Ranking the NCAA tournament's best-ever Cinderellas: The Final Four
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, on Friday they voted on an Elite Eight, and now we are down to the Final Four. Vote today and check back tomorrow to begin voting for the championship round of our Cinderella bracket.
Editor's note: Voting is now closed. Below are screenshots of the final vote tallies. Return to the college basketball page Tuesday morning to vote on the championship.
No. 1 Wichita State (2013) vs. No. 4 Davidson (2008)
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: 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
No. 7 George Mason (2006) vs. No. 14 FGCU (2013)
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
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