What are the best March Madness Cinderella teams in NCAA history?


Sometimes the most overlooked teams in the bracket end up as the most revered.

The 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is in the books following No. 1 Kansas’ win over No. 8 North Carolina.

But beyond the eventual tournament winner, sometimes the bracket produces another intriguing storyline: Cinderella teams.

Throughout March Madness history, several teams have spoiled brackets and shocked millions of fans by coming out on top in games they were not expected to win. This year’s bracket has already seen five of those teams.

Here are some of the best Cinderella teams in both men’s and women’s basketball:

What is a Cinderella team?

A Cinderella team in NCAA basketball is usually a No. 8 seed or below, but sometimes there are exceptions. These teams don’t receive the Cinderella badge overnight; it’s earned after multiple wins against higher-seeded teams. 

They go on a run no one expected relative to their expectations and leave as one of the tournament’s best stories, regardless if they are champions.

What are some of the best Cinderella teams in NCAA men’s basketball history?

No. 8 Villanova, 1985

Not every Cinderella team wins the tournament, but the Villanova Wildcats won their first men’s basketball championship in style. Villanova had a 19-10 record heading into the tournament and had the No. 8 seed. In the Southeast region, the Wildcats knocked out No. 9 Dayton, No. 1 Michigan, No. 5 Maryland and No. 2 University of North Carolina. 

In the Final Four, Villanova topped No. 2 Memphis and faced No. 1 Georgetown for the title. Despite Patrick Ewing repping the Hoyas, Villanova edged Georgetown, 66-64. The Wildcats are the lowest seed to win a tournament to this day.

No. 11 Louisiana State University, 1986

The following tournament also produced a memorable Cinderella team. The No. 11 LSU Tigers entered tournament play with a 22-11 record and delivered upset after upset in the Southeast region. 

LSU topped No. 6 Purdue in the opening round, followed by wins against No. 3 Memphis, No. 2 Georgia Tech and No. 1 Kentucky. LSU fell in the Final Four to No. 2 Louisville -- the eventual tournament champion -- but no other team to this day has beaten a No. 1, 2 or 3 seed in the same region.

No. 10 Davidson, 2008

Enter Stephen Curry and the 2008 Davidson team as another squad to go on a notable Cinderella run. Davidson had not won a March Madness game since 1969, but Curry and company ensured that would not be the case this time around. 

Davidson rattled off upsets against No. 7 Gonzaga, No. 2 Georgetown and No. 3 Wisconsin in the Midwest region. However, they fell just two points short against No. 1 Kansas in the Elite Eight despite Curry’s 25-point outing in a game where he had just one teammate in double-figures (Bryant Barr with 11 points). The Jayhawks would go on to win it all, but that was the start of Curry’s basketball legacy.

No. 8 Butler, No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth University, 2011

This tournament produced two quality Cinderellas in No. 8 Butler and No. 11 VCU. 

A year after losing the national championship game at the final buzzer as the No. 5 seed, Butler returned to the dance in 2011 as the No. 8 seed. Despite Gordon Hayward entering the NBA, the Bulldogs made another impressive run. Butler defeated No. 9 Old Dominion, No. 1 Pittsburgh, No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 2 Florida in the Southeast region.

In the Southwest region, VCU eliminated No. 6 Georgetown, No. 3 Purdue, No. 10 Florida State — which also had a good two-game run — and No. 1 Kansas to reach the Final Four.

That set up a Butler vs. VCU matchup, one of the lowest-seeded games in Final Four history. Butler edged VCU, 70-62, but lost to No. 3 UConn in the national championship. 

No. 11 Loyola Chicago, No. 16 UMBC, 2018

One of the two most recent Cinderella in men’s basketball goes to Loyola Chicago. Loyola defeated No. 6 Miami, No. 3 Tennessee, No. 7 Nevada and No. 9 Kansas State to reach the Final Four, with the first three contests having game-winning shots in the final seconds.

However, the Ramblers fell to No. 3 Michigan, 69-57. Loyola’s run also saw Sister Jean emerge as a national sensation, and Sister Jean will be returning for 2022.

In the first round, No. 16 University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) defeated No. 1 Virginia, to pull off a massive March Madness upset. It was the first time a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1 seed since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. 

The score was knotted at 21-21 at halftime, but the Retrievers went off in the second half on their way to a historic 74-54 victory.

What are some of the best Cinderella teams in NCAA women’s history?  

No. 9 Arkansas, 1998

In 1998, the Arkansas Razorbacks women’s squad had their longest run in the dance. Arkansas entered play as the No. 9 seed in the West region and knocked out No. 8 Hawaii, No. 16 Harvard, No. 5 Kansas and No. 2 Duke to make their first bid in the Final Four, which is still the case to this day. 

