When we hear about North Carolina or Duke or Kansas winning another basketball game, we shrug and expect these blue-blood programs to post victories. When we read that Kentucky or Gonzaga or Villanova has made it to another Final Four, we don’t blink because that it what we expect out of these programs. When these teams, usually favored, take down their opponents, we enjoy the winnings that come with taking tested teams, but you don’t have the drama that comes with the upset. Cinderella stories – tales of teams whose magical runs seem to last several rounds longer than they should – make up much of the mythology of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. As we start to think about March Madness betting in this year’s bracket, let’s look back at the biggest underdog tales from the storied history of the tournament.
NCAA Bracketology: What Are March Madness’ Biggest Cinderella Stories?
2013: Florida Gulf Coast University
The Eagles of FGCU were literal unknowns to all but the most intrepid college basketball betting researchers when they crashed the bracket as a 15-seed, but the world soon learned about “Dunk City,” as the team dunked everything in sight. They took on 2-seed Georgetown with Otto Porter Jr, the Big East Player of the Year, and they pulled off a 25-2 run in the second half to win, 78-68. They followed that up with a win over San Diego State to get to the Sweet 16. They ran into in-state rival Florida, a 3-seed, and lost, 62-50, but the Eagles were on the map.
2016: Syracuse University
Jim Boeheim’s storied program usually isn’t considered a Cinderella, but in recent years, the Orange have struggled to compete in the ACC at an elite level, so when they made the NCAA Tournament after a season with a self-imposed postseason ban, they came back as a 10-seed. They rode their anger from the year before (and they rode their gimmicky 2-3 zone defense) all the way to the Final Four. They had lost five of six games to finish the regular season, but behind freshman Malachi Richardson and senior Michael Gbinjie, they rolled over Dayton, Middle Tennessee and Gonzaga to get to the Elite Eight. There they met Virginia and found themselves down by 14 at the half. Richardson went off for 21 in the second half, though, and the Orange prevailed. They met North Carolina in the Final Four, which is where this 10-seed’s magical story came to an end.
Stephen Curry led Davidson to a shaky 4-6 start, but then they won 22 games in a row. They won the Southern Conference and got a 10-seed in March Madness. Curry scored 40 on Gonzaga in the first round to give the program its first March Madness win since 1969. They went on to take down Georgetown to get to the Sweet 16, where they knocked off 3-seed Wisconsin. They pushed Kansas hard in the Elite Eight but lost by two; the Jayhawks would go on to win the national championship. Curry ended up being Davidson’s leading scorer in 31 of their 36 contests.
The Quakers won their eighth title in the Ivy League in the previous 10 years, but they were still way under the radar before they made one of the first Cinderella runs. They beat Iona in the first round and eliminated 1-seed North Carolina, 4-seed Syracuse and 10-seed St. John’s to make it to the Final Four. Once there, they ran into Michigan State – and Magic Johnson. However, they became the first team to knock off three higher-seeded foes to get to the Final Four, setting the bar for later Cinderellas.
1983: North Carolina State
The Wolfpack had lost 10 games during the regular season and was not likely to gain an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament at all. However, they snagged the automatic qualifier spot from the ACC by winning the conference tournament. Then they won the first five rounds of the tournament – winning three of those games by either one or two points. They found themselves in the final against a Houston Cougars team that had two future NBA Hall of Famers in Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. However, the Wolfpack were right there at the end, and Dereck Whittenburger sent up a prayer shot near the buzzer. Lorenzo Charles skied into the air, caught the ball, and dunked it for the buzzer. Coach Jim Valvano’s run around the floor is still an iconic video clip for March Madness.
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