Top 10 Cinderella stories in Men's March Madness history
The Cinderella phenomenon occurs annually in sports, where unexpected teams rise to prominence and create their own captivating stories. These are the 10 greatest March Madness Cinderella stories of all time.
March Madness has created some of the best storylines in sports for many years. Some of the best NCAA basketball Cinderella stories emerge from the annual tournament, where win-or-go-home basketball is on display from beginning to end.
Everyone loves the March Madness underdogs, and every year the biggest underdog in March Madness garners national attention. As soon as a low seed knocks out one of the tournament giants or a much bigger school, they become the Cinderella team to watch. The Saint Peter’s Cinderella story in 2022 springs to mind -- taking down Kentucky in the first round of the tournament and progressing all the way to the Elite Eight.
What is a Cinderella team in March Madness?
The Cinderella phenomenon occurs annually in sports when unexpected teams rise to prominence and create their own captivating stories. In college basketball, this typically involves a low-seeded team that defies expectations by winning and advancing in the NCAA tournament. These teams then garner more attention and publicity as they continue to progress.
Reaching the tournament’s Final Four is a daunting challenge for these underdogs. They must defeat some of the top-seeded teams in their bracket, which is why the 1985 Villanova Wildcats, a No. 8 seed that year, remain the lowest-seeded team to have ever won the tournament.
Today we look at 10 of the best Cinderella stories March Madness has produced, including the lowest seed to win the NCAA tournament and some of the biggest NCAAB upsets in the history of the sport. Honorable mention should be made here for young Steph Curry’s 2008 Davidson team that reached the Elite Eight and the 1977 Warriors team that gave Marquette University its only national championship to date.
Ranking the 10 Greatest Cinderella Stories of All Time
- 1986 LSU (No. 11 Seed)
In 1986, the LSU Tigers faced significant challenges as they struggled to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament. Despite these difficulties, they managed to become the lowest-seeded team to ever reach the Final Four -- a feat since matched by four other teams.
The Tigers' star forward, Jerry Reynolds, had left early to enter the NBA Draft, and several players were ruled academically ineligible. Additionally, the team was hit with a midseason outbreak of chicken pox, further complicating its path to success. Against all odds, LSU managed to qualify for the 1986 tournament, which, in itself, was an impressive feat.
The Tigers continued to exceed expectations by defeating Purdue in double-overtime and then getting past Memphis and Kentucky, the latter of which had finished first in the SEC at 17-1. LSU’s 59-57 Elite Eight victory over Kentucky at The Omni in Atlanta is widely regarded as one of the greatest upsets in basketball history, as the 1986 Tigers became the first – and remain the only -- team to beat a No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3-seeded team in the same tournament.
- 2006 George Mason (No. 11 Seed)
The 2006 George Mason Patriots became the first mid-major conference team since 1979 to make the tournament’s Final Four.
The Patriots put on a phenomenal defensive display throughout the tournament – helping them take down Michigan State, North Carolina, and Wichita State to reach the Elite Eight. That set them up to face the No. 1-ranked UConn Huskies at the Verizon Center in Washington.
In a March Madness thriller, the Patriots took down the Huskies in a tightly contested 86-84 victory, overcoming all odds to reach the tournament’s Final Four. It was the greatest year in the Patriots program’s history and one of the very best Cinderella teams the prestigious NCAA tournament has ever witnessed.
- 1988 Kansas (No. 6 Seed)
The 1988 Kansas Jayhawks are now commonly known as "The Miracles” for their outstanding run to the NCAA tournament championship.
The Jayhawks were not considered favorites to win the tournament that year and had not claimed a national championship since 1952. The real 1988 favorites were the Oklahoma Sooners, who were widely regarded as the nation’s most formidable team. Oklahoma played a fast-paced, high-scoring style of basketball that saw them score over 100 points in two of their first three tournament games.
The Sooners dismantled Villanova in their regional final and looked to be the easy favorite, while Kansas defeated rival Kansas State to make it to the Final Four. Thus, two Big Eight teams collided in the NCAA tournament final, and rather than try to silence Oklahoma’s aggressive offense, coach Larry Brown decided his Jayhawks team would match the Sooners’ tempo.
Kansas might have been the underdog, but the Jayhawks were led by Danny Manning, one of the nation’s best players. The Kansas star put on an inspiring performance in the final with 31 points, 18 rebounds, and five steals.
