Author Jeff Morris

Cinderella in the NCAA

Why “Cinderalla” is Overused During March Madness

I have been watching the NCAA Tournament since 1977. The first Final Four I remember watching any part of was the 1976 Final Four when Indiana won the title over Michigan and finished as the last unbeaten team in almost fifty years.

The first Final Four I can recall watching start to finish was in 1978. I was rooting for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish with their green socks, but they lost to Duke in the semifinals. Top ranked Kentucky won the other semifinal by beating the Arkansas Razorbacks and “The Triplets” (Ron Brewer, Marvin Delph, and Sidney Moncrief). Kentucky beat Duke in the final at the old Checkerdome in St. Louis 92-88 behind 41 points from Jack “Goose” Givens.

One thing I have learned in all my years of watching the NCAA tourney is that everyone loves the upsets. People love to see David beat Goliath. #15 Santa Clara and Steve Nash upsetting #2 Arizona in 1993, #16 U of Maryland (Baltimore County) blowing out #1 UVA in 2018, and this year’s tournament when #16 Fairleigh Dickinson became the second #16 seed to win a game when they upset #1 Purdue.

The other thing that I have learned in the last fifty or so years is that people use the phrase “Cinderella Run” way too much. National Champions like NC State in 1983 and Villanova in 1985 and George Mason’s run to the 2006 Final Four were not Cinderellas (I will explain in a bit).

What Makes a Cinderella Run

A politician was asked once to define pornography and his response was “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” That is the way I view Cinderellas in the NCAA tourney. They are hard to define, but I know one when I see one.

Generally, Cinderellas much meet three criteria (and these are somewhat of a gray area):

  • Must be at least a double-digit seed beating at least a top 4 seed in one or more games.
  • Cannot be from a Power Conference (Big Ten, ACC, SEC, Big 12, Pac 12, Big East).
  • Cannot be a traditional power team for over a decade (see Gonzaga).
  • Must get blown out when they are eliminated from the tourney.

Cinderellas That Were Not Really Cinderellas

Now, let me explain why the three teams I mentioned above were not Cinderellas and were just really good (or maybe great) teams that just played well and got hot at the right time.

1983 National Champions NC State Wolfpack

Let’s take a deeper look at NC State’s season in 1982-83:

  • Ranked #16 in the nation in pre-season and ranked in top 20 for first seven weeks of the season.
  • The Wolfpack were 7-2 and playing Ralph Sampson and UVA at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, NC on January 12, 1983. NC State led at the half and Derek Whittenberg had 27 points. With about fifteen minutes in the game, Whittenberg, NC State’s leading scorer, broke his foot and missed the next fourteen games. UVA beat NC State 88-80 and the Wolfpack were 7-3.
  • With Whittenberg out, NC State went 9-5 in a loaded ACC. They beat UNC (who had Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and Brad Daugherty) 70-63 without Whittenberg. Whittenberg returned to the team for the last three games and they finished the season 17-10.
  • NC State won the ACC Tourney by beating a good Wake Forest team 71-70, UNC (again!!!) 91-84 in OT, and Ralph Sampson and UVA 81-78.
  • NC State went into the as a #6 seed and beat Pepperdine 69-67 in 2OT, #3 seed UNLV 71-70, Utah 75-56 (at Ogden, UT….this was essentially a home game for the Utes), and then they beat Sampson and UVA (again!!!!) 63-62 to make the Final Four.
  • The Wolfpack beat a talented Georgia Bulldog team 67-60 and then, of course, upset #1 Houston 54-52 on Whittenberg’s airball and Lorenzo Charles’ dunk.

I think that NC State was a really good and talented team (they had five NBA draft picks and Thurl Bailey had a long career) that was hampered by one injury. In their last nine games they beat five teams (UVA twice, UNC, UNLV, and Houston) ranked in the top six in the country and one (Georgia) ranked in the top 20.

Was the win over Houston a slight upset? Yes. Should it have been shocking? No. Houston was a flawed team that did not shoot free throws very well. Guy Lewis also got outcoached by Jimmy V. But, Jimmy V also had a really good basketball team.

