly Center, their home court. Dale Brown and the Tigers then proceeded to knock off top team after top team in dramatic fashion. In the second round, they took down third-seeded Memphis 83-81 on a buzzer-beater shot from guard Anthony Wilson. Following a six-point win over #2 Georgia Tech in the Sweet Sixteen, LSU took down SEC rival and #1 seed Kentucky 59-57, sending the Tigers to the Final Four.

LSU would fall to eventual champion Louisville the following week, yet their improbable run was ground-breaking. Aside from becoming the first team ranked #11 or lower to make the Final Four, they were also the first, and still the only, 11 seed to take down the 1, 2, and 3 seeded teams in their region. What prevents LSU from going any higher up in this list is that they were given the major competitive advantage of playing the first two games of the tournament in their home arena.

3) 2006 - George Mason Patriots

George Mason's run in the 2006 tournament was, quite simply, miraculous. The Patriots, led by head coach Jim Larranaga, raced off to their best season in school history, winning 23 games. However, a sloppy loss in the CAA tournament to Hofstra raised doubts amongst many analysts over whether GMU deserved to make the tournament.

Barely sneaking in as an #11 seed, few saw George Mason making any kind of noise, given their weak schedule and poor end of season play. However, they managed to take down blue bloods #6 Michigan State and #3 North Carolina on the first weekend, sending a clear message that they belonged. A week off did little to cool down the Patriots, who took out #7 Wichita State 63-55 before facing off against top-seeded UConn, a popular pick to win the title that season.

Rather than crumble against a dynamic offense, Larranaga's team adapted, abandoning their grind-it-out style of play for a more up-tempo game to keep pace with the Huskies. All five starters scored in double-digits, and George Mason secured a dramatic double-overtime victory to reach the Final Four. Even though they were beaten handily by eventual champion Florida, George Mason's sprint to glory made history. As the first mid-major to reach the Final Four, the Patriots opened the flood gates for future small schools to reach the sport's greatest stage, all while doing so as a double-digit seed.

2) 1985 - Villanova Wildcats

Rollie Massimino's Villanova team was easy to overlook in a loaded 1984-85 Big East conference, especially during a mid-season rut that saw them plummet in the standings. By the end of the year, they were looking down on everyone else.

As an unranked #8 seed to open the '85 tournament, it would have seemed unlikely that 'Nova would reach the Sweet Sixteen, much less the National Final. The Wildcats began their journey by winning a 51-49 slog over #9 Dayton. Ugly games were a theme for Villanova, as they won their next two games against #1 Michigan and #3 Maryland by a combined margin of nine points, all while scoring less than sixty themselves. Following a second-half comeback over #2 North Carolina in the Elite Eight, Massamino had finally reached his first Final Four as a head coach.

After taking down #2 Memphis, the only non-Big East team in the 1985 Final Four, 'Nova was rewarded with a matchup against John Thompson's formidable Georgetown Hoyas, the defending National Champions. Where other programs may have been intimidated by star center Patrick Ewing and the physically dominant Hoyas, Massamino's staff drew up the perfect game plan. Rather than attempting to outscore Georgetown, 'Nova would hold the ball for as long as possible (in a pre-shot clock era). By slowing the game down, as well as shooting a title-game record 78.6

from the field, Villanova pulled off the unimaginable and took down the Hoyas by a score of 66-64. As the lowest seed to ever win a title, Massamino's team authored perhaps the greatest title-game performance in the history of the sport.

1) 1983 - NC State Wolfpack

Of all the unexpected winners in the storied history of college basketball, none are quite as remarkable as the 1982-83 NC State Wolfpack.

Helmed by charismatic coach Jim Valvano, NC State seemed like a lock for yet another year without an NCAA Tournament appearance. Entering the ACC Tournament, the 'Pack needed to win out to secure an automatic bid, or their season would almost surely come to a close. In a theme that would eventually come to represent their character, NC State thrived under pressure and won three straight to clinch the ACC title.

As a #6 seed in the tournament, NC State immediately went down to the wire with #11 Pepperdine, holding on for a 69-67 win. The following game was a 71-70 upset of #3 UNLV, made possible by the second-half heroics of star Thurl Bailey. After a rare comfortable win over #10 Utah in the Sweet Sixteen, the "Cardiac Pack" was at it again, this time in a nail-biter with ACC rival Virginia and their star big man, Ralph Sampson. The 'Pack came out on top with a 63-62 win, carried by guard Derek Whittenburg's 24 points. Once they got to the Final Four, the team took care of business against Georgia, setting up a date with the Houston Cougars.

Houston, who had lost in the Final Four the year prior, was the heavy favorite to take home the championship. Phi Slamma Jamma, stacked with future Hall of Famers in Clyde Drexler and Hakeen Olajuwon, seemed to be too talented for the plucky Wolfpack to handle. After a strong first half that gave them an eight-point margin heading into the break, NC State's lead dwindled away in the second. To help extend the game, Valvano employed a then-unheard of strategy by intentionally fouling the Cougars. Houston, while strong offensively, struggled at the line, evidenced by their 52.6

free-throw percentage in the title game.

Having tied the game up with less than a minute to go, Whittenburg fired up a wild three-point shot attempt that seemed to hang in the air forever. As the rest of the arena stood and watched, Lorenzo Charles grabbed the ball and stuffed it in the rim at the last second, handing the Wolfpack a shocking upset victory. Not only did the win etch NC State's name in the history books, but it set the standard for all Cinderellas to follow. The amount of times in which the 'Team of Destiny' could have faltered is what set this group apart from the rest. The level of perseverance and determination, in addition to the way in which they captured the hearts and minds of the nation, makes the '83 'Pack perhaps the most notable in CBB history. The chaotic unpredictability of March Madness that we all know and love can trace its roots back to the magical run Jimmy V's boys undertook nearly forty years ago.

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