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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Time for Cinderella to Dance

So how does your NCAA bracket look? If yours is anything like mine, the toughest choices have not been in picking Final Four teams, but instead in trying to predict which school will come out of nowhere to crash the party.

Almost every year at least one school that is familiar only to people within its home area code suddenly becomes a national darling thanks to an upset, or near upset, of a team with significantly more national recognition. These schools are often referred to as “Cinderella” and just to avoid the kind of confusion that occurred at my house the other night when my four-year old daughter heard a promo for the NCAA Tournament and thought it meant one of her favorite princesses was going to be playing basketball, in this case Cinderella does not have flowing blonde hair, a glass slipper or a Fairy Godmother.

Rather, the typical Cinderella of the NCAA Tournament is a school that has been playing good basketball throughout the year, but has stayed under the radar while schools from the power conferences hog the national television spotlight and spots in the national polls. One of the endearing elements of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament is that the opening rounds of the tournament are the one time each year when those power conference schools must share that spotlight with schools that aren’t so familiar to a national audience.

Unlike during any regular season match-ups that are almost always played at the home site of the power conference school and come with all the trappings of a home court edge including rowdy student sections and officials assigned by the host schools conference, when power conference schools face schools from smaller conferences on a neutral court in the NCAA Tournament anything can happen.

Over the years, the results have included some of the most memorable upsets in NCAA Tournament history. Over the last 30 years many schools have played the role of Cinderella, but I have chosen to highlight five schools that wore the glass slipper with particular distinction and helped create the concept of “March Madness.”

James Madison University – 1981, 1982, 1983 –
Few outside of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley had heard of James Madison University, which had been known as Madison College until 1977, when the Dukes made their first trip to the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament in 1981. However, under the guidance of head coach Lou Campanelli, they quickly developed a reputation as a team higher seeds did not want to play. The 10th seeded Dukes defeated seventh seed Georgetown 61-55 before losing to second seed Notre Dame 54-45. The following season, JMU defeated Ohio State in the opening round before quite nearly pulling off the upset of the century. Facing top-seeded North Carolina, JMU gave the eventual national champions everything they could handle in a 52-50 decision that wasn’t decided until the final minute. The following season, JMU made it three straight years with an NCAA Tournament victory as they defeated West Virginia 57-50 before being eliminated by North Carolina in the second round.

University of Richmond – 1984, 1988, 1991, 1998 –
During the 1980s and early 1990s, no team wanted to play Dick Tarrant and his “Giant Killers” from the University of Richmond in the NCAA Tournament. The Spiders made their initial NCAA Tournament appearance in 1984 a memorable one as they defeated fifth seeded Auburn, led by Charles Barkley, before dropping a tough 75-67 decision to Indiana. Four years later, the Spiders got their revenge on Bobby Knight and the defending NCAA Champions as the 13th seeded Spiders defeated fourth seeded Indiana 72-69 in the first round of the tournament. However, they weren’t done as they reached the Sweet 16 with a 59-55 victory over fifth seed Georgia Tech. The top seeded Temple Owls finally eliminated them in the round of 16. In 1991 the Spiders became the first 15th seed in NCAA Tournament history to win a game in the tournament as they shocked second seeded Syracuse, led by Derrick Coleman, 73-69. Though Tarrant’s retirement in 1993 signaled the end to a period of dominance for Richmond, they did return to the tournament in 1998 under the guidance of head coach John Beilein, now the head coach at the University of Michigan, and continued their upset tradition with a 62-61 win over third seeded South Carolina.

Loyola Marymount – 1990 –
Few teams have tugged at the heart strings of college basketball fans the way Loyola Marymount did during the 1990 NCAA Tournament. An exciting team that set a new NCAA record by averaging 122 points per game under the guidance of former Los Angeles Lakers head coach Paul Westhead, LMU entered the 1990 West Coast Conference Tournament looking to secure a third straight bid to the NCAA Tournament. However, tragedy struck late during their first round conference tournament game against Gonzaga when All-American center Hank Gathers collapsed and later died due to a heart condition. The tournament was immediately suspended with the regular season champion Lions awarded the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Few expected the Lions to make much noise when they started play in the NCAA Tournament as the 11th seed in the West just 13 days after the death of their star player. However, led by emotional leader Bo Kimble, the Lions captivated the nation by defeating sixth seeded New Mexico State 111-92 in the opening round and then whipping defending national champion Michigan 149-115 to reach the Sweet 16. LMU then edged Alabama 62-60 before losing to eventual national champion UNLV 131-101 in the West Regional Final.

Gonzaga – 1999, 2000, 2001 –
Consistent success over the last decade has earned Gonzaga a tentative spot among the “Big Boys” of NCAA Division I basketball, but they most certainly wore the Cinderella slipper when they reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament in 1999 and then followed that run with consecutive trips to the Sweet 16. Gonzaga had made only one previous trip to the NCAA Tournament (losing to Maryland 87-63 in 1995) when they earned a bid to the 1999 tournament. The Bulldogs ripped through the field with wins over seventh seeded Minnesota, second seed Stanford and sixth seeded Florida before losing to eventual national champion Connecticut in the West Regional Final. In 2000 the Zags defeated seventh seeded Louisville and number two seed St. John’s before falling to Purdue in the Sweet 16. In 2001 they edged fifth seeded Virginia and dominated Indiana State before losing to top seeded Michigan State.

George Mason – 2006 –
Of all the Cinderella teams from non-power conferences that have made runs in the NCAA Tournament, George Mason is the only one ever to make it all the way to the Final Four. The 2006 Patriots had needed a surprising at-large bid just to get into the tournament, but proved that the committee knew what they were doing. GMU upset sixth seeded Michigan State 75-65 in the opening round. They then shocked defending national champion North Carolina to reach the Sweet 16. After defeating fellow Cinderella Wichita State in the round of 16, the Patriots defeated top seeded Connecticut 86-84 in overtime to advance to the Final Four. Though they lost to eventual national champion Florida 73-58 in the semifinals, George Mason proved to the country that teams from smaller conferences deserved the chance to hang with the big boys in the NCAA Tournament.


  1. I remember that loss to LMU in 1990. They were the highest scoring team in the nation, but we held them to their lowest output of the season. The game wasn't decided until the last minute.

  2. There's nothing like the Dance ... and nothing like your first twirl around that grand ballroom floor. I remember the first time UCF made it to the Dance and even though they lost to Purdue, a chance to play in Rupp Arena was like a visit to the Vatican: almost a religious experience. The great thing is that everyone has a prayer in this crazy right of Spring.

  3. The Division II Elite Eight is like Duran-Leonard. "No Mocs! No Mocs!"


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