1985 National Champion Villanova Wildcats

This is a hard one for me, because I loved Georgetown in the 1980s. “Hoya Paranoia” was highly contagious and I had a bad case of it for the four years Pat Ewing was in college. I will admit that this run by the Wildcats was a bit closer to being able to be defined as a Cinderella, but it still does not qualify. Here is why:

  • Villanova beat #5 Syracuse and Pearl Washington at home on January 2, 1985. The Wildcats were 9-2 and ranked in the top twenty for the first time all year. They would stay in the top twenty for five weeks and be as high as #14 with a record of 14-4.
  • The Wildcats limped into the NCAA tournament with a 5-6 record over their last eleven games. However, Villanova played seven games against ranked teams and even beat #5 Syracuse and #15 Boston College. They also lost two close games to Georgetown (57-50 and 52-50) during the season. Needless to say, they were not going to be scared or intimidated by anyone.
  • Leading up to the title game against Georgetown, Villanova beat:
  • #9 seed Dayton 51-49 on their homecourt (this was prior to the NCAA stopping teams from playing on their home floor in the tourney.
  • The Wildcats then beat #1 seed Michigan 59-55. Michigan won the Big Ten Conference and had Roy Tarpley and Gary Grant.
  • In the third round, “Nova beat #5 seed Maryland, led by Len Bias and Adrian Branch, 46-43.
  • In the Southeast Regional Final, Villanova beat #2 see North Carolina 56-44. UNC had two players who had solid NBA careers in Brad Daugherty and Kenny Smith.
  • ‘Nova beat #1 seed Memphis St. 52-45 in the National Semifinals. Memphis St was loaded with Keith Lee, William Bedford, Andre Turner, Vincent Askew, and Baskerville Holmes (I just mention Baskerville because he has an all-time great name).

As you know, the Wildcats beat Georgetown 66-64 in the 1985 National Final. Georgetown had Ewing, Reggie Williams, and David Wingate. They were deeper and more talented, but they were not any more talented than some of the other teams ‘Nova had beaten already. They had played Georgetown twice and lost two close games. They had also beaten two other #1 seeds (Michigan and Memphis St.) before they played Georgetown.

Yes, this was an upset. But it was not as big an upset as many might believe, in my opinion. Villanova beat three #1 seeds to win the title and that is the most a team can beat in one tourney. Plus, Villanova had to play a near perfect game (they shot almost 79% from the floor and only missed six shots against one of the defensive teams in the nation). Villanova was another really good team that played poorly for a few weeks during the season and then got hot at the right time.

2006 George Mason’s Run to the Final Four

This one is really close to being a really great Cinderella run. Perhaps one of the greatest ever. However, look at who George Mason beat leading up to the Final Four:

  • George Mason beat #6 seed Michigan St. 75-65 and anyone knows that Tom Izzo and the Spartans are generally a tough team in March, regardless of their seed.
  • The Patriots (by the way, how does a team called the Patriots have green and gold as their colors?!?!) beat #3 seed North Carolina 65-60. This UNC team was the defending national champs and was very young, but they did have two freshmen, Tyler Hansborough and Danny Green, who would form the nucleus of the 2009 National Champs.
  • In the third round, GM beat #7 Wichita St 63-55.
  • In the East Regional Finals George Mason beat #1 seed UConn 86-84 in OT. I believe that was the most talented UConn team in their history and that is saying a lot considering they have won five NCAA titles. Rudy Gay led five other NBA draft picks and the Patriots beat them in a thriller.

The Patriots beat three good teams and one great team on the way to the Final Four, but the final reason they were not a Cinderella team is that they played the eventual national champion, Florida, in the national semifinals and hung tough with them. Florida only led 31-26 at the half and then ended up winning 73-58. Florida had Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Corey Brewer, who would all have solid NBA careers. In fact, Florida would repeat as champions in 2007. Florida won, but it was not easy.

