Ranking the Most Unlikely Champions in College Basketball History
Shabazz Napier and the No. 7 Connecticut Huskies painted a masterpiece to win the 2014 NCAA championship, but where does it rank among the unlikeliest of title runs in men's college basketball history?
In the heat of the moment, we were bombarded with hyperbole about Connecticut and Kentucky being the most unprecedented pairing in championship history. But now that there have been a few months to let it all soak in, it's time to put that magical run in perspective.
Because let's face it: There have been quite a few totally unexpected champions over the past 75 years.
The 1980s were particularly out of control, producing five of the top nine teams on this list of unlikely NCAA champions.
1991 Duke Blue Devils
Duke winning its first national championship in 1991 wasn't as much of a surprise as it was that any team other than UNLV cut down the nets that year.
Jerry Tarkanian's Runnin' Rebels were 34-0 entering the Final Four and had beaten Duke by a score of 103-73 to win the championship the previous season, but Duke and Christian Laettner shocked the world by knocking off UNLV in the national semifinals.
1941 Wisconsin Badgers
The first 10 years of the NCAA tournament were pretty rudimentary. The NIT was still the premier postseason party to be in, meaning it wasn't always the best of the best competing for the NCAA title.
Still, Wisconsin's ability to go from 5-15 in 1940 to national champion in 1941 was pretty impressive. It's just difficult to gauge how noteworthy that championship was before the existence of tournament seeds or even an AP poll to suggest how strong various teams were.
2011 Connecticut Huskies
What made Connecticut's 2011 run unlikely was the fact that the Huskies won five games in five days in the Big East tournament before continuing that unstoppable play in March Madness.
We didn't want to include the same team twice in the top 10, though, and what Shabazz Napier and company did this past season was arguably more unlikely than what Kemba Walker pulled off three years ago.
No. 10: 1997 Arizona Wildcats
Seed: No. 4
Path to title
No. 13 South Alabama (65-57)
No. 12 College of Charleston (73-69)
No. 1 Kansas (85-82)
No. 10 Providence (96-92)
No. 1 North Carolina (66-58)
No. 1 Kentucky (84-79)
In and of itself, Arizona winning the national championship in 1997 wasn’t a huge surprise. With Michael Dickerson, Mike Bibby and Jason Terry, the Wildcats had quite a nucleus of talent and were able to get hot at the right time.
They suffered nine losses before the tournament—including the last game of their regular season and their first game of the Pac-10 tournament—failing to string together six consecutive wins at any point during the season before the NCAA tournament.
But not only did they finally get that six-game winning streak, but they’re still the only team to have ever beaten three different No. 1 seeds in the same tournament.
No. 9: 1986 Louisville Cardinals
Seed: No. 2
Path to title
No. 15 Drexel (93-73)
No. 7 Bradley (82-68)
No. 3 North Carolina (94-79)
No. 8 Auburn (84-76)
No. 11 LSU (88-77)
No. 1 Duke (72-69)
The 1986 Louisville Cardinals actually had a solid season. They lost seven games throughout the course of the campaign, but entered the tournament on an 11-game winning streak and earned a No. 2 seed.
It was a bit of a surprise that they defeated Duke in the championship game, as Duke finished the season ranked No. 1 in the country after spending the entire season in the top six. But Louisville was also ranked in the top 10 in the season’s final poll, so it was hardly USA over USSR.
No, what made Louisville’s 1986 title so unlikely was the poor play with which the Cardinals bookended that championship season. They missed both the 1985 and 1987 NCAA tournaments, losing a combined total of 32 games in those two seasons.
After being ranked No. 2 in the 1987 AP preseason poll, they promptly lost their first three games to Northeastern, Washington and Texas and dropped completely out of the rankings, never to return.
We’ve seen teams come out of nowhere to win a title and we’ve seen others drop off the face of the earth after winning a title, but Louisville’s 1986 season was like an oasis in the middle of a desert.
No. 8: 1966 Texas Western Miners
Path to title
Oklahoma City (89-74)
Not only did Texas Western (now UTEP) make history by becoming the first college basketball team to win a title while starting five African Americans, but the Miners did so in very impressive fashion.
It wasn’t quite what Arizona did in 1997, but Don Haskins’ team did beat three of the teams that finished the season ranked in the top seven in the AP poll. The Miners beat Cincinnati (No. 7) in the Sweet 16, Kansas (No. 4) in the Elite Eight and Kentucky (No. 1) in the championship game.
Had there been seeds back in those days, we’re talking about two No. 1’s and a No. 2.
Perhaps the weirdest thing about their championship run was that they had to play that opening round game against Oklahoma City.
There were 22 teams in the tournament that year and 10 received byes to the Sweet 16, but Texas Western had to play an extra game despite entering the tournament with a 23-1 record.
