Ranking the NCAA tournament's best-ever Cinderellas: The Elite Eight
We've whittled the list of best NCAA tournament Cinderellas down to the Sweet 16, and now we want to hear from you. As Alexander Wolff explained in the introductory essay, we took teams only from the traditional seeding era (since 1979) and only those that were seeded eighth or below in their respective year and eliminated high-major programs (sorry, 1983 N.C. State and 1985 Villanova, then seeded them in our bracket based on Basketball Reference's Simple Rating System. On Thursday, readers voted on our Sweet 16 matchups and created the Elite Eight you see below. Use the entire weekend to vote for a Final Four, which will be revealed on Monday.
Editor's Note: Voting has now closed. Screen shots of the final vote tallies are shown below.
No. 1 Wichita State (2013) vs. No 9 Butler (2011)
Wichita State Shockers
Record: 30-9 (12-6 Missouri Valley Conference)
NCAA tournament result: Entered the tournament as a No. 9 seed in West Regional. Beat No. 8 Pittsburgh, No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 13 La Salle and No. 2 Ohio State. Lost to No. 2 Louisville in the Final Four.
A year before the aptly named Shockers became the first team in 10 years to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated, they heeded coach Gregg Marshall’s call to “play angry” all the way to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed. That anger translated to a smothering man defense that bludgeoned Pitt in their opening tournament win and helped them grind out an Elite Eight victory over Ohio State, but Wichita State’s signature performance may have come when its defense most had its hands full. Facing top-seeded Gonzaga in the Round of 32, the Shockers opened a 13-point first half lead, only to see the Bulldogs rally and take an eight-point lead with fewer than 12 minutes to play. That’s when Wichita State launched a rally of its own, connecting on five straight threes from four different players to pull back ahead for good.
Those were the 2013 Shockers: timely, balanced, and undaunted. Begoggled forward Carl Hall and point guard Malcolm Armstead were the team’s senior core; freshmen Ron Baker (42.9% from three in the tourney) and Fred VanVleet (25 total points off the bench in the Gonzaga and Ohio State wins) proved burgeoning stars; 6’8” wing Cleanthony Early was all over the place as he led Wichita State in scoring and rebounding. The result was the West region’s top seeds no longer playing, and surely angry. — Dan Greene
Record: 28-10 (13-5 Horizon League)
NCAA tournament result: Entered the tournament as a No. 8 seed in the Southeast Regional. Beat No. 9 Old Dominion, No. 1 Pittsburgh, No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 2 Florida and No. 11 VCU. Lost to No. 3 Connecticut in the national championship game.
The first of Butler's back-to-back runs to the national title game, in 2010, was a fairytale in every way but the ending. Local mid-major with local, overlooked recruits and a stingy-as-hell defense makes the Indianapolis Final Four, comes within a few inches of a half-court heave of beating Duke. The Bulldogs' second run was more surprising than the first; it was unscripted and chaotic, a series of inexplicable saves on the road to an ugly final against UConn.
Butler was 14-9 in early February, with no case for an at-large NCAA bid and looking like a longshot to win the Horizon League tourney, and things still worked out. It was taken to the brink by Old Dominion and Pittsburgh in the NCAA tournament's first two rounds, winning the former game on a Matt Howard tip-in at the buzzer, and the latter despite Shelvin Mack's foul while up one with 1.4 seconds left—a gaffe topped only by the foul Pitt's Nasir Robinson committed on a missed free throw just before the buzzer, sending Howard to the line for another game-winner. In the Elite Eight, the Bulldogs' solution to breaking down Florida's 2-3 zone was to bring a freshman guard (Chrishawn Hopkins) off the bench who'd been DNP'd in 14 of its previous 17 games—and watch as he sparked a comeback and an overtime win. The 2011 version of Butler had Brad Stevens, the sport's brightest young coach; Mack, a future NBA guard, running their offense; and Howard, a scrapper-forward and future Euro pro, delivering a monster senior season; but their true strength was in finding unfathomable ways to survive. They were the Cardiac Cinderella. — Luke Winn
Record: 29-7 (20-0 Southern Conference)
NCAA tournament result: Entered the tournament as a No. 10 seed in the Midwest Regional. Beat No. 7 Gonzaga, No. 2 Georgetown and No. 3 Wisconsin. Lost to No. 1 Kansas in the Elite Eight.
Why vote for Davidson? It's tempting just to type "Steph Curry" and leave it at that. Before Curry even played a college basketball game, his head coach, Bob McKillop said: "Wait till you see Steph Curry. He is something special." After breaking the school's freshman scoring record in 2007, Curry racked up 30 points in an opening-round NCAA tournament loss to Maryland. When he returned as a sophomore, Curry was ready to take the Wildcats much further.
