Understanding the Glass Slipper: A Guide to NCAA’s March Madness Cinderellas
by Stuart Kirsch
Our cultural mythology gives us plenty of imagery we can use for sports teams that come out of nowhere to beat a much better team or to win a championship. They can be a miracle, as in “Miracle on Ice” or “Miracle Mets.” They can be a David that slew Goliath, or some other giant-killer or dragon-slayer. But the fanciful Cinderella, with noteworthy idioms of “striking midnight” and “turning into a pumpkin,” has become synonymous with NCAA Basketball’s March Madness Tournaments.
For all the Cinderella talk, the lowest seed ever to win an NCAA men’s hoops championship was Rollie Massimino’s 1985 Villanova squad, a number eight seed. No team in the bottom half of the seeding has ever won the 64-team tournament. The lowest seed to advance to the championship game? Also an eight seed, done three times total: Butler in 2011, Kentucky in 2014, and Villanova in 1985.
When Loyola Chicago, advanced to the Final Four in 2018, they became the fourth eleven-seed to make it to the Final Four. Others were Virginia Commonwealth in 2011, George Mason in 2006, and Louisiana State in 1986. No team seeded twelve or below, more than the bottom quarter of the field, has ever made the Final Four.
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The Cinderella in a Nun’s Habit
Loyola Chicago is one of the most successful Cinderella stories, and the lore is only embellished by their superfan/good luck charm, Sister Jean. The then 98-year-old team chaplain became an overnight sensation when the eleven-seeded Ramblers upset six-seed Miami. Loyola Chicago went on to defeat three-seed Tennessee, seven-seed Nevada, and then nine-seed Kansas State to come out of the South Regional. The clock struck midnight for this Cinderella in the semi-final game when Sister Jean’s prayers were unanswered in a 12-point loss to Michigan.
The Giant Killer
That same 2018 tournament produced the only sixteenth-seeded team ever to defeat a number one seed. The University of Maryland Baltimore County finished the regular season with a 21-10 record, 12-4 in the America East Conference, yet they upset Vermont in the conference championship tournament to win a bid to the dance.
Seeded 16 in the South Regional, and ranked 63 of the 68 teams in the tournament, the Retrievers loaded their sling with flat stones and shocked the world in defeating the overall number one-seeded Virginia Cavaliers, who came into the tournament with a 31-2 record. UMBC’s triumph lasted only two days as they were swept away by number-nine Kansas State, but their legend will live forever.
Sweet Sixteen and Never Been Kissed
Eight times in NCAA tournament history has a number fifteen seed upset a number two seed. It happened twice, even, in 2012, and a year later, Florida Gulf Coast became the first and only fifteen seed to win a second game in the tourney and make it to the Sweet Sixteen. The Eagles were ranked 59 entering the dance, but stunned the region’s number two-seeded Georgetown Hoyas, and then defeated the seventh-seeded San Diego State Aztecs, both by ten points. They fell a week later to the Florida Gators by twelve in the round of 16.
Cinderella’s Magic Ends at Twelve
Of teams entering March Madness in the lowest quarter of the brackets, not surprisingly the twelve seed is the magic spot in the opening rounds. A twelve-seed has beaten a lower seed 27 times in tournament history. While seven nine-seeds, 17 ten-seeds, and 14 eleven-seeds have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, 19 of those 27 twelve-seeds have triumphed another time to make it the Sweet Sixteen. Only one of those twelve-seeds has won in that round and advanced to the Elite Eight, that being the 2002 Missouri Tigers.
The 1966 National Championship was won by Texas Western in an historic championship game over Kentucky. The Miners were the first-ever team with an all-black starting lineup to win the tournament. They entered the tourney as the third-ranked team in the nation with a 23-1 record. Hardly a “Cinderella” from a record standpoint, but the historic nature of their victory against the top-ranked and all-white Wildcats allows them to be included in the list.
Cinderella From the Wrong Side of the Tracks
Like Texas Western, not all Cinderella’s are ranked low in polling or in the tournament seeding. Often the Cinderella tag is attached to a mid-major or smaller school, especially when their path to glory is blocked by the elite of college hoops. Among the champions and near champions in this type of Cinderella story are 1986 Navy, 1987 Providence, 1988 Kansas, 1990 Loyola Marymount, 2006 George Mason, 2008 Davidson, and 2011 Butler.
Cinderella Needs a Hug
Perhaps the most romantic of Cinderella stories took place before and during the 1983 March Madness. North Carolina State ended its regular season with a workaday 17-10 record, 8-6 in conference play. Their only path to the dance was to win the ACC tournament championship, and did so, defeating Wake Forest, North Carolina, and top-seed Virginia.
Seeded sixth in the West in the 52-team field, they survived double overtime to beat Pepperdine. They upset third-seeded UNLV, beat ten-seed Utah, and eked out a one-point victory over top overall seed Virginia to make the Final Four. As NC State managed a last-second win over “Phi Slamma Jamma” Houston to win the national championship, head coach Jim Valvano famously sprinted onto the court looking for someone to hug, a lasting memory of Cinderella at the ball.