In the end, George Mason had a good team that was probably not seeded correctly. They had been ranked #25 in the USA Today at some point during the season, so it was apparent they were a good team. It was a great run by them and had been followed up by other teams like Butler, Wichita St, Virginia Commonwealth, and this year with Florida Atlantic.

The Greatest Cinderella of All-Time

There are lots of great Cinderella teams that could be argued would be the “GOAT.” Two that come to mind for me are 1979 Penn and 1981 St Josephs (PA). #9 seed Penn upset #1 seed North Carolina in the 1979 East Regional. Penn made the Final Four and got absolutely demolished by Magic Johnson and Michigan St. The score at the half was 50-17 and the Spartans ended up winning 101-67. Penn had no business being on the floor with MSU.

In 1981, #9 St. Joe’s shocked overall #1 seed DePaul 49-48. This was one of the first major upsets I can remember. DePaul had Mark Aguirre and Clyde Bradshaw from their 1979 Final Four team along with Terry Cummings and Teddy Grubbs. Plus, DePaul had the greatest uniforms in the history of basketball (google their unis….Fabulous!!!!). St. Joe’s would go on to play #2 seed Indiana and would lose 78-46 at Bloomington. I was at that game and it was never close. Isiah Thomas and the Hoosiers led 32-16 at the half and just toyed with the Owls.

My choice for the greatest Cinderella run in NCAA Tournament History is………the 1990 Loyola Marymount Lions. Now, this may seem like a weird choice because LMU was ranked most of the season, finished 13-1 in their conference and ended the season 26-6. They also lost to #1 UNLV 101-91 to open the season, #7 Oklahoma 136-121, and #14 LSU with Chris Jackson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Stanley Roberts 148-141 in OT (I will be doing a blog on this game in the near future….until then, google the box score for that game).

Yes, the Lions had a good team and had played some top teams, but the weekend before the NCAA tournament started, Hank Gathers died of a heart attack during their conference tournament. LMU was selected for the tournament by winning the conference since the conference tourney was cancelled after their leader passed away.

LMU would have likely been about a #7 seed, but after losing Gathers they were seeded #11. Here is what happened to LMU in the tourney:

  • LMU beat #6 New Mexico 111-92. NMSU was ranked #24 in the nation in the final AP Poll and were led by Randy Brown who had a good NBA career with the Chicago Bulls.
  • In game two, the Lions absolutely destroyed #3 seed Michigan 149-115. This was one of the most stunning upsets I have ever witnessed. Michigan was the defending national champion and had only lost one player, Glen Rice, from the previous year. The Wolverines had Rumeal Robinson, Terry Mills, Sean Higgins, Eric Riley, and Loy Vaught. LMU had Bo Kimble, Jeff Fryer, and not much else.
  • LMU beat a very talented #7 seeded Alabama 62-60 in the West Regional Semifinal. Coach Wimp Sanderson slowed the Lions down and forced them to play at a very deliberate pace (LMU averaged about 122 ppg in 89-90). Alabama was led by leading scorer Melvin Cheatum and future NBA players David Benoit, Keith Askins, and “Big Shot” Robert Horry (yes, that Robert Horry). LMU had no business winning any of these three games leading up to their matchup with UNLV.

After two shocking blowouts and somehow finding a way to grind out a win against Alabama, the Lions had a rematch in the West Regional Final against UNLV. Coach Jerry Tarkanian and the Rebels had Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt, and Stacey Augmon. However, even though UNLV was heavily favored, they had almost been upset in the previous game by #12 Ball St. 69-67. In fact, Paris McCurdy, Ball State’s best player, missed an easy jumper in the lane at the buzzer to send the game to OT. My point is, LMU had to feel good about their chances if they kept playing and shooting like they had in the tournament.

UNLV just blasted the undermanned Lions. The score at the half was 67-47 and UNLV ended up winning 131-101. Think about this for a second…. LMU beat the defending national champs, Michigan, by 34 points and then lost two games later to the eventual national champ by 30 points. That is a 64-point swing in about a week. To me, that is the definition of a Cinderella Run.

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