BY MARK KNUDSON
Special to woodypaige.com
This is the time of the year when everyone falls in love with Cinderella. But Cinderella rarely reciprocates.
We break out the Brackets and start picking those upsets, pinning our hopes on one or two of those lower seeded teams from obscure conferences that few pay attention to until Selection Sunday.
The fact of the matter is that Cinderella stories typically end around the midpoint of time the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament. A true Cinderella champion? It’s really happened only once, with a narrow miss 25 years later. Otherwise, those warm and fuzzy teams we love to cheer for normally join us on the sidelines when the champion is actually being determined.
But not always. Here’s a six-pack of the best, most successful Cinderella stories in March Madness history:
6. Wichita State 2013. The Shockers have a strong basketball history, but they entered the 2013 tournament seeded ninth in the West region. Led by scoring and rebounding leader Cleanthony Early, Wichita State shocked top-seeded Gonzaga AND second-seeded Ohio State on their way to the Final Four, where they fell to eventual National Champion Louisville. It was a great moment for WSU head coach Gregg Marshall and it still leaves everyone wondering why he hasn’t yet moved on to a bigger school. Indiana in 2017, maybe?
5. Penn 1979. This was the tournament that really launched March Madness into the mainstream. The national championship game featured Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans against Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores. It was the start of an epic hoops rivalry that carried on into the NBA and beyond. But before Magic and MSU could defeat Larry Legend for the title, they had to beat the pesky, ninth-seeded Penn Quakers. All this Cinderella did in that tournament was oust #1 seed North Carolina in Raleigh and also beat St. John’s and Syracuse. Not too shabby for the little school from Philly.
4. George Mason 2006. Who? Most fans had never heard of the 11th-seeded Patriots. They got into the tournament over the objections of many analysts who felt they were not deserving. But these Pats got on a post season roll. They became the first team ever from the Colonial Athletic Conference to reach the Final Four by upsetting Michigan State, North Carolina and Wichita State before toppling U Conn in the Elite Eight in an overtime thriller. The run ended when they lost to eventual national champion Florida.
3. Virginia Commonwealth 2011. The expanded brackets that included the “First Four” for the very first time became VCU’s ticket to the big dance after finishing fourth in the CAA. Led by four seniors and Coach Shaka Smart, the Rams beat USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and then Kansas to reach the Final Four. The Rams fell to Butler in the Final Four, but finished ranked 6th in the nation. They remain the only team to start in the “First Four” and reach the Final Four.
2. Butler, 2010. Winners of their conference – the Horizon League – and seeded fifth in the West Region, it might be a stretch to call this team a Cinderella. But considering where they started and the way they finished, these Bulldogs are actually one of the great Cinderella stories ever. It began with the expected – wins over UTEP and Murray State. Then it got interesting. The Bulldogs beat top-seeded Syracuse to reach the Elite Eight, where they toppled second-seeded Kansas State to reach the Final Four. They were the second team (George Mason, 2006) from a “mid- major” school to reach the Final Four since UNLV in 1991. An upset of Michigan State sent them to the championship game against Duke. The clock struck midnight when star forward Gordon Hayward’s last second half court shot bounced off the rim allowing the Blue Devils to win 61-59.
1. Villanova, 1985. Entering as an 8th-seed, these Wildcats remain the lowest seeded team to ever win the NCAA tournament. They were one of three Big East teams to reach the Final Four, including top-ranked defending national champion Georgetown. Along the way, Villanova had to defeat top-seeded Michigan, Maryland, North Carolina and Memphis. That earned them another shot at the Hoya’s and superstar Patrick Ewing, who had already beaten them twice during the regular season. This time the clock would never reach midnight, as the Wildcats shot almost 79% from the field for the game and upset the defending champions 66-64 to win Cinderella’s only title thus far.