19 Greatest NCAA March Madness Cinderella Stories - Rolling Stone
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19 Greatest NCAA March Madness Cinderella Stories

The most unexpected tournament runs from lower-seeded teams

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As NCAA tournaments pile up in our memories, the teams we often remember clearest are the Cinderellas: the lower-seeded teams that advance further than anyone could have expected. With this year's March Madness about to begin, here are the most unforgettable upset runs in modern tournament history.

By Jordan Sargent

Florida Gulf Coast eagles basketball

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2013 Florida Gulf Coast

No 15 seed had ever won two games in the NCAA Tournament until FGCU knocked off Georgetown and San Diego State last year. But it wasn't just the victories, it was the Eagles' swagger — they were dubbed "Dunk City" after slamming a number of high-flying alley-oops on their opponents. 

wichita state basketball

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2013 Wichita State

The Shockers were a good but not great regular season team, having ascended as high as No. 15 in the rankings before entering the tournament as a 9 seed. But nothing about their run to the Final Four felt like a fluke: they controlled each of their four victories, knocking off the region's top two teams (Gonzaga and Ohio State) after jumping out to early leads. Even a victory over eventual champions Louisville was within their grasp until the game's final moments.


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2011 VCU

VCU was never ranked in the 2010-2011 season and did not win its conference, but as an 11 seed they quickly became the story of the tournament. They won their first two games by 18 points each before upending top-seeded Kansas by 10 points. The Rams would fall in the Final Four, but the young and charismatic coach Shaka Smart was the event's breakout star, so much so that it's something of a surprise that he hasn't been snapped up by a bigger program.

butler bulldogs basketball

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2010/2011 Butler

No team outside of the NCAA's six major conferences has won the NCAA Tournament since UNLV did in 1990, and none have come as close as Butler in 2010, when they lost to Duke after a final halfcourt heave hit both the backboard and rim. The team was back in the championship game in 2011 in what turned out to be a borderline unwatchable contest against Connecticut, in which they shot only 18 percent from the field and barely cracked the 40-point mark. It seemed like the Bulldogs would be perennial title contenders until whip-smart coach Brad Stevens left the school last year to coach the Boston Celtics.

davidson basketball

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2008 Davidson

Davidson was far from the first 10 seed to reach the Elite 8 (eight others had done it before them), but the Wildcats were the only 10 seed to have Stephen Curry. The future NBA All-Star exploded became a household name during the tournament, averaging 34 points per game in Davidson's first three victories. Curry shot a horrid 9-25 in the Wildcats' two-point loss to Kansas, but his electric play before that was indelible.

george mason basketball

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2006 George Mason

It wasn't just that George Mason became, at the time, only the second 11 seed to ever reach the Final Four, it was also about who they beat. The Patriots knocked off traditional powers Michigan State and North Carolina during the opening weekend and top-seeded Connecticut in a thrilling Elite 8 game in which George Mason gave up a four-point lead in the final minute before prevailing in overtime. They would get slaughtered by eventual champion Florida in the Final Four, but that did little to demystify the magic of their run.

indiana basketball

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2002 Kent State and Indiana

The 2002 tournament featured dual Cinderella runs: one was from Kent State, a completely anonymous school that beat 2 seed Alabama and 3 seed Pittsburgh en route to the Elite 8. There they were defeated by fifth-seeded Indiana, one of the most storied programs in the sport's history but also one that had been floundering for a decade. The Hoosiers beat Duke in a spectacular Sweet 16 game and coasted into the final before losing to a powerhouse Maryland squad.

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2000 Wisconsin

The 2000 tournament was a wacky one, with only one top seed (eventual champion Michigan State) advancing to the Elite 8. The Final Four featured the Spartans, 5 seed Florida and two 8 seeds, Wisconsin and North Carolina. For the Badgers the run was a signal that the program would soon become a major player on the national stage. 

