Not all teams that enter the NCAA tournament seem destined to be there. Some teams choose the tournament as their time to truly shine. Here we look at those Cinderella stories – the underdogs that defy the odds and strike down Goliath teams. They are nothing short of remarkable. Even though most don’t end in a tournament championship, these endearing stories have become the stuff of legends over time.
Winning Seeds in the NCAA Tournament
There are clear trends in seeds and win percentage, with higher-seeded teams having more success over the long run (since the 1970s) than lower-seeded teams. While there are certainly teams that fall outside of the norm (e.g., Cinderella teams), there is a definite line that correlates higher-seeded teams with a better chance of winning. But as we know, that’s not always the case.
There have been plenty of double-digit seed teams that have made their mark on history without getting all the way to the final game. Quite a few long shots made it to the Final Four, with VCU being a fairly recent example. In 2011, they began tournament play as an unlikely contender as a No. 11 seed and rumbled along until they fell to Butler, who was on a Cinderella run themselves that year.
And in 2006, one of the greatest underdog stories starred the roster of George Mason. They reached the Final Four after enjoying a gigantic upset victory over first-seeded UConn – and conquering sixth-seeded Michigan State, third-seeded North Carolina, and seventh-seeded Wichita State along the way – until they fell to the eventual champion, third-seeded Florida.
Legendary March Madness stories don’t always make it to the semifinals, and in some cases, even a shorter run can help catapult a career. The rise of Stephen Curry, for instance, gained some incredible momentum during the 2008 tournament when he helped lead his Davidson teammates all the way to the Elite Eight, where they were eliminated by eventual champion Kansas.
Another memorable run to the Elite Eight happened in 1990, when Loyola Marymount’s team recovered from the shocking on-court collapse and eventual death of star Hank Gathers during the WCC Tournament game. For the remainder of tournament play, where they fought hard as a No. 11 seed and advanced to the Elite Eight, teammate Bo Kimble shot his first free throw of each game left-handed in tribute to Gathers. They faltered in the final game against eventual champs UNLV, but their heartfelt story captured the nation.
Northern Iowa also has a place here, knocking off tournament favorite Kansas for its first Sweet 16 appearance in 2010. While that’s where their Cinderella story ended, this No. 9 seed, enjoyed their time in the spotlight after crushing the hearts of Jayhawk fans.
Beating the Odds During March Madness
While the majority of NCAA teams that reach the Final Four are seeded in the top four, the outliers certainly make tournament stories even more compelling, especially when the underdog goes on to represent their conference and school in the national championship. Butler, a private university in Indianapolis, graces this category twice. In 2010 and 2011, they entered the tournament as a No. 5 seed and a No. 8 seed respectively and played for (and lost) the national title.
Butler head coach Brad Stevens was no small part of their charge to and through postseason play, having captured several awards along the path to the big dance. His continued success as the present-day head coach of the Boston Celtics shows that his journey with Butler was no fluke.
There are a few other highly notable teams here, including the 1988 Kansas squad that entered the tourney as a No. 6 seed and went on to win it all, upsetting the favorite to win – first-seeded Oklahoma. That Kansas team spawned a number of NBA players, such as Danny Manning, who was drafted No. 1 overall in ’88 by the Los Angeles Clippers; Mark Randall, drafted 26 overall by the Bulls in 1991; and Kevin Pritchard, who was drafted 34 overall by the Golden State Warriors in 1990.
In 1983, NC State also entered (and won) the tournament as a No. 6 seed, and in 2014, Connecticut did the same as a No. 7 seed. But there has probably been no bigger surprise over the course of tournament history than the eighth-seeded 1985 Villanova Wildcats. They strung together victory after victory, topping it all off with a huge upset win over heavily favored Georgetown to be the lowest-seeded team ever to win the championship.
Wrapping Up the Madness in March
While not every Cinderella story ends with a championship win, the tale of a team beating the odds and making a run is something that everybody can relate to. Not all champions make their way along a well-worn or expected path, and when the underdog has success, it feels like everyone wins.
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We collected the tournament win-loss record and results for every team to ever play in the NCAA Tournament. Using this data, we looked at which teams had the highest and lowest seeds and which rounds they were eliminated in.
For the NCAA Tournament Team Win Percentage interactive graphic, we looked at how teams performed in a particular decade. Only teams that won at least one game in the tournament in any decade since 1970 were included. If a team had multiple appearances in a single decade. Those numbers were averaged. If a team had a separate appearance in multiple decades, they show up in the number of different decades they made an appearance in the tournament.
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