Ranking the 10 Most Surprising Seasons in College Basketball History
College basketball surprises us in a new way every season, and that is truly the beauty of the sport.
It features the best postseason in the country, which lends itself to miraculous shots and inspiring underdog tales, as well as engaging personalities on the sideline, raucous fanbases and future NBA stars. Throw in the pageantry of college sports and annual rivalries, and it is the perfect concoction for drama and surprises.
Read on to see the 10 most surprising seasons in college basketball history.
No. 10: 1998-99 Gonzaga Bulldogs
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Forget the Gonzaga you know today, back in the 1998-99 season this was a program that had only been to the NCAA tournament one time in school history and lost in the first round in that tournament.
The 1999 version of the Big Dance changed everything for the Bulldogs.
Gonzaga earned a No. 10 seed but managed to knock off Minnesota from the Big Ten, No. 2 seed Stanford from the Pac-10 and Florida from the SEC before finally bowing out in the Elite Eight against mighty Connecticut. It was an impressive run, and America fell in love with the basketball team that had previously been known only because of John Stockton’s short shorts.
This surprising season set off a streak of years that has not seen Gonzaga miss a tournament since. While a Final Four still has not happened, this is one of the best programs in the country a mere 14 years later.
No. 9: 2010-11 VCU Rams
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The 2011 NCAA tournament was the first in the event’s illustrious history that included 68 teams. VCU squeaked in as an at-large team and was one of the “First Four” squads that had to play in the opening games.
No team caught more flack during the typical Selection Sunday blustering from the Worldwide Leader in Sports than Shaka Smart’s VCU Rams. Their inclusion in the field was criticized by a number of well known pundits, which likely provided the young coach with fodder for pregame speeches.
The Rams bulldozed their way to the Elite Eight by blowing out USC, Georgetown and Purdue and then edging out Florida State in a thriller. It was only natural to assume the magic would run out against No. 1 seed Kansas, but all Smart’s squad did was pull off another double-digit victory.
While VCU ultimately fell short in the Final Four, the fact that this Cinderella made a run from the most criticized team in the “First Four” to the Final Four was shocking and memorable.
No. 8: 2009-10 Butler Bulldogs
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Had Gordon Hayward’s last second heave in the national championship been one inch further to the side it would have banked in, knocked off Duke, given Butler an unheard of national title and probably clinched the No. 1 spot on this list.
Alas, it was still an unbelievable season for Butler, full of surprises and thrillers that will be remembered by Cinderella fans for years.
The No. 5 seed Bulldogs snuck past No. 13 seed Murray State by the skin of their teeth in the second round. From there, Butler stunned No. 1 seed Syracuse, No. 2 seed Kansas State and Michigan State in the Final Four. The Orange and Spartans are two of the most historically excellent programs in college basketball history, and Butler was not supposed to pull off either upset, let alone both.
It may be remembered as a “what-if” scenario, but don’t let Hayward’s near miss overshadow the accomplishments of Butler in 2010.
No. 7: 1991-92 Michigan Wolverines
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The 1991-92 Michigan Wolverines still stand as one of the most famous college basketball teams of all-time, but it was quite surprising at the time how the entire ordeal came together.
For one, the “Fab Five” modernized the recruiting game and set it on the track to the national obsession that it is today. A prominent Final Four squad primarily featuring freshmen was virtually unheard of at the time.
Just the fact that a freshmen-dominated squad made it to the Final Four was a revelation in itself. Throw in the fact that Michigan wasn’t particularly dominating during the regular season (there was no Big Ten title or No. 1 seed, just an impressive run come tourney time), and there was plenty of surprise surrounding the Wolverines.
And of course the way the whole Fab Five era ended was shocking. Star player Chris Webber famously lost track of timeouts and ended up costing his team dearly with a technical foul.
No. 6: 2012-13 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
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There have been Cinderella squads that made it further in the NCAA tournament than Florida Gulf Coast did in 2013, but when taking the bigger picture into context there may not be a more surprising postseason.
The entire Florida Gulf Coast University itself was founded a mere 16 years before the tournament began, and the basketball team didn’t become a full Division I member until 2011. In only the squad’s second season of postseason eligibility, Florida Gulf Coast knocked off Georgetown and San Diego State on the way to the Sweet 16.
