March Madness: The Top 50 Cinderella Stories in NCAA Tournament History
College basketball’s power conferences are just opening their postseason tournaments, but many smaller schools have already punched their tickets to the Big Dance. As the Belmonts and UNC-Ashevilles of the world gear up for March Madness, they’ll look to join a grand tradition of underdogs who have made good on the game’s biggest stage.
One of the most dramatic such stories was written only a year ago, when Virginia Commonwealth became the third No. 11 seed in history to earn a spot in the Final Four. The Rams—who locked up a return trip to the NCAAs by holding off Drexel in last night’s CAA final—snuck into the tournament as one of the last at-large teams, then rampaged through the Southwest regional before finally falling in the national semis...to another Cinderella squad, eighth-seeded Butler.
Herein, a further look at the Rams, the Bulldogs and the rest of the 50 best Cinderella runs the NCAA tournament has ever seen.
This list is specifically intended to cover teams that outperformed expectations in the tournament itself. As such, a lot of terrific underdogs got cut because they were ranked/seeded a bit too highly heading into March Madness (relative to how well they finished).
Among the teams that just missed the list:
1966 Texas Western Miners
1970 Jacksonville Dolphins
1987 Providence Friars
1999 Miami (OH) RedHawks
2010 Northern Iowa Panthers
50. 2011 Morehead State Eagles
Underdogs often exceed their wildest dreams in postseason play, but few do it by listening to their wildest dreams.
When Morehead State coach Donnie Tyndall found his No. 13 seeds in need of a game-winning play in its 2011 NCAA tournament opener, though, he put the ball in the hands of Demonte Harper…who had hit the winning shot in that situation in his coach’s dream the night before.
Harper proved just as clutch in reality, sinking a step-back three-ball from the top of the arc that stunned fourth-seeded Louisville and sent the Eagles to the round of 32.
Even with current Nuggets rookie Kenneth Faried in the post, though, Morehead State couldn’t eke out a second victory, as fellow underdog Richmond took them down by a 65-48 margin.
49. 1993 Southern Jaguars
Overshadowed by another West regional shocker (Santa Clara’s win over second-seeded Arizona), the Southern Jaguars pulled off the biggest win in school history in 1993.
The 13th-seeded SWAC tournament champs were making the school’s sixth NCAA tournament appearance, but none of the previous five squads had come within 14 points of a victory.
The 1993 Jaguars changed all that by shutting down Georgia Tech star Travis Best (eight points on 2-for-14 shooting from the field).
A monster game from Southern’s Jervaughn Scales (27 points and 18 boards) sealed the upset by a convincing 93-78 margin, but the 6’6” Scales couldn’t repeat the performance in a second-round loss to George Washington’s hulking frontcourt (featuring 7’1” Yinka Dare).
48. 2001 Gonzaga Bulldogs
After two years of NCAA tournament surprises, Gonzaga entered the 2000-01 season having lost stars Richie Frahm and Matt Santangelo to graduation.
A 24-6 record earned them just a 12th seed in the South regional after making their previous tournament runs from the No. 10 line on the bracket.
Nevertheless, Gonzaga managed yet another Sweet 16 berth behind proven tournament hero Casey Calvary.
Now a senior, Calvary notched his second career March Madness game-winning putback to stun No. 5 seed Virginia, then scored a game-high 24 in blowing out Indiana State before Michigan State shut the Zags down in the Sweet 16.
47. 2005 Vermont Catamounts
Although Vermont was making its third straight NCAA tournament appearance in 2005, the Catamounts hardly looked underrated as a No. 13 seed. In their previous two outings, they hadn’t even put up a fight in blowout losses to Arizona and UConn.
Against Hakim Warrick and third-seeded Syracuse, though, Vermont scrapped its way into overtime, where a pair of late three-pointers from Germain Mopa-Njila and T.J. Sorrentine put the Catamounts on top to stay.
After notching the biggest win in program history, Vermont had little left for the second round, bowing out quietly against Michigan State.
46. 2010 Cornell Big Red
Even with the Big Red making their third consecutive tournament appearance as Ivy League champs, Cornell was hardly facing high expectations in the 2010 tournament.
