The Final Four is almost upon us and while this year’s final doesn’t feature any truly low-seeded, unknown school crashing the party, March Madness has seen its fair share of them in the past. The Cinderella story.
“What an incredible Cinderella story. This unknown comes out of nowhere to lead the pack…”
That may be Carl Spackler talking about Augusta, but it applies here just as well. Everyone loves a Cinderella story. Long after your team has bitten the dust, that one team from Nowhere State filled with guys who are only getting into an NBA arena if they buy a ticket, give you something to cheer for.
They are the underdog.
The underdog is American. The underdog shows you that any bunch of clowns can do anything they damn well want to so long as they work really hard and get really lucky along the way.
There are plenty of underdog stories in the NCAA tournament. Sometimes these dogs win a game or two. Other times they thumb their noses at the Kentuckys and North Carolinas of the world and go all the way to the Final Four!
Take that, The Man!
You are the underdog! You are the Cinderella story! You are America! Now go out and achieve!
Here are the 10 most surprising Final Four teams in modern NCAA tournament history. And not to burst your bubble or anything, but only one of them won a national title.
10. 1992 Michigan (No. 6)
You remember these cats. Chris, Jimmy, Juwan, Jalen and Ray. The Fab Five. They had all the talent in the world, but absolutely no one expected a team with five freshmen in the starting lineup to make any noise in the NCAA tournament. That is, except the cocky bastards in that lineup. Michigan was erratic during the regular season. Sometimes they’d look like one of the best teams in the land. Other times they’d look like a bunch of freshman who didn’t know where the commons was. Well, they put it together at the end. The signature win came in the Elite Eight against Big 10 champ Ohio State, which had beaten the Wolverines twice in the regular season. The young bucks pulled out a four-point overtime victory. They’d beat Cincinnati in the Final Four before falling to the team all of America could agree to hate, Christian Laettner’s Duke squad.
9. 1986 LSU (No. 11)
To say LSU hobbled into the big dance would be an understatement. They came in having won just eight of their final 19 games. They were one of the last at-large teams to make the field, but became the first No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four, something that has happened only two other times. The Tigers really started their roll when they beat No. 3 seed Memphis on an Anthony Wilson buzzer-beater in the second round. They’d scrape by Kentucky by two points two rounds later to reach the Final Four. Ultimately, the Tigers would fall to another Kentucky school, Louisville, in the semifinals.
8. 2011 Butler (No. 8)
Everyone was aware of Butler by 2011. They made the championship game as a No. 5 seed a year earlier, losing by two to Duke. However, this team wasn’t nearly as good, primarily because they no longer had guard Gordon Hayward. He was playing for the Utah Jazz at the time like every other white NBA shooting guard in history has. This Butler team didn’t even win their regular-season conference title. They got into the field of 64 by winning their conference tournament. They managed to barely scrape by everyone they played in the big tournament – No. 9 seed Old Dominion by two, No. 1 seed Pitt by one, No. 4 seed Wisconsin by seven, No. 2 seed Florida by three – to make the Final Four. Once there they beat No. 11 seed VCU by eight, before getting handled by UCONN. Great run by a bunch of nobodies.
7. 1984 Virginia (No. 7)
After Cavaliers legend Ralph Sampson left campus, Virginia was supposed to fall off. They did, entering the tournament with 11 losses and a 6-8 record in the ACC. This version of the Cavs was led by a couple guys named Othell Wilson and Rick Carlisle. One of them became an NBA coach, but yeah… strike fear in opponent’s hearts they did not. Still, they managed to somehow put together a one-point win over No. 10 seed Iona, a two-point victory over No. 2 seed Arkansas, an eight-point win over No. 3 seed Syracuse and a two-point victory over another No. 2 seed, Indiana. In only the school’s second Final Four appearance in history, Virginia would finally fall by two to Houston who had a guy named Hakeem Olajuwon.
6. 1985 Villanova (No. 8)
No one expected much of Villanova in the tournament after they finished the regular season in fourth place in the Big East. Part of the reason is they played in a league with No. 1 Georgetown, which had only two losses entering the postseason, and No. 3 St. John’s, which had just three losses entering the big dance. It turns out Nova just decided to save its best basketball for the end. They remain the lowest seed to win a national title and they defeated mighty Georgetown and Patrick Ewing by two in the championship game to do it.
5. 1979 Penn State (No. 9)
It’s notable when any Ivy League school does anything in the NCAA tournament in the modern era. That would make Penn’s run to the Final Four in 1979 probably the greatest moment in egghead basketball history. The Quakers – seriously, that’s their mascot – led by Tony Rice, beat No. 1 seed North Carolina by one in the second round. They followed that with wins over Syracuse and St. John’s. Unfortunately for them, they’d run into the basketball buzzsaw known as Earvin Magic Johnson and his Michigan State squad in the national semis.
4. 2000 Wisconsin (No. 8)
If you’re able to name one player on this squad then you’re obviously from the badger state. Talk about an underwhelming cast of characters. A guy named Mark Vershaw led the Badgers in scoring with 11.8 points per game. He’s the only guy on the team to average more than 10 per contest. This team, which finished sixth in the Big 10 at 8-8, was built in the mold of coach Dick Bennett – hard-nosed, unselfish, blue-collar, defensive-oriented. Pretty they were not, but their slow-paced version of basketball was successful in the tournament. Unlike most of the teams on this list, the Badgers didn’t have to win any barn burners on their way to the Final Four. Their closest game was a four-point win over Purdue in the regional finals. Their undoing was conference rival Michigan State, which beat the Bads by 12 in the semifinals.
3. 2013 Wichita State (No. 9)
Wichita State didn’t scare anyone at the start of the 2012-13 season, but they were on their way to becoming a national power by the end of it. Here’s a team that couldn’t win the Missouri Valley Conference regular season or tournament title (Creighton did both of those things) and lost five of their last 10 regular season games. No matter. They’d beat three top 20 teams when they got into the NCAA tournament, including No. 1 ranked Gonzaga in round two (No. 20 Pitt and No. 7 Ohio State were the others). In the Final Four, the Shockers lost a four-point battle with national champion Louisville. That seemingly propelled them to their undefeated regular season in 2013-14.
2. 2011 VCU (No. 11)
VCU is the all-to-familiar story. Small conference team blazes through regular season. Small conference team loses in conference tourney. Small conference team barely gets into big tourney as an at-large. Actually, that last part usually ends up as “small conference team gets to play in NIT.” So VCU got lucky and they made the most of their opportunity. They’re the only team to ever have to win one of those fake first-round play-in games to make the Final Four. They beat USC in fake round one for the right to face Georgetown. The Rams destroyed both the Hoyas and Purdue before pulling off a dramatic, one-point overtime win over FSU in the Sweet 16. That led to another demolition, this time of No. 1 seed Kansas, which propelled them to the Final Four. There, they’d fall to the Cinderella with the nicer dress – the Butler Bulldogs.
1. 2006 George Mason (No. 11)
For one college basketball season, everyone knew where George Mason was. Since you’ve now probably forgotten it’s in Fairfax, Virginia. The Patriots won the Colonial Athletic Conference regular season and achieved their first national ranking in 2006. Then they lost in the CAA tournament and just squeaked into the big dance as one of the final at-large teams. They’d win their first three NCAA tournament games by 10, five and eight, showing college basketball they belonged. But it was a two-point overtime win over UCONN, the No. 2 team in the nation, in the Elite Eight that made George Mason a household name, however briefly. The magical run was ended by eventual national champion Florida in the semis.