NCAA Tournament 2014: Ranking the Most Overachieving Teams in March Madness
Every NCAA tournament brings its share of upsets and overachieving teams who at times exceed even their own expectations.
The 2014 tourney was no exception. From the surprising runs of Kentucky and Connecticut to the Final Four to Dayton's entry into the Elite Eight and even upsets of much higher seeds by teams many had never heard of, the overachievers struck early and often.
The coaches and players from these teams did more with less, overcame adversity when it presented itself and never stopped battling. In the case of Kentucky and UConn, the fight goes on.
But to see who else belongs on the list of overachievers for this tournament, read on.
8. Cal Poly
Cal Poly? Really?
Yes. With a total of 19 losses on the season coming in, no one expected Cal Poly to be sniffing the tournament, much less winning a game in it. But the Mustangs earned a berth first with a string of upsets in the Big West conference tournament, winning three in a row after entering that tourney with a 10-19 record.
Then they shot 57 percent from the field and won their First Four play-in game versus Texas Southern, 81-69.
"I think our website will be a little more active in the next 48 hours trying to figure out who Cal Poly is," coach Joe Callero said after the game, according to SI.com.
Only one other team in history has won an NCAA tournament game with as many losses, and that was Bradley way back in 1955. Cal Poly's run ended in the next round against Wichita State, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, but at least the website got some action and more people know the school exists.
Stanford, a No. 10 seed in the South Region, knocked off two higher-seeded teams before running into another overachiever with more momentum in the Sweet 16.
The Cardinal dispatched No. 7 seed New Mexico, 58-53, in a gritty opening game and then pulled off a huge upset of second-seeded Kansas, 60-57, in the Round of 32 to set up a Sweet 16 matchup with Dayton.
Although that is where the run ended for Stanford, it lasted longer than expected for a team that entered the tournament with 12 losses to go along with its 21 wins. Coached up by former Duke standout and long-time Mike Krzyzewski assistant Johnny Dawkins, the Cardinal used their superior size and brute physical strength to outmuscle Kansas.
Forward Josh Huestis embodied the overachieving spirit of the entire team when he was assigned to defend Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins, who came in averaging 17.4 points per game. Huestis, with some help from his friends, held Wiggins to four points and harassed him into the same number of turnovers.
6. North Dakota State
North Dakota State University is supposed to be a football school. After all, the Bison have claimed the last three Football Championship Series national championships.
But No. 12 seed NDSU proved it can play a pretty stout brand of basketball, too, when it opened the tournament with a solid 80-75 upset of fifth-seeded Oklahoma.
North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips knew what it meant and could not hold back the tears when asked about the memories he'll take from this season following the subsequent loss to fourth-seeded San Diego State in the next round. After talking about how special and committed his six seniors were and breaking down in that post-game news conference, Phillips joked (via USA Today) that Charles Barkley was no doubt going to make fun of him.
Barkley later responded on-air that he would not make fun of Phillips and that he personally called him to express admiration for the way his team had played in the tournament. (Of course, Barkley could not resist getting in one dig, suggesting that Phillips really was crying because he had to go back to North Dakota.)
So what if the Bison got hammered, 63-44, by San Diego State in the Round of 32? In their first NCAA tournament appearance, they still acquitted themselves well, impressed Barkley and enhanced their school's overall athletic reputation.
Some might argue that Kentucky made this list of overachievers only by underachieving earlier in the season.
To some degree, it's a valid point. The freshman-laden Wildcats did enter the season ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation, according to both The Associated Press and the USA Today Coaches Poll. But during the regular season, they lost every single game they played against a ranked opponent to not only fall quickly from the top of college basketball's rankings but out of the Top 25 altogether.
Thus, they entered the tournament as a No. 8 seed with 10 losses.
How did Kentucky then get on such a roll where it beat, in succession, Kansas State, No. 1 seed and unbeaten Wichita State, No. 4 seed Louisville and second-seeded Michigan to win the Midwest Region and advance to a Final Four date with Wisconsin?
Well, through perseverance, hard work...and plenty of humor from Coach John Calipari, who told the media in a Final Four news conference (via USA Today) that at one point he had himself wheeled into practice in a casket, popped out and said, "We ain't dead yet, boys!"
Whether or not that actually happened seems open to debate, but Calipari deserves credit for not giving up on his young team and believing that as a group they would continue to improve and come together as the season progressed.
