The Cinderella stories are what differentiate the NCAA tournament from most of the other major sporting events over the course of the year.
With brackets already busted, fans gravitate toward pulling for the underdog against the traditional power, pulling for the small school with the weird name, Gonzaga, from Washington state, or pull for little-known Butler in a David vs. Goliath national title showdown with Duke.
There have been some memorable runs from improbable teams throughout the history of the NCAA tournament. From Jim Valvano’s N.C. State team in 1983 to Villanova in 1985 to Kansas in 1988, there have been a few teams that rode the magic all the way to national titles.
This year, with such a wide open field, might another improbable run from an unlikely source captivate the nation?
Here are the 10 greatest Cinderella stories in NCAA tournament history.
Penn is the last team from the Ivy League to reach the Final Four, and it did so as a No. 9 seed when the tournament contained just 40 teams.
After barely getting by No. 8 seed Iona in the first round, Penn shocked top-seeded North Carolina in the second round 72-71. After victories over Syracuse and St. John’s, the Quakers were the first Ivy League team since Princeton and Bill Bradley in 1965 to make the Final Four.
There, Penn ran into Michigan State and Magic Johnson, who ended the Quakers’ run at a national title.
In 1999, a school in Spokane, Wash. called Gonzaga was making its second trip ever to the NCAA tournament. To that point, the school’s only claim to basketball fame was that it was the alma mater for John Stockton.
Now, in 2013, every college basketball fan is well aware of the Zags as they make their 15th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, and it all started with that 1999 team led by the likes of Matt Santangelo and Casey Calvary.
The Bulldogs made their way to the Elite Eight thanks to some late-game heroics against Florida in the Sweet 16. That led Gus Johnson to famously exclaim on CBS, “Gonzaga, the slipper still fits!”
Gonzaga lost to eventual national champ Connecticut in the Elite Eight.
LSU was the first No. 11 seed to make it to the Final Four. On one hand, the Tigers were fortunate because they won their first two games on their home floor. That rule was changed a couple years later to keep teams from playing NCAA tournament games on their home floor.
On the other hand, LSU had to overcome injuries, academic casualties and even an outbreak of chickenpox to make its miracle run.
The Tigers beat No. 6 seed Purdue, No. 3 seed Memphis State, No. 2 seed Georgia Tech and No. 1 seed Kentucky on their way to the Final Four in Dallas before losing to eventual national champion Louisville.
The 2011 NCAA tournament was the first season in which the field expanded to 68 teams, and there were two opening round games between the final four at-large selections in the tournament field.
VCU was one of those last four in, and its inclusion was scrutinized ad nauseum on Selection Sunday. So, how did the Rams respond? They simply won five straight games to make it to the Final Four, becoming the third No. 11 seed to make it that far.
On its way, VCU picked up wins over USC, No. 6 seed Georgetown, No. 3 seed Purdue, No. 10 seed Florida State and No. 1 seed Kansas. Only the Florida State game was not decided by double digits.
The Rams lost to Butler in the Final Four, but Shaka Smart made himself a household name among college basketball fans.
George Mason’s run to the 2006 Final Four was simply incredible. The Patriots became just the second No. 11 seed to make it to the Final Four, tying LSU in 1986 for the lowest seed to accomplish the feat.
There was plenty debate as to whether George Mason even belonged in the field of 65. The Patriots did not win the CAA tournament title but were awarded an at-large bid anyway.
Jim Larranaga and George Mason proceeded to beat four higher seeds to make it to the Final Four. On his way there, Larranaga got the better of Tom Izzo at Michigan State, Roy Williams at North Carolina and Jim Calhoun at Connecticut. The latter came in the regional final when George Mason upset top-seeded UConn 86-84 in overtime.
Gordon Hayward came incredibly close to hitting the biggest shot in NCAA tournament history. With his team trailing Duke by two late in the national title game, Hayward put up a half-court heave as time expired. The ball came agonizingly close to banking in, but when it was all said and done, Mike Krzyzewski had won his fourth national championship.
Butler may not have cut down the nets, but America was introduced to the Bulldogs and their young coach, Brad Stevens. That year, the Bulldogs seemed like they came out of nowhere, but they were a No. 5 seed with some serious talent in Hayward and Shelvin Mack.
Butler beat the top two seeds in its region in Syracuse and Kansas State. Then, the Bulldogs knocked off Michigan State in the Final Four.
It’s one thing to go on a run like Butler did in 2010, but the Bulldogs doing it again in 2011 was even more impressive. Butler lost Gordon Hayward early to the NBA draft, and the Bulldogs weren’t going to sneak up on anyone.
Even so, Butler did it again, and it needed plenty of early magic to just make it to the second weekend. The Bulldogs beat Old Dominion by two in the round of 64, then got past top-seeded Pittsburgh, 71-70, to make the Sweet 16. Then, in the Elite Eight, Butler needed overtime to beat No. 2 seed Florida, 74-71.
The Bulldogs reached the title game as a No. 8 seed, tying 1980 UCLA and 1985 Villanova as the lowest seed to make it that far in the tournament.
Kansas won the national title in 1988 with 11 losses, the most ever by a national champion. Danny Manning led the way as “Danny and the Miracles” won the national title as a No. 6 seed.
The Jayhawks had some good fortune as they did not have to face one of the top three seeds in their region to advance to the Final Four.
However, once in the national semifinals, Kansas had to beat No. 2 seed Duke and No. 1 seed Oklahoma to cut down the nets. The matchup with the Sooners was the third of the season for Kansas, and Oklahoma had beaten the Jayhawks on both previous occasions.
In the national title game, Kansas beat Oklahoma, 83-79. Manning had 31 points, 18 rebounds and five steals on his way to being named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Jim Valvano’s club earned the fitting nickname of the “Cardiac Pack” on its way to a national title back in 1983. N.C. State needed double overtime to beat Pepperdine in the first round and also scored one-point wins over UNLV and Virginia on its way to the Final Four.
There, the Wolfpack beat Georgia before pulling a stunning upset over Houston. The Cougars were led by Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, but they were stunned by N.C. State when Lorenzo Charles dunked home Dereck Whittenburg’s desperation heave.
That sent Valvano running for someone to hug in an iconic NCAA tournament moment.
In the first year that the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams, Villanova pulled off the most shocking run in tournament history. The Wildcats won the national title as a No. 8 seed, the lowest to ever cut down the nets.
Villanova took out four teams that were top-two seeds in the tournament that year, ending with a 66-64 win over defending national champion Georgetown and Patrick Ewing.
The Wildcats were almost perfect that night, shooting an unfathomable 78.6 percent of their field-goal attempts. Villanova missed just one shot in the second half. It was the last college game played without a shot clock.