Final Four History: 12 Most Unlikely Final Four Teams Ever

Thad NovakCorrespondent IMarch 26, 2012

Final Four History: 12 Most Unlikely Final Four Teams Ever

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    The 2012 NCAA tournament has had its share of massive upsets, but the Final Four doesn’t hold a lot of surprises. The lowest seed left in this year’s tournament field is No. 4 Louisville, one of the country’s hottest teams after winning the Big East tournament.

    Cardinals coach Rick Pitino, though, knows a thing or two about serious Final Four underdogs.

    Pitino’s first appearance in the national semifinals came in 1987, when his Providence Friars (a No. 6 seed) went from fourth place in the Big East to the Southeast regional championship.

    Herein lies a closer look at those Friars and the rest of the dozen most surprising teams ever to play in a Final Four.

12. 1944 Utah Redskins

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    Utah wasn’t even planning to play in the 1944 NCAA tournament, having earned a spot in what was then the more prestigious postseason tourney, the NIT at Madison Square Garden.

    When the Redskins—as they were called back then—got bounced in the first round, though, they learned that a spot had opened in the NCAA field due to Arkansas’ withdrawal (following a car accident that seriously injured some of its players).

    Despite their poor showing in New York, Utah rallied behind All-American Arnie Ferrin to take down Missouri and reach the Final Four in a field that consisted of just eight teams to begin with.

    The run didn’t stop there, as Utah topped Iowa State and championship favorite Dartmouth, winning history’s first OT national title game on a last-second shot by Herb Wilkinson.

11. 1987 Providence Friars

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    Heading into the 1987 NCAA tournament, sixth-seeded Providence was a year removed from the NIT and led by a coach who had never won an NCAA tournament game.

    By the time the Friars were done, they’d helped Rick Pitino earn a job as head coach of the New York Knicks for the following year.

    Behind sweet-shooting point guard (and future Florida coach) Billy Donovan, Pitino's Friars slaughtered the Southeast region’s top two seeds—No. 2 Alabama, led by Derrick McKey, and Reggie Williams' No. 1 Georgetown Hoyas.

    Once they reached the national semis, though, Providence’s luck ran out against another conference rival, Sherman Douglas and the Syracuse Orangemen.

10. 1959 Louisville Cardinals

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    The NCAA tournament wouldn’t have seeding for another 20 years, but it’s hard to imagine that the Louisville Cardinals would’ve gotten much of a seed in 1959.

    The 16-10 team had only made one visit to the AP’s national top 20, popping in at No. 17 in January before dropping out just as quickly.

    In their second trip all-time to the Big Dance, the Cardinals acquitted themselves remarkably well, stunning defending champion Kentucky in the second round.

    They went on to withstand a 29-point, 23-rebound effort from Michigan State star Johnny Green to earn a spot in the Final Four before falling to Jerry West’s West Virginia Mountaineers in the national semifinal.

9. 2011 Butler Bulldogs

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    As impressive as Butler was in reaching the Final Four as a No. 8 seed (the first team to do so since 2000), their place on this list isn’t just about where they started on the bracket.

    The Bulldogs faced the highest possible seed in each of their first four games, and they needed one of the most improbable finishes imaginable to escape from top-seeded Pitt in the Round of 32.

    With the Panthers down by one in the waning seconds, Shelvin Mack appeared to have bailed out the favorites with a foolhardy foul at midcourt, allowing Gilbert Brown to tie the game at the charity stripe.

    When Brown missed his second free throw, though, Matt Howard received an even more stupid foul from Nasir Robinson on the rebound, allowing the Butler senior to hit the game-winning free throw with less than one second left on the clock.

8. 1984 Virginia Cavaliers

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    After three straight years as a No. 1 seed behind three-time Naismith Award winner Ralph Sampson, Virginia found itself in an unfamiliar position in 1984.

    In the first year of the post-Sampson era, the Cavaliers went just 17-11 and earned a paltry No. 7 seed in March Madness.

    Virginia then put on a narrow-escape clinic, beating third-seeded Syracuse by eight but winning their other three games in regional action by a combined five points.

    In addition to the Orangemen (featuring freshman star Pearl Washington), Rick Carlisle and his teammates edged Alvin Robertson’s No. 2 seed from Arkansas before finally falling in the national semis to Houston and legendary center Akeem Olajuwon. 

7. 1967 Dayton Flyers

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    Even with a 21-5 record, Dayton entered the 1967 NCAA tournament unranked.

    A narrow escape from Western Kentucky in the first round certainly didn’t make them look like a championship contender, but close games would turn out to be the order of the day for the Flyers.