A 27-4 record (13-1 in conference) only earned them a 12th seed in the East regional, and the school came in with precisely zero NCAA tournament victories in its history.
The senior-loaded squad, featuring guard Louis Dale and forward Ryan Wittman, took that position and ran with it, making the Ivy League’s first Sweet 16 appearance in three decades.
The Big Red didn’t just squeak by, either—before John Wall and top-seeded Kentucky ran them out of the tournament, Cornell had routed Temple by 13 points and fourth-seeded Wisconsin by 18.
45. 2005 Bucknell Bison
After a pair of 20-point defeats as its entire March Madness history, Bucknell’s fans had little reason to expect any better in 2005.
Even with the best seed in school history (No. 13), the Patriot League champs were still facing a severe uphill battle against Wayne Simien and Kansas.
Although Simien dominated as expected—24 points and 10 rebounds—he had so little help that the Bison managed to keep the game close into the final minutes.
With 10 seconds left to play, Bucknell center Chris McNaughton drained a hook shot over Simien that proved to be the game-winner in a 64-63 thriller.
44. 1999 Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma became a rare power-conference 13th seed in 1999 thanks to a 20-9 regular season and a first-round loss in the Big 12 tournament. Once they got into the field of 64, though, the Sooners showed that they had plenty of fight left in them.
OU stunned fourth-seeded Arizona on a Ryan Humphrey tip-in in the waning seconds, then routed UNC-Charlotte behind Eduardo Najera’s 20 points and 15 boards.
The Sweet 16 was as far as the Sooners would go, though, as top-seeded Michigan State stifled the Oklahoma offense in a grinding 54-46 win.
43. 1990 Northern Iowa Panthers
Missouri’s NCAA tournament runs have usually come on the backs of three-point shooters. In 1990, SG Anthony Peeler was one of the marksmen of the hour, but after helping the Tigers earn a No. 3 seed, he was dominated at his own game in the Big Dance.
Peeler’s disastrous 1-for-7 shooting night helped 14th-seeded Northern Iowa keep the game close.
Then, when Peeler couldn’t get out in time to guard Panther reserve Maurice Newby in the final seconds, Newby’s 25-foot buzzer-beater sent UNI to the second round in its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance.
42. 1988 Richmond Spiders
In 1988, the big-conference powerhouses were still getting used to a 64-team field and the upset possibilities it created. Three years after the invention of the No. 13 seed, Richmond showed just how dangerous such a lightly-regarded team could be.
The CAA champs opened the tournament by knocking off defending champion Indiana, 72-69.
They followed up that performance by becoming the first 13 seed to make the Sweet 16 (thanks to a win over Dennis Scott’s Georgia Tech squad) before bowing out against second-team All-American Mark Macon and the top seeds from Temple.
41. 1985 Navy Midshipmen
In 1985, the NCAA tournament field expanded to 64 teams, introducing 16 new seeds (Nos. 13-16 in each region) that had never existed before. 15 of those went down to predictable defeat…and then there was Navy.
The Midshipmen were playing in the first Big Dance in school history thanks largely to a 7’1” sophomore named David Robinson.
The Admiral announced his arrival on the national stage by dominating LSU center John “Hot Plate” Williams to the tune of 18 points and 18 rebounds, leading the Middies to the first-ever victory for a No. 13 seed.
40. 1977 Idaho State Bengals
The surprise in Idaho State’s 1977 NCAA tournament success wasn’t just that the 23-4 Bengals were unranked throughout the regular season.
In addition, they were the representatives of a Big Sky conference that had only started receiving an NCAA bid a decade earlier and had a total of three wins to show for itself in that time.
With seven-footer Steve Hayes in the middle, though, Idaho State’s zone stifled Long Beach State in the first round and set up the shocker of the tournament: a 76-75 win over mighty UCLA in which Hayes’ game-high 27 points helped withstand the combined 41-point assault of future pros David Greenwood and Marques Johnson.
In the Elite Eight, though, the Bengals’ defense gave out as Reggie Theus’ warp-speed UNLV offense ran them into the ground, 107-90.
39. 2006 Northwestern State Demons
Tenacity is an essential quality in any successful underdog, but even in this company, Northwestern State’s 2006 squad stands out. The Demons trailed by 14 points twice in their first-round game that season, but battled back both times.