So when they fell behind 20-9 at the outset of their much-anticipated Sweet 16 matchup with in-state rival and defending national champion Louisville, Calipari didn't panic and neither did his young but talented players—who now believe in themselves as a unit.
Lord have Mercer!
A No. 14 seed in the Midwest Region, Mercer entered the tournament with a 26-8 record that was identical to the team against which it would open—third-seeded Duke.
But that was about all the two teams seemed to have in common. Mercer hadn't played in the NCAA tourney since 1985; Duke has won four national titles since then.
Times are a-changin', though. Mercer was vastly more experienced, starting five seniors. And the Bears weren't just older, they offered ample evidence throughout the contest that they were physically stronger and mentally tougher—two byproducts of sticking around for more than a year or two of playing at the collegiate level.
Duke, on the other hand, started only one senior and relied too heavily on freshman sensation Jabari Parker, who may soon be headed to the NBA draft along with Duke's second-best player, sophomore Rodney Hood.
Mercer ended up winning the game decisively, 78-71, and so outplayed and outworked younger Duke at every turn that by the end it almost didn't even feel like the major upset it was.
Tennessee went from one of the First Four in to one of the last 16 out.
Seeded No. 11, the Volunteers went on quite an impressive run indeed. But it almost never happened.
Tennessee didn't lead in its First Four game against Iowa until Antonio Barnes hit a three-pointer with just over three minutes left in regulation. The Vols eventually won in overtime, setting the stage for the startling easy upset of sixth-seeded Massachusetts that followed by a score of 86-67.
Then Tennessee easily dispatched another overachieving upstart in Mercer, 83-63, to set up a Sweet 16 matchup against second-seeded Michigan.
The Vols trailed the Wolverines 72-64 with 2:22 left in that one before staging a frantic 11-2 run that featured such great Tennessee defense, the Wolverines seemed to fear throwing the ball in bounds. That gave the Vols the ball back with 9.6 seconds left, trailing by just one—and only a highly controversial offensive foul call prevented them from getting off a shot that could have given them the lead and might have propelled them into the Elite Eight.
Like Kentucky, Connecticut seemed to come from the brink of basketball oblivion this season to make it to the Final Four.
Not only has Connecticut made it, but it also has made it with the kind of momentum and self-confidence that often produces surprising, overachieving champions.
Florida, the top seed in the South Region and the top-ranked team in the nation coming into the tournament, according to The Associated Press and the USA Today Coaches Poll, stands in the way of the Huskies and the national championship game. But that's not likely to intimidate a team that entered the tournament as a No. 7 seed in the East Region and ripped off victories over St. Joseph's, second-seeded Villanova, third-seeded Iowa State and fourth-seeded Michigan State to get here.
One reason Connecticut is so confident right now: free-throw shooting. The Huskies have proven in this tournament that they not only know how to get to the foul line, but that they have the composure and ability to make the critical free throws in tight games.
So far in this tournament, Connecticut is 48-of-53 (90.1 percent) from the line in the all-important final five minutes of regulation and overtime. "That's pretty good," UConn coach Kevin Ollie told Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports in a massive understatement. "That's winning time."
The Cinderella sneakers fit no team better in this tournament than the Dayton Flyers.
Seeded No. 11 in the South Region, the Flyers began their unlikely run to the Elite Eight by beating in-state rival and No. 6 seed Ohio State, 60-59, in their opening game. Then they used their sticky, determined defense to stymie third-seeded Syracuse, 55-53, to make the Sweet 16 for the first time in 30 years.
Along the way, coach Archie Miller picked up a five-year contract extension through the 2018-19 season. The school announced the extension before Dayton's 82-72 victory over Stanford in the Sweet 16 which set up an Elite Eight matchup against mighty Florida.
Although the Flyers could not extend their run past Gator Country, what they accomplished cannot be understated. Miller's emphasis on getting his players to unselfishly share the basketball and make the extra pass to turn what might be a good shot into a great one, all while never letting up on the defensive end, resonated with not only his players but with the Daytona community and basketball lovers everywhere.
After losing to them, Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said of the Flyers (per The Associated Press via knoxnews.com): "They were relentless. That's the best way I can put it."
Joe Menzer writes about college basketball, golf, NASCAR and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.