Ranking the Most Surprising Final Four Teams in College Basketball History
In 76 years of NCAA tournament history, 91 teams have combined to make 304 appearances in the Final Four.
Some of those were much more surprising than others.
Take the 2010-11 VCU Rams, for example.
Few people thought Shaka Smart and company deserved to make the tournament. Much fewer picked them to make the Final Four. According to ESPN's Tournament Challenge blog, less than 0.1 percent of the 5.9 million brackets filled out had the Rams reaching the national semifinals.
But they busted brackets left and right to become the most surprising team to ever reach the Final Four.
Based on a combination of the difficulty of the path taken to the Final Four and the perceived strength of the team at the end of the season, we've ranked the 10 most surprising Final Four teams in men's college basketball history.
1977 Charlotte 49ers
Though they did get to the Final Four by beating two teams who finished the season ranked by the AP as No. 1 and No. 6, respectively, the 49ers both opened and closed the season ranked in the Top 20. An impressive feat, no doubt, but no more noteworthy than if either New Mexico or VCU had made it to the Final Four this past season.
1980 UCLA Bruins (No. 8 seed)
Hard to argue the Bruins making the Final Four would ever count as a surprise, but this was a UCLA team that failed to win its conference for the first time in 13 years, suffering a grand total of 10 losses after more than a decade without losing more than five games in a season.
Not only were they a No. 8 seed, but also they were matched up against the best team in the country. DePaul opened the season with 25 consecutive wins—one of which was a road win against UCLA—and was ranked No. 1 overall in the country when the tournament began. The Bruins dispatched DePaul by a score of 77-71 before advancing to the national championship game.
1984 Virginia Cavaliers (No. 7 seed)
The Cavaliers had an incredible run from 1979-83 with Ralph Sampson, but their first season without him went about as well as you might expect.
They opened the season 9-0—while playing just one team that was ranked in the Top 20 at any point in the season—but proceeded to lose 11 of their next 18 games. It's a minor miracle that they even made the tournament, but they had the good fortune of having to go through only one team that finished the season ranked in the Top 15.
2000 North Carolina Tar Heels (No. 8 seed)
After besting USC, Georgetown and Purdue in the Maui Invitational, the Tar Heels closed out the month of November ranked No. 2 in the country.
It was all downhill for the next three-and-a-half months, as they entered the 2000 NCAA tournament with a record of 18-13. However, they weren't even the most surprising No. 8 seed to make the Final Four that season.
2014 Kentucky Wildcats (No. 8 seed)
Like UCLA, a Final Four appearance for Kentucky can never truly be shocking. But the Wildcats went from preseason No. 1 to flirting with missing the tournament for a second straight year before earning the No. 8 seed in the region of death.
In case your short-term memory isn't so great, they ended Wichita State's undefeated season, defeated a hated rival in Louisville and eliminated a very good Michigan team—all in dramatic fashion.
10. Wichita State Shockers (2013, No. 9 Seed)
Path to Final Four
No. 8 Pittsburgh (73-55)
No. 1 Gonzaga (76-70)
No. 13 La Salle (72-58)
No. 2 Ohio State (70-66)
The biggest thing keeping the Shockers from a higher spot in the top 10 is that they emerged from what might have been the weakest region in the history of seeded regions.
On the overall seed list, Gonzaga was ranked No. 4 and Ohio State was ranked No. 8, making them the weakest No. 1 and No. 2 in the tournament. Much of the final month of that season was spent debating whether Gonzaga actually deserved a No. 1 seed.
Not only were the top seeds weak, but also they played a Sweet 16 game against one of the last four teams invited to the tournament.
There's no such thing as an easy trip to the Final Four, but this was substantially easier than most.
Also, Wichita State didn't exactly come out of nowhere.
The Shockers had three separate stints in the AP Top 25 thanks to a 19-2 start to the season. They dropped off the radar after three consecutive losses to Indiana State, Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois, but the fact that they were on the radar in the first place hurts their case in these rankings.
In my projected bracket at the end of that January, I had Wichita State slotted as a No. 4 seed. And I highly doubt any other team on this list would have been projected as a No. 4 seed at any point during their Final Four season.