Third-seeded Iowa just couldn’t put the game away, and when senior Greg Brunner missed an opportunity to seal the deal from the free-throw line, Northwestern State took full advantage.
Unfazed when his teammate’s three-point try clanged off the front rim, Jermaine Wallace grabbed the offensive rebound, retreated to the corner and swished a fallaway three-pointer that beat the buzzer and the Hawkeyes in one of the most dramatic first-round finishes in history.
38. 2006 Bradley Braves
A basketball powerhouse in the 1950s, Bradley largely disappeared from the national landscape over the succeeding half-century.
By 2006, the Braves (making their first NCAA tournament appearance in a decade) were a 13th seed and a decisive underdog against Brandon Rush and Kansas.
Led by seven-foot sophomore Patrick O’Bryant (whose performance would make him a lottery pick that June), Bradley not only stunned Kansas but went on to take down the Pitt Panthers and their own seven-footer, Aaron Gray.
Bradley’s sensational run ended in the next round, though, as they were throttled by John Calipari’s Memphis Tigers in the Sweet 16.
37. 1984 Richmond Spiders
Before the NCAA tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, there was no underdog lower than a No. 12 seed. Recurring bracket-buster Richmond got its start with one of those dire-looking seeds after winning the ECAC South championship in 1984.
The Spiders had never been to the NCAA tournament, but after a dominating play-in victory over Rider, they stunned Charles Barkley’s Auburn squad by jumping out to a 17-point halftime lead.
Barkley and the Tigers fought back, but Johnny Newman’s 26 points were just enough to preserve a 72-71 Spiders victory.
36. 1976 Virginia Military Institute Keydets
1975-76 was quite a season for unknown programs—Centenary and Western Michigan finished in the top 20—but even that didn’t make VMI look like a postseason contender.
The Southern Conference champs (who had made just one previous NCAA tournament appearance, a loss to Princeton 10 years earlier) had won 20 games in the regular season but never cracked the national rankings.
When March Madness arrived, though, VMI stepped up to stun Ernie Grunfeld and Tennessee in their tourney opener, led by 19 points and 14 boards from star forward Ron Carter.
The Keydets also took down a Dave Corzine-led DePaul squad in OT before another of that season’s surprise standouts, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, decked them in the Elite Eight.
35. 1999 Weber State Wildcats
North Carolina had won its NCAA tournament opener every year since 1980 when it entered the 1999 Big Dance as a No. 3 seed.
With NBA-bound center Brendan Haywood leading the way, the Tar Heels had every reason to expect that streak to extend to an even 20 years.
Instead, UNC ran into one of the great NCAA tournament debuts in history, as JUCO transfer Harold “The Show” Arceneaux scorched them for 36 points, capped by the game-clinching free throws in a shocking upset for Weber State.
Arceneaux was nearly as brilliant in the Round of 32, but even 32 more points from their star couldn’t save the 14th-seeded Big Sky champs against Mike Miller and Florida.
34. 1998 Valparaiso Crusaders
Anyone who’s seen a March Madness highlight collection in the last 14 years knows the 1998 Valparaiso squad, or at least one member of it.
Bryce Drew, the coach’s son, turned Bill Jenkins’ airborne touch pass into a stunning three-point buzzer-beater to take down fourth-seeded Ole Miss.
Unlike many first-round heroes, though, Drew didn’t stop after one sensational win.
His game-high 22 points helped lead Valpo to an OT win over fellow underdog Florida State before Cuttino Mobley and Rhode Island ended the Crusaders’ season in the Sweet 16.
33. 1986 Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans
Despite having loads of talent, Notre Dame found NCAA tournament success elusive in the 1980s. Of all the upsets suffered by the Irish, none hurt like the one they took from Arkansas-Little Rock in 1986.
The Trojans became one of the first two 14 seeds (both on the same day) to win a tournament game, an effort keyed by star guard Pete Myers.
The future Chicago Bull outplayed Irish leader David Rivers, racking up 29 points, seven rebounds and five assists in a 90-83 UALR victory.
