They're as much a part of March Madness as taking a two-hour lunch on a Thursday afternoon. Cinderellas. The term, so cliche that it eventually became part of the accepted sports lexicon, refers to those small schools you only hear about during their magical NCAA tournament and then rarely think of again, except during One Shining Moment montages and highlight-reel packages. With the tournament beginning Thursday and two dozen teams hoping to try on their glass slipper in 2017, we look back and rank the greatest Cinderellas the 64-team tournament has ever seen.
No. 16 Princeton (1989, 1st Round)
We start with the only Cinderella that never got to put on the glass slipper. The Tigers came within millimeters of pulling the greatest upset in college basketball history, narrowly falling to Alonzo Mourning's powerhouse Georgetown team in the first round of the 1989 tourney. Princeton had two shots to win in the final seven seconds, but Mourning miraculously got a piece of the first (coming out of nowhere to get a blockl) and then tipped the second as time expired. Sports Illustrated called it "the game that saved March Madness."
No. 11 Davidson (2008, Elite Eight)
If you didn't see Steph Curry coming, you weren't paying attention. His Davidson team, which came within a shot of upsetting eventual champion Kansas to make the Final Four, was an efficient, clinical tour de force that went 29-3 and entered their regional final on a 22-game winning streak. They were a Cinderella in seed only.
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No. 10 Kent State (2002, Elite Eight)
ike Davidson, the Golden Flashes might have been too good for this list. They were a powerhouse in 2002, led by future NFL star and juco transfer Antonio Gates, and held the nation's longest winning streak (21) when they eventually lost to Indiana one game short of the Final Four.
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No. 13 Valparaiso (1998, Sweet 16)
Valpo didn't beat a particularly strong Mississippi team in the first round of the 1998 tourney, but no matter: Bryce Drew's three pointer became a staple of March Madness highlights, and the upset dreams of small schools, for the next two decades and beyond. (It only just recently moved to No. 3 on the all-time buzzer-beater list, behind former No. 1 Christian Laettner and the man who usurped him last April, Kris Jenkins.) The Valpo team, coached by Bryce's dad Homer, would win its second-round game too, beating 12th-seeded Florida State before wasting a golden opportunity to become the lowest-seeded team to reach the Elite Eight when they lost to No. 8 Rhode Island in the Sweet 16.
No.11 Dayton (2014, Elite Eight)
Forgot about them, did you? (I did.) The 11th-seeded Flyers used two narrow upset wins over Stanford and Syracuse to advance to the Sweet 16 where they were lucky to play the 10th-seeded Cardinal of Stanford, who'd defeated Kansas the week before. Dayton was no match for No. 1 Florida in the Elite Eight which was no great shame: The Gators' win was their 30th straight. Good draws are a common refrain when finding Cinderellas but it's no insult. Plenty of teams get good tournament draws. It's what they do with them that matters.
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No. 10 Gonzaga (1999, Elite Eight)
It's hard to remember now, with Gonzaga as a perennial powerhouse and two-time No. 1 seed, but back in 1999 they were just a tiny Spokane school best known for producing John Stockton (who was far from a national star there, making honorable mention All-America in his senior year). Entering 1999, the school had one NCAA appearance to its name. Then coach Dan Monson led the Zags to the school's first tourney win against a depleted Minneosta team and then came back to defeat No. 2 Stanford and No. 6 Florida before losing a tight battle with UConn, the eventual champs. Monson left after the year (going to Minnesota, coincidentally), Mark Few took over and the Zags haven't missed the tournament since.
It was tough to leave off the Princeton team that actually pulled the upset (the year Pete Carril's backdoor cuts sent home defending champion UCLA in the first round) but there was an intangible quality to Harold "The Show" Arceneaux's performance in handing North Carolina its first first-round upset in 19 years. Most of these Cinderellas are about the team. Other than Bryce Drew and guys from George Mason, I can barely remember the names of anyone on the upsetters. But Arceneaux became an NCAA legend based on 40 minutes of sublime play - he dropped 36 points (20 in the second half), was 5-7 from three (back when being above 50% meant a lot more) and calmly sunk two-free throws in the final 15 seconds that clinched the win.
No. 15 Hampton (2001, second round)
Take nothing away Hampton, who were the stars of one of the biggest tournament thrillers ever. But even with Jamaal Tinsley and Marcus Fizer, Iowa State was a team ripe for an upset. That didn't make the game any less exciting though and the celebration is one of those indelible moments only found in the tournament.
