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The Greatest March Madness Cinderella Stories of All Time

Everyone loves an underdog, and no one does Cinderella stories quite like March Madness.

Every spring, as the snow melts and the flowers sprout, 68 college basketball programs are invited to the biggest party of the year. The NCAA Tournament, more commonly referred to as March Madness, grabs the attention of even the most casual sports fans for the incredible basketball showcase.

Like clockwork, office pools and friendly competitions lure fans to fill out brackets in the hopes of picking the national champion. That all starts on Selection Sunday, when the brackets are set and teams find out what their paths to the Final Four will be.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but the chances of you filling out a perfect bracket are 1 in 9.2 quintillion. In other words, you have a better chance to win the lottery than pick every game correctly.

Still, sports fanatics come crawling back year after year finding strange ways to pick a winner, but unfortunately, there's always that one team that shows up to crash the party.

The greatest part of every NCAA basketball tournament aren't the blue-blood programs like Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan, Michigan State, UNC, Ohio State or Duke (sorry Blue Devils fans).

While it would be great to see a program like Iowa make its first Final Four appearance in 40 years, the true belles of the ball are the Cinderella teams — little-known programs that make improbable runs — that garner the most attention.

Most years, they come from absolutely nowhere. While some upset-minded teams never survive long, others string together several wins at the big dance and manage to compete for a national title.

Just a few years ago, the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers, who ranked as a Top-15 team by KenPom, dominated conference opponents like Illinois State to earn an at-large bid by winning the Missouri Valley Conference. The Ramblers then proceeded to improbably win four tournament games and reach the Final Four.

The 2023 NCAA Tournament is coming to a close and the Final Four field has been set. And for one team, that tipoff might just be a fairy godmother showing up and offering a trip to the big dance. Over the years, the greatest moments feature these Cinderella teams, and here are 12 improbable runs by some of the greatest underdogs in NCAA Tournament history.

13. Florida Gulf Coast (2013)

FGCU players react during a 2013 NCAA Tournament game.

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Seed: 15

Finish: Sweet 16

The first 15-seed ever to advance to the Sweet 16 in NCAA Tournament history hails from Fort Myers, Florida, when the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles introduced the world to "Dunk City."

In the opening game of the 2013 tournament, FGCU faced off against the No. 2-seed Georgetown Hoyas and Big East Player of the Year Otto Porter Jr. Thanks to a 25-2 run in the second half of that game, and enough swagger to fill an entire gymnasium, the Eagles would pull off an improbable win, 78-68. Two nights later, they'd beat San Diego State to advance to the Sweet 16.

Ultimately, their run ended in a 62-50 loss in a matchup against the No. 3-seed Florida Gators, but the damage was done, and Florida Gulf Coast put themselves on the college basketball map.

12. Wichita State Shockers (2013)

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 30: Cleanthony Early #11, Chadrack Lufile #0 and Nick Wiggins #15 of the Wichita State Shockers celebrate after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes 70-66 during the West Regional Final of the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Staples Center on March 30, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.

(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Seed: 9

Finish: Final Four

While Dunk City is remembered more fondly for its other-worldly dunks and alley-oops from such a small program, it's the Wichita State Shockers who should be remembered more fondly for their 2013 March Madness run.

Thanks to an incredible run from the likes of Fred VanVleet, Cleanthony Early, and Ron Baker, the Shockers went on an incredible run that included upset wins over No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 7 Ohio State. The run looked like it would be capped off with a national championship, but a hard-fought game against the eventual title winners in the Louisville Cardinals halted their Cinderella story.

The small Missouri Valley program ended up producing some legitimate NBA talent, most notably VanVleet, showing just how special that team really was, and what could have been had they taken their run all the way to the national championship game.

11. Syracuse (2016)

Syracuse celebrates an Elite 8 Win in 2016.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Seed: 10

Finish: Final Four

One year after a self-imposed postseason ban, the Syracuse Orange returned to the NCAA Tournament with a chip on their shoulder, and Jim Boeheim's team exploded for an incredible run to the Final Four.

The Orange entered the 2016 tourney losing five of six games to close the season. Thanks to star freshman Malachi Richardson and senior Michael Gbinije, Syracuse would beat Dayton, Middle Tennessee and Gonzaga to reach the Elite Eight.

Then, trailing No. 1 seed Virginia, 35-21, after the end of the first half, Richardson exploded for 21 second-half points as Syracuse railed to keep their incredible run alive a little bit longer.

The Orange were stopped in the national semifinal by the North Carolina Tar Heels, but this team proved that Syracuse basketball is never going to be an easy out when March rolls around.