Behind Curry's conference-best 25.5 points per game, Davidson finished its march through the Southern Conference's regular season and tournament unblemished in 2008. In the NCAAs, Curry scored 40 in a first-round 82-76 win over Gonzaga, 30 in a 74-70 win over Georgetown and even put up 33 against Wisconsin's vaunted pack-line defense. Fellow guard Jason Richards, who averaged 13.3 points per game, was a worthy second fiddle, but this was Steph's show all along and one that even LeBron James had to see in person. In the Elite Eight against top seed Kansas, Curry scored 25 points but made just 4-of-16 from three, and the Jayhawks denied him a chance to get off a game-winning attempt. Kansas survived, 59-57, and went on to win the national championship. Curry returned from his senior season and made first-team All-America before heading to the NBA. Say, whatever happened to that guy? — David Gardner
Record: 25-7 (13-1 Ivy League)
NCAA tournament result: Entered the tournament as a No. 9 seed in the East Regional. Beat No. 8 Iona, No. 1 North Carolina, No. 4 Syracuse and No. 10 St. John's. Lost to No. 2 Michigan State in the Final Four; lost third-place game to No. 2 DePaul.
A newspaper in North Carolina’s Triangle called it “Black Sunday,” so astonishing were the second-round results from Raleigh—No. 9 Penn’s defeat of top-seeded North Carolina within hours of No. 10 St. John’s win over second-seeded Duke at Raleigh's Reynolds Coliseum. But the Quakers were far from finished. A week later, in a Greensboro Coliseum largely empty thanks to the elimination of the local favorites, Tony Price, Bobby Willis, Booney Salters and Co. knocked off Syracuse and St. John’s to land the Ivy League’s first Final Four berth since Bill Bradley and Princeton in 1965.
Under the direction of coach Bob Weinhauer, this Quaker team was the culmination of an astonishing stretch going back a decade for the school, one that produced such stars as Bob Morse, Corky Calhoun, Craig Littlepage, Phil Hankinson and Keven McDonald. Magic Johnson and Michigan State would end Penn’s dream in the thin air of Salt Lake City, 101-67. But the Quakers proved that their run was no fluke two days later, when they nearly outshot and outran Mark Aguirre’s DePaul Blue Demons in the third-place game before losing 96-93. All in all, it was a performance that put to shame another North Carolina newspaper, one in Greensboro that referred to the East Regional champs as “Penn State.”— Alexander Wolff
No. 2 Loyola Marymount (1990) vs. No. 7 George Mason (2006)
Loyola Marymount Lions
Record: 26-6 (13-1 West Coast Conference)
NCAA tournament result: Entered the tournament as a No. 11 seed in the West Regional. Beat No. 6 New Mexico State, No. 3 Michigan and No. 7 Alabama. Lost to No. 1 UNLV in the Elite Eight.
The Lions may be the No. 2 seed in our bracket, but in the hearts of many college basketball fans, they are the Cinderella team. During the regular season, LMU was marked by a style of play popularized by head coach Paul Westhead that was run-and-gun basketball at its finest. The Lions averaged 122.4 point per game—a record that seems unapproachable in today's college basketball—and cruised to a 13-1 record in the West Coast Conference.
Then, in the second round of conference tournament, tragedy struck. Hank Gathers, who had become just the second player in Division I history to lead the nation in scoring (32.7 ppg) and rebounding (13.7 rpg) in the same season the year prior and who led the nation in scoring again in 1990 (35.3 ppg), collapsed on the court and died of heart failure. Overcome with grief, LMU went further than any team in school history had before or since. Bo Kimble, who transferred to LMU from USC with Gathers and was his best friend, scored 45 points in an opening round 111-92 win over New Mexico State, memorably shooting his first free throw of each game lefthanded in honor of his fallen friend. In the second round, the Lions routed defending champion Michigan 149-115. That's not a typo; they scored nearly 150 points in a postseason game.
Following that win, Kimble and sharpshooter Jeff Fryer appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show and said they would win the national title. LMU advanced from the Sweet 16 with a low-scoring win (62-60) over Alabama but lost to eventual-champion UNLV a step short of the Final Four. Even without the national championship, though, the Lions will be remembered forever as one of the NCAA tournament's most courageous, skilled and beloved teams of all time. — David Gardner
George Mason Patriots
Record: 27-8 (15-3 Colonial Athletic Association)
NCAA tournament result: Entered the tournament as a No. 11 seed in the Midwest Regional. Beat No. 6 Michigan State, No. 3 North Carolina, No. 7 Wichita State and No. 1 Connecticut. Lost to No. 3 Florida in the Final Four.
