9 Biggest March Madness Cinderellas
With St. Patrick’s Day being celebrated for the past three days or so, and Warren Buffett’s name back in the news, it’s clearly time for March Madness, the annual event in which people with little to no understanding of sports take home their office tourney jackpot, having gotten lucky on a couple dark horses that the stone cold pragmatists would have never picked.
They don’t always win the championship, but even an underdog that falls short can be more memorable than a favorite who takes home the trophy. In honor and appreciation of the teams that come out of nowhere to make a run, much to the chagrin of those who predict based on seeds, let’s take a look at the most notable Cinderella teams of recent history.
The nice thing about the tournament is that the admission class of 64 (or so) is that you bring in some really unlikely candidates that stick out like a sore thumb among more notable NCAA programs. Davidson was one such school, known more for its liberal arts curriculum and honor code than its athletics. However, Davidson had one thing hugely more reputable schools didn’t: Stephen Curry. On March 21st, Davidson went up against Gonzaga, and Curry took them for 30 points…in the second half. They then went on to plow through Georgetown and Wisconsin, before falling to eventual-champion Kansas by two.
9. 2008 Davidson WildcatsWho? WHO? 2005-2006 George Mason men’s basketball was picked to finish 3rd in the Colonial Athletic Association. Those colonies must have offered some stiff competition during the regular season because by the time the dust settled in the 2006 tourney, George Mason had found themselves coming off their best year ever, only top 25 ranking to that point, and an appearance in the final four. They came in as an 11 seed, which means they had to upset a lot of teams to find their way to the Final Four. They haven’t made much noise since then, but that’s part of the charm of it all, isn't it?
8. 2006 George MasonDespite having two expected lottery picks playing side-by-side in Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers, expectations for the Lions weren't very high. And sadly, expectations were shot even further when star Hank Gathers collapsed on the court and died during their conference championship, leaving the team heartbroken and without its star player. Nevertheless, Loyola Marymount showed up to win in the tourney and went on a run to the Elite Eight in the face of tremendous hardship. The fact that they were even able to show up would have been remarkable in and of itself. Going where they did was downright extraordinary.
7. 1990 Loyola Marymount Lions
Every tournament has a handful of storylines that both fans and the media hang on to like grim death. Often they’re human interest stories with little implication, but Princeton’s borderline comical run in 1996 was all about the basketball. More specifically, it was Princeton’s offense, which hinged on backdoor cuts and drop passes. Seeded 13, they were matched up against reigning champion UCLA, and held them scoreless in the final six minutes, proving that their talent didn't lie just with their strategy, but with hustle as well. Princeton only made it to the second round, falling anticlimactically to Mississippi St, but their backdoor offense as helmed by the legendary Pete Carril has endured far longer than their time in the tourney.
6. 1996 Princeton Tigers
No one was supposed to knock off the University of Houston, which was rolling VERY deep with Clyde Drexler, Ralph Samson, and Akeem Olajuwon. But NC State was coached by Jimmy V. Known as much for his inspiration as his strategy, Jim Valvano. After having been written off earlier in the season, NC State was able to not only over achieve its way to the final game against Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma (I’m not sure that’s Greek), winning one for the ages, 54-52.
5. 1983 NC State Wolfpack
Gonzaga. Who doesn’t like Gonzaga? They represent the best of the tournament. An egalitarian spirit where any team can not only participate, but thrive, and a perennial presence that, along with their funny name, made them a household favorite. But they had never amounted to much. However, they found their way into the dance with a slightly-higher-than-normal ranking of #10. They then blew through Minnesota, #2 Stanford, and Florida before falling to #1 Connecticut in the Elite Eight. It wasn’t the longest tourney run, but it did cement them as more than a punchline. They sort of became the Boise State of basketball after that season.
4. 1999 Gonzaga Bulldogs
While some of these entries lose resonance with our readers when they predate the 80’s, the Texas Western Miners warrant mentioning. The move Glory Road was made about their run, and it deserved the cinematic treatment. First off, it was the first team to start five black players, and while that wasn’t the most compelling aspect of their season, it certainly does add to the lore. The Miners overtook Kentucky (an all-white squad, but…whatever) in the 1966 Championship game. Beating Kentucky in college basketball in the 1960’s would have been like beating Santa Claus at Christmas. It doesn’t happen. The feat got the entire team into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, and they got Josh Lucas to star in an movie about them. Not sure which is the bigger honor there.
3. 1966 Texas Western Miners
By 2010, Gonzaga had inserted themselves pretty well into the tourney landscape on an annual basis, so America needed a new sweetheart. Enter Butler University in Indianapolis. Butler being the fashionable random team to advance had some goodwill, but no one was expecting them to not only survive, but march straight to the final game, only to lose to Duke by two points. Butler beat a #12, a #13, a #1, #2, and a #5 only to lose to the most storied program in college history (Duke, like it or not) by two points. It made for perhaps the most memorable tourney in a couple decades.
2. 2010 Butler Bulldogs
But in an earlier era, we had Villanova, who made the Cinderella story one for the ages by not just existing as an also-ran, but winning the damn tournament over Georgetown, the heavy favorite all season, featuring a giant Patrick Ewing in the five position. They got an eight seed after being unranked at the end of the season. They then tore through Dayton, Michigan, Maryland, North Carolina, and Memphis State to find themselves up against John Thompson’s juggernaut. And they won. By 2. After shooting 78.6% (!) from the field. They were not the better team all season, but they were that night. And all they had to do was play a near-perfect basketball for six high-stakes games in a row. Easy, huh?