32. 1996 Princeton Tigers
The Ivy League representative is rarely much of a threat to any opponent in the NCAA tournament. Against the defending national champs, there shouldn’t be much question of the outcome, but the 1996 Princeton squad proved otherwise.
Facing Toby Bailey and UCLA, Pete Carril’s team ran its eponymous offense to perfection, draining the clock with every pass-heavy possession.
Tied at 41 in the final seconds, Tiger sophomore Steve Goodrich found freshman Gabe Lewullis with one more back-door pass, and Lewullis’ layup sent the defending champions home and the 13th-seeded Tigers to the second round.
31. 1981 St. Joseph’s Hawks
A postseason force in the 1960s, St. Joseph’s had gone 24 years without a tournament win as they opened their 1981 trip to March Madness.
After a first-round squeaker over No. 8 seed Creighton, they faced a top-seeded DePaul team that was loaded for bear with future top-two draft picks Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings.
Aguirre, though, scored a career-worst eight points, and in the final seconds a Skip Dillard miss from the free throw line was followed by a Blue Demon defensive lapse that allowed Hawk forward John Smith to score the game-winning layup uncontested.
After that 49-48 stunner (DePaul’s second straight tournament-opening collapse), the Hawks knocked off fifth-seeded Boston College en route to the Elite Eight, where eventual champion Indiana ended their season in a blowout.
30. 1987 Austin Peay Governors
Few underdogs (even in this company) have needed as much luck as Austin Peay simply to reach the NCAA tournament. The Governors only won the 1987 Ohio Valley tourney on the strength of a 30-foot buzzer-beater against Eastern Kentucky.
Handed a 14th seed, the Governors looked like a good bet to be handed their heads by Ken Norman and Illinois.
Instead, 6’8” PF Darryl Bedford knocked down five three-pointers to keep the game close, and Tony Raye (a 56 percent foul shooter) drained a pair of free throws with two seconds left to earn a 68-67 victory.
29. 2002 Kent State Golden Flashes
A year after earning their first-ever NCAA tournament win as a No. 13 seed, Kent State came back as another serious underdog in 2002.
The 10th-seeded Golden Flashes made the most of their March Madness experience, opening with another victory (over Oklahoma State).
This time, though, Kent State just kept on rolling, hammering Alabama 71-58 and edging Brandin Knight’s Pitt squad in an OT thriller.
The magic ran out in the Elite Eight, when Jared Jeffries keyed a balanced Indiana attack that earned an 81-69 win in spite of 22 points and eight boards from KSU power forward (and future NFL superstar) Antonio Gates.
28. 1965 Princeton Tigers
Even with national Player of the Year Bill Bradley finishing his sensational career, Princeton had a tough time getting much respect in 1964-65.
The Tigers never cracked the AP rankings in posting a respectable (but hardly earth-shaking) 19-5 regular-season record.
After knocking off Penn State and NC State, Princeton slaughtered the nation's fourth-ranked team, Jimmy Walker’s Providence Friars, 109-69 behind Bradley’s 41 points.
Even after falling to Cazzie Russell and Michigan in the national semis, Bradley wasn’t done, setting a Final Four record with 58 points in beating Wichita State in the consolation game.
27. 2008 Davidson Wildcats
For all the publicity that super-scorer Stephen Curry earned at Davidson, his Wildcats were only a 10th seed in the 2008 Midwest regional. An opening win over Gonzaga wasn’t much of a surprise, but Curry was just getting started.
The sophomore star dropped 30 on Georgetown and 33 more in a 17-point blowout of the vaunted Wisconsin defense.
Eventual champion Kansas finally stopped the Wildcats’ momentum, holding Curry to a mere 25 points in eking out a two-point victory in the Elite Eight.
26. 1989 Siena Saints
Battling higher seeds is standard for a small-conference squad like Siena, but battling pestilence usually isn’t in the job description.
Nevertheless, after soldiering on through a campus measles outbreak that had them playing in front of empty seats for a month, the newly-renamed Saints earned a trip to the Big Dance as a 14th seed.
Third-seeded Stanford had size and scoring with future NBA role players Adam Keefe and Todd Lichti, but what they didn’t have was Marc Brown.