Still, you know, the Shockers shocked the world. They lost six regular-season games against Missouri Valley competition before winning four straight games against some of the best teams in the country. Considering how crucial Malcolm Armstead and Carl Hall were to their success in the tournament, it's hard to believe they won 35 straight games this past season without those guys.
9. Pennsylvania Quakers (1979, No. 9 Seed)
Path to Final Four
No. 8 Iona (73-69)
No. 1 North Carolina (72-71)
No. 4 Syracuse (84-76)
No. 10 St. John's (64-62)
If nothing else, head coach Bob Weinhauer and the 1979 Penn Quakers went through quite the gauntlet of college basketball coaches.
In his seventh season as a head coach between Bucknell and Iona, Jim Valvano was making his first appearance in the NCAA tournament. After eliminating him, the Quakers went through two guys named Dean Smith and Jim Boeheim before defeating Lou Carnesecca, who never had a losing season in 24 years with the Red Storm.
This was the first season in which the tournament was fully seeded. In three of the four regions, the selection committee did a pretty fine job, as No. 1 faced No. 2 in each of those Elite Eight games.
But Penn and St. John's screwed it all up in the East Region, setting the stage for the next 35 years of March Madness.
Penn's Tony Price averaged 19.8 PPG over the course of the season, and he kicked it up another notch for the tournament. He scored at least 20 points in each of the Quakers' four wins, averaging 23.3 PPG in the victories.
Penn is the only Ivy League team to appear in the Final Four since 1965. It was a historic run, but it sure did end abruptly. The Quakers were destroyed by Magic Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans by a score of 101-67.
8. Butler Bulldogs (2011, No. 8 Seed)
Path to Final Four
No. 9 Old Dominion (60-58)
No. 1 Pittsburgh (71-70)
No. 4 Wisconsin (61-54)
No. 2 Florida (74-71)
The difficulty in ranking Butler's run to the 2011 Final Four is figuring out how to separate it from Butler's run to the 2010 Final Four.
Do we award bonus points for the mathematical improbability of the same mid-major team advancing to the national championship game in consecutive years, or do we detract points because "Been there, done that?"
Neither seems right, so we're essentially pretending the first run to the Final Four never happened and that the Bulldogs came out of nowhere as a No. 8 seed in 2011.
They certainly struggled throughout the course of the regular season. They lost to a Youngstown State team that won just two conference games and finished the season with a 9-21 record. They also lost to Evansville and were swept by Milwaukee, including a 24-point shellacking on the road.
By the first week of February, Butler was 14-9 and looking like an NIT team at best. But it would be two months before the Bulldogs suffered another loss.
The most memorable game in their tournament run was the big upset over Pittsburgh. The Panthers were ranked No. 8 or better for the entire season. Against Butler, Pittsburgh shot 56.5 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from three-point range while recording an assist on 21 of 26 made field goals. Under normal circumstances, that type of efficiency would result in an easy win.
But it wasn't enough to beat Shelvin Mack. Butler's combo guard scored 30 points while shooting 7-of-12 from three-point range. He led the Bulldogs in scoring in five of their six tournament games, but there's no question the game against Pittsburgh was his masterpiece.
7. Dayton Flyers (1967)
Path to Final Four
Western Kentucky (69-67)
Virginia Tech (71-66)
Without seeds and with the AP ranking only the Top 10 teams during the 1966-67 season, it's tough to gauge how surprising Dayton's run actually was.
What we do know is that Dayton was not ranked in the Top 10 at any point during the season and that the first two teams the Flyers played in the tournament finished the year ranked in the Top 10. Western Kentucky (No. 6) and Tennessee (No. 8) had a combined record of 44-7 before the tournament began.
But they were no match for Don May.
Over the course of the entire season, Dayton's big man averaged 22.2 points and 16.7 rebounds per game. May's first three games in the tournament weren't much different, as he averaged 21.0 PPG and 16.7 RPG to lead the Flyers to the Final Four.