The Jayhawks' triumph was a shock to the nation, since many people felt Oklahoma was destined to win the tournament that year. However, Kansas defied the odds at Kansas City’s Kemper Arena to claim its second national championship. The 1988 team's Cinderella story is now widely regarded as one of the greatest in the history of March Madness.
- 2018 Loyola Chicago (No. 11 Seed)
Loyola Chicago’s run to the 2018 Final Four was simply breathtaking. Each game the Ramblers played was a thriller, making them one of the greatest Cinderella stories March Madness has ever seen.
Sister Jean, a 98-year-old Loyola Chicago superfan, became an iconic figure during the 2018 tournament. The Ramblers put together a crazy run to the Final Four that featured wins over sixth-seeded Miami, third-seeded Tennessee, and seventh-seeded Nevada.
Each win went down to the wire, with Loyola Chicago’s total margin of victory across all three games totaling just four points. This all happened in the same year that UMBC stunned No. 1 seed Virginia in the first round -- the only time a 16th-seeded team has ever upset a top seed.
Loyola defeated Kansas State in the Elite Eight to join the exclusive list of No. 11 seeds that have gone to the Final Four. They would author one of the greatest stories of the chaotic 2018 March Madness bracket before finally falling to Michigan at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
- 2011 VCU No. (11 Seed)
The "First Four” was introduced to the NCAA Tournament in 2011, and VCU was among the outsider teams forced to play their way into the 64-team bracket.
In 2010-11, current Marquette coach Shaka Smart was in his second season as an NCAA head coach at VCU. The Rams had ended the season with a record of 23-11 and finished fourth in the CAA behind George Mason, Old Dominion, and Hofstra. Although his team lost to Old Dominion in the CAA championship game, Smart's leadership and coaching abilities paved the way for future success at VCU.
VCU defeated USC in the First Four before going on to beat some of college basketball's greatest giants on its way to the Final Four. VCU beat Georgetown in the opening round, followed by wins over Purdue and Florida State. That set the Rams up to face the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks in the Elite Eight.
Led by senior Jamie Skeen, who had 26 points and 10 rebounds in the game, VCU emerged victorious and progressed to the Final Four in one of the greatest runs the tournament is likely to see. From the First Four to Final Four, VCU was one of two Cinderella stories that emerged from the 2011 NCAA tournament bracket. The Rams’ run did not end until they fell to the Final Four’s other Cinderella team, Butler, in front of 70,000 fans at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
- 2011 Butler (No. 8 Seed)
VCU’s 2011 Cinderella story came to an end against Butler, which had gone from a No. 8 seed to the Final Four by putting together one of the finest runs in NCAA tournament history.
Interestingly, Butler had gone on a similar run one year earlier. During the 2009-10 season, Butler went from 9-4 at the end of December to 28-4 at the opening of the NCAA tournament by winning 19 straight games and the Horizon League’s tournament championship.
After five straight wins in the NCAA tournament, Butler reached the 2010 national championship game, where the Bulldogs fell to Duke 61-59 in a closely contested matchup . Incredibly, they did it all again the following year.
Butler became the first team outside of a major conference to reach the national championship game in back-to-back seasons since 1961, and the Bulldogs did it in style. Their final two games were played at Reliant Stadium in Houston, drawing crowds of over 70,000 fans.
Each game of the 2011 tournament was a nail-biter for the Bulldogs. A crucial tip-in against Old Dominion in their opener secured their progression to the next round. They faced a formidable, top-ranked Pitt team in their second game and emerged victorious on a last-second free throw. The team's momentum continued as it went on to beat Wisconsin and then Florida in overtime, ultimately reaching the championship game by defeating VCU.
Despite their impressive run, the Bulldogs ultimately fell short, losing to UConn in the final. Nevertheless, their tournament story is regarded as one of the all-time greats.
- 2022 Saint Peter’s (No. 15 Seed)
In 2022, the Saint Peter's Peacocks became the first 15th-seeded team in NCAA tournament history to reach the Elite Eight. That fact alone automatically qualifies them for one of the top spots on any list of March Madness’ great Cinderella stories.
The Peacocks’ run was by no means lucky. They faced three excellent opponents who had all won at least 26 games that season. The group of higher-seeded teams included No. 2 Kentucky in the first round.
In one of the most memorable NCAA tournament upsets, Saint Peter’s went into overtime against the Wildcats and emerged victorious by a score of 85-79. The Peacocks continued to impress -- defeating seventh-seeded Purdue and third-seeded Murray State on their way to the Elite Eight. Their final two tournament games were played at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, and the team's road to the Elite Eight is widely regarded as one of the most challenging routes ever taken to get there.
