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The 11 Most Unlikely Final Four Teams Ever

by: Esteban On  Tuesday, April 2, 2013

unlikely final four teams

Over the weekend, the Wichita State Shockers defeated both La Salle and Ohio State to reach the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1965. Was this a shocking* outcome? No, not quite. I, for one, suspected that the Shockers might be capable of a deep run. However, their trip to the Final Four certainly wasn’t likely. Even people who were high on the Shockers probably didn’t expect much more than a trip to the Sweet 16 or maybe the Elite Eight. And yet here they are, just two wins away from a National Championship.

So where do the 2013 Shockers rank among the most surprising Final Four teams of all time? That’s the topic of today’s list. I’ve ranked the most unlikely Final Four teams of the modern NCAA Tournament according to seed, so click away to see where Wichita State stands.

*Now that’s a pun!


11. Butler (2010)

butler final four 2010

Seed: No. 5

There were two teams that made surprising runs to the Final Four as a number five seed that merited consideration. So why didn’t I just expand the list to 12 teams instead of 11 to include both of them? Because one was much more surprising than the other.

You see, when Indiana made the Final Four in 2002 as a #5, it was somewhat surprising but not shocking. Indiana, after all, was a legendary program, even if they didn’t have Bob Knight running it any more. But when #5 Butler made the Final Four in 2010, that was really surprising. Now we look at that 2010 Cinderella run as the coming out party for a great program and a great coach, but at the time nobody saw Butler or Brad Stevens coming—not #1 Syracuse, not #2 Kansas State, and not #1 Duke, who only won the Championship Game by two points.


10. Michigan (1992)

michigan fab five 1992 - unlikely final four teams

Seed: No. 6

Okay, I know what you are thinking: how can “The Fab Five” be considered an unlikely Final Four team? They are probably the most famous starting lineup in college basketball history. But let me assure you, though everybody knew the Michigan Wolverines were special in 1992, nobody thought they would be that good just yet. They were just freshmen going up against far more experienced teams. However, the Wolverines beat #2 Oklahoma State and #1 Ohio State to reach the Final Four, where they beat #4 Cincinnati before getting pounded by Duke in the Championship Game 71-51.


9. Providence (1987)

providence basketball 1987 - unlikely final four teams

Seed: No. 6

Today the USC Trojans announced that they had hired Andy Enfield, coach of this year’s Cinderella team, Florida Gulf Coast, to be their new basketball coach. They’ll reportedly be paying him over a million bucks per year. Does that seem extreme, given the guy’s limited success?

Well, there’s a reason programs go after the coaches of NCAA Tourney Cinderellas. Just consider the 1987 Providence Friars, who beat #2 Alabama and #1 Georgetown to reach the Final Four. Their coach? Some unknown guy named Rick Pitino, who kinda turned out to be sorta legendary.


8. N.C. State (1983)

n.c. state 1983 jim valvano cutting down the nets - unlikely final four teams

Seed: No. 6

The 1983 N.C. State Wolfpack, led by the late great Jimmy Valvano, were one of the greatest Cinderella teams in NCAA history. They beat #3 UNLV and #1 Virginia to make the Final Four. Then they beat #4 Georgia and #1 Houston—the famous “Phi Slamma Jamma Cougars team featuring Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde “The Glide” Drexler—to win the National Championship. What a ride.


7. Wisconsin (2000)

wisconsin 2000 ncaa final four - unlikely final four teams

Seed: No. 8

There were actually two #8 seeds who reached the Final Four in 2000. However, one of them was North Carolina, and I just have a hard time considering that team an underdog no matter what their record or rank was in 2000. Thus, I went with the #8 Wisconsin Badgers in the seven spot. Both teams beat a #1 seed in the second game of the tournament; however, Wisconsin’s #1 opponent was Arizona while UNC’s was Stanford. So at least by program reputation, Wisconsin’s road to the Final Four was harder.


6. Villanova (1985)

villanova 1985 - unlikely final four teams

Seed: No. 8

To this day, the 1985 Villanova Wildcats are the lowest team to win the NCAA Tournament and thus, by definition, the ultimate Cinderella. They beat #1 Michigan in the opening round, then defeated #2 North Carolina to reach the Final Four. After that they beat #2 Memphis State to reach the final against Big East rivals Georgetown, who were the defending champs and considered almost unbeatable. Of course, Villanova beat the Hoyas, too, to complete their unlikely run.


5. Wichita State (2013)

wichita state shockers - unlikely final four teams

Seed: No. 9

So here are the 2013 Wichita State Shockers, the fifth most unlikely Final Four team in NCAA Tournament history. They beat #1 Gonzaga in Round 2 (as I suggested they might*), then they beat #2 Ohio State from the supposedly dominant Big Ten (which has but one team remaining in the competition) to reach the Final Four.

Up next for Wichita State? #1 overall seed Louisville. If they somehow make it past the Cardinals, I certainly wouldn’t bet against them in the Championship Game.

*Hey, I had a pretty rough go in my March Madness pool this year, so I’m going to take whatever credit I can for picking underdog and run with it.


4. Penn (1979)

penn basketball 1979 final four

Seed: No. 9

The Penn Quakers were a #9 seed in 1979 when they made a run to the Final Four. Why are they one spot ahead of the Shockers, despite having the same seed? Because the 1979 Tournament only had 10 teams in each region and 40 overall. So when Penn, the 1979 Ivy League Champs, beat #1 UNC in the second round, that was a huge upset at the time. Then the Quakers beat #4 Syracuse in the third round and #10 St. John’s to reach the Final Four…where they got shellacked by Michigan, 101-67.


3. VCU (2011)

vcu 2011 - unlikely final four teams

Seed: No. 11

The 2011 Rams may have lost to fellow mid-major upstarts Butler in the National Semifinals in 2011, but to reach the Final Four Shaka Smart’s crew had to beat #6 Georgetown, #3 Purdue, and #1 Kansas. Talk about running a gauntlet of college hoops powerhouses.


2. George Mason (2006)

george mason 2006 - unlikely final four teams

Seed: No. 11

The 2006 George Mason Patriots are among the top five Cinderella stories in the history of the NCAA Tournament. As a #11 seed in 2006, they had to face higher-seeded opponents every step of the way—#6 Michigan State in Round 1, #3 North Carolina in Round 2, #7 Wichita State (ironically) in the Sweet 16, and then #1 UConn in the Elite Eight. Unfortunately, the Patriots just didn’t have another upset in them when they faced #3 Florida in the National Semifinals. They lost, and the Gators went on to win their first of two straight National Championships.


1. LSU (1986)

lsu basketball 1986 - unlikely final four teams

Seed: No. 11

To reach the Final Four in 1986, the LSU Tigers had to beat the top three seeds from their region—#3 Memphis State, #2 Georgia Tech, and #1 Kentucky. That had never been done before, and it has never been done since.

Now, some would say, rightly so, that the Tigers had an unfair advantage through the first two rounds of the ’86 Tournament: the home court advantage. They played the first two games in their own arena because the NCAA was a little lax back then. That being said, those first two games were against #6 Purdue and #3 Memphis State. LSU still had to beat #2 Georgia Tech and #1 Kentucky away from home, and that is a remarkable feat.

So, in my book, they are still the most unlikely Final Four team of all time.