Gonzaga basketball

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1999 Gonzaga

The Zags would soon move from perennial Cinderella to a fixture in the Top 10, but it started here with an out-of-nowhere run to the Elite 8 as a 10 seed. The journey included a Sweet 16 victory over sixth-seeded Florida, with the Bulldogs claiming victory on a last-second tip-in.

boston college basketball

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1994 Boston College

It had been nine years since the Eagles had even reached the NCAA Tournament, but they made it count when they got finally got back in 1994. They took down top-seeded North Carolina in an exciting game to reach the Sweet 16, and knocked off a second legendary program in Indiana in the next round. BC would lose to Florida in the Elite 8, but the '94 tourney run set the program back on course.

Loyola Marymount

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1990 Loyola Marymount

The 1990 NCAA Tournament was a bittersweet ending to a nightmare season for the Lions. In the second round of the West Coast Conference tournament, Loyola star Hank Gathers — who had led the nation in scoring and rebounding in his two previous seasons — collapsed on the court and died of heart failure. Still, the Lions — playing a remarkably fast pace — made to the Elite 8, even putting up an insane 149 points in a second round win over Michigan. Bo Kimble, the team's second star, scored 42 points against UNLV in the team's final game, but the Lions still lost by 30 points.

Providence basketball

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1987 Providence

Rick Pitino is one of the titans of college coaching (among, uh, other things), and his star was born with his 1987 Providence team, which reached the Final Four after defeating Big East rival Georgetown in the Elite 8. Pitino would leave for the New York Knicks in the months after, and he would eventually win titles at both Kentucky and Louisville.

lsu basketball

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1986 LSU

The Tigers were the first 11 seed to make the Final Four, and they did so in impressive fashion, beating third, second, and first seeds in consecutive games. They also had a flair for the dramatic, defeating Purdue in the first round in two overtimes and knocking off Memphis (then Memphis State) on a buzzer beater.

villanova basketball

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1985 Villanova

1985 was the year in which the tournament expanded to 64 teams, and the Cinderella precedent was set early. Nova was an 8 seed that played a particularly brutish and defense-oriented style of basketball, breaking 60 points only once in the tournament. But that came in the championship game, where the Wildcats upended the heavily favored Georgetown Hoyas, led by Patrick Ewing. Nova famously converted 79% of their shots in what was a two-point victory.

virginia state

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1984 Virginia

Thanks to three-time player of the year winner Ralph Sampson, the Cavaliers were a juggernaut leading up to 1984. But they were also something of a disappointment, reaching the Final Four only once in those three seasons and never playing for the title. Arguably their most memorable run came after Sampson left, when in 1984, Virginia made the Final Four as a 7 seed (back when each region only had 12 teams). Alas, that run, too, ended before the championship game.

NC state basketball

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1983 NC State

North Carolina State's 1983 championship might be the most famous of them all. Even those of us born years after the game have the image of head coach Jim Valvano running deliriously around the court after his team made a last second basket etched into our brains. Valvano would die of cancer 10 years later, but thanks to his beaming personality and candidness throughout his sickness, he remains an omnipresent figure on ESPN.

University of Houston basketball

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1982 Houston

The Houston Cougars were briefly the most exciting program in college basketball thanks to coach Guy Lewis' recognition that dunking would revolutionize the sport. It also didn't hurt that he happened to be coaching two superstars in Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, who pushed the sixth-seeded Cougars into the Final Four in 1982. They lost, and would lose again in the title game in 1983, but the legacy of their style lives on.

UCLA basketball

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1980 UCLA

Under the legend John Wooden, UCLA won the NCAA title 10 times in 12 years between 1964 and 1975. After that final championship, Wooden retired and UCLA cycled through two coaches before landing on Larry Brown, who led the now-underdog Bruins back to the title game as an 8 seed in his first season. But they would lose to Louisville in that, and Brown would be off to the New Jersey Nets a year later.

University of Pennsylvania Quakers Basketball

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1979 Penn

Forget that Penn lost by 34 points in the Final Four, and think about an Ivy League team even making it that far nowadays. Of course, 1979 is a long, long way away from 2014, but the Quakers' run as a 9 seed (including a victory over North Carolina) was nonetheless impressive.

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