The Patriots of 2006 were old, egalitarian and played asphyxiating defense. A brew of experience and tenacity like that is enough to grind down any foe—and the ability to get stops is particularly useful as a failsafe against bad offense. But George Mason actually wasn’t bad on that end either; it ranked 58th nationally in offensive efficiency, and its raw shooting percentage (48.1%) was good for 15th in the country. Five players averaged 11 points or more, and even though Jim Larranaga’s crew didn’t go much deeper than that, four of the top five scorers shot better than 45% from the floor.
Size was a concern, as none of the rotation players stood taller than 6’7”. But the two nominal big men, Jai Lewis and Will Thomas, were efficient enough rebounders, averaging 7.8 and 7.2 boards per game, respectively. And in this imaginary event, one guesses the lack of height wouldn’t be fatal; other Cinderellas are unlikely to deploy one 7-footer after another. Ultimately, defense was the Patriots' calling card. They ranked 10th in efficiency on that end and opponents managed just a 38.8% effective field goal percentage. George Mason’s reliability in all areas was simply top-notch. There was essentially no weak spot. Everyone was a threat. There are few better recipes for emerging as the belle of the Cinderella ball. — Brian Hamilton
No. 6 Kent State (2002) vs. No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast (2013)
Kent State Golden Flashes
Record: 30-6 (17-1 Mid-American Conference)
NCAA tournament result: Entered the tournament as a No. 10 seed in the South Regional. Beat No. 7 Oklahoma State, No. 2 Alabama and No. 2 Pittsburgh. Lost to No. 5 Indiana in the Elite Eight.
Stan Heath knew what it took to win in the NCAAs. Prior to taking over as Kent State’s head coach in April 2001, he had served as an assistant at Michigan State for five seasons, helping the Spartans reach three Final Fours and win the national championship in 2000. But the task Heath took on with the Golden Flashes was essentially the opposite of the one he had at Michigan State. Instead of helping a No. 1 seed stave off plucky mid-majors and other high seeds while advancing through the bracket, Heath was devising ways for his team, from the Mid American Conference, to spring upsets against high-major juggernauts like the Spartans. Kent State entered the 2002 tournament hotter than perhaps any other squad in the field. It had not lost since Jan. 9, and it won each of its three MAC tournament games by at least 11 points.
Mind you, that streak was not merely a product of weak competition. The Flashes were a senior-laden team that wielded the MAC’s most efficient offense during conference play and ranked eighth in the nation in defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. They got reliable perimeter scoring from guards Trevor Huffman and Andrew Mitchell and also featured a JUCO transfer power forward named Antonio Gates, who would later realize that his future lay in a different sport. To open the tournament, Kent State cruised past No. 7 seed Oklahoma State, then handled No. 2 seed Alabama and edged No. 3 seed Pittsburgh. In the regional final, Kent State drew Indiana, which had knocked out top-seeded Duke in the Sweet 16. Alas, the Hoosiers, the eventual national runners-up, were one of the few teams in the country with a better defense than that of the Golden Flashes, and when Indiana also made 15 of 19 three-pointers, Kent State's season ended with an 81-69 loss. — Chris Johnson
Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
Record: 26-11 (13-5 Atlantic Sun)
NCAA tournament result: Entered the tournament as a No. 15 seed in the South Regionals. Beat No. 2 Georgetown and No. 7 San Diego State. Lost to No. 3 Florida in the Sweet 16.
There are a few dark corners of Dunk City that its inhabitants would prefer you ignore. The first is that the party crashers of the 2013 NCAA tournament were less run-and-gun than run-of-the-mill for most of the year. Per kenpom.com, the Eagles ranked 104th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 109th in adjusted defensive efficiency. What’s more, FGCU wasn’t even even an exceptionally great team in transition; its 1.066 points per possession in that scenario ranked in the 60th percentile nationally, per Synergy Sports Data. (The Eagles, in fact, spent almost 80% of their offensive possessions in the half-court.) But coach Andy Enfield’s crew had three individually efficient offensive players. Guards Sherwood Brown and Bernard Thompson and forward Chase Fieler all ranked in the 83rd percentile or better for points per possession overall—Synergy’s “Excellent” range—and collectively they averaged 1.017 points per possession in isolation scenarios.
Essentially, an FGCU that played as it did in the NCAA tournament—and not necessarily as it had for the bulk of the season—would be a threat to nearly anyone. The Eagles were the aggressors and made a living at the line in their first NCAA outing (going 30-for-44 on free throws against Georgetown) and then posted a 112.8 offensive efficiency rating in the next round against San Diego State. In retrospect, the numbers don’t suggest this was a well-kept-secret team all year. But bottle the NCAA tournament formula, and release it on a bracket of Cinderellas? Then FGCU has a trio of double-digit scorers who are adept at making individual plays in the context of a free-flowing offense that is as efficient as it is aggressive. — Brian Hamilton