The greatest stories in sports occur when a team no one gives a chance to gets hot at the right time and makes a run for the ages.
Each year in the NCAA Tournament there is a team that upsets a few favorites an earns the title of Cinderella. These are the 10 greatest all-time NCAA Cinderella teams.
2004 St. Josephs
1999 NCAA Tournament—10th seed
It seems like year in and year out Gonzaga is always wearing the glass slipper, the perennial Cinderella, but the 1998-99 Zags were the team that started it all.
Gonzaga finished the regular season 25-6 and won the WCC conference tournament. The Zags were expected to be an easy out, but this team had different plans. They beat Minnesota in the first round and then upset 1998 Final Four participant Stanford in the second round.
The Sweet 16 game is the game that launched the Gonzaga legacy as the Zags, led by leading scorer Richie Frahm and relentless rebounder Casey Calvary, edged the Florida Gators 73-72 in one of the most thrilling NCAA tournament games of all time.
Their run ended when they lost a hard-fought game to eventual champion UConn 67-62 in the Elite Eight.
1st rd (7) Minnesota 75-63
2nd rd (2) Stanford 82-74
Sweet 16 (6) Florida 73-72
Elite Eight lost (1) UConn 67-62
2002 NCAA Tournament—10th seed
Antonio Gates led the 2001-02 Golden Flashes. That’s right…before Antonio Gates became famous for catching touchdowns and running over cornerbacks, he was a standout power forward at Kent State.
With the help of gritty point guard Trevor Huffman, the Flashes ran through the first two rounds of the tournament, beating seventh-seed Oklahoma State and second-seed Alabama, respectively. The Flashes, from the always dangerous MAC Conference, officially became the darlings of the tournament when they beat three-seed Pittsburgh in overtime in the Sweet 16.
The Golden Flashes would lose to national runner-up Indiana in the Elite Eight, despite Gates posting a game-high 22 points and eight boards.
1st rd (7) Oklahoma State -69- 61
2nd rd (2) Alabama 71-58
Sweet 16 (3) Pitt 78-73 OT
Elite Eight lost (5) Indiana 81-69
1990 NCAA Tournament—11th seed
Inspired by the tragic lost of superstar Hank Gathers in the WCC conference tournament, star guard Bo Kimble and Head Coach Paul Westhead’s run-and-gun offense ran through the first three rounds of the 1990 NCAA tournament, beating sixth-seed New Mexico State, three-seed Michigan, and seventh-seed Alabama, respectively, by averaging an amazing 105 points a game. They ran out of gas in the Elite Eight against eventual national champion UNLV.
To this day, this run by the Lions is one of the most inspirational sports stories ever told.
1st rd (6) New Mexico St. 111-92
2nd rd (3) Michigan 149-115
Sweet 16 (7) Alabama 62-60
Elite Eight lost (1) UNLV 131-101
2008 NCAA Tournament—10th seed
The entire 2007-08 season everyone knew Stephen Curry was good—but not this good.
Curry averaged 32 points a game as the Wildcats upset seventh-seed Gonzaga and second-seed Georgetown in the first two rounds. In the regionals in Detroit, Davidson, the wealthy small liberal arts school located right outside of Charlotte, North Carolina with an enrollment of around 1,900, paid for the entire student body to attend.
The students would not be disappointed as the Wildcats drilled Big Ten champs Wisconsin 73-56. Finally it took double- and even triple-teams from eventual national champion Kansas to stop Curry and the Wildcats in the Elite Eight.
Curry’s tournament performance is still one of the greatest of all time.
1st rd (7) Gonzaga 82-76
2nd rd (2) Georgetown 74-70
3rd rd (3) Wisconsin 73-56
Elite Eight lost (1) Kansas 59-57
2011 NCAA Tournament—11th Seed
The Rams finished the regular season 23-11 and did not win their conference championship. However, early road wins against Wake Forest and UCLA gave them a high enough RPI to receive an at-large bid. They were one of the last teams to qualify, having to play in the first-ever NCAA First Four play-in game.
The Rams went virtually unnoticed until a thrilling overtime Sweet 16 victory over Florida St. Then the Rams pulled off one of the biggest upsets in tournament history, playing a nearly flawless game against top-seed Kansas. The Rams and head coach Shaka Smart had arrived, owning all the media headlines leading up to the Final Four. The Rams were like party crashers at the Final Four and their pep band rocked out every chance they got.
The party ended when they lost in the national semifinal game against Butler 70-62.
First Four (11) USC 59-46
1st rd (6) Georgetown 74-56
2nd rd (3) Purdue 94-76
Sweet 16 (10) Florida St. 72-71 OT
Elite Eight (1) Kansas 71-61
Final Four lost (8) Butler 70-62
2005 NCAA Tournament—11th Seed
Where is George Mason again?
No one knew before the 2005 tournament (D.C.). The Patriots were 23-7 in the regular season and did not win their conference championship. However, going 13-6 on the road and having an RPI of 18 helped the Patriots receive the 11th seed as literally one of the last teams into the field of 64.
