March Madness has arrived. As the big guns will get the majority of the press leading into the NCAA Tournament, college basketball fans will still be looking for the next great Cinderalla story, one of the best features of this time of year.
Throughout the years, so many underdogs have won a tournament game or two. But only a select few have gone on runs that can captivate an entire nation. Just look at the attention that Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean received in 2018 on their way to an improbably Final Four run. The Penn Quakers from the Ivy League impressed with a Final Four run of their own in 1979 before running into Magic Johnson and Michigan State. Loyola Marymount had the entire country in their corner in 1990 after the heartbreaking death of Hank Gathers.
While all of those are certainly worthy of mention, they didn’t quite make it into the top five Cinderella stories in NCAA Tournament history.
Call this a two-for-one special to kick things off. 2011 was an absolutely crazy year for March Madness. The year before, Butler had come insanely close to winning a national championship. Had Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot gone in (and it almost did), this list might look a little different.
Alas, once Hayward left for the NBA, the Butler Bulldogs weren’t supposed to be much of a threat entering the NCAA Tournament. As a No. 8 seed in the Southeast Regional, the thought was that they might win their first game, but then they’d be out in the second round. Well, that’s not what happened. Butler did win that first game against Old Dominion, but it took a last-second tip-in to do it. From there, Brad Stevens’ club knocked off No. 1 Pittsburgh in another barnburner, 71-70. They then beat No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 2 Florida on the way to the Final Four, where they matched up with the other Cinderella story from the tournament.
VCU had an even longer road to the Final Four. As a No. 11 seed, Shaka Smart’s Rams first had to get through the First Four, winning their first game of the tourney against fellow No. 11 seed, USC. They breezed through Georgetown and Purdue and then notched a one-point victory in the Sweet 16 against Florida State. They then handed Kansas only their third loss of the year in the Elite Eight, 71-61, setting up a matchup with Butler in the Final Four.
Butler defeated VCU in the Final Four, 70-62, but then lost to UConn in the national title game. However, two runs like that in one NCAA Tournament was something special to watch. It was March Madness at its absolute best.
George Mason, 2006
What makes the George Mason Cinderalla story so special is that they had to pray just to get into the NCAA Tournament. The Patriots actually lost in the semifinals of the CAA Tournament but snuck into the Big Dance with a No. 11 seed. But then March Madness kicked in.
They beat Tom Izzo and Michigan State by 10 in the first round, then knocked off Roy Williams and No. 3 North Carolina in the second round, 65-60. They matched up with another Cinderella in the Sweet 16, seventh-seeded Wichita State, and beat them by eight to set up a matchup with No. 1 Connecticut in the Elite Eight. In a phenomenal game, George Mason outlasted the Huskies, 86-84, to earn a trip to the Final Four.
Unfortunately, the clock struck midnight for George Mason as they lost by 15 to the eventual champion, the Florida Gators. But with wins over three elite programs, all of whom have won multiple national titles, George Mason proved that the mid-majors can hang with the big boys.
The LSU Tigers weren’t playing great basketball when they entered the 1986 NCAA Tournament. Barely getting into the field as a No. 11 seed, they had won just eight of their final 19 games. Somehow, the Tigers got placed in the Southeast Regional, which meant they’d play in Baton Rouge. With homecourt advantage, they beat sixth-seeded Purdue in the round of 64 and then surprised No. 3 Memphis State in the second round. A rule was later made that teams in the tournament couldn’t play games on a court where they’d played at least four games in a season.
Nevertheless, the Tigers were on to the Sweet 16, where they defeated No. 2 Georgia Tech. That set up an Elite Eight matchup with No. 1 Kentucky, to whom LSU had lost three times earlier in the season. The result was different that night as the Tigers beat the Wildcats, 59-57, to earn a trip to the Final Four. LSU would lose to Louisville in the national semifinals but to this day, the Tigers are the only team in March Madness history to beat the top three sides in their region.
North Carolina State, 1983
Normally, a No. 6 seed wouldn’t register as a March Madness Cinderella story. But Jim Valvano’s 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack weren’t just any No. 6.
They were a decent basketball team coming into the ACC Tournament but in order to secure a bid to the Big Dance, they needed to win it. One must recall that the NCAA Tournament was only a field of 52 back then. So wins were a must. But NC State pulled it off and got the No. 6 seed in the West. They squeaked by No. 11 Pepperdine, 69-67, in the first round and then managed to eke out another close win, 71-70, against No. 3 UNLV in the second round. They easily disposed of No. 10 Utah, who were trying to tell a Cinderella story of their own, in the Sweet 16 but then had to go through yet another close game in the Elite Eight. NC State beat No. 1 Virginia, 71-70, to get to the Final Four.
The Final Four matchup between NC State and Georgia was an afterthought. Two number one seeds, Houston and Louisville, were playing on the other side of the bracket and they were the top two teams in the country. Whoever won that game was going to win the national championship. Well, that wasn’t the case. Houston won their game and NC State won theirs, setting up one of the most improbable upsets in NCAA Tournament history. Somehow, NC State beat Houston, 54-52, on a last-second dunk, providing one of the great moments in all of sports history as Jimmy V circled the court looking for someone to hug. What a great run.
Much like NC State in 1983, Villanova had no business winning the national title in 1985. A No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, still the lowest seed ever to win a title, the Wildcats were also the first team to win in a 64-team field.
Villanova came into the NCAA Tournament with a 19-10 record, certainly not spectacular by any means. In each of their first three games, the Wildcats won by less than five points, knocking out top-seeded Michigan in the round of 32. Heavy underdogs in the Elite Eight, Villanova took out No. 2 North Carolina by 12 to get to the Final Four. In the national semis, they defeated another No. 2 seed, Memphis State, to set up a national championship showdown with top-ranked Georgetown.
Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas were the defending national champions and a heavy favorite to repeat. Rollie Massimino’s Wildcats needed a perfect game to win and they pretty much played one. The Wildcats shot an astounding 78.6% from the floor that night to pull off the 66-64 upset, becoming the greatest Cinderella story in March Madness history.