The Siena star went for 32 points and six assists to head up an 80-78 upset, the school’s only March Madness victory until 2002.
25. 1999 Gonzaga Bulldogs
Despite having produced NBA legend John Stockton, Gonzaga was a thoroughly unknown program making its second-ever March Madness appearance in 1999. It wouldn’t stay unknown for long.
The 10th-seeded Zags rocked Minnesota in their tournament opener, then followed up with an 82-74 triumph over Mark Madsen and Stanford. Midnight refused to arrive in the Sweet 16, where Casey Calvary’s game-winning tip-in sent the Zags to the Elite Eight and prompted Gus Johnson’s much-replayed call, “The slipper still fits!”
24. 1959 Louisville Cardinals
Now a perennial powerhouse, Louisville was making its second-ever NCAA tournament appearance in 1959. The Cardinals came in with a lackluster 16-10 record and a grand total of one week in the AP’s top 20 (a momentary appearance at No. 17 in late January).
Even in the smaller tournament field of that era, though, Louisville had to earn its trip to the Final Four.
The Cardinals upset defending champion Kentucky and (despite 29 points and 23 boards from Johnny Green) seventh-ranked Michigan State before finally bowing out against Jerry West and West Virginia in the national semifinals.
23. 2001 Temple Owls
John Chaney had more talented Temple squads than his 2000-01 Owls, but none who made a more impressive showing in the postseason.
After a lackluster 18-12 regular season, it took an A-10 tournament title just to earn the Owls an 11th seed in the South regional.
From there, sharpshooting guards Lynn Greer and Quincy Wadley led Temple on a brilliant tournament run featuring upsets of Texas (a squad led by Royal Ivey and Maurice Evans) and of the defending national runners-up from Florida.
Only the defending champs from Michigan State managed to stop Temple in the Elite Eight.
22. 1986 Cleveland State Vikings
1985-86 was a season of firsts for Cleveland State.
The Vikings made their first NCAA tournament appearance, and in earning their first win—over fourth-seeded Indiana and Steve Alford—they became one of the first pair of 14 seeds to win a tournament game (along with Arkansas-Little Rock, who accomplished the feat on the same day).
The Vikings’ impressive run didn’t end there, however, as they also became the first 14 seed (and one of just two all-time) to advance to the Sweet 16, thanks to a win over St. Joseph’s.
Even there, it took 22 points and 14 rebounds from Navy’s David Robinson to end CSU’s extraordinary postseason.
21. 1984 Virginia Cavaliers
After four years of being favored in every game thanks to 7'4" legend Ralph Sampson, Virginia faced a rough adjustment period in 1983-84. The Cavaliers finished just 17-11, earning a mere seventh seed in the East regional.
Amazingly, Virginia without Sampson matched the best tournament run it had made with him, as Olden Polynice (filling Sampson's center spot) and Rick Carlisle led the Cavaliers to upsets of Arkansas (an OT thriller won by Carlisle's jumper), Syracuse and Indiana.
In the Final Four, though, Virginia ran into their old nemeses from Houston, and Akeem Olajuwon's double-double helped Phi Slama Jama eke out an uncharacteristic defensive win, 49-47 in overtime.
20. 1997 Coppin State Eagles
South Carolina hadn’t been favored in an NCAA tournament game since Alex English graduated in 1974, but in 1997 the school was riding high.
A 24-7 record had earned the Gamecocks the No. 2 seed in the East regional and an easy matchup with Coppin State, a school whose entire conference (the MEAC) had failed to win a single tournament game in its history.
Despite being 30-point underdogs, it was the Eagles who played like the favorites, keeping the game close through halftime before running away with a 78-65 win behind a combined 42 points from Danny Singletary and Antoine Brockington.
After setting a record for margin of victory by a 15th seed, Coppin State put up a great fight in their encore performance before falling to Texas, 82-81.
19. 1990 Loyola Marymount Lions
Even after averaging an NCAA-record 122.4 points a game, Loyola Marymount was ranked just 21st in the nation as the regular season closed.
Then, tragedy struck as superstar forward Hank Gathers collapsed and died on the court during the West Coast Conference tournament.
The team did Gathers proud with its postseason performance, becoming the second 11-seed to make the Elite Eight.