    6’4” star Don May outshone Tennessee seven-footer Tom Boerwinkle to eke out a one-point victory, then led a 10-point second-half comeback (setting up an OT win over Virginia Tech) to put Dayton in the Final Four.

    The Flyers would crush North Carolina to make the national championship game, but faced an impossible task in the national title game, falling to Lew Alcindor’s unbeaten UCLA Bruins.

6. 1985 Villanova Wildcats

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    The 1985 Villanova Wildcats have gone down in history as an all-time great Cinderella story, both for being the lowest seed ever to win the national title and because they upset Patrick Ewing’s superlative Georgetown team to do it.

    Even before reaching the Final Four, though, Villanova showed it was an unusually dangerous No. 8 seed.

    Although 6’9” Ed Pinckney was the top big man in Rollie Massimino’s rotation, the Wildcats survived a gauntlet of low-post superstars to get to Lexington.

    After squeaking past ninth-seeded Dayton in the first round, Villanova beat Roy Tarpley’s Michigan Wolverines, a Maryland team led by Len Bias and Brad Daugherty’s North Carolina squad to earn its spot in the Final Four.

5. 1979 Penn Quakers

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    The first year of NCAA tournament seeding also produced the first (and still only) No. 9 seed to make it as far as the Final Four.

    While high-ranked squads like Larry Bird's Indiana State team won the other three regions, the East belonged to the underdog Quakers of Penn.

    Star guard Tony Price made his biggest splash in the second round, racking up 25 points, nine rebounds and six assists in a one-point upset of top-seeded North Carolina.

    With the Tar Heels out of the way, the Quakers handled fourth-seeded Syracuse and edged a fellow underdog (10th seed St. John’s) to earn the Ivy League’s last Final Four berth—and a blowout loss to Magic Johnson’s Spartans.

4. 2000 Wisconsin Badgers

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    Arizona looked like a bulletproof No. 1 seed in the 2000 NCAA tournament, boasting future pro stars such as Gilbert Arenas and Richard Jefferson on a deep, fleet-footed roster.

    Then they ran into their diametric opposite—Bo Ryan’s slowdown game and a no-name Wisconsin team from which not a single player was even drafted by the NBA.

    The eighth-seeded Badgers not only shut down the Wildcats (66-59), they proceeded to knock off fourth-seeded LSU (led by Stromile Swift) and Brian Cardinal’s sixth-seeded Purdue squad to earn a spot in the Final Four.

    Once there, though, another Big Ten foe—Mateen Cleaves and eventual champion Michigan State—ended their run in the national semis.

3. 1986 LSU Tigers

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    LSU had already exceeded expectations by the time it reached the 1986 Elite Eight.

    The 11th seed in the Southeast region, the Tigers had taken down third-seeded Memphis and Mark Price’s second-seeded Georgia Tech squad to earn a seemingly hopeless meeting with top-seed Kentucky—a team that had already beaten LSU three times that season.

    The fourth round, though, went to the Tigers, as 6’6” guard Ricky Blanton (dragooned into playing center for injury-ravaged LSU) broke a 57-57 tie with a layup in the closing seconds.

    The win made LSU the lowest seed ever to make the Final Four—a distinction that’s since been tied but never broken—and like the other No. 11s to make it that far, the Tigers fell in the national semifinals, finished off by eventual champion Louisville.

2. 2006 George Mason Patriots

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    Just making it out of the first round would’ve been a victory for George Mason in 2006.

    The Patriots’ best guard, Tony Skinn, was suspended for their NCAA tournament opener against perennial March powerhouse Michigan State.

    Not only did GMU earn a convincing 75-65 win over the Spartans, but they beat out Tyler Hansbrough and North Carolina in the next round.

    In the Elite Eight, a UConn team featuring five future NBA draft picks was lucky just to take the Patriots to overtime before the underdogs came out on top, becoming the second No. 11 seed ever to crash the Final Four.

1. 2011 VCU Rams

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    No Final Four team in history has generated more controversy by its mere inclusion in the tournament field than Virginia Commonwealth.

    The Rams got one of the last at-large bids available a year ago, facing USC in a First Four matchup of No. 11 seeds.

    Behind outstanding three-point shooting and Shaka Smart’s stifling pressure defense, VCU not only crushed the Trojans but also routed sixth-seeded Georgetown and third-seeded Purdue.

    The magic nearly ran out against Florida State, but a one-point win over the Seminoles and a decisive 71-61 defeat of top-seeded Kansas sent the Rams to the Final Four (making them the third No. 11 seed to get there).