It wouldn’t be March Madness without the upsets. But the real madness happens when a team stacks an upset on top of upset on top of upset, and so on. Suddenly a team you’ve never heard of is knocking off the No. 1 team in the nation and you can’t take your eyes off them. Nothing beats a great Cinderella run in the NCAA tournament, so let’s rank the best ones of all time.
From a reputation standpoint, it’s tough to think of the Wildcats as a Cinderella. But the team’s incredible journey to a national championship, the team’s first, remains one of the most shocking in history. Villanova remains the worst tournament seed, No. 8, to ever win it all. After finishing tied for third place in a loaded Big East, Villanova had to beat 1-seeded Michigan, 2-seeded North Carolina to reach the Final Four. And of course the Wildcats finished it with a 66-64 win in an epic championship game over Big East rival Georgetown, the nation’s top team going into the tournament.
The legend of then-NC State head coach Jim Valvano all started with this unthinkable tourney performance. The Wolfpack entered the 52-team tournament as a No. 6 seed and needed 69-67 double overtime win just to beat Pepperdine in the first round. That set the stage for a series of narrow wins, including a 63-62 squeaker over 1-seeded Virginia in the regional final and a memorable 54-52 triumph over a mighty Houston team led by Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Valvano’s crew won it all on a famous play where a badly missed desperation 3-pointer led to Lorenzo Charles’ putback slam at the buzzer.
This Cinderella run really lasted two years, which makes it all that much more impressive. The Bulldogs, who then played in the Horizon League, captured our hearts when they came within 3 points of knocking off Duke in the 2010 national title game. A kid named Gordon Hayward led that team from a little-known 5 seed in the tourney to a national brand. But even after Hayward left for the NBA, the Bulldogs managed to fight their way back into the championship game for a second straight year. The 2011 run was even more of a miracle considering Butler started as an 8 seed and had to upset 1-seeded Pittsburgh and 2-seeded Florida to reach the Final Four. It all came to an end with a loss to UConn in the title game.
Just a few years after transitioning to the Division I level in 2011, Florida Gulf Coast made a huge impact in its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. The Eagles are the only 15 seed to ever advance to the Sweet 16, and they did it with a high-flying, entertaining offense that earned them the nickname ‘Dunk City.’ FGCU knocked off No. 2 Georgetown and No. 7 San Diego State in consecutive games to cement themselves in tourney history.
This was one of the craziest NCAA tourneys of all time, with an 11-seeded VCU team facing 8-seeded Butler in the Final Four. Though the Rams lost that game, their mere presence in the Final Four was unbelievable considering they actually started their tournament earlier than most of the field. With the field expanded to its current number of 68 teams for the first time in 2011, VCU had to win a ‘First Four’ game to earn a spot in the main 64-team bracket. From there, the Rams never lost their momentum, beating Georgetown (6), Purdue (3), Florida State (10) and Kansas (1) to take down the Southwest region. No seed worse than an 11 has ever made the Final Four.
This small university was nowhere on the national radar before their out-of-nowhere run to the Final Four. The Patriots picked off plenty of blue bloods along the way, knocking out Michigan State, North Carolina and UConn to reach its first national semifinal in program history. The glass slipper finally fell off for George Mason with a loss to eventual champion Florida in the semifinal.
Who could forget Sister Jean, the lovable team chaplain and super fan of the Loyola Ramblers? It was only a year ago, so hopefully you didn’t forget it already. Sister Jean became the face of the small Catholic school program which simply refused to lose and wound up earning its first Final Four berth since 1963. The Ramblers became just the fourth 11 seed to reach the Final Four.
It’s easy to forget the Zags weren’t always a national powerhouse. This small school’s rise to prominence all began with an unexpected series of tourney victories as a No. 10 seed. Gonzaga stunned No. 2 Stanford in the second round and edged No. 6 Florida to reach the Elite Eight, where it lost to eventual champion UConn. At that point, Mark Few was an unknown assistant. The following year, he’d be promoted to head coach and rest is history.
Before the George Masons, VCUs and Loyola Chicagos of the world, there were the 1986 Tigers. They were the first 11 seed to advance to the Final Four, doing so after finishing fifth in the SEC with a 9-9 conference record. LSU flew into the NCAA tourney under the radar but gained plenty of attention after upset wins over No. 3 Memphis State, No. 2 Georgia Tech and No. 1 Kentucky in the Elite Eight. The surprising streak ended with a loss to Louisville, which ended up winning it all.
Just a few days after the tragic death of star player Hank Gathers, who collapsed during a conference tournament game due to a heart condition, the Lions had to find the motivation to compete in the NCAA tournament. And compete they did, fighting all the way to the regional final as an 11 seed thanks to wins over No. 3 Michigan and No. 7 Alabama. Loyola and its run-and-gun offense was led by Bo Kimble, who put together one of the great tourney performances of all time. His 35.8 points per game average is tied for third in NCAA tournament history. It was a heroic performance by a player who admirably honored the memory of his lost teammate.
While Wichita State does have a strong basketball tradition, it still took an unlikely path to the Final Four. As an overlooked No. 9 seed, the aptly named Shockers put a shock to No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the round of 32 before taking out No. 2 Ohio State in the regional final. Making its first Final Four showing since 1965, the Shockers lost narrowly 72-68 to eventual champion Louisville.
This entire tournament run could be described by uttering one name: Stephen Curry. Before he became a two-time NBA MVP, Curry used a dazzling tournament performance to lead the Wildcats from an obscure 10 seed all the way to the Elite Eight. Curry and co. claimed Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin as victims on the way. Curry averaged a tournament-high 32 points per game and splashed a tourney-record average of 5.75 3-pointers. He nearly willed his team into the Final Four but came up just short with a 59-57 loss to No. 1 Kansas in the regional final.
The Badgers were somewhat of an afterthought heading into the tourney, coming off a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten and holding an 18-13 record at the time. But 8th-seeded Wisconsin came alive, knocking off No. 1 Arizona in the second round and using a lockdown defense to pick off LSU and Purdue to land in the program’s first Final Four since 1941. It all ended with a loss to conference rival Michigan State, which went on to win the championship.
Not much was expected of these Tigers, who finished sixth in the Big 12 and was one of the last teams included in the 65-team tournament field. But things fell into place for No. 12 seed Mizzou, which beat No. 5 Miami, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 8 UCLA, which had upset 1-seeded Cincinnati in the previous round. Even after a close loss to No. 2 Oklahoma in the regional final, the Tigers had done enough to make history. They remain the only 12 seed to ever advance to the Elite Eight.
Entering the tournament, the No. 14 seed Vikings had won an unheralded league (then called the Mid-Continent Conference) and had no wins of consequence. That all changed when Cleveland State toppled Bobby Knight’s Indiana team at the peak of its powers in a major first-round upset. The Vikings followed that with a win over Saint Joseph’s to become the first 14 seed to ever reach the Sweet 16. In that round, the Vikings lost by a David Robinson-led Navy team 71-70.