10. Davidson (2008)

Steph Curry plays for Davidson during the 2008 NCAA Touranment.

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Seed: 10

Finish: Elite Eight

Do you know a guy named Steph Curry? Wardell Stephen Curry? Greatest three-point shooter in NBA History? Well, if you missed the 2008 NCAA Tournament, this was his coming-out party.

After starting the regular season with a 4-6 record, the Davidson Wildcats rattled off 22-straight wins to take home the Southern Conference Championship and earn a postseason berth against the No. 7 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs. In that opening game, Curry would go off for 40 points to give Davidson its first NCAA Tournament win since 1969.

Still, they were far from done.

Davidson would beat Georgetown in the second round and third-seeded Wisconsin after that before falling to the eventual national champion Kansas Jayhawks, 59-57.

How dominant was the undersized point guard that season? He led Davidson in scoring in 31 of their 36 games.

9. Penn (1979)

Seed: 9

Finish: Final Four

Despite winning their eighth Ivy League title in 10 years, no one was paying attention to the Penn Quakers entering the 1979 NCAA Tournament. They would put together one of the original Cinderella runs and put themselves on the map.

After handling coach Jim Valvano's Iona Gaels in their opening game, Penn would go on to beat No. 1 seed North Carolina, No. 4 seed Syracuse, and No. 10 seed St. John's in the Eastern Regional Final.

Unfortunately, it's hard to keep that momentum when you meet a Michigan State team led by Magic Johnson in the national semifinal.

The Quakers' run was the first where a team beat three higher-seeded opponents to reach the Final Four in tournament history, and coach Bob Weinhauer's team set the standard for a real Cinderella.

8. George Mason (2006)

George Mason celebrates a win at the 2006 NCAA Tournament

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Seed: 11

Finish: Final Four

It's rare for anyone to name a team from the Colonial Athletic Association conference, let alone find George Mason University on a map. During the 2006 NCAA Tournament, all of that changed.

The Patriots and head coach Jim Larranaga squeaked into the tournament after losing to Hofstra in the CAA Conference Tournament semifinals.

What followed were wins against Michigan State, North Carolina and Wichita State — all higher seeds — that set up a date with the top-seeded UConn Huskies and All-American forward Rudy Gay.

George Mason would survive in overtime, 86-84, but lost the next game to the Florida Gators. The Patriots finished the 2005-06 season ranked No. 8 in the AP Poll to bookend one of the most incredible mid-major runs in tournament history.

7. LSU (1986)

Seed: 11

Finish: Final Four

The only 11-seed over to beat the one, two and three seeds of their region in a single NCAA Tournament resides in Baton Rouge with coach Dale Brown's LSU Tigers.

Remembered for overcoming a list of obstacles that makes your head spin, LSU entered the postseason with two games that were conveniently played inside the LSU Assembly Center — a double-overtime win against Purdue followed by an 83-81 win over Memphis State that sent the Tigers to the Sweet 16.

There, they'd defeat the No. 2-seed Georgia Tech and then the No. 1-seed Kentucky Wildcats, a team that had beat LSU twice in a six-day span just two weeks prior.

The Tigers to the eventual national champion Louisville Cardinals and Most Outstanding Player Pervis Ellison, but LSU's run proved that no matter the obstacle, Cinderella is still showing for that ball. The Tigers made another improbable run in 1987 as a 10-seed, eventually falling to Indiana in the Elite Eight.

6. Virginia Commonwealth (2011)

VCU celebrates a 2011 NCAA Tournament win.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Seed: 11

Finish: Final Four

Thanks to the inception of The First Four, with play-in games before the first round begins, the VCU Rams, who earned an at-large bid, became the only team to win five NCAA Tournament games and NOT make the national championship game.

Led by second-year head coach Shaka Smart, VCU would beat the USC Trojans to even make the dance. Then, they'd rip off wins over Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State, and top-seeded Kansas to reach the Final Four in Houston, Texas.

Led by the Rams' tenacious mentality and a coaching staff featuring future head coaches including Smart (now at Texas), Mike Jones (Radford), Mike Rhoades (VCU) and Will Wade (LSU), the Rams would ultimately fall to another Cinderella story, Butler, in the national semifinal.

Don't worry, we'll hear more from them later.

5. Kansas (1988)

Kansas coach Larry Brown and Danny Manning hug after advancing to the Final Four in 1988.

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Seed: 6

Finish: National Champions

It's hard to fit "Cinderella" and "Kansas basketball" in the same breath, but "Danny and the Miracles" were truly incredible.

