By Jason Iannone
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America loves itself an underdog, which goes a long way toward explaining why it loves the NCAA Tournament so much. With 68 teams vying for one championship, and one loss ending your run, the potential for no-name schools to rise up and beat a successful hoops giant with an illustrious pedigree is limitless.
Well, unless you’re a No. 16 seed. Then there’s very much a limit.
Other than that, Cinderella stories — those magical moments when an underdog comes out on top and everybody cheers except those who bet on the favorite — can happen any time, in any round. Here are five of the best examples.
5. University of Kansas, 1988
You don’t need to be undefeated to win the NCAA Championship, but it helps to at least have something of a decent record. Kansas’s 1988 team most certainly did not. With 11 losses, the Jayhawks weren’t projected to do much of anything, despite somehow securing a sixth seed with that awful record.
But the Hawks turned up the intensity when it mattered most — the playoffs. Led by Danny Manning, the Hawks won all six of their tournament games, becoming the first-ever team with 11 losses to win it all. And what’s more, they did it quite handily: Three of their wins were decided by 13 points — quite the margin in any game — much less games they were almost expected to lose.
4. Florida Gulf Coast University, 2013
It’s always amazing to see a No. 15 seed defeat a No. 2 seed, even though it’s not the rarest feat ever. Seven teams have done so, after all. However, each one ended up crashing back to Earth quickly, losing their second-round game like it was in the script.
Well, Florida Gulf Coast went off-script in 2013. The 15th-ranked Eagles, comprised of nobodies and people who couldn’t even dunk at the start of the year, upset Georgetown by 10 in the first round, which would have been incredible enough. But then they turned around and beat San Diego State, also by 10. With that, Florida Gulf Coast became the first No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16. If it had been a movie, this clearly would’ve been the giveaway that the plucky underdogs would go all the way and win everything.
But it’s not Hollywood, and the Eagles lost their Sweet Sixteen game by 12, ending their season. However, losing in the Sweet Sixteen is more than acceptable when you were never supposed to make it there in the first place.
3. University of Missouri, 2002
Being a No. 15 seed is pretty damn underdoggy, but No. 12 seeds don’t have it much better, especially as they advance in the tournament. None have ever won the thing, nor have any made the Final Four. Only one has even made it to the Elite Eight, and that was the 2002 Missouri Tigers.
As with the Jayhawks, the Tigers entered the tournament determined to not only beat people, but to embarrass them. They started off strong, besting No. 5 seed Miami by 13 points. No. 4 Ohio State got it even worse, falling by a whopping 16 points. The history-making Sweet Sixteen victory against eighth-seeded UCLA wasn’t quite as dominant as the others, but a nine-point victory is still quite decisive.
When they finally fell to No. 2 Oklahoma, it wasn’t without a fight. Missouri only lost by six points, meaning they actually had a puncher’s chance of advancing even FURTHER.
2. Cornell University, 2010
The No. 12 seed Cornell Big Red didn’t set any advancement records in 2010, since other No. 12 seeds had made the Sweet Sixteen before. But their Cinderella tale is worth telling for a couple of reasons. One, they’re Cornell. The school is known primarily for eggheads, not jockstraps. It was a small miracle that they got into the tournament at all, never mind all the way to the Round of 16.
But secondly, and more importantly, they didn’t make it to the Sweet 16 merely by winning decisively. No, they CRUSHED the wicked stepsisters that were the other teams. They beat No. 5 Temple by 15 points, and then followed that up by utterly humiliating No. 4 Wisconsin by 18 points! It might well be the biggest blowout by an underdog in tournament history, and final proof that tournament seeds are the most arbitrary numbers in all of sports.
Unfortunately for the Reds, top-ranked Kentucky ate them alive in the Sweet Sixteen, defeating them by 17 points and smashing their pumpkin carriage in the process. Oh well, you live by the crushing defeat, and you die by the crushing defeat.
1. Villanova University, 1985
The previous three Cinderella stories have one thing in common: Eventually, they all lost and had to go home. The 1985 Villanova Wildcats, however, were not interested in doing so until they had a big shiny trophy and some cut-up nets to accompany them on the plane ride back. Being a No. 8 seed, however, nobody gave them a chance to pull off much more than a few victories at best.
Instead, the Wildcats won the championship, becoming the lowest-ranked team in history to do so. It wasn’t at all easy, as the majority of their games were decided by single digits, and they squeaked past No. Georgetown in the finals by a score of 66-64. But in this case, how they got there means very, very little. An eighth-seeded team — not low enough to be an underdog, not high enough to be a favorite, typically about as unimportant as a team can get — was suddenly the best in the world. Middle managers the world over rejoiced.
Jason Iannone is a Cracked Columnist, who would like to remind you that Cinderfella is a real thing, because he’s evil like that. Curse him for reminding you of that abomination via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and his website.