Good thing there weren’t Internet message boards about the selection committee 50 years ago, because that would have created one heck of a firestorm.
No. 7: 2003 Syracuse Orange
Seed: No. 3
Path to title
No. 14 Manhattan (76-65)
No. 6 Oklahoma State (68-56)
No. 10 Auburn (79-78)
No. 1 Oklahoma (63-47)
No. 1 Texas (95-84)
No. 2 Kansas (81-78)
In retrospect, of course Syracuse won the national championship in 2003. The Orange had Carmelo Anthony while some of the best teams in the country were being led by players like Hollis Price, T.J. Ford and Keith Bogans.
But before we knew how good 'Melo would become, Syracuse’s run to the 2003 championship was a fairly large surprise.
It wasn’t until the Orange put together an 11-game winning streak that they finally cracked the AP Top 25 in mid-January, and they never quite made it into the Top 10.
Needless to say, it was a bit unexpected when they throttled Oklahoma and Texas in back-to-back games—two teams that spent the entire season ranked in the Top 10.
Poor Big 12. The conference sent six teams to the 2003 NCAA tournament, and Syracuse beat four of them.
No. 6: 1981 Indiana Hoosiers
Seed: No. 3
Path to title
No. 6 Maryland (99-64)
No. 7 Alabama-Birmingham (87-72)
No. 9 Saint Joseph's (78-46)
No. 1 Louisiana State (67-49)
No. 2 North Carolina (63-50)
As was the case with Syracuse, it makes perfect sense in hindsight that Indiana won the title in 1981. The Hoosiers had Isiah Thomas leading the way.
The sophomore point guard, who would go on to be the No. 2 overall draft pick that June, averaged 18.2 points and 8.6 assists in those five tournament games.
Even more ridiculous than Thomas' numbers was the manner in which Bob Knight's team simply abused the opposition. The Hoosiers won each of their tournament games by at least 13 points and had an average margin of victory of 22.6 points per game.
They didn't play a bunch of cupcakes, either. LSU and North Carolina both finished the season ranked in the top six.
Had Indiana spent the entire season ranked in the top 10 like DePaul, Oregon State or Virginia, perhaps its romp through the tournament wouldn't seem quite as remarkable.
But this was a team that lost five games in a span of just over a month in the middle of the season and lost a total of four games to teams that didn't even make the tournament. The Hoosiers went 0-5 during the regular season against teams that earned a No. 3 seed or better.
Then, out of nowhere, they turned into the 1960s UCLA Bruins, destroying everything in their path.
Though they were only five years removed from putting together the last undefeated season in college basketball, it was pretty shocking that they dominated the 1981 tournament.
No. 5: 1950 City College of New York Beavers
Path to title
Ohio State (56-55)
North Carolina State (78-73)
Here's how inane the NCAA tournament was 65 years ago: Of the eight teams that made the 1950 NCAA Tournament, five finished the season ranked in the top seven by the AP, one was unranked and the other two were not ranked at any point during the season.
Regardless of how in the world they selected and "seeded" teams back then, CCNY went through one heck of a rough draw to win a championship.
Ohio State went 22-4 and finished the season ranked No. 2, North Carolina State was 27-6 and ranked No. 5 and Bradley was 32-5 and ranked No. 1.
(Forget about how little sense the NCAA tournament made back then; how in the world did Bradley play 11 more games than Ohio State?)
Try to wrap your head around this factoid, too: CCNY is the only team to have won both the NCAA and NIT championships in the same year.
Back in those days, the NIT was played first, and the champion was typically invited to compete in the NCAA tournament. In the NIT, the Beavers went through San Francisco (ranked No. 12 at the end of the year), Kentucky (No. 3), Duquesne (No. 6) and Bradley (No. 1).
A nice little run, but it came with a hefty price. You've likely never heard of CCNY because of the point-shaving scandal that came out the following season and shortly thereafter led to the Beavers' "demotion" to Division III.
CCNY is the only school to have won an NCAA championship that is no longer in D-I.
No. 4: 2014 Connecticut Huskies
Seed: No. 7
Path to title
No. 10 Saint Joseph's (89-81 OT)
No. 2 Villanova (77-65)
No. 3 Iowa State (81-76)
No. 4 Michigan State (60-54)
No. 1 Florida (63-53)
No. 8 Kentucky (60-54)
Connecticut wasn't quite the most unprecedented NCAA champion of all time, but hopefully people appreciated the rarity of what we witnessed last April.
First of all, the Huskies were a No. 7 seed. They became just the second team in history to win the tournament while receiving worse than a No. 6 seed, and they darn near lost their first game of the tournament against Saint Joseph's.