The Patriots would prove they belonged by upsetting powerhouses Michigan St. in Round 1 and defending national champs North Carolina in Round 2. Led by no real standout players, it was a total team effort. After a easy win against Wichita St. in the Sweet 16, many thought the magic would run out against UConn, who had been ranked No. 1 for most of the regular season. Mason played to their strengths and outplayed UConn, winning 86-84 in overtime.
They would lose to eventual national champion Florida in the national semifinal.
1st rd (6) Michigan St 75-65
2nd rd (3) UNC 65-60
Sweet 16 (7) Wichita St 63-55
Elite Eight (1) UConn 86-84 OT
Final Four lost (3) Florida 73-58
2010 NCAA Tournament—Fifth seed
Butler was probably the most underrated team in the country going into the 2010 NCAA tournament, mainly due to the fact that they played in a mid-major conference, the Horizon League. The Bulldogs went undefeated in conference play, boasted a 33-4 regular season record and were ranked in or near the top 10 in many polls.
However, when the brackets came out the Bulldogs were given a fifth-seed and not expected to survive against tougher competition. But Butler was ready! They got everyone’s attention after beating top-seed Syracuse in the Sweet 16 and then outclassing two-seed Kansas State in the Elite Eight.
Playing in front of their hometown crowd at the Final Four in Indianapolis, the Bulldogs squeaked by Big Ten power Michigan State 52-50 in the national semifinal and gave Duke everything they could handle in the championship game before falling 61-59.
1st rd (12) UTEP 77-59
2nd rd (13) Murray State 54-52
Sweet 16 (1) Syracuse 63-59
Elite Eight (2) K State 63-56
Final Four (5) Mich State 52-50
Championship game lost (1) Duke 61-59
1988 NCAA Tournament—Sixth seed
Every Cinderella has to have a little luck on their side going into the tournament.
The 1988 Jayhawks might have been the luckiest of all, benefiting from other upsets on their side of the bracket. Kansas , who limped into the tournament as a sixth-seed, did not have to play a one-, two- or three-seed until they reached the Final Four. The Jayhawks, led by superstar Danny Manning, downed Duke in the national semifinal leading to a third matchup against the No. 1-ranked Oklahoma Sooners, who had beaten every team in the tournament thus far by an average of 19 points.
However, the Jayhawks, on the back of Manning’s 31 points and 18 rebounds, defeated the highly favored Sooners, earning them the nickname “Danny and the Miracles.”
1st rd (11) Xavier 85-72
2nd rd (14) Murray St 61-58
Sweet 16 (7) Vandy 77-64
Elite Eight (4) Kansas St. 71-58
Final Four (2) Duke 66-59
Championship game (1) Oklahoma 83-79
1985 NCAA Tournament—Eighth seed
In 1985, the Big East was arguably the best basketball conference in the nation, featuring powerhouses Georgetown, St. Johns and Syracuse.
Villanova was an afterthought.
They finished the regular season 19-10 but received an eighth-seed by finishing fourth in the Big East. Under the direction of head coach Rollie Massimino and senior forward Ed Pickney, the Wildcats beat Dayton in the first round and then upset No. 1 seed Michigan in Round 2. They would sneak by Len Bias and Maryland in the Sweet 16 and handle UNC in the Elite Eight.
After Villanova defeated Memphis State in the semifinals, they would face all-world Patrick Ewing and the mighty Georgetown Hoyas. Georgetown came into the title game 10-point favorites. Everyone knew that in order to beat the Hoyas,'Nova would have to play the “perfect game,” and in the championship game they were not perfect, but they were pretty close.
The Wildcats shot an amazing 78.6 percent, going 22 of 28 from the field as they upset the defending national champion Hoyas 66-64.
1st rd (9) Dayton 51-49
2nd rd (1) Michigan 59-55
Sweet 16 (5) Maryland 46-43
Elite Eight (2) UNC 56-44
Final Four (2) Memphis St 52-45
Championship game (1) Georgetown 66-64
1983 NCAA Tournament—Sixth seed
Survive and advance.
Arguably the most popular Cinderella team of all time, the 1983 Wolfpack staggered to a 17-10 regular season record and had to win the ACC tournament just to be invited to the Big Dance. The Pack barely beat Pepperdine in the first round, winning 69-67 in double OT. They followed that up with another thriller, as Thurl Bailey hit a jumper with four seconds left to defeat UNLV 71-70 in Round 2.
NC State would trounce Utah in the Sweet 16, which set up a fourth matchup versus superstar center Ralph Samson and the No. 1-seed Virginia Cavaliers. It would be another narrow escape, as the Pack would win 63-62.
The Wolfpack defeated Georgia in the semifinals, which gave them a berth in the title game versus another No. 1 seed, the Houston “Phi Slamma Jamma” Cougars, led by Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. The Cougars had won every game thus far by double digits and looked to do the same against NC State.
The stage was set and the Wolfpack stayed close the entire game—until the final seconds, when NC State’s Derrick Whittenburg launched the most famous air ball in college basketball history, which was caught and dunked in by Lorenzo Charles as time expired, giving the Pack a 54-52 victory.
1st rd (11) Pepperdine 69-67 2OT
2nd rd (3) UNLV 71-70
Sweet 16 (10) Utah 75-56
Elite Eight (1) Virginia 63-62
Final Four (4) Georgia 67-60
Championship game (1) Houston 54-52