The 10 Best Cinderella Stories in Men's March Madness History
College basketball fans don't have to think back very far to come up with a great Cinderella story.
The 2018 Loyola-Chicago Ramblers were one of the most unlikely Final Four teams in NCAA history, emerging from the ashes of the South Regional as the No. 11 seed.
Was their underdog story good enough to earn them a place among the best Cinderella stories in March Madness history?
For our selections, there were a few stipulations:
- No Major Conference Teams: A true Cinderella comes from a mid-major conference. Sorry to 1983 NC State, 1985 Villanova and 1988 Kansas, among others.
- No Teams Seeded No. 8 or Higher: A true Cinderella is also not favored in their opening matchup. Sorry to 2011 Butler and 2014 UConn, among many others.
With that out of the way, it's time to try on some glass slippers.
1986 Cleveland State Vikings
Record: 29-4, 13-1 in Mid-Continent Conference
Tournament Star: G Mouse McFadden (16.0 PPG, 2.3 RPG)
First Round: Win vs. No. 3 Indiana (83-79)
Second Round: Win vs. No. 6 Saint Joseph's (75-69)
Sweet 16: Loss vs. No. 7 Navy (71-70)
The Vikings beat a Steve Alford-led, Bob Knight-coached Indiana team in the opening round of the first tournament following expansion to the 64-team format.
After surviving the opening weekend with a win over Saint Joseph's, they were bumped by No. 7 seed Navy by one point in the Sweet 16.
Recognize that Navy player fighting for the ball in the picture above?
It's Hall of Fame center David Robinson, who went off for 22 points, 14 rebounds and nine blocks in that Navy win.
1990 Loyola Marymount Lions
Record: 26-6, 13-1 in West Coast Conference
Tournament Star: G Bo Kimble (35.8 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 45.5 3PT%)
First Round: Win vs. No. 6 New Mexico State (111-92)
Second Round: Win vs. No. 3 Michigan (149-115)
Sweet 16: Win vs. No. 7 Alabama (62-60)
Elite Eight: Loss vs. No. 1 UNLV (131-101)
Few teams in college basketball history have gotten up and down the floor like the 1989-90 Loyola Marymount Lions.
They averaged an eye-popping 122.4 points per game during the season, with future NBA player Bo Kimble (35.3 PPG), Hank Gathers (29.0 PPG, 10.8 RPG) and Jeff Fryer (22.7 PPG) all averaging more than 20 per contest.
Unfortunately, the season is shrouded in tragedy. Gathers suffered from an abnormal heartbeat and collapsed during the team's WCC tournament semifinal game. He was later pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
With heavy hearts, the team still put together an inspired tournament showing, including a 34-point rout of No. 3 seed Michigan in the second round, with Kimble (37 points) and Fryer (41 points) both going off.
Their run was eventually cut short by the Larry Johnson-led UNLV team that went on to win it all.
1997 Chattanooga Mocs
Record: 24-11, 11-3 in Southern South
Tournament Star: G Willie Young (15.7 PPG, 2.7 APG)
First Round: Win vs. No. 3 Georgia (73-70)
Second Round: Win vs. No. 6 Illinois (75-63)
Sweet 16: Loss vs. No 10 Providence (71-65)
The 1997 Chattanooga Mocs are one of just two No. 14 seeds—the other being the previously mentioned 1986 Cleveland State team—to advance out of the opening weekend of the tournament.
A thrilling three-point win over Tubby Smith and No. 3 seed Georgia got them out of the first round, and then they steamrolled Illinois by 12 points to advance.
Big games from future NBA player Austin Croshere (19 points) and God Shammgod (15 points, 7 assists) led the way for Providence in a six-point win in the Sweet 16.
Still, it was an impressive run by the Mocs to even get that far.
1999 Gonzaga Bulldogs
Record: 28-7, 12-2 in West Coast Conference
Tournament Star: G Richie Frahm (16.3 PPG, 12 of 31 3PT)
First Round: Win vs. No. 7 Minnesota (75-63)
Second Round: Win vs. No. 2 Stanford (82-74)
Sweet 16: Win vs. No. 6 Florida (73-72)
Elite Eight: Loss vs. No. 1 UConn (67-62)
This is the team that started it all.
In his second season with Gonzaga, coach Dan Monson led the Bulldogs to just their second NCAA tournament appearance ever. The other came as a one-and-done No. 14 seed in 1995.