Secondly, they finished out the regular season on anything other than a high note, losing by 33 points to Louisville. It was the type of blowout that made us not only lose faith in Connecticut, but gave a ton of people reason to believe that Louisville was finally gearing up to win it all.
What made the Huskies' run particularly astounding, though, were the high-profile coaches that Kevin Ollie was leaving by the wayside in just his second season as a head coach.
ESPN recently did a series ranking the top 50 college basketball coaches in the game today. To win the 2014 championship, Connecticut went through Phil Martelli (No. 35), Jay Wright (No. 19), Fred Hoiberg (No. 15), Tom Izzo (No. 3), Billy Donovan (No. 1) and John Calipari (No. 2).
No. 3: 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack
Seed: No. 6
Path to title
No. 11 Pepperdine (69-67 2OT)
No. 3 UNLV (71-70)
No. 10 Utah (75-56)
No. 1 Virginia (63-62)
No. 4 Georgia (67-60)
No. 1 Houston (54-52)
Jim Valvano running around the court after Lorenzo Charles' putback of Dereck Whittenburg's missed half-court shot is one of the most iconic images in the history of the NCAA tournament.
That the Wolfpack ever got to that point was a minor miracle in the first place.
They became the first team to win the tournament with 10 or more losses. At no point during the season were they ranked higher than No. 15, and they were unranked from Jan. 18 through the penultimate poll—returning to the rankings in the final poll after beating both North Carolina and Virginia in the ACC tournament.
Not only were they less than stellar for most of the season, but they advanced through the tournament by beating teams that were outstanding. UNLV finished the season ranked No. 6. Virginia and Houston checked in at No. 4 and No. 1, respectively.
Houston hadn't lost a game since mid-December and had both Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon on the roster. Olajuwon finished the game with 20 points and 18 rebounds, and the Wolfpack still bested the Cougars.
And just like 2014 Connecticut, it was almost all over before it even started. North Carolina State needed two overtimes to squeak past Pepperdine in the opening round.
No. 2: 1988 Kansas Jayhawks
Seed: No. 6
Path to title
No. 11 Xavier (85-72)
No. 14 Murray State (61-58)
No. 7 Vanderbilt (77-64)
No. 4 Kansas State (71-58)
No. 2 Duke (66-59)
No. 1 Oklahoma (83-79)
If you look at nothing but the preseason poll and the end result, Kansas winning the 1988 title was no big surprise. There were high hopes in November for the Jayhawks. They opened the season ranked No. 7 in the nation.
That changed in a hurry when they lost back-to-back games to drop to 0-2 before the season had even really begun.
They hung around in the back half of the Top 20 for the next eight weeks before going into a complete tailspin and losing five consecutive games.
They never got back into the polls after that debacle, but they didn't give up, losing just three more games the rest of the way—ironically, those losses came against the last three teams that they beat to win the title.
Kansas suffered losses to Duke and Oklahoma in succession in February. Danny Manning and company were eliminated from the Big Eight tournament by a 15-point loss to Kansas State. But the Jayhawks were able to exact revenge on each of those teams in the games that really mattered.
By winning the title after suffering 11 losses during the season, they set a record that still stands today.
No. 1: 1985 Villanova Wildcats
Seed: No. 8
Path to title
No. 9 Dayton (51-49)
No. 1 Michigan (59-55)
No. 5 Maryland (46-43)
No. 2 North Carolina (56-44)
No. 2 Memphis (52-45)
No. 1 Georgetown (66-64)
Let's momentarily gloss over the fact that Villanova is the lowest seed to have ever won the NCAA tournament and just take a look at the teams the Wildcats beat to earn that crown.
In the final AP Top 20 for the 1984-85 season, Georgetown (No. 1), Michigan (No. 2), Memphis (No. 5) and North Carolina (No. 7) were at or near the top of the list.
Coming into the tournament, Villanova was 1-7 against the teams that finished the season ranked in the Top 20, but somehow found a way to go 4-0 against the best of the best.
Along with 1983 North Carolina State and 1988 Kansas, the Wildcats are one of just three teams to suffer 10 losses and still win the ultimate prize. After opening the season 8-0, they went 7-8 over the next 15 games before finally starting to turn things around.
Their win over Georgetown in the title game is still considered one of the bigger upsets in college basketball history.
The Hoyas were ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 for the entire season. Between Feb. 27 and Mar. 30, they beat St. John's three times—all away from home and with each game decided by double digits.
St. John's finished the season ranked No. 3 in the country.
And yet, this No. 8 seed that had already been beaten twice that season by the mighty Hoyas came in and put a painful end to their 16-game winning streak. The Wildcats shot 78.6 percent from the field in the championship game, putting a near-perfect cap on the unlikeliest run in tournament history.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.
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