That would be surprising enough in its own right, but the way that the Eagles won those games was even more stunning. They put together an array of highlight-reel alley oops and up tempo fast breaks that caught the attention of the entire nation.
No. 15 seed has never made it as far as Florida Gulf Coast did in the tournament, and the Eagles weren’t even the regular season Atlantic Sun champions.
No. 5: 2005-06 George Mason Patriots
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George Mason was the small school from the non-power conference to make a Final Four run before it became cool with VCU and Butler.
The 2005-06 Patriots made mincemeat out of some of the bluest of blue blood programs on the way to college basketball’s final weekend. Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut all fell to George Mason, as the Patriots became the first mid-major squad to make the Final Four in 27 years.
They were also the second No. 11 seed in tournament history to make it to college basketball’s grandest stage and the only squad from the Colonial Athletic Association. Ironically, the Patriots received the same type of controversial at-large bid that VCU did on its way to a Final Four.
No. 4: 1989-90 Loyola Marymount
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The 1989-90 Loyola Marymount basketball squad still stands as one of the more inspiring teams in college hoops history.
Hank Gathers was an absolute superstar for the Lions, but he collapsed and died during a game. It was a devastating loss, especially considering the bright future that Gathers had as a potential NBA prospect.
Bo Kimble and the rest of Loyola Marymount rallied in the mist of their mourning and made it all the way to the Elite Eight. The No. 11 seed knocked off defending national champion Michigan 149-115 in the second round and eventually made it all the way to the Elite Eight.
A loaded UNLV team ended the miraculous run, but the Lions inspired an entire country of basketball fans. It was a gutsy performance in what was undoubtedly one of the most surprising seasons of all-time.
No. 3: 1982-83 North Carolina State Wolfpack
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The lasting image of the 1983 national championship game will always be North Carolina State’s head coach Jim Valvano running around the floor in celebration looking for anyone to hug.
The Wolfpack were a talented bunch, but a national title winning season was not supposed to be in the cards. Not when the dominant Houston Cougars, known at the time as Phi Slama Jama, were busy running wild through college basketball with a 31-2 record and 26-game winning streak.
Underdog North Carolina State earned a No. 6 seed and won its first two games of the tournament by a combined three points. Nobody expected this to be the squad to knock off mighty Houston.
With the game in the balance, Lorenzo Charles grabbed Dereck Whittenburg’s heave in the final seconds and dunked it through at the buzzer. It is still arguably the most famous moment in college basketball history and was an appropriate shocking ending to such a surprising season.
No. 2: 1984-85 Villanova Wildcats
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For as much well-deserved publicity that surprising Cinderella runs by the likes of VCU, Butler and George Mason receive, only the Villanova Wildcats were able to deliver the ultimate prize at the Big Dance.
Villanova was awarded a No. 8 seed in the 1985 NCAA tournament and had to face off against the likes of No. 1 seed Michigan and No. 2 seed North Carolina just for the right to play in the Final Four. Nevertheless, the Wildcats kept winning every time they took the floor.
They made it to the national title game only to square off against Patrick Ewing and the intimidating Georgetown Hoyas. The Hoyas had knocked off Villanova both times they faced each other during the regular season and were heavy favorites to do so again.
But the Wildcats put together one of the most stunning shooting performances in the history of the game, making more than 75 percent of their field-goal attempts on the way to upsetting the Hoyas. Villanova is still the lowest ranked seed to win the national championship.
No. 1: 1965-66 Texas Western Miners
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It is a sad commentary about the environment of college basketball at the time that there were so many so called surprises regarding the 1965-66 Texas Western season.
The Miners were the closest thing to Jackie Robinson that college basketball has, and despite the fact that they were an impressive 23-1 at season’s end, they were considered significant underdogs against No. 1 Kentucky in the national championship game.
Wildcats’ coach Adolph Rupp may have had trouble envisioning a scenario where his all-white squad lost to a team that started five African Americans for the first time in title game history, but that is exactly what happened.
Texas Western went on to upset Kentucky and take home the title, but it was one of those rare moments in sports where something larger than simply winning the game stood out. That game helped pave the way for a more integrated sport and was a culturally significant moment in the sport.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.