Led by Gathers’ childhood friend Bo Kimble—who took his first free throw of each game left-handed in honor of the fallen southpaw—the Lions routed defending champion Michigan and edged second-seeded Alabama before falling to eventual champion UNLV.
18. 2001 Hampton Pirates
Just a year removed from an Elite Eight run, Jamaal Tinsley and Iowa State earned their second straight No. 2 seed in 2001.
After a comparatively narrow win over 15th-seeded Central Connecticut State the year before, the Cyclones should’ve been ready for a fight. They got one from the Hampton Pirates, a MEAC squad making its first-ever tournament appearance.
Hampton rallied from an 11-point deficit to close within one in the waning moments, and with 6.9 seconds on the clock, Marseilles Brown found Tarvis Williams for the game-winner that made Iowa State the fourth No. 2 seed ever to fall in the first round.
17. 1997 Tennessee-Chattanooga Mocs
Heading into the 1997 NCAA tournament, the SoCon champions from UT-Chattanooga didn’t look much different from the conference’s usual first-round-and-done NCAA representatives.
A 22-10 record in the lightly-regarded league earned them a 14th seed and a hopeless-looking meeting with some SEC bullies from Georgia.
The Mocs, though, turned that script around with a 73-70 win to earn a second-round date with Kiwane Garris and Illinois.
Far from suffering a letdown after their thrilling upset, Chattanooga cruised to a 75-63 win over the sixth-seeded Illini to earn the only Sweet 16 appearance in school history (and a hard-fought loss to Austin Croshere and surprising Providence).
16. 2000 Wisconsin Badgers
Before Bo Ryan made Wisconsin's smothering defense an NCAA tournament fixture, Dick Bennett had turned the Badger program around with a similar philosophy.
Bennett's crowning moment came in his penultimate season in Madison, when he guided the ninth-seeded Badgers to the greatest March Madness run in school history.
With an anonymous cast featuring such luminaries as Andy Kowske and Mike Kelley—not to mention backup Travon Davis, pictured—Wisconsin took down a top-seeded Arizona team flush with NBA talent (Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson, Luke Walton).
The Badgers ground out wins over LSU and Purdue en route to the Final Four, where they were finally stopped by conference rival (and eventual champion) Michigan State.
15. 1956 Canisius Golden Griffins
If the NCAA tournament had been a major TV event in 1956, we’d probably spend every March watching highlights from Canisius’ epic first-round upset. As it is, one of the greatest games in tournament history has been largely forgotten.
The unranked Golden Griffins were the first team to face a seemingly impossible first-round opponent (No. 2 NC State) and come out on top, but it took them four overtimes to do it.
With five seconds left in the final OT, Canisius reserve Fran Corcoran scored his only basket of the game to shock the Wolfpack, 79-78, and spark the Golden Griffins to an improbable Elite Eight berth.
14. 2011 Butler Bulldogs
After Butler's magnificent run to the 2010 title game as a No. 5 seed, the early NBA exit of forward Gordon Hayward seemed to make the team mortal during the regular season last year.
The Bulldogs earned only an eighth seed after posting a 21-9 record followed by a Horizon League tournament title.
Back in March Madness, though, Butler regained its magic touch, holding off Old Dominion by two and stunning top seed Pitt on a Matt Howard free throw with a fraction of a second on the clock.
That thriller helped key a return to the national title game, a far less exciting affair in which Butler’s fine defense couldn’t overcome its atrocious offense in a 53-41 loss to UConn.
13. 1991 Richmond Spiders
Already well-established as postseason giant-killers, Richmond came into the 1991 NCAA tournament as an even more pronounced underdog than usual.
The Spiders drew only a 15th seed, earning them a date with second-seeded Syracuse and high-scoring forward Billy Owens (pictured).
The extensive upset experience of coach Dick Tarrant served Richmond well, and the underdogs weathered a strong performance by Owens (22 points and seven boards) without blinking.
Up eight points at the half, the Spiders held off the ‘Cuse down the stretch thanks to outstanding free-throw shooting (18-for-22 on the night) to become the first-ever No. 15 seed to win a game.
