NCAA Tournament’s Biggest Cinderellas

March 19, 2012 Updated: March 19, 2012
NCAA Championship Game: Butler v Duke
Gordon Hayward's (R) last second half-court shot against Duke rimmed out, ending one of the most improbable tournament run in NCAA history. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Every year the NCAA Tournament provides some upsets. Some are bigger than others. When the bigger upsets continue into the later rounds the team, usually a small and somewhat-unknown school, is termed a “Cinderella.”

With the first week of this year’s NCAA Tournament over, just three “Cinderella” teams are left: 13th-seeded Ohio, 11th-seeded N.C. State, and 10th-seeded Xavier. Ohio is clearly the biggest “Cinderella” of the three of them though as N.C. State, while it hasn’t been to the tournament since 2006, is a much bigger school. And though Xavier may be a mid-major, its made the tournament 11 of the last 12 seasons.

With that in mind, what were the biggest Cinderellas since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985? For purposes of ranking them, how far the school goes, what seed they were in the tournament, how good or poor their basketball tradition is, the size of the school, the prestige of their conference, and how memorable the run was all are taken into account. Onto the list:

10. Gonzaga, 1999, Seeded 10th finished with a 28-7 record; Beat (7) Minnesota 75–63, (2) Stanford 82–74, (6) Florida 73–72, Lost in Regional Finals to (1) Connecticut 67–62: The first of now 14 straight trips to the NCAA Tournament this run originally put the team on the map. In coach Dan Monson’s final season the Bulldogs entered the tourney with just one prior appearance (1995). They left courtesy of the national champion Huskies.

9. Rhode Island, 1998, Seeded 8th finished with a 25-9 record; Beat (9) Murray State 97–74, (1) Kansas 80–75, (13) Valparaiso 74–68, Lost in Regional Finals to (3) Stanford 79–77: Head coach Jim Harrick was in his first season at Rhode Island when the team pulled off this unexpected run. Featuring guards Cuttino Mobley and Tyson Wheeler the main part of the Rams’ run was stunning 35-4 Kansas in the second round. Two games later, the team was poised to make the Final Four as it actually led Stanford 66–60 with two minutes remaining before Cardinal guard Arthur Lee scored 13 points in the final 120 seconds to key make a dramatic comeback win.

8. LSU, 1986, Seeded 11th finished with a 26-12 record; Beat (6) Purdue 94–87, (3) Memphis State 83–81, (2) Georgia Tech 70–64, (1) Kentucky 59– 7, Lost in National Semi Finals to (2) Louisville 88–77: The Tigers were just 9-9 in the SEC in 1986—good for a fifth-place finish—when they made their surprising run to the Final Four, becoming the lowest seed ever to advance that far. Nearly every win was a shocker but the biggest was beating Kentucky—who had already beaten them three times already that season.

7. Loyola Marymount, 1990, Seeded 11th finished with a 26-6 record; Beat (6) New Mexico State 111–92, (3) Michigan 149–115, (7) Alabama 62–60, Lost in Regional Finals to (1) UNLV 131–101: The Lions made headlines that year in averaging 122.8 points per game and set a tournament record with their 149 points and 21 3-pointers against Michigan in the second round. All this despite playing in the tournament just a couple weeks after teammate Hank Gathers on-court collapse and subsequent death.

6. Davidson, 2008, Seeded 10th finished with 29-7 record; Beat (7) Gonzaga 82–76, (2) Georgetown 74–70, (3) Wisconsin 73–56, Lost in Regional Finals to (1) Kansas 59–57: Davidson guard Stephen Curry’s coming out party came in these four games as he had 40 points against Gonzaga, 30 against Georgetown helping the team erase an 11-point halftime deficit, 33 against Wisconsin, before Kansas slowed him to just 25 points, though the Wildcats got off a guarded 3-pointer at the buzzer that just missed.

5. Villanova, 1985, Seeded…