The 4 Most Unlikely Teams in Final Four History
March Madness 2018 has been everything a college basketball fan could want it to be. We’ve witnessed history with the first ever 16 seed (UMBC) knocking off a one seed (Virginia). We’ve seen Kansas State– at one point before the season picked to finish last in the Big 12– travel all the way to the Elite Eight. And we’ve even found ourselves with an unlikely mid-major team in the Final Four, Loyola-Chicago. With that last storyline in mind, let’s look back at a few of the other unlikely teams to make an NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four.
George Mason – 2006
Before 2006, unless you were a George Mason student, you probably hadn’t heard of George Mason University. Despite it being the largest state school in Virginia, it was virtually unknown outside of the Commonwealth. All that changed during March 2006, when head coach Jim Larranaga and a Patriots team led by players like Jai Lewis and Tony Skinn were selected as an 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
With a first-round matchup against 6-seed Michigan State, few were expecting a team that barely got in the tournament to beat such an experienced Spartans club. Yet, the Patriots brand of team offense and relaxed play led to a 75-65 upset. Next up was the mighty North Carolina Tar Heels, a three seed and defending champions. Yeah, George Mason took them out too. And then proceeded to knock off another mid-major having a fantastic tourney, Wichita State.
An Elite Eight matchup against top seeded Connecticut would surely prove to be the end of this Cinderella story, right? Wrong. With the regional championship in Washington, D.C., it might as well have been a home game for the team from Fairfax, Virginia. Down by as many as 12, George Mason fought an uphill battle all game. A team that essentially relied on its five starters had to battle it out against a UCONN team that had five players taken in the 2006 NBA draft alone. Somehow, the Patriots pulled it off, beating the Huskies in overtime 86-84.
The story came to an end in the national semifinals when George Mason met the eventual title-winning Florida Gators but the tournament run put the Patriots on the map. Now, even 12 years later, college basketball fans remember the name George Mason.
Butler University – 2011
Near and dear to this writer’s heart is the two-year March Madness run of the Butler Bulldogs. Growing up down the road from historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis residents never expected to see this small, private university head to back-to-back national championship games. 2010 was unexpected, but 2011 seemed nearly impossible.
After Gordon Hayward’s nearly title-winning half-court shot against Duke in 2010, the Brownsburg, Indiana native headed to the NBA Draft, where he was taken by the Utah Jazz. Without its sharpshooting star, Butler had a tougher year all-around. Heading into the tourney as an eight seed, the path to the Final Four was much harder than it was the previous year.
In the round of 64 against Old Dominion, it took a Matt Howard layup with less than a second left in the game to send Butler onto the next round. Against an extremely tough Pitt team, the round of 32 wasn’t any easier. It took another last-second effort to seal the win. Butler had a bit of an easier win in the Sweet Sixteen against Wisconsin and then took Florida to overtime, winning 74-71 in the Elite Eight.
What made this year’s Final Four extra interesting was that Butler wasn’t the only mid-major team involved. In the National semifinals, the Bulldogs took on Shaka Smart’s VCU squad. Despite a strong effort from VCU, Butler used a great first-half effort to build a lead and grind out a 70-62 win.
What followed in the National Championship game was one of the ugliest games in recent years. Against UCONN, Butler couldn’t get anything going shooting wise. For most of the game, neither could the Huskies. Butler was held to just 18.8% shooting from the field FOR THE GAME, making just two three-pointers all night. An ugly first half saw Butler take a 22-19 lead, but UCONN turned it on in the second, outscoring the Bulldogs 34-19 on the way to a 53-41 tourney win.
VCU – 2011
Sticking with the same year, the Rams of Virginia Commonwealth University took a very unconventional route to the Final Four. In the tourney’s inaugural year of the First Four, VCU was a controversial selection after losing in the Colonial Tournament final to Old Dominion. Taking on USC in the first-ever play-in game, Shaka Smart coached the Rams to a victory and a trip to take on Georgetown in the round of 64.
The Rams’ play style proceeded to frustrate and embarrass teams that were much better on paper. First, against Georgetown, VCU demolished the Hoyas with an up-tempo offense and a press-heavy defense. After an 18-point win over Georgetown, the Rams used the same tactics to grab another 18-point win, this time against Purdue. After a surprisingly tough overtime win over Florida State, VCU had to face one-seeded Kansas in order to punch its ticket to the Final Four.
The exhausting play of VCU proved to be too much for the Jayhawks, as VCU won 71-61 and set up a battle of the mid-majors with the Butler Bulldogs. Butler, led by the inside play of Matt Howard and floor general Shelvin Mack, was able to handle the Rams’ press and outshoot them on the way to a 70-62 victory. This ended an amazing run for VCU, putting the Rams and coach Shaka Smart in the history books.
Wichita State – 2013
The ninth-seeded Wichita State Shockers were the talk of the tournament in 2013. The unprecedented run led to name recognition – and later NBA roster spots – for guards Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet. But before any of the pro basketball success came to fruition, it was the Shockers success in the NCAA tournament that mattered most.
In the round of 64, the Shockers had little trouble handling Pitt, winning by 18 points and setting up a matchup against one-seed Gonzaga. Against the Bulldogs in the round of 32, it was the scoring tandem of Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early – each scored 16 — that propelled the Shockers to victory. A Sweet Sixteen tilt against La Salle proved to be pretty easy for Wichita State, but the Elite Eight game against Ohio State was no joke. Against the Thad Matta-led Buckeyes, it took strong efforts from the entire Shockers squad to eke out a 70-66 win.
Finally, in the National Semifinal, the unexpected run came to an end. Against another one seed in Louisville, the Shockers very nearly had enough to get to the National Championship thanks to an amazing 24-point performance from Cleanthony Early. However, the experienced Louisville team picked up the victory, winning 72-68 and sending Wichita State home.
Since that tournament run and the pro careers of Baker and Van Vleet, Wichita State has been a consistently good basketball programs, finding a lot of recruiting success. In fact, since 2013, the Shockers have made every NCAA Tournament including this year’s.
(Cropped image courtesy of Eric Wong via Flickr.)