Led by Naismith Player of the Year Danny Manning, the Jayhawks fell from grace after starting the 1987-88 season as the No. 7 team in the nation. After losing to the Oklahoma Sooners early in February, Kansas was sitting on a 12-8 record and were unranked. Then, they'd make a run into the NCAA Tournament by beating Xavier, Murray State, Vanderbilt, Kansas State and Duke to reach the title game.

Awaiting them? The Big 8 Conference champion Oklahoma Sooners.

The Jayhawks were an eight-point underdog going in, but they'd knock off Oklahoma, 83-79, thanks to 31 points and 18 rebounds from Manning to win the national title. To this day, Kansas is still the only team to lose 11 games and win the NCAA Tournament.

4. Loyola Marymount (1990)

LMU players honor fallen teammate Hank Gathers in 1990.

Photo by Andy Hayt /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

RELATED: Hank Gathers' Tragic Death Ignited a Legendary March Madness Run

Seed: 11

Finish: Elite Eight

There are teams that made deeper runs against more impressive competition, but no team has ever overcome what the No. 11 seed Loyola Marymount Lions did during the 1989-90 season.

After setting an NCAA record scoring an insane 122.4 points per game using coach Paul Westhead's fast-paced style, the Lions would have two players — Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble — named Second-Team All-Americans.

Then, in the West Coast Conference Semifinal, tragedy struck. Gathers, who was only the second player ever to lead the nation in scoring and rebounding in one season, collapsed on the court and later died on March 4, 1990.

Despite losing their teammate, the Lions would rattle off three wins against New Mexico State, Michigan and Alabama to make the Elite Eight, but were overmatched by the eventual champion, UNLV Rebels.

LMU honored Hank Gathers in the most incredible way, and put forth one of the greatest runs, title or not, in sports history.

3. Butler (2010, 2011)

Gordon Hayward celebrates a shot in the 2010 NCAA Tournament

Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Seed: 5, 8

Finish: Back-to-Back National Championship Runner-Up

No team in college basketball history put on a two-year run quite like the Horizon League's Butler Bulldogs in the 2010 and 2011 NCAA Tournaments, and it's likely we may never see it again.

Head coach Brad Stevens' teams reached the national title game two-straight years, losing to the Duke Blue Devils and Connecticut Huskies in those games.

On their way there, Butler would beat teams like Syracuse and Michigan State in 2010, followed by Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Florida the following year. Little-known players like Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack, and Matt Howard became household names during this incredible two-year run.

While the Bulldogs never brought a title home to Indianapolis, they put Butler basketball on the map like no team ever has before.

2. Villanova (1985)

Villanova celebrates winning the 1985 NCAA Tournament.

Photo by Richard Mackson/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Seed: 8

Finish: National Champions

There are massive upsets in sports history throughout the years, but arguably none were bigger than the Villanova Wildcats upsetting John Thompson's Georgetown Hoyas in 1985.

The Wildcats, coached by Rollie Massimino, stumbled into the NCAA Tournament with a 19-10 record. Then, after beating Dayton, Michigan, Maryland, North Carolina and Memphis State, senior forward Ed Pinckney and the Wildcats set themselves up for a date with a high-powered Georgetown team that had already beaten Villanova twice that season.

In what's been dubbed "The Perfect Game," Villanova would outlast Georgetown, 66-64, to capture the school's first national championship in its first appearance. Villanova basketball is on the map today thanks to this team and their incredible run in 1985.

1. North Carolina State (1983)

NC State coach Jim Valvano celebrates winning the NCAA Tournament

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Seed: 6

Finish: National Champions

The biggest and best Cinderella story ever starts and ends with famous head coach Jim Valvano. The outspoken coach from Queens, New York, put together his finest season in 1983, and his team needed a miracle to make it happen.

With 10 losses, the NC State Wolfpack weren't guaranteed a spot in the tournament without winning the ACC Tournament to close the year.

They'd do just that, then put together five wins, three of which came by two points or less, to reach the NCAA Tournament Championship against future NBA Hall of Famers Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon, and the Houston Cougars.

In the closing seconds, Dereck Whittenburg launched a desperation shot that Lorenzo Charles managed to catch in mid-air and dunk for the game-winning bucket. Pandemonium ensued, and Valvano's frantic run around the court became an iconic symbol of the NCAA Tournament.

While NC State might have set the standard for incredible, improbable, miraculous NCAA Tournament runs, so many teams sneak up on us every year with awesome stories and motivation that can't be factored into a bracket on paper.

You can guarantee more will be coming when the calendar flips to March every single year.

This post was originally published on January 15, 2019.

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