12. 2011 Virginia Commonwealth Rams
An exciting but inconsistent team in the regular season, Virginia Commonwealth earned plenty of criticism (as an undeserving entry) to go with its at-large bid, one of the last in 2011's field of 68.
Once the Rams arrived in the tournament, though, even the handicap of being one of eight teams playing a first-round game in the new format couldn’t slow them down.
Behind outstanding three-point shooting and Shaka Smart’s stifling full-court press, the senior-laden Rams stormed through their first three foes by an average margin of 17 points.
After edging out Florida State 72-71, VCU thrashed top-seeded Kansas to become the third No. 11 seed to advance to the Final Four, falling only to the tournament-tested Butler Bulldogs in the national semis.
11. 2002 Missouri Tigers
Although Missouri’s most famous NCAA tournament loss came at the hands of UCLA (on Tyus Edney’s iconic layup), the Tigers’ most remarkable win also featured the Bruins as the opponent.
UCLA was the last team Missouri beat in the 2002 Big Dance, when the Tigers became the first and only No. 12 seed ever to make the Elite Eight.
Like this year’s edition, those Tigers were led by a posse of sharp-shooting guards, with the 2002 version featuring future NBA reserve Kareem Rush.
In addition to Matt Barnes’ Bruin squad, Mizzou’s victims included fourth-seeded Ohio State and fifth seed Miami before their run finally ended against conference rival Oklahoma.
10. 1979 Penn Quakers
The 1979 tournament marked the introduction of seeding, and the Final Four that year included a No. 1 seed (Larry Bird and Indiana State), a pair of No. 2 seeds (Magic Johnson’s Michigan State squad and Mark Aguirre’s DePaul team)…and the Penn Quakers.
Seeded ninth out of 10 teams in the East regional, the Quakers became the last Ivy League team to reach the national semis.
Although Penn took down a pair of Big East foes (St. John’s and No. 4 seed Syracuse), its most impressive win by far came against top-seeded North Carolina.
Penn got a sensational effort from Tony Price (25 points, nine rebounds and six assists) to keep pace with Tar Heel stars Mike O’Koren and Al Wood, and a last-second free throw from James Salters gave the Quakers the biggest upset in program history.
9. 1993 Santa Clara Broncos
The West Coast Conference hadn’t yet earned its bracket-busting reputation in 1993, when unheralded Santa Clara earned the league’s automatic bid to the Big Dance.
The 15th-seeded Broncos were matched up against the high-powered perimeter game of No. 2 seed Arizona, featuring Damon Stoudamire and Chris Mills.
The biggest backcourt name in the game, though, turned out to be then-unknown Steve Nash, whose free-throw shooting helped Santa Clara hold off a Wildcat comeback.
With forward Pete Eisenrich leading the way with 19 points, Santa Clara was on its way to the second round (albeit to a 68-57 thumping by Eddie Jones and Temple).
8. 1967 Dayton Flyers
Dayton’s run to the 1967 Final Four was nothing if not dramatic.
The unranked Flyers opened by topping No. 6 Western Kentucky by two points, then edged No. 8 Tennessee by a single point as 6’4” star Don May outrebounded Vols seven-footer Tom Boerwinkle, 14-9.
The Flyers then came back from 10 points down in the final minutes to force OT against Virginia Tech, running away with the win in the extra session to set up their one easy win: a 76-64 romp over No. 4 North Carolina in which May hit 13 consecutive shots at one stretch.
Only the indomitable Lew Alcindor, on his way to the first of three straight national titles at UCLA, could end Dayton’s remarkable run in the championship game.
7. 2006 George Mason Patriots
With a 23-7 record in a mid-major conference, the 2006 Patriots were lucky to earn at at-large berth, but they faced a daunting challenge as the No. 11 seed in a deep Washington regional.
Without starting guard Tony Skinn (suspended for throwing a punch during the CAA tournament), the Patriots downed Shannon Brown and Michigan State to open their March Madness run.
Skinn’s return helped spark another upset (over Tyler Hansbrough and North Carolina), and a win over fellow Cinderella Wichita State set up a showdown with top-seeded UConn.