Led by juniors Richie Frahm (14.4 PPG, 42.9 3PT%) and Matt Santangelo (12.7 PPG, 5.3 APG), the Bulldogs were the class of the West Coast Conference, and the committee showed them some love with a No. 10 seed despite a fairly weak schedule.
After a first-round win over Minnesota in the coin flip that is a 7/10 matchup, the Bulldogs officially announced themselves to the world by beating a Stanford team that finished the regular season at No. 7 in the nation in the AP poll.
The Richard Hamilton-led UConn squad that went on to win the national title eventually cut Gonzaga's run short in the Elite Eight, and the program would never be the same.
Monson bolted for the Minnesota job during the offseason, leaving Mark Few to inherit a team that has become a perennial contender.
2006 George Mason Patriots
Record: 27-8, 15-3 in Colonial Atheltic Association
Tournament Star: F Jai Lewis (11.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG)
First Round: Win vs. No. 6 Michigan State (75-65)
Second Round: Win vs. No. 3 North Carolina (65-60)
Sweet 16: Win vs. No. 7 Wichita State (63-55)
Elite Eight: Win vs. No. 1 UConn (86-84)
Final Four: Loss vs. No. 3 Florida (73-58)
LSU was the first No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four in 1986.
They don't qualify as a Cinderella, though, as a high-profile program from a major conference.
So for the sake of this conversation, George Mason was really the first Cinderella story that began with a No. 11 seed.
While the Patriots were undersized, with no one in the rotation taller than 6'7", they played smothering team defense, holding opponents to 60.1 points (21st in NCAA) and 38.8 percent shooting (10th in NCAA).
After getting past Michigan State in the first round, they shut down No. 3 seed North Carolina by holding Tyler Hansbrough to just 10 points on 5-of-13 shooting to advance to the Sweet 16.
After ousting fellow upstart Wichita State to move on to the Elite Eight, they punched their ticket to the Final Four with a thrilling 86-84 win over Rudy Gay and No. 1 seed UConn, who had rolled to a 30-4 record during the regular season.
Their improbable run came to a halt when a stacked Florida team that ended up winning it all beat them handily in the Final Four, but the Patriots still more than earned their place as one of the greatest Cinderella stories in history.
2008 Davidson Wildcats
Record: 29-7, 20-0 in Southern South
Tournament Star: G Stephen Curry (32.0 PPG, 23 of 52 3PT)
First Round: Win vs. No. 7 Gonzaga (82-76)
Second Round: Win vs. No. 2 Georgetown (74-70)
Sweet 16: Win vs. No. 3 Wisconsin (73-56)
Elite Eight: Loss vs. No. 1 Kansas (59-57)
How far can one superstar player take a mid-major team?
Apparently to the Elite Eight.
A skinny sophomore guard by the name of Stephen Curry was the story of the 2008 NCAA tournament.
Despite an undefeated run through the Southern Conference slate and a No. 23 ranking in the final regular season AP poll, the Wildcats were given a No. 10 seed.
Curry responded by going off for 40 points on 8-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc in a first-round win over Gonzaga. He put up another 30 on Georgetown and 33 on Wisconsin before No. 1 seed Kansas was finally able to slow him down enough to squeak out a win.
He was held to 25 points on 9-of-25 shooting and 4-of-16 from deep, and a Jayhawks lineup led by Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush won by two points.
Curry returned for his junior season, but the Wildcats missed the tournament, and then he made the jump to the NBA.
2011 VCU Rams
Record: 28-12, 12-6 in Colonial Athletic Association
Tournament Star: F Jamie Skeen (17.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG)
Play-in Game: Win vs. No. 11 USC (59-46)
First Round: Win vs. No. 6 Georgetown (74-56)
Second Round: Win vs. No. 3 Purdue (94-76)
Sweet 16: Win vs. No. 10 Florida State (72-71)
Elite Eight: Win vs. No. 1 Kansas (71-61)
Final Four: Loss vs. No. 8 Butler (70-62)
We've already talked about George Mason as the first mid-major No. 11 seed to advance to the Final Four.
Here's the other.
The 2011 VCU team put Shaka Smart on the national coaching map, and it has turned the Rams program into a perennial tournament team.
After knocking off USC in the first round, the Rams destroyed No. 6 seed Georgetown and No. 3 seed Purdue by a combined 36 points to cruise into the Sweet 16.
