Before we dive into this, a quick lesson for the newbies out there:
What is a March Madness Cinderella?
A March Madness Cinderella is a team that greatly exceeds its NCAA tournament expectations. They are generally afterthoughts on the Selection Sunday bracket, but wind up becoming one of the biggest stories of the tournament.
Now, let’s highlight 11 of the best of all-time.
Best Cinderella Stories in March Madness History
1983 N.C. State
N.C. State was a 6 seed in the 1983 NCAA tournament, which may seem a bit high to be considered a Cinderella. But the Wolfpack won it all that year, taking down some mighty opponents. N.C. State beat Virginia, which had Ralph Sampson, and Houston, which had Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Jim Valvano was also one of the most charismatic coaches of all-time, and the Wolfpack won the national championship in just about the most dramatic fashion possible. Here was the play:
ESPN made a 30 for 30 about 1983 N.C. State called “Survive and Advance.” This team is forever a part of college basketball history.
We promise, not all of these teams won the national championship. Villanova did in 1985 as a No. 8 seed, the lowest of any national title winner to this day. The Wildcats entered the NCAA tournament with a modest 19-10 record and didn’t win any of their first three March Madness games by more than five points. They clawed their way through the tournament that year.
Like N.C. State, Villanova met an absolute juggernaut in the final game. That would be Georgetown, which had Patrick Ewing. But Ed Pinckney, Dwayne McClain and the Wildcats shocked the Hoyas by a score of 66-64.
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The coach of that Villanova team was the late Rollie Massimino, one of the most historically beloved figures in the sport. The 1985 Wildcats will never be forgotten.
To this day, the Tigers are the only 11 seed to beat a 1, 2 and a 3 seed in the same tournament. LSU was also the first 11 seed to reach the Final Four.
The Tigers knocked off Memphis State, Georgia Tech and Kentucky, in that order, in the ’86 tournament. They won those by less than an average of four points per game.
LSU would ultimately fall to Louisville in the national semifinal game, but Dale Brown’s squad put on quite the show in 1986.
Spoiler alert: this is the last national champion on this list. But there’s a far greater chance that an 11 seed will upset a 6 seed than a 6 seed winning the whole darn thing, so Kansas certainly qualifies as a Cinderella.
The irony is that the Jayhawks have bowed out much earlier in years they’ve been expected to go further. Danny Manning was a beast throughout March Madness, and was especially dominant in the national championship game against Oklahoma. Manning exploded for 31 points and 18 rebounds that night.
The Jayhawks lost 11 games last season, which stands as the highest total by a national champion. It was a special stretch for Kansas.
1990 Loyola Marymount
The Lions made an Elite Eight run as an 11 seed that year, led by head coach Paul Westhead. This team was a blast to watch. It averaged 122.4 points per game, which led the NCAA for the third year in a row. Westhead and the Lions were certainly ahead of their time, embracing fast pace and 3-point shots.
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Loyola Marymount beat Michigan by a score of 149-115 in the second round of the tournament. The next round against Alabama, though? They eked out a 62-60 win. It was by far the Lions’ lowest-scoring game of the season.
Of course, Loyola Marymount played the NCAA tournament with heavy hearts sans Hank Gathers. Bo Kimble shot free-throws left-handed as a tribute to Gathers, and the team wore ’44’ patches on their jerseys throughout March Madness.
2006 George Mason
There was skepticism that George Mason would even make the 2006 NCAA tournament, because it didn’t earn an auto bid. The Patriots lost in the CAA tournament semifinals.
But they snagged an 11 seed as an at-large, and certainly did not disappoint. Jim Larranaga’s group knocked off heavy hitters Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut en route to the Final Four, where the Patriots would lose to Florida.
The Elite Eight win over UConn was particularly memorable. Going up against the likes of Rudy Gay, Marcus Williams and Josh Boone, George Mason took the Huskies to overtime and won in stunning fashion.
George Mason was the first CAA team to reach the Final Four, and the second 11 seed to reach the national semifinals.
This was the March Madness where Steph Curry burst onto the scene as a national sensation. Coming into the 2008 NCAA tournament, Davidson hadn’t won a game in the dance since 1969.
The Wildcats were a 10 seed and reached the Elite Eight behind Curry’s brilliant outside shooting. They upset Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin before falling to Kansas, but Davidson gave the Jayhawks a heck of a fight. They only lost by two, and Kansas would go on to win it all that season.
Curry averaged 34.3 points, 3.7 assists and four steals while making an absurd 52.8 percent of his 3s in the Gonzaga, Georgetown, Wisconsin three-game stretch. Turned out, there was a lot more where that came from.
Butler reached the national championship game in 2010 and lost on a Gordon Hayward halfcourt buzzer-beater attempt that rimmed out. Hayward left for the NBA that summer, and the Bulldogs were still formidable in 2011. But it looked like they’d regressed a bit.
Butler entered the 2011 tournament as an 8 seed. It barely escaped Old Dominion in the first round, winning on a Matt Howard tip-in in the final seconds. Its win over No. 1 Pittsburgh in the next round was pure madness:
The Bulldogs also defeated Wisconsin and Florida, and surprisingly enough, beat another 11 seed (VCU) in the national semifinal.
It was one of Brad Stevens’ last Butler teams, and it was certainly a March Madness to remember. The Bulldogs would lose to UConn in the national final.
VCU followed the George Mason path. The Rams didn’t earn the CAA auto bid in 2011, but earned an at-large bid as an 11 seed. And they never looked back.
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Most of these teams won squeakers against various powerhouses. But Shaka Smart’s crew actually cruised at the beginning of the 2011 NCAA tournament, winning their first three games by at least 13 points. VCU was tested when it beat Florida State by one in the Sweet 16, but for the most part, the Rams were dominant. They beat Kansas by 10 to get to the Final Four.
Obviously, VCU-Butler was the first double-digit Final Four matchup ever. The Rams were the first school to go from First Four to Final Four. And the program is a much more recognizable brand today as a result.
2013 Florida Gulf Coast
Florida Gulf Coast was a 15 seed in 2013 and reached the Sweet 16, the first 15 seed to ever do so. The Eagles upset Georgetown in the first round, and downed San Diego State in the second.
FGCU played an entertaining brand of basketball that earned them the nickname “Dunk City.” Like many teams on this list, the Eagles embraced small ball. This wasn’t that long ago, but downsizing and playing with pace wasn’t as universally accepted in 2013 as it is in 2019. Andy Enfield’s squad was ahead of its time.
Sherwood Brown was the star of that team, winning ASUN Player of the Year honors. The Eagles would ultimately lose to Florida in the Sweet 16.
2018 Loyola Chicago
The Ramblers are fresh in our minds. The latest 11 seed to reach a Final Four, Sister Jean became a national superstar as Loyola Chicago pulled off upset after upset in the 2018 dance.
The Ramblers played a pretty style of basketball, moving the ball from side to side constantly and playing as unselfishly as any team in the tournament. Loyola Chicago beat Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State before falling to Michigan in the Final Four.
It all started with Donte Ingram’s game-winner to top the Hurricanes: