March Madness is hands down my favorite playoff in sports for several reasons. It never fails to produce gigantic upsets (UMBC over Virginia!) and buzzer-beaters (Bryce Drew to beat Ole Miss!) and more emotion than an episode of This Is Us (just watch the 2017 One Shining Moment for proof). Even One Shining Moment itself is a mammoth part of March Madness’s appeal.
Another significant one is to me is when a team comes out of nowhere and catches fire, busts brackets everywhere by reeling off upset after upset and is still standing in one of the late rounds. Today I want to discuss what I consider to be the five most improbable of these runs in all the tournaments I have seen. This means that anything that happened before 1986 will not be included, so two of the premier examples in N.C. St. in 1983 and Villanova in 1985 will not be discussed. That is sad in one sense but in another those have been written about numerous times in the last 35 years. So I am happy to give some props to some others.
To qualify what I mean by improbable, I want to be clear that I do not simply mean a low seed makes it far in the tournament. I am considering all other things as well—the history of the program, the immediate context of the program, how they won their games and who they beat. To give an example, the list that I considered before whittling it down to five did not include UNC making a Final Four run as an 8-seed in 2000, Michigan St. making it as a 7 in 2015 or Syracuse as a 10 in 2016. Those are championship programs and constantly do well in the NCAA tournament, so even low seeds didn’t make their runs that big a shock to my mind. Similarly, Kent State’s run to the Elite Eight as a 10-seed in 2002 didn’t feature any truly earth-shattering wins (though they were upsets) so while it was considered, it was quickly dismissed. Similarly dismissed were a run by 10-seed Temple in 1991 and the same Temple program as an 11 in 2001, and a championship game run by 8-seed Butler in 2011 after making the same game the year prior. Finally, I add that a “run” to me is at least two games, and in the modern era, two games starting with the 64-team field and not the “First Four” de facto play-in games. So as amazing as UMBC’s victory over Virginia was, they didn’t really have a “run” in the tournament in my mind. You need to at least survive the first weekend.
But here are some other honorable mention examples of what I mean, in chronological order:
1986: 11-seed LSU’s run to the Final 4
Why It Was Insane: Only team in modern era seeded as low as 11 to make the Final Four until 2006. Even more amazing they were the only team to be seeded lower than 6th in the modern era to make the Final Four until two 8s made it in 2000. Beat #1 Kentucky.
1986: 7-seed Navy’s run to the Elite 8
Why It Was Insane: Beat Syracuse in the 2nd round. Hasn’t won a tournament game since. Hasn’t made the tournament since the 90s.
1987: 6-seed Providence’s run to the Final 4
Why It Was Insane: Beat recent champ and #1 seed Georgetown and hasn’t returned to Final 4 since. Didn’t return to even Sweet 16 for ten years.
1988: 13-seed Richmond’s run to Sweet 16
Why It Was Insane: Beat defending champ Indiana in the first round and Georgia Tech in 2nd Round.
1991: 11-seed Loyola Marymount’s run to the Elite 8
Why It Was Insane: Beat defending champ Michigan in 2nd Round. Only their 2nd tournament with any advancement ever. Has not returned to the tournament or even the NIT since. Pulled off the run after their leading scorer, Hank Gathers, died during the conference tournament.
1994: 9-seed Boston College’s run to the Elite 8
Why It Was Insane: Beat defending champ and #1 UNC in 2nd Round, in what I consider to be the biggest 2nd round upset ever (maybe tied with N. Iowa over Kansas in 2009 in a very similar game). Has not been back to the Elite 8 since.
1997: 14-seed Chattanooga’s run to the Sweet 16
Why It Was Insane: Beat #3 Georgia and #6 Illinois. One of only two 14s to make it this far. Haven’t won a tournament game since and haven’t won one since before 1982.
1999: 10-seed Gonzaga’s run to the Elite 8
Why It Was Insane: Only 2nd NCAA appearance ever (the previous one was five years prior) and the first one with any advancement. Nearly knocked off eventual champ UConn in the Elite 8.
2000: 8-seed Wisconsin’s run to the Final 4
Why It Was Insane: Only 5th tournament appearance in sixty years. First in the modern era ever going past the 2nd round. Beat #1 Arizona.
2002: 12-seed Missouri’s run to the Elite 8
Why It Was Insane: Remains the lowest seed to date to make the Elite 8. The program has never made the Final 4.
2008: 10-seed Davidson’s run to the Elite 8
Why It Was Insane: Beat Gonzaga, Georgetown, and Wisconsin (easily). First time in school history ever winning one game in the tournament in the modern era. Nearly knocked off eventual champ Kansas. Have not won a tournament game since.
2013: 9-seed Wichita St.’s run to the Final 4
Why It Was Insane: Beat #1 Gonzaga and popular champion pick #2 Ohio St. Program has never made another Final 4. Last Elite 8 was in 1981.
2013: 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast’s run to the Sweet 16
Why It Was Insane: The first, and still only, 15-seed to win two tournament games and survive the first weekend. Beat #2 Georgetown. The program didn’t even begin until 2002. Still the only non-First 4 wins in program history.
2014: 11-seed Dayton’s run to the Elite 8
Why It Was Insane: Program’s first Elite 8 since 1981. Only 2nd time even advancing to Sweet 16 since then. Beat heavily favored Ohio St. and Syracuse.
2017: 11-seed Xavier’s run to the Elite 8
Why It Was Insane: Destroyed #3 Florida St and beat #2 Arizona. Only three E8s in program history and 0 Final Fours.
2018: 11-seed Loyola Chicago’s run to the Final 4
Why It Was Insane: Hadn’t even been to the tournament since 1985. No deep runs since 1963. Heart-stopping win over #3 Tennessee.
For various reasons, all of these were considered but not worthy of the final list of Five. Reasons ranged from Navy in 1987 having David Robinson to Xavier having many tournament runs in their history to Loyola getting to play two very low seeds in their last two wins. Now, on to the Most Insane Five:
5. 14-seed Cleveland St.’s run to the Sweet 16 in 1986
They are still one of only two 14s to make the Sweet 16 and one of only three to make it that far as a seed lower than 13. What separates their short but improbable run from Chattanooga in 97 and Florida Gulf Coast in 2015 is that they beat the next year’s champion (Indiana) and St. Joe’s, and then didn’t return to the tournament again until 2009. Additionally, those two years are their only appearances in school history. This run makes no sense. Its statistical probability is infinitesimal.
4. 7-seed UConn’s run to the National Championship in 2014
If you’re tracking with me you may be ready to cry foul (no pun) at this one since they are a championship program. But there are a few reasons I make this exception. One is that once Jim Calhoun retired, this program has bottomed out. Except for this outlier year. They have only two tournament appearances since 2011, and only one win other than this title year. Kevin Ollie, who coached this team, was fired four years later, which was almost quick enough to make Gene Chizek jealous.
Secondarily, the way they did it was mind-boggling. In their first game vs. 10-seed St. Joseph, they trailed virtually the entire final 5 minutes and were down three in the final 45 seconds and tied it on an ugly offensive rebound, put back, plus a foul and the and-one. They triumphed in overtime. Who would have guessed that a team that struggled to put away lowly seeded St. Joe’s in Round 1 would go all the way? Then there were the victories over 2-seed Villanova (the 2016 champion) in the 2nd round, Michigan St. (perennial Final Four contender) in the Elite 8, and Florida (the overall #1 seed in the tournament) in the Final 4. Each game they seemed woefully undermanned and in the Florida game, they fell way behind. Yet every time they plodded along and willed a victory to survive and advance. Finally, they faced Kentucky in the championship, who despite being an 8-seed felt like a team of destiny. UK had won game after game on late heroic shots by Aaron Harrison and seemed like the trendy pick. But UConn shut them down as well and took home the championship. Nothing about this run was normal. It was completely unprecedented for a 7-seed and in general.
3. 11-Seed VCU’s run to the Final Four in 2011
The most important facts are obvious:
–They were an 11-seed from a mid-major conference with not so much as a Sweet 16 in their tournament history
–They were the first and still only team to go from First Four to Final Four.
–They knocked out #6 Georgetown, #3 Purdue and #1 Kansas all by double digits. In fact, the only close game they had the whole tournament was vs. 10-seeded Florida St., in one of the most oddly seeded Sweet 16 games of all time. The Kansas game was the biggest shock because 11s beating 6s and 3s isn’t unheard of. 11s beating 1s in the Elite 8 had happened only twice in modern history (LSU in 86 and George Mason in 06).
Shocka Smart and crew just would not lose. Essentially no one saw this run coming. No one. To this day no other First Four team has so much made an Elite 8. And VCU has not even come close to replicating this success in the 7 years since, only winning one tournament game in that frame.
2. 11-Seed George Mason’s Run to the Final Four in 2006.
The thing that makes this run more impressive than VCU’s by a hair is the teams they beat. They rolled through #6 Michigan St., #3 UNC and #1 UConn–all championship programs–to break a 20-year drought of double digits seeds making the Final 4.
Additionally, while VCU was never a Final 4 team, they had won some games in the tournament before 2011. George Mason had three appearances before this 06 run—as a 15, a 14 and a 14 seed–and was ousted immediately each time. And like VCU, they have not been able to repeat this success, only procuring one tournament win in two total appearances since this amazing jaunt through March. And they have had 5 more years to add to that total than VCU has had. It was just an extraordinary and borderline bizarre run, both at the time and very much in hindsight.
1. 7-Seed South Carolina’s run to the Final Four in 2017
I may get pushback on this one for two reasons: First, I am a Gamecock fan in the heart, soul and blood. And secondly, how can a 7-seed from a major conference trump 11-seeds from mid-majors on the same run? Well, hear me out.
Here is a list of USC’s tournament appearance since 1975 to date (other than this one):
1989, 12-seed, out in First Round
1997, 2-seed, out in First Round
1998, 3-seed, out in First Round
2004, 10-seed, out in First Round
That’s it. The numbers are freakishly bad. Four total appearances in forty years. Zero wins despite two very highly seeded years. 13 years between their last appearance and this blindsiding run. And the team has not even come close to sniffing the NCAA in the two tournaments since.
At the risk of piling on, consider this as well: This Gamecock program made the Final Four of the National tournament despite the fact that they have not even made the semifinals of SEC Tournament since 2006. Read that again. The team has a Final Four more recently than a conference Final 4 by 11 years. This team has never even won the SEC tournament. All of this adds up to an anemic resume that even previously anonymous programs like George Mason and VCU could not match. And for that reason, I consider this run, in which they beat #2 Duke, #3 Baylor and #4 Florida, the most improbable of my lifetime.
What do you think? Comments, disagreements and declarations of ignorance are welcomed below!