They survived a scare against a fellow underdog in No. 10 seed Florida State before bumping heads with No. 1 seed Kansas and walking away with a 10-point win, thanks to a 26-point, 10-rebound performance from Jamie Skeen.
In the end, it was another mid-major team in No. 8 seed Butler who sent them packing on their way to the national title game.
That Butler team almost certainly would have also found a place on this list had they been one seed line lower.
2013 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
Record: 26-11, 13-5 in Atlantic Sun
Tournament Star: G Bernard Thompson (17.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG)
First Round: Win vs. No. 2 Georgetown (78-68)
Second Round: Win vs. No. 7 San Diego State (81-71)
Sweet 16: Loss vs. No. 3 Florida (62-50)
The high-flying 2013 Florida Gulf Coast team is the only No. 15 seed to win multiple games in the NCAA tournament.
They ran No. 2 seed Georgetown out of the gym in the first round, with Sherwood Brown (24 points) and Bernard Thompson (23 points) both enjoying big games against a Hoyas team that featured future first-round pick Otto Porter.
San Diego State was equally overmatched in the second round. Thompson (23 points) and Brown (17 points) led the way once again, and the Eagles shot 55.9 percent compared to 44.3 percent from the Aztecs.
The magic finally ran out in the Sweet 16, when No. 3 seed Florida forced 20 turnovers.
The legacy of "Dunk City" will live on as long as they remain the most successful No. 15 seed in tournament history.
2013 Wichita State Shockers
Record: 30-9, 12-6 in Missouri Valley
Tournament Star: F Cleanthony Early (16.2 PPG, 7.6 RPG)
First Round: Win vs. No. 8 Pitt (73-55)
Second Round: Win vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (76-70)
Sweet 16: Win vs. No. 13 La Salle (72-58)
Elite Eight: Win vs. No. 2 Ohio State (70-66)
Final Four: Loss vs. No. 1 Louisville (72-68)
Florida Gulf Coast was not the only Cinderella story of the 2013 tournament.
While Wichita State was not the same kind of out-of-nowhere program, no one expected them to make a run to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed.
Junior forward Cleanthony Early (13.9 PPG, 5.4 RPG) and senior guard Malcolm Armstead (10.6 PPG, 4.0 APG) were the unquestioned leaders of this Shockers team. However, it was freshmen Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet who provided sparks and fueled their tournament run.
After routing Pitt in the first round, they ousted No. 1 seed Gonzaga behind surprise games from Baker (16 points) and VanVleet (13 points) to advance to the Sweet 16.
A fellow Cinderella in No. 13 seed La Salle proved an easy adversary in a 14-point win to move on to the Elite Eight, where Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas and No. 2 seed Ohio State became their latest victim.
Eventual champion Louisville finally put a stop to their run in the Final Four, but the Shockers were far from a one-hit wonder. They returned as a No. 1 seed in 2014 after an undefeated regular season.
2018 Loyola-Chicago Ramblers
Record: 32-6, 15-3 in Missouri Valley
Tournament Star: Clayton Custer (12.2 PPG, 3.2 APG, 9 of 17 3PT)
First Round: Win vs. No. 6 Miami (64-62)
Second Round: Win vs. No. 3 Tennessee (63-62)
Sweet 16: Win vs. No. 7 Nevada (69-68)
Elite Eight: Win vs. No. 9 Kansas State (78-62)
Final Four: Loss vs. No. 3 Michigan (69-57)
This one should still be fresh in everyone's memory.
The Ramblers announced themselves as a team to watch on Dec. 6 when they beat a Florida team that was ranked No. 5 in the AP poll by six points on the road.
A disappointing 2-3 stretch followed that surprising win on the national stage before they ripped off a 17-1 record the rest of the way.
The fact that the highest-seeded team they beat during their run was No. 9 Kansas State in the Elite Eight speaks to what an absolute free-for-all the South Regional was last year.
No. 1 seed Virginia and No. 4 seed Cincinnati both lost in the first round. No. 2 seed Cincinnati lost in the second round and No. 3 Tennessee also failed to advance out of the opening weekend when the Ramblers sent them packing.
For now, the Ramblers are the most recent example we have of a true Cinderella run.
Until the next one...
All stats courtesy of Sports Reference unless otherwise noted.