The fact that people around the world rely on sports for entertainment should come as no surprise when you consider the drama they have the potential to spawn frequently mirrors storytelling tropes that can be traced back thousands of years.
The most obvious comparison is the battle of Good vs. Evil (which, for the most part, boils down to “The Team I Like vs. Whatever Team They’re Playing) and the various “heroes” and “villains” that emerge.
Like most people, many sports fans are also a sucker for a good underdog story concerning an athlete or team that was able to overcome seemingly inconquerable odds.
The appetite for that particular type of tale can help explain why the NCAA Tournament is as appealing as it is, as one of the most intriguing aspects of March Madness is knowing there’s a chance we’ll be treated to a new “Cinderella Story” whenever The Big Dance rolls around.
Over the years, the tourney has featured a number of programs that most people counted out before they even played their first game only to stage a wildly improbable run where the average fan couldn’t help but root for them to keep going.
There’s no shortage of examples to pick from to highlight that phenomenon, but when you take look back at the history of the NCAA Tournament, there are a few Cinderella Stories that stand out from the rest of the pack.
The most unlikely Cinderella Stories to come out of March Madness
Before we dive in, it’s worth noting there’s no “official” definition you can use to determine whether or not a team deserves to be classified as a “Cinderella.”
Some people might argue the 1983 NC State team that won a national championship as the six-seed or the eight-seed Villanova squad that upset Georgetown in 1985 should be considered.
However, for the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on schools that had a double digit-number listed next to their name in the bracket, as those are the kind of underdog stories that really make March Madness as mad (and magical) as it is.
No one expected much out of LSU ahead of the NCAA Tournament in 1986.
The Tigers had posted a 21–10 record over the course of the regular season, but they’d also gone 9-9 in SEC play and were facing an uphill battle after receiving the eleventh seed in their region.
LSU had a bit of trouble getting out of the first round, as the team needed a couple of overtime periods to decide its contest against Purdue before walking away with the 94-87 win.
Things got progressively more difficult from there. LSU took on three-seeded Memphis in the second round and squeaked out an 83-81 victory to earn the right to take on second-seeded Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets were unable to stop the Tigers from continuing their run after falling by a score of 70-64, but top-seeded Kentucky was hoping to put an end to the foolishness in the Elite Eight.
However, LSU once again pulled off the upset to punch its ticket to the Final Four before losing to Louisville (the eventual champion), making them the only team to beat the one, two, and three seeds in the same tournament.
George Mason (2006)
I think it’s safe to assume there weren’t many people who were even aware of the existence of George Mason University prior to 2006 (I’d go as far as to say most people probably hadn’t even heard of the Founding Father the school was named after).
However, that all changed thanks to what unfolded that year.
Like LSU, the Patriots were burdened with the eleventh seed after earning an at-large bid following their loss in the semifinals of the CAA tournament.
However, the team dispatched Michigan by ten points in the first round, beat a third-seeded UNC squad by five in the second, and punched its ticket to the Elite Eight with an eight-point win over Witchita State.
While it had managed to beat the Shockers, the true shock came during the next game.
George Mason had the very unenviable task of facing off against a top-seeded UConn team during a time when the program was one of the most dominant college basketball teams in the country.
However, the Patriots once again prevailed after stunning the Huskies (and the world) by pulling off the 86-84 upset in overtime before the Cinderella run came to an end when they were blown out by Florida in the Final Four.
Virginia Commonwealth University took a somewhat interesting path to the NCAA Tournament in 2011, as Shaka Smart’s team needed to beat USC in the newly-introduced “First Four” round just to earn the right to earn a spot in the field of 64.
VCU headed into the first round (its second) as an eleven-seed (are you detecting a trend here?) but racked up some incredibly decisive victories over Georgetown and Purdue to earn a spot in the Sweet Sixteen.
The Rams had a bit more trouble against a 10th-seeded Florida State team that was hoping to write its own Cinderella Story, but VCU pulled off a dramatic overtime victory (complete with a last-second block to seal the win) to move on to face top-seeded Kansas in the Elite Eight.
They moved onto the Final after topping the Jayhawks by 10, but Butler (who’d also emerged as a loveable underdog as the eight-seed) brought the good times to an end with the 70-62 win that preceded their loss to UConn in the national championship game.
Loyola Chicago (2018)
In 2018, many college basketball fans were introduced to “Sister Jean,” the (then) 98-year-old nun who served as the chaplain (and unofficial mascot) for the Ramblers.
The nonagenarian had already seen Loyola win a national championship all the way back in 1963, and while she would’ve obviously loved to witness them do it again, it seemed doubtful the eleventh-seeded (AGAIN!) team would be able to make her dreams come true.
While the Ramblers did fall short of that goal, they still treated Sister Jean (and the rest of the college basketball world) to an impressive push.
Unlike VCU, Loyola Chicago made their fans sweat a bit in every single game they played to kick off the tourney. Their win over Miami in the first round was decided by two points, and they eked out a one-point victory over Tennessee before beating Nebraska by the same margin to advance to the Elite Eight.
Thankfully, they gave Sister Jean’s heart a rest by beating Kansas State to the tune of 78–62 to move on to the Final Four. They weren’t able to top Michigan when everything was said and done, but they certainly had nothing to be ashamed of.