Even after Denham Brown’s buzzer-beating reverse helped the Huskies force OT, George Mason hung tough to earn an 86-84 win over Rudy Gay and company and become the second 11-seed in history to advance to the Final Four.
6. 1944 Utah Redskins
Utah wasn’t even supposed to participate in the 1944 NCAA tournament, let alone win it.
The Redskins (as they were known at the time) were in New York, having lost in the more-celebrated NIT, when they were invited to fill in for Arkansas due to a car accident that injured several Razorbacks and prompted the team to withdraw.
After battling through to the title game, Utah (led by All-American Arnie Ferrin, pictured) faced heavily-favored Dartmouth for the title.
In the first overtime game in national-championship history, Herb Wilkinson broke a 40-40 tie in the final seconds with a long one-handed set shot to win the only national championship Utah has ever captured.
5. 1988 Kansas Jayhawks
Kansas is usually the powerhouse team getting upset by the plucky underdog, but in 1987-88 the Jayhawks found that shoe on the other foot.
Larry Brown’s team had gone just 21-11 (including a mere 9-5 conference mark) and entered the NCAAs as a No. 6 seed.
When the March Madness lights came on, though, Danny Manning put the team on his back in a sensational Final Four run featuring wins over rival Kansas State in the Elite Eight and Duke in the Final Four.
In the national championship game, the Jayhawks avenged a regular-season sweep at the hands of national No. 4 Oklahoma, rallying in the second half to beat Mookie Blaylock et al and claim the second (and most improbable) national title in school history.
4. 1958 Manhattan Jaspers
After three straight first-round losses in NCAA tournament play, the West Virginia Mountaineers had reason to expect a reversal of fortune in 1958.
Sweet-shooting sophomore guard Jerry West had West Virginia ranked No. 1 in the nation heading into a March Madness showdown with unknown, unranked Manhattan.
In his first trip to March Madness, though, West played one of the worst games of his life, tallying a mere 10 points and four rebounds (against season averages of 17.8 and 11.1).
On the other side, the Jaspers’ John Powers lit up WVU for 29 points and 15 boards for the first (and, for the next 37 years, only) NCAA tournament win in program history.
3. 1986 LSU Tigers
In a tournament loaded with upset winners, none had the staying power of Dale Brown’s LSU squad.
The injury-plagued 1986 Tigers became the first No. 11 seed to make the Final Four, and they went through each of the Southeast regional’s top three seeds to do it.
Of all those upsets (whose victims included Mark Price’s second-seeded Georgia Tech team), none could have been sweeter than the meeting with top seed Kentucky, who had swept three previous meetings with the Tigers that season.
Despite a 20-point effort from Wildcat star Kenny Walker, the game was tied at 57 in the closing seconds when Ricky Blanton—a 6’6” LSU guard turned fourth-string center—sank the game-winning layup to send the Tigers to the national semis.
2. 1983 NC State Wolfpack
The tournament run was nearly over before it began for Jim Valvano’s sixth-seeded Wolfpack in 1983. Only a last-second tip-in by Cozell McQueen forced OT in NC State’s first-round win over No. 11 seed Pepperdine.
The Wolfpack then knocked off No. 3 seed UNLV and Ralph Sampson’s top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers en route to the Final Four.
NC State capped their astonishing run when Dereck Whittenburg’s missed jumper turned into Lorenzo Charles’ buzzer-beating put-back dunk, shocking Akeem Olajuwon and Phi Slama Jama and making the Wolfpack the first of two No. 6 seeds in history to capture the national title.
1. 1985 Villanova Wildcats
In a 1984-85 Big East so strong that it produced two No. 1 seeds, Villanova was decidedly an afterthought. The 19-10 Wildcats managed only a No. 8 seed, fourth-best among the conference’s six NCAA tournament representatives.
Undersized center Ed Pinckney had already run a gauntlet of his future NBA foes, beating Michigan (Roy Tarpley) and North Carolina (Brad Daugherty) by the time he headed into his third matchup with the legendary Patrick Ewing and defending champion Georgetown in the title game.
Fortunately for Pinckney and his teammates, the Wildcats played the game of their lives against the Hoyas, holding Ewing to a pedestrian 14 points and missing just a single shot after halftime to become the lowest-seeded national champion in history.
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