Although it’s one of the most recent Cinderella stories in March Madness history, the Peacocks’ saga is absolutely one of the best that college basketball fans have ever seen. The opening-round win over Kentucky alone ranks among the very greatest NCAA upsets. That St. Peter’s was able to get past two more challenging opponents and make history in the process is just outstanding.
- 1990 Loyola Marymount (No.11 Seed)
Loyola Marymount’s 1990 story will tug on the heart strings of sports fans for eternity. Lions head coach Paul Westhead had created a fast-paced offensive system designed to resemble the tactics of a soccer team. He conditioned his team with rigorous off-season fitness workouts and an intense track program. Westhead’s plan was to simply outpace and outrun every opponent.
During the 1989-90 season, Loyola set an NCAA record by averaging 122.4 points per game. The Lions were led by stars Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, who had won the national scoring title that year with a 35.3 points-per-game average.
In a tragic turn of events, Gathers collapsed on the court during the WCC Tournament semifinals and passed away from heart failure. The team responded by paying tribute to their fallen teammate with an impressive run to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight. They were determined to honor Gathers' memory with their performances on the court.
Loyola scored 149 points against Michigan in the second round, and defeated Alabama in the regional semifinal to advance to the Elite Eight -- playing their last two games at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena in Oakland, Calif. Their Cinderella run belongs on this list due to the circumstances they faced and the way they honored their teammate. College basketball fans will always remember the 1990 Loyola Marymount story.
- 1985 Villanova (No. 8 Seed)
The 1985 Villanova Wildcats remain the lowest-seeded team to win the NCAA tournament, having done so in the very first year of the 64-team bracket.
The Georgetown Hoyas, defending NCAA champions, were again a top contender heading into the 1985 NCAA tournament. Led by future Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, widely regarded as one of the greatest Georgetown basketball players of all time, the team had its sights set on back-to-back national championships. The 1985 tournament was heavily dominated by teams from the Big East Conference, which added to the Hoyas' confidence and expectations for a successful run.
Three of the 1985 Final Four teams came from the Big East, including the conference-champion Hoyas. The surprise in the group was Villanova, which overcame top-seeded teams such as Michigan, Maryland, and North Carolina to set up a showdown with Ewing and the Hoyas.
The Hoyas and Wildcats met in the national championship game at the Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., where Villanova coach Rollie Massimino said his team would need to play a "perfect game” in order to win. They came close to perfection, shooting an unbelievable 79 percent from the floor and beating all the odds to claim the 1985 title. As far as the biggest upsets in March Madness history go, they don’t get much bigger than this one.
- 1983 NC State (No. 6 Seed)
The heartwarming story of Jim Valvano and "The Cardiac Pack” tops this list. North Carolina State had to win the ACC tournament just to qualify for the NCAA tournament, and it did so in stunning fashion with an upset win over Ralph Sampson’s Virginia team.
The 1983 NC State team generated a buzz throughout the college basketball world that led even fans of other teams to root for them. They faced Virginia a second time during the NCAA tournament, beating the No. 1 seed 63-62 to advance to the Final Four.
The Wolfpack met the heavily-favored Houston Cougars at the Pit in Albuquerque, N.M., to decide the tournament championship. It would turn out to be one of the greatest college basketball games of all time. The iconic ending saw the Wolfpack’s Lorenzo Charles dunk an apparent airball from Dereck Whittenburg with just one second left on the clock. A euphoric Valvano sprinted around the court in celebration.
The 1983 NC State Wolfpack story prompted some of the greatest celebrations around Raleigh and throughout the country. The tale of how legendary coach Valvano and his team overcame the underdog odds to win it all just must be the greatest Cinderella story of them all.
Parameters for Ranking
These college basketball Cinderella stories have been ranked based on their historic significance relative to the NCAA tournament. Some are especially memorable for emotional reasons -- such as the story of the Loyola Marymount team in 1990. Others were simply remarkable runs on the court as teams defied the odds by beating higher-ranked teams to become some of the greatest Cinderella stories of all time.
Bet on NCAA Basketball Odds at Betway
Find season long NCAAB odds on the Betway sportsbook. You'll find all the latest spreads, totals, money lines and over/under. Missed tip off? No problem, Betway also offers live betting. All your NCAAB betting needs are covered at our online sportsbook.
Visit Betway’s NCAAB picks page for picks and predictions throughout the NCAA basketball tournament.