6. Louisville Cardinals (1959)
Path to Final Four
Eastern Kentucky (77-63)
Michigan State (88-81)
Louisville has been a staple in the NCAA tournament over the past several decades, advancing to nine Final Fours in the past 43 years. Only a handful of other schools have been to more Final Fours than the Cardinals, making them one of the closest things to an annual threat to reach the national semifinals.
That hasn't always been the case.
In the first 20 years of NCAA tournament history, Louisville played in just one tournament—losing to Kentucky in the first round in 1951.
When the Cardinals finally did make their big run, it came during arguably their worst season in 15 years.
In the 14 seasons leading up to 1958-59, they had an average record of 21-7. Who knows what the selection criteria were in those days, but Louisville was ranked No. 6 in the nation at the end of both the 1956 and 1957 seasons without being one of the teams invited.
After that great stretch of seasons, Louisville entered the 1959 tournament with a record of 16-10. The regions weren't seeded in those days, but there's no question the Cardinals were an underdog in the six-team region that included three teams that finished the season ranked in the Top 20.
Kentucky was ranked in the top three in the nation for the entire season. Michigan State spent the whole year ranked in the Top 15. They entered the tournament with a combined record of 41-5. But Louisville sent them both home early en route to the first Final Four appearance in school history.
5. Villanova Wildcats (1985, No. 8 Seed)
Path to Final Four
No. 9 Dayton (51-49)
No. 1 Michigan (59-55)
No. 5 Maryland (46-43)
No. 2 North Carolina (56-44)
Villanova was the unlikeliest champion in NCAA tournament history, but it was hardly the most unforeseeable Final Four appearance to ever occur.
The Wildcats were ranked in the AP Top 20 for six consecutive weeks in the latter half of the season before losses in five of seven games put an emphatic end to their moment in the sun.
They may have been an unranked No. 8 seed when the tournament began, but they were in roughly the same position that both Pittsburgh and Texas were at the start of the 2014 tournament. No one was really expecting either of those teams to make the Final Four, but it wouldn't have been a colossal upset if they had.
Ed Pinckney and Dwayne McClain led Villanova in scoring during the regular season—combining to average 30.3 PPG—and they were the ones who paced Villanova's run to the Final Four. Though the team averaged only 53.0 PPG in those four games, Pinckney scored 14.8 PPG while McClain had 13.5 PPG of his own.
4. Wisconsin Badgers (2000, No. 8 Seed)
Path to Final Four
No. 9 Fresno State (66-56)
No. 1 Arizona (66-59)
No. 4 LSU (61-48)
No. 6 Purdue (64-60)
If you think Wisconsin plays a slow, defensive game today, try to remember what the Badgers were like 15 years ago with Dick Bennett at the helm. This past season, they averaged 73.5 PPG and allowed 64.0. During the 1999-2000 season, they scored 59.9 PPG while allowing 55.8.
Unlike the aforementioned 1985 Villanova Wildcats, the 2000 Badgers were not ranked at any point during the season. As a matter of fact, it wasn't until the regular season spilled over into the conference tournament that they won more than three consecutive games that season.
By mid-February, they were 13-12 and on absolutely nobody's radar. But they made it into the tournament as a No. 8 seed thanks in large part to a very difficult schedule. Of their 31 games, 14 came against teams who finished the season ranked in the AP Top 25—they went 6-8 in those games.
Perhaps the most impressive part of their run is that they did it without a single player who amounted to anything in the NBA.
The only player on that roster who ever appeared in the NBA was backup freshman shooting guard, Kirk Penney. But does he even count? Penney played a grand total of 23 minutes in those four games, and his NBA career consisted of six games and 30 minutes played.
Instead, it was long forgotten names like Andy Kowske and Mark Vershaw who carried Wisconsin to the Final Four.
As proof that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, those near-anonymous Badgers beat an Arizona team that had Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson, Jason Gardner and Luke Walton.
