I think we can all agree that the last two weeks have been utterly insane. And now, here we are, with busted brackets and shrugged shoulders as not one, but two Cinderella teams have made their way to the Final Four. It’s crazy, it’s incredible but most of all it’s improbable.
VCU’s big win over Kansas and Butler’s victory over Florida got us thinking about all the Cinderella teams we’ve watched over the years and who some of our favorites were. So we decided to put together a list of college basketball’s most memorable Cinderella teams.
We know this list will be debated and argued, so we’ve tried to make things simple. In our estimation a Cinderella team can’t be from a major conference. So while championship wins by Villanova (1985) and N.C. State (1983) were, indeed, improbable, for the purposes of this list, they are not Cinderella teams. We took into account the improbability of a team’s run through the tournament, as well as the national hysteria they cause. A team scored extra points if it was obvious the entire country was behind them.
So here’s our “Elite Eight” of Cinderella teams.
8. Gonzaga (1999)
It was the run that turned Gonzaga into a household word.
Prior to 1999, most basketball aficionados knew Gonzaga as the alma mater of John Stockton and nothing else. The Zags changed that story by running to the Elite Eight with wins over Minnesota, Stanford and Florida before being defeated by eventual champion UConn in the final minute of the regional final. Gonzaga has been the poster child for mid-major programs ever since, making nothing they do these days a Cinderella story — yet oddly enough, this run still marks the deepest the program has ever gone in the tourney.
7. Valparaiso (1998)
It was the backstory and drama that made Valpo’s Cinderella story so special.
The 13th-seeded Crusaders pulled off one of the greatest buzzer-beaters in tournament history when Bryce Drew, son of Valpo coach Homer Drew, caught a full-court inbounds pass and sank a desperation 3-pointer to knock off No. 4 Ole Miss. Valpo carried the momentum into the Sweet 16 with a second-round win over Florida State before being downed by another underdog, eight-seed Rhode Island, in the Sweet 16.
6. Penn (1979)
If the Quakers had picked any other year to reach the Final Four, they would have been the main attraction. Instead, their accomplishments were obscured by the presence of a couple of fellows named Magic Johnson and Larry Bird that took center stage.
1979 was the first year that the tournament committee seeded the 40-team field, so it was more or less the start of the modern era of the NCAA tournament. The Quakers were not expected to do much, drawing a 9-seed and getting an opening round date with Iona for the right to be trounced by top-seeded North Carolina. But the Quakers stunned the Tar Heels after beating Iona, and then proceeded to cut down Syracuse and St. John’s to make it to the Final Four. (The Redmen were actually the No. 10 seed in the region, making their regional final with the Quakers one of the unlikeliest in NCAA history).
Penn was throttled by Michigan State in the national semifinal before falling to DePaul in the all-important third-place game.
5. Butler (2011)
Somehow, they’ve done it again. Those pesky Bulldogs just will not die. After a miracle run last year (see below) they’ve been everyone’s darling again. And Butler has done for an encore is knock off everyone’s favorite upset pick No. 9 seed Old Dominion, a No. 1 seed (Pitt), a dark horse Final Four candidate (No. 4 Wisconsin) and one of the most talented teams in the bracket (No. 2 Florida). The Bulldogs knocked off three of the top four seeds in their region – which is the toughest possible road a team can take – on their way back to a second consecutive Final Four appearance.
How did they do it? How did the same team that lost its best player after a magical run last year somehow put it all together again and get within one game of another national championship? Brad Stevens’ team did it with team basketball. Let by Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard, the Bulldogs play extremely tough, unselfish basketball and it has paid off in spades. At this point, would you ever bet against them again?
4. Loyola Marymount (1990)
There are improbable runs to tournament glory, and there are those runs which pull at your heartstrings. In 1990, Loyola Marymount’s best player, Hank Gathers collapsed and died on the court during the team’s West Coast Conference tournament second round game against Portland. The WCC tournament was immediately suspended and LMU was given the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
With heavy hearts and without their best player the Lions got the No. 11 seed in the West Region and went to work. Using their fallen teammate as inspiration and fueled by the phenomenal play of Bo Kimble (Gathers’ best friend) the Lions beat six-seed New Mexico State 111-92, before whipping defending champion (and No. 3 seed) Michigan 149-115. The Lions then beat Alabama before their heart-warming run ended in the Elite Eight with a 30-point loss to eventual champion UNLV.
Still, for two weeks Loyola Marymount’s basketball team had an entire country pulling for it and to this day one of the enduring images in college basketball history is that of Kimble shooting free throws left-handed in honor of his deceased best friend.
3. George Mason (2006)
In 2006 George Mason tied the 1986 LSU Tigers as the lowest-seeded team to reach the Final Four. The Patriots received the 11-seed in the East Region after losing in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament to Hofstra. They entered the tournament with a 23-7 record, and were rewarded with a first round date with Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans.
Needless to say George Mason knocked off the Spartans, then the third-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels before beating the surprising Wichita State Shockers. That put them in an Elite Eight matchup with an incredibly loaded UConn team that was the region’s top seed and the No. 2 team nationally. Ho hum, the Patriots pulled out an 86-84 overtime win to reach the Final Four. Though they lost to eventual champion Florida, that year’s tournament belonged to the Patriots. Everyone remembers the two-week “who are these guys?” as head coach Jim Larranaga’s fearless squad toppled major program after major program.
2. Butler (2010)
The Bulldogs simply had a magical run in last year’s tournament. We all know about their amazing wins over Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State. And the fact that the school with an enrollment of roughly 4,500 students came within inches of winning a national title, after Gordon Hayward’s half-court heave just missed the mark. That 61-59 loss to Duke in the team’s home town of Indianapolis was thrilling in so many ways. We all know that story. So we’re going to spend this time telling you why we didn’t pick the Bulldogs as our top Cinderella.
Though Butler is a tiny school, anyone who watched the Bulldogs play last year knew they were capable of a deep tournament run. In fact, at the start of the tournament, they were the No. 8 ranked team in the nation. Yes, they got shafted and stuck with a five-seed in the West Region, but they had won 20-straight games before the tournament tipped off and carried a 28-4 record into the bracket. So while Butler’s run in 2010 was wonderful to watch, it wasn’t as unexpected as some would have you believe.
1. Virginia Commonwealth (2011)
This really wasn’t even that tough a decision. This year’s VCU squad was the team no one wanted in the tournament. Now the Rams are the team no on wants to play. Aside from being in the “First Four” and probably being the last team to make the tournament field, VCU is also the first team in tournament history to win five games to reach the Final Four. This is a gutty squad that is fun to watch and exciting. How do the Rams end up on top of this list? Let me repeat: No one thought they should be in the tournament and virtually every expert (including Dick Vitale) bitched about their inclusion. Now the Rams are headed to the Final Four as an 11 seed. Awesome, just, freaking, awesome.
And it’s not like VCU somehow lucked out and got an easy road. After beating USC in the play-in game, the Rams had to beat a solid sixth-seeded Georgetown squad, then they blew out a third-seeded Purdue team some had as a dark horse title contender. They were then beaten up and knocked around by a Florida State team with an incredible defense before eking out a win. Then on Sunday they knocked off top-seeded Kansas. That’s one hell of a road.
VCU has an incredibly likable coach in Shaka Smart, a bankable star in Joey Rodriguez and have created enough excitement and have gone through a tough-enough road for us to easily dub them the biggest March Madness Cinderella ever.
Honorable Mentions: Dayton (1984), Kent State (2002), Davidson (2008), Northern Iowa (2010).