Every NCAA tournament needs at least one underdog team.
It’s part of the undeniable charm of March Madness — any team, no matter how undersized or unheralded, has a chance to shock the world and become a modern-day sport's Cinderella story. Even the most talented, well-coached top seed has a chance of being outplayed for 40 minutes. Once the underdog earns that first victory, their momentum and confidence skyrocket. Suddenly, the school that no one had ever heard of becomes a legitimate contender for the NCAA national championship.
In 2013, Florida Gulf Coast has become the latest unheralded school to try on the glass slipper. The Eagles, led by upstart coach Andy Enfield, have gone from holding open tryouts in October to dancing their way into the Elite 8. So far, FGCU has defeated the Georgetown Hoyas, a two-seed, and the San Diego State Aztecs, a seven-seed. In the process, they’ve become the first 15-seed in NCAA history to reach the Sweet 16.
While the Eagles have been this year’s media darling, they are hardly the first school to rise from humble origins to March Madness stardom. Take a look at five other NCAA Cinderellas that have gone down in history as the tournament’s biggest surprise contenders.
Led by 33-year-old coaching guru, Shaka Smart, Virginia Commonwealth University wasn’t even supposed to make the tournament. The Rams snuck into the March Madness festivities by defeating USC in a play-in game, then went on to score upset victories against the sixth-seeded Georgetown Hoyas and third-seeded Purdue Boilermakers. In the Elite 8, the Rams stunned yet again by upsetting the top-seeded (and heavily favored) Kansas Jayhawks 71-61, earning the school’s first Final Four appearance.
Before the 2010 NCAA tournament, most fans couldn’t find Butler University on a map, let alone predict a potential championship run. Boasting a lineup that featured future NBA swingman Gordon Hayward, the fifth-seeded Bulldogs rolled through the tournament’s preliminary rounds. Butler managed upset victories over top-seeded Syracuse, second-seeded Kansas State, and a tough Michigan State squad before falling to Duke in the national championship game.
Davidson University’s shocking 2008 tournament run would have been impossible without the efforts of sharpshooting guard Stephen Curry. The future NBA star dominated several renowned opponents, recording point totals of 40, 30, and 33 during Davidson’s three upset victories. While the Wildcats eventually lost to future champion Kansas, Curry set college basketball’s record for most three-pointers made in a single season, and became just the third player in college history to score 30 points in each of his first four tournament games.
George Mason (2006)
Despite barely earning a spot in the 2006 NCAA tournament, George Mason University became just the second 11-seed in March Madness history to earn a trip to the Final Four. Even more impressively, the Patriots battled through one of the most difficult draws in tournament history, upsetting perennial powerhouses Michigan State, North Carolina, and Connecticut en route to college basketball immortality. When the Patriots finally fell, it was to the eventual champion Florida Gators, a team filled with future NBA stars.
In 2013, Gonzaga University is a NCAA tournament fixture and perennial fan favorite. In 1999, they were an unknown commodity, remembered only for their status as NBA star John Stockton’s alma mater. The 10th-seeded Zags started off with impressive wins over Minnesota and Stanford, but their Sweet 16 victory over Florida is the one that will be remembered. Gonzaga needed some late-game heroics to slip by Florida, 73-72, prompting announcer Gus Johnson to say “Gonzaga, the slipper still fits!”
Tom Barrabi is a reporter for the International Business Times. He graduated from Fairfield University in 2011, and has also written for Men's Fitness, Complex, GuySpeed, and...