Where Wichita State Ranks Among All-Time Final Four Underdogs
Some saw Wichita State falling to a physical Pittsburgh team in the first round. Others doubted the Shockers could compete with Gonzaga in the paint, even if the Bulldogs were considered the weakest of the one seeds.
Next a favorable draw yielded a matchup against No. 13 La Salle, a game by this point that the Shockers were expected to control. They did and advanced to face No. 2 Ohio State, a team that finished tied for second in the best conference in America.
Until the last 10 minutes, Wichita State physically dominated the Buckeyes with effort and strength, at one point building a 20-point lead. The Shockers ultimately hung on to become just the second No. 9 seed to ever advance to the Final Four.
The Shockers’ stunning march to Atlanta was improbable, but where does Wichita State rank among the all-time Final Four underdogs?
In general, I used the formula the lower the seed, the bigger the underdog, but that’s not necessarily a steadfast rule as some upsets were more significant than others, regardless of seed.
10. Virginia Cavaliers, 1984
Having lost Ralph Sampson to the NBA the year before, the Cavaliers entered the 1984 tournament as a No. 7 seed with few expectations of making a repeat Final Four run as they did in 1981.
But behind Rick Carlisle and Othell Wilson, Virginia won the Eastern Regional after dispatching Iona, Arkansas, Syracuse and Indiana. The win over the Razorbacks was especially dramatic as Carlisle hit a baseline jumper with under five seconds remaining in overtime to give the Cavaliers a 53-51 win. Virginia had beaten Eddie Sutton, Jim Boeheim and Bob Knight in three straight rounds to advance to the Final Four.
Facing Houston’s vaunted “Phi Slama Jama,” the Cavaliers ultimately fell in the national semifinals, 49-47, in overtime. Future Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon recorded a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
9. Providence Friars, 1987
As a No. 6 seed in the Southeast Region of the 1987 tournament, Providence, led by none other than Rick Pitino, won the regional championship by taking down the top two seeds in the group, No. 2 Alabama and No. 1 Georgetown.
The Friars’ top player that season was future Florida head coach Billy Donovan, who carried Providence against the Hoyas with 20 points and six assists.
Pitino’s squad ran into Derrick Coleman's No. 2 Syracuse team in the national semifinals, and the Friars' dream season ultimately ended at 25-9 with a 77-63 loss to the Orange. Donovan was just 3-of-12 for eights points.
Pitino then famously left for the NBA only to return a few years later to Kentucky.
The Friars were the only seed lower than a No. 2 in that year's Final Four.
8. Butler Bulldogs, 2011
While Brad Stevens’ first Final Four appearance featured a more grueling path, his second run as a No. 8 seed in 2011 was more impressive given that his team’s talent was significantly lower.
The Bulldogs lost Gordon Hayward’s 15.5 points and 8.2 rebounds, and they had lost three-straight games in the middle of the Horizon League schedule, including a loss to Youngstown State, which won just two league games all year.
Following that loss, Butler strung together nine straight wins heading into the tournament, where it knocked out Pittsburgh (1), Wisconsin (4) and Florida (2) to advance to its second consecutive Final Four. The Gators were favored by three points in that Elite Eight contest.
Butler handled VCU behind 24 points and five three-pointers from Shelvin Mack, but was overwhelmed by a Connecticut team in the championship, which had significantly more NBA-level talent. To make it to the Final Four in two straight years, though, represented a massive achievement for Butler and mid-majors alike.
7. Wichita State Shockers, 2013
With their stunning 70-66 victory over Ohio State on Saturday, the Shockers became the second No. 9 seed to advance to the Final Four and the first Missouri Valley Conference team to make it that far since Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad in 1979.
They were probably under-seeded given their entire season’s resume, but three losses in their last five games heading into the tournament didn’t help their stock. Wichita State finished 12-6 in conference play, second only to No. 6 Creighton, which bowed out in the round of 32. The Shockers in fact beat Creighton at home on Jan. 19, but lost their last two meetings against the Bluejays.
While certainly not expected, the Shockers’ run isn’t all that stunning when you consider how vulnerable the West Region appeared. Pittsburgh’s offense was out of sorts, Gonzaga couldn’t live up to its one-seed billing and La Salle couldn't physically match the Shockers. Ohio State was the clear pick (4.5 point favorites), but it relied too heavily on Deshaun Thomas in the first half and looked more like the Buckeyes of February than the team that had won 11 straight.
With a semifinal matchup looming against top overall seed Louisville, the book on Wichita State is far from written. The Cardinals opened as 10-point favorites over the Shockers.
6. Penn Quakers, 1979
Before Wichita State did it on Saturday, Pennsylvania, which finished 13-1 in the Ivy League in 1979, was the first No. 9 to win four straight and advance to the Final Four.
In the first year the tournament used seeds, the Quakers earned the No. 9 seed and narrowly escaped their first two rounds, beating Iona and No. 1 North Carolina by a combined five-point margin. Penn then handled No. 4 Syracuse and No. 10 St. John’s to advance out of the East Region.
Quaker star Tony Price scored at least 20 points in all of Penn’s regional competition, but managed an inefficient 18 on 7-of-18 shooting as it got destroyed by Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans in the national semifinals.
Only Pennsylvania and Princeton have made it to the Final Four out of the Ivy League.