3. LSU Tigers (1986, No. 11 Seed)
Path to Final Four
No. 6 Purdue (94-87)
No. 3 Memphis (83-81)
No. 2 Georgia Tech (70-64)
No. 1 Kentucky (59-57)
From a straight seeding perspective, it doesn't get anymore impressive than what LSU accomplished in 1986. You could maybe argue that a No. 12 or No. 13 seed going through No. 1, 2, 4 and 5 in a region would be more difficult, but that's also never happened.
However, LSU might have been the most overqualified No. 11 seed in tournament history.
The Tigers were ranked in the AP Top 20 for the first 11 weeks of the season, plateauing at No. 8 as 1985 turned into 1986. But they hit one heck of a schneid in losing 11 of their final 19 games before the tournament.
(Putting that in perspective, Iowa went through very similar woes this past season, losing 11 of 21 games before earning one of the last four spots in the field—and I still mistakenly thought the Hawkeyes had a deep run in them.)
While they didn't entirely come out of left field, what the Tigers did was still pretty incredible. Purdue was ranked at various points throughout the season. Memphis finished the season ranked No. 12 by the AP. Georgia Tech was the preseason No. 1 and spent the entire season ranked No. 7 or better.
Most surprising, however, was the Elite Eight win over Kentucky. Not only were the Wildcats ranked No. 3 in the country, but also they had already beaten LSU three times that season. Despite being a low-scoring affair, four Tigers scored at least 12 points in what turned out to be one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.
2. George Mason Patriots (2006, No. 11 Seed)
Path to Final Four
No. 6 Michigan State (75-65)
No. 3 North Carolina (65-60)
No. 7 Wichita State (63-55)
No. 1 Connecticut (86-84)
They weren't the first No. 11 seed to make the Final Four, but the Patriots of George Mason were the first team in 20 years to reach the Final Four while seeded lower than No. 8.
They played just one game all season against a team that was ranked in the Top 25 at any point in the season. It was an overtime loss to Wake Forest in their second game of the season—and the Demon Deacons didn't even end up making the tournament.
Though they entered the tournament with a 23-7 record, there was really no way to see the Patriots coming.
Not only did George Mason fail to win its conference tournament, but also one of its best players (Tony Skinn) was suspended for the first game of the NCAA tournament after punching a Hofstra player in the groin in the game that knocked the Patriots out of the CAA championship.
They still knocked off a floundering Michigan State in their first game before shutting down Tyler Hansbrough and the Tar Heels in the round of 32. They won a rematch of a BracketBusters game against Wichita State in the Sweet 16 and shocked the world with an overtime win over heavily favored Connecticut to reach the Final Four.
1. VCU Rams (2011, No. 11 Seed)
Path to Final Four
No. 11 USC (59-46)
No. 6 Georgetown (74-56)
No. 3 Purdue (94-76)
No. 10 Florida State (72-71)
No. 1 Kansas (71-61)
Choosing between George Mason and VCU for the top spot was almost impossible.
On the one hand, VCU's making the Final Four as a No. 11 seed wasn't quite as unprecedented, with George Mason having pulled it off just five years prior.
However, 2011 was the first time that 68 teams were sent to the tournament, and VCU was one of the last four teams selected—and controversially so.
Moreover, in 2006, 11 of the 23 projected brackets (48 percent) surveyed in the Bracket Matrix had George Mason making the tournament. In 2011, only 15 out of 89 brackets (17 percent) found VCU worthy of a bid.
Not only did VCU need to win more games, but also the Rams were less respected in the first place, having entered the tournament with 11 losses as opposed to George Mason's seven.
But Havoc took the world by storm. VCU forced at least 14 turnovers in four of its five wins to reach the Final Four.
The Rams weren't exactly known for their three-point prowess—as a team, they shot 35.9 percent from beyond the arc during the regular season—but they were unstoppable during the tournament. They averaged 10.6 made three-pointers per game for those five games, making 43.8 percent of their three-point attempts.
Despite an 0-of-4 night in the first win over USC, Bradford Burgess led the way by making 59.1 percent of his three-point attempts.
In the game against Kansas, VCU made 12 of 25 three-pointers while the Jayhawks—a team that shot 38.7 percent during the regular season—made just 2 of 21.
When it's meant to be, it's meant to be.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.
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