The college basketball Cinderella story is the annual gift that keeps on giving, a yearly opportunity to see an underdog story make a potential run at history, even if it does ruin everyone’s brackets and assures that the one weirdo who had no idea what they were doing ends up winning the office tournament pool. It’s the stuff that legends are made of, as just one good tournament can prove career-altering and legacy-defining. Names like Jim Valvano, Steph Curry, and Brad Stevens remind us of where so many unexpectedly great careers began. But which Cinderella teams were the craziest of all time?
NC State 1983 – No. 6 – Champion
The NC State men’s basketball team played in a different kind of college tournament in 1983. There was no 64-team-bracket, no three-point-line, no clock stoppages and no shot clock. Still, coach Jim Valvano and the “Cardiac Pack” became wildly popular as they made their run towards a national title. With 10-losses on the season, NC State had to win the ACC’s automatic-bid just to make the tournament, defeating defending champions North Carolina and #2 ranked Virginia to do so. Once in the tournament, Jimmy V and the Pack went to work, beating Pepperdine in double-overtime before once again defeating Virginia.
Following a semi-final victory against Georgia, NC State was set to play college powerhouse Houston in what would be one of the greatest NCAA title games ever. While Houston was favored heavily, they dealt with a series of issues early on, as stars Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were limited by foul trouble and elevation-fatigue respectively.
The two teams exchanged runs throughout the second half, with Houston going up by seven before an NC State run to tie the game at 52. And then, of course, came one of the all-time great basketball sequences: a tie game, a chaotic series of near-turnovers by NC State with Houston’s Drexler and Anders each unable to complete a takeaway. NC State’s Derek Whittenburg taking a thirty-five-foot miracle three with five seconds left and Whittenburg’s air-ball turning into a Lorenzo Charles alley-oop as time expires to win the title.
Yeah, “Cardiac Pack” is right.
Villanova 1985 – No. 8 – Champion
1985 marked the first year in which a 64-team tournament was played, and yet Villanova remains to this day the lowest seed to ever win an NCAA championship. The 1985 tournament was by no means a fluke for Villanova, as they played only one team ranked lower than they were — No. 9 Dayton — and ironically just defeated them in the first-round by a whole two points. And then it got hard.
After beating No. 1 seed Michigan by a whopping four points, the Wildcats had to defeat both Maryland and North Carolina to make the Final Four, where they won against No. 2 seed Memphis. Finally, they were set to play No.1 seed Georgetown, the defending champions who led by an absolute force in Patrick Ewing.
As one might expect, the championship game was superb. Led by Dwayne McClain’s 17 points, Villanova set the record for field goal percentage in a championship game, hitting over 78% of their shots as they won 66-64 for their first ever title.
VCU 2011 — N0. 11 – Final Four
VCU was an 11-seed that began in the First Four, in the first such year that the opportunity to play for an automatic bid was offered. Basically, there was no precedent for VCU to do what it did in March of 2011. At age 33, coach Shaka Smart was thrust into the spotlight of a college basketball world that watched his team defeat USC, Georgetown, Purdue, and Kansas, among others, a foundation that has kept the program and coach Smart relevant to this day.
Their Cinderella story would go on to end in the Final Four though, as they were met with another phenomenal young coach and a slightly more seasoned team of underdogs in Butler.
Butler 2011 — No. 8 – Title game
Like VCU, Butler’s 2011 tournament run was an inspired fit of basketball led by a wunderkind coach and a squad of players who had no choice but to play the kind of team basketball that has defined coach Brad Stevens’ career in college and the NBA. The difference between Butler and VCU? The Bulldogs had been there before.
As improbable as Butler’s run to the 2011 title game was, that improbability was fueled by the fact that Butler was somehow in the national title game for the second year in a row.
So what makes 2011 more special than 2010? Frankly, it’s closer than you’d think. While the 2010 team came only two points of shy of beating No. 1 seed Duke for the national title, that Butler team began as a 5-seed, as opposed to a mere No. 8 seed. Without Gordon Heyward, who was off to the NBA following the 2010 season, the 2011 Butler team was forced to advance through the tournament behind some seriously strange and dramatic moments: a last-second tip in by Matt Howard to beat Old Dominion, a last-second free throw by Matt Howard to beat No. 1 seed Pitt, an overtime win against Florida to advance to the Final Four.
And we already know about their Final Four showdown with VCU, a classic 8-seed vs. 11-seed matchup. It was all so much stranger and somehow more compelling than 2010, even if it did end with a far rougher championship defeat at the hands of UConn.
Loyola Marymount 1990 — No. 11 – Elite Eight
While Loyola Marymount’s 1990 tournament run didn’t produce a title, there’s no doubt this offensive juggernaut provided one of the most exciting seasons of basketball ever played. Led by Paul Westhead and “The System,” Loyola Marymount set a Division I record by averaging 122.4 points per game in 1990, though the lasting memories of the team and that season go far deeper than just their exceptional offensive accomplishments.
In the West Coast Conference semifinals, star forward and projected NBA lottery pick Hank Gathers collapsed on the court, the result of a previously misdiagnosed heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy; he would die at a nearby hospital that same night at only 23 years old. Loyola Marymount would go on to win the conference semifinals game and advance into the tournament, where their high-octane offense now found itself fueled by a desire to honor their friend and teammate. Bo Kimble, LMU’s remaining star and a longtime friend of Gathers, honored his fallen friend by shooting left-handed free throws to begin each game. Loyola Marymount would go on to thrash defending champions Michigan by over 30 points in the second round, before eventually exiting with an Elite Eight loss to future champions UNLV.