5. N.C. State Wolfpack, 1983
Remember when I said in the introduction that lower seeds “generally” mean bigger underdogs? The Wolfpack were one of the major exceptions. N.C. State won the ACC tournament just to ensure it made the field in 1983.
As a No. 6 seed in the tournament, Jim Valvano’s Wolfpack had to get past Ralph Sampson and the Virginia Cavaliers just to get to the Final Four.
N.C. State wasn’t all that impressive throughout the season, finishing fourth in the ACC with a modest 8-6 record.
But behind forward Thurl Bailey and Dereck Whittenburg, who combined for 38 points in the 63-62 win over Virginia, the Wolfpack advanced to the national semifinals against No. 4 Georgia. Both scored 20 points each to set up a championship game against No. 1 Houston, which had won 26 straight games.
The Cougars and their “Phi Slama Jama” offense were heavily favored behind towers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. But the Wolfpack were fortunate at the end of the game when Lorenzo Charles caught Dereck Whittenburg’s errant shot and dunked it to give N.C. State the 54-52 win. It was one of the most memorable shots in NCAA tournament history.
N.C. State is one of just two No. 6 seeds to win the championship (the other was Kansas in 1988).
4. Villanova Wildcats, 1985
The Wildcats, as the No. 8 seed in the 1985 tournament, still remain the lowest seed to ever win the national championship.
Rollie Massimino’s Villanova squad entered the tournament just 19-10 on the regular season, including two losses to Big East rival Georgetown. By no means were the ‘Cats an offensive or defensive juggernaut, either.
Throughout their run, the Wildcats handled two No. 1 seeds (Michigan, Georgetown) and two No. 2 seeds (North Carolina, Memphis) en route to the title.
The most improbable aspect to Villanova’s run came in the national championship game against Patrick Ewing’s Hoyas, who lost just three games all season. The 6'9" forward Ed Pinckney had 16 points, six rebounds and five assists while Dwayne McClain had a game-high 17.
The real reason Villanova was able to take down the defending national champion Hoyas, though, was that the Wildcats shot 78 percent (22-of-28) from the field against one of the best defensive teams in the country.
3. Louisiana State Tigers, 1986
While it almost seems fairly commonplace given the recent success of No. 11 seeds, the Tigers were the first team in NCAA history to reach the Final Four as a No. 11 seed in 1986.
The Tigers, who finished fifth in SEC conference at just 9-9, weren’t a good defensive team, but they beat Mark Price’s Georgia Tech team in the Sweet 16 to set up a meeting against conference rival and No. 1 seed Kentucky, a heavy title favorite. The Wildcats had already beaten LSU three times that season—twice by three points or less—but the Tigers finally turned the trick on Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
Four starters scored in double figures as the Tigers upset No. 1 Kentucky, 59-57. The win sent No. 11 LSU on to the Final Four against Louisville, where the Cardinals handled the Tigers and eventually won the title.
2. Virginia Commonwealth Rams, 2011
ESPN’s Jay Bilas famously said that the 2011 VCU Rams, which were just 23-11 before the tournament started, didn’t deserve to make the field.
They won their play-in game against USC by 13, and then stormed No. 6 Georgetown by 18 points to make all college basketball fans take notice. The Hoyas were miserable from beyond the arc (5-of-26) and were unprepared to face Shaka Smart’s havoc defense.
Still, the Rams had only defeated one ranked team all season, coincidentally No. 25 George Mason at the end of the year, and no one knew what to make of the nine-man rotation that helped implement Smart’s high-pressure defense. After storming past No. 3 seed Purdue and barely defeating No. 10 Florida State, the Rams had a chance to become just the third No. 11 seed to win a regional final.
Against No. 1 Kansas, which was an 11-point favorite, the Rams caught fire from three-point range in knocking down 12-of-25, while the Jayhawks shot a miserable 9.5 percent from outside in the humbling 71-61 loss. The Rams would meet fellow mid-major and future conference rival Butler in the Final Four, where Brad Stevens’ methodical offense kept the Rams at bay.
For how little was expected, it was a run of extreme historical significance.
1. George Mason Patriots, 2006
For two weeks in 2006, the Patriots of George Mason were the kings of the March. After a 23-7 regular season, George Mason of the Colonial Athletic Association stormed through hallowed program after hallowed program, culminating in the second-ever Final Four appearance for a No. 11 seed.
It was also the furthest a CAA member had ever danced, until VCU tied that mark in 2011.
In the first round it upset No. 6 seed Michigan State, 75-65, then the Patriots handled No. 3 North Carolina, 65-60. The Tar Heels were one year removed from winning the national championship over Illinois in 2005.
In the Sweet 16, George Mason knocked out Wichita State to give the Patriots a chance at history. Facing No. 1 Connecticut, which won the championship prior to Carolina’s title in 2005, the Patriots overcame an immense talent disparity to win 86-84 in overtime. All of their starters scored in double figures as the Patriots, coached by current Miami coach Jim Larranaga, knocked down 9-of-18 three-pointers to take down the Huskies and crash the Final Four.
The Patriots ultimately came up short against Florida in the national semifinal, but as a No. 11 seed, having already plodded through a brutal path to the Final Four, George Mason earned the title of the ultimate underdog.