No. 15 Lehigh (2012, second round)
Even after a 2007 first-round loss to VCU and a 2008 second-round loss to West Virginia, Duke still had the air of tournament invincibility in 2012, and for good reason. Since 1986 the Dukies were 74-21 in the tourney with only two first-round losses, both of which came in marked down years for the team. But in 2012 Duke was still Duke, which made Lehigh's upset one of the most stunning the tournament had ever seen.
No. 14 Chattanooga (1997, second round)
Just the second No. 14 seed to ever make the Sweet 16, the Mocs upset No. 3 Georgia in Tubby Smith's final game and then came back on No. 6 Illinois two days later. It made for a startling sight: Chattanooga in the Sweet 16 but Tim Duncan, whose Wake Forest team had been upset earlier in the day, not.
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No. 15 and No. 14 Richmond (1991 second round; 1988, second round)
Syracuse had won the Big East by two games but struggled entering the tournament, losing in the first round of the Big East tournament while playing under the specter of an NCAA investigation. None of that made Richmond's second Cinderella moment and the first-ever No. 15 upset in tournament history any less remarkable. How bad was the fallout for the Orangemen? This sentence appeared in the Baltimore Sun game story the next day (the game was played at Maryland's Cole Field House): "[The game] might have put Jim Boeheim's coaching future in doubt." Hah!
Bob Knight's team wasn't in the same league as its 1987 championship squad, but a defending champion going out against a little-known, mid-major (before they were known as mid majors) was considered one of the great upsets in tournament history (before Richmond would pull that other upset three years later). Knight, for one, wasn't surprised. "'Anybody who knows basketball would know that we were evenly matched,'' the Indiana coach said in his trademark, taciturn way.
No. 11 Loyola Marymount (1990, Elite Eight)
Paul Westhead's run-and-gun offense averaged a (still) record 122.4 points per game in the regular season and didn't slow up in the tournament, dropping 149 in a record-setting second-round win over defending national champion Michigan. The Lions eventually got beat at their own game, falling 131-101 to eventual champs UNLV in the regional final. But the real headlie wasn't in the points or the run, it was in the most emotional story the tournament has ever seen. Days before the tourney, LMU star Hank Gathers died on the court during a game due to a heart incident. The team played on and Gathers' teammate and best friend, Bo Kimble, began each game by shooting a one-handed, left-handed free throw in honor of his friend. Kible was right-handed. He didn't miss.
No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast (2013, Sweet 16)
Dunk City didn't just beat No. 2 Georgetown, they worked them over in a game that looked nothing like an upset. The school, which was seven years from its founding when Georgetown won the 1984 title, looked so confident in victory that by the time FGCU got to the second round, they felt like they were the favorite over No. 10 San Diego State. In the Sweet 16, the Eagles hung with perennial power Florida in a Sweet 16 loss. You almost had to take a step back to realize the enormity of it. No 15th-seeded team had ever made it that far.
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No. 14 Cleveland State (1986, Sweet 16)
Cleveland State rolled the famed Season on the Brink Indiana Hoosiers, who had bookend first-round losses around their 1987 title. The Vikes then made the Sweet 16 before losing to David Robinson's Navy team. (It had been that Navy team who, the year before, became the first Cinderella of the 64-team bracket, when they beat LSU as a No. 13 seed.) Cleveland State was the first No. 14 seed to ever make the Sweet 16 and, since that accomplishment 31 years ago, only two other teams seeded so high have done the same (one No. 14 seed and one No. 15 seed - both appeared earlier on the list).
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No. 11 VCU (2011, Final Four)
The Rams were the definition of a bubble team, losing five of their last eight and becoming the subject of great debate and complaint on Selection Sunday. They were eventually allowed in, thrown into the new, insulting First Four and then became the first team to ever win five games to reach the college basketball summit, making it look easy against poorly-seeded teams and accomplishing what Cinderellas rarely do: Looking like they belonged.
No. 11 George Mason (2006, Final Four)
One of the more controversial at-large teams in recent memory, George Mason had twice lost to Hofstra in the final 10 days of the season but got the tournament bid over the Pride anyway. (Billy Packer was incredulous on the Selection Show.) From there, Mason went on the greatest Cinderella run college basketball has ever seen, defeating a murderer's row of Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut - three of them champions from the previous seven years, with UNC defending their '05 title). Each of the wins came in thrilling fashion and temporarily made a commuter school from Northern Virginia into the hottest college basketball team in the country. A loss to Florida did little to affect the legacy of those '06 Patriots, who became the first true Cinderella to make the modern Final Four, setting the stage for VCU, Butler, Wichita State and all the other future teams who know their ceiling isn't just the Final Four, but beyond.