However, Arkansas fell to No. 1 Tennessee, 86-58. Tennessee would win it all that year, but it was certainly a nostalgic moment for the Arkansas basketball program.

No. 13 Liberty, 2005

The Liberty Lady Flames had made eight appearances in the tournament prior to 2005, but all of them resulted in first-round losses. Not this year, though. 

Liberty, as the No. 13 seed, upset No. 4 Penn State and No. 5 DePaul to make it to the Chattanooga Regional semifinal against No. 1 LSU. LSU ended Liberty’s run with a lopsided 90-48 victory, but Liberty tied Texas A&M’s 1994 record as the lowest seed to progress to the regional semifinal, which still hasn’t been topped. 

In 2007, No. 13 Marist tied this run, too, but lost to No. 1 Tennessee in the Dayton Regional semifinal.

No. 11 Gonzaga, 2011

This is the most recent squad to make a deep run in the women’s tournament. Gonzaga held the No. 11 seed in 2011 and upset No. 6 Iowa, No. 3 UCLA and No. 7 Louisville to make it to the Spokane Regional final. 

However, No. 1 Stanford had no trouble getting past Gonzaga with a 83-60 win. 

No. 11 Central Michigan, No. 11 Buffalo, 2018

The 2018 women’s tournament had several upsets throughout the first round, but two teams, in particular, surpassed the second round. No. 11 Central Michigan made it to the Spokane Regional semifinal before losing to No. 2 Oregon, and No. 11 Buffalo reached the Albany Regional semifinal before falling to No. 2 South Carolina. 

What are the Cinderella teams in 2022?

No. 15 Saint Peter's

Before this year, St. Peter's has never won a March Madness basketball game. Led by head coach Shaheen Holloway, the Peacocks are just the third No. 15 to make the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. In the first round, the small school in Jersey City knocked out John Calipari's No. 2 Kentucky in a tight contest, 85-79. St. Peter's went on to oust No. 7 Murray St. in the second round, 70-60. Saint Peter’s then defeated No. 3 Purdue in the Sweet 16 to become the first ever No. 15 seed to qualify for the Elite Eight. However, Saint Peter’s fell to No. 8 North Carolina in a 69-49 blowout.

No. 8 North Carolina

North Carolina is historically a men's basketball powerhouse, having won seven national championships (1924, 1957, 1982, 1993, 2005, 2009, and 2017). However, the Tar Heels were not expected to dethrone No. 1 Baylor from the March Madness bracket on Saturday. Despite facing a controversial flagrant foul that ejected UNC forward Brady Manek, the Tar Heels rallied to clinch a Sweet 16 spot in overtime with a score of 93-86. Prior to their win over the Bears, they defeated No. 9 Marquette, 95-63 in the first round. Next, the Tar Heels defeated No. 4 UCLA 73-66 to progress to the Elite Eight. North Carolina topped No. 15 Saint Peter’s to advance to the Final Four as the lowest seed remaining.

UNC then beat Duke in Mike Krzyzewski’s final game ever but ultimately fell to No. 1 Kansas in the title game. If North Carolina had won, it would’ve tied Villanova’s record in 1985 as the lowest seed to win the Big Dance. Nonetheless, the Tar Heels won hearts around the nation with their resilient performances.

No. 11 Iowa State

Less than a year after Iowa State closed out the program's worst season since 1925, the Cyclones are in the Sweet 16 of March Madness. Pulling off back-to-back upsets, Iowa State defeated No. 6 LSU in the first round, 59-54, earning the title as the team with the lowest winning percentage (.083) in the previous season to win a game at the championship. The Cyclones backed up their win with another impressive victory over No. 3 Wisconsin in the second round, 54-49. Iowa State, however, lost to No. 10 Miami (FL) in the Sweet 16.

No. 10 Miami (FL)

Miami is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2016. The Hurricanes faced No. 7 USC in the first round, barely getting by with a 68-66 victory. The second round was one-sided for Jim Larrañaga's Miami as they cruised by No. 2 Auburn, 79-61 to punch a Sweet 16 ticket. The Hurricanes eliminated No. 11 Iowa State 70-56 before losing to No. 1 Kansas in the Elite Eight by the same exact score from its previous win.

Michigan knows how to win at the championship level, but it has been some time since they have been in that position. To be exact, the Wolverines won the NCAA Tournament in 1989, finished as runner-ups six times and have made eight Final Four appearances, most of which occurred in the 1900s. Looking to bring some relevance back to the program, Michigan defeated No. 6 Colorado State 75-63 in the first round and went on to take down No. 3 Tennessee 76-68 in the second round. In the Sweet 16, the Wolverines faced No. 2 Villanova but lost 63-55.

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