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Mike Lopresti | | March 23, 2023

Looking back at 8 NCAA tournament Cinderellas — and what happened to those programs after that

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Once, they charmed the month of March. Once, the nation’s college basketball fans cheered their names — except maybe those whose brackets they busted.

The NCAA tournament draws a lot of its heart from Cinderella teams, who celebrate their days in the sun. But the clock always strikes midnight, which ushers in tomorrow. And tomorrow ain’t always that grand.

Here are eight notable Cinderellas from the 21st Century, and what their postscripts have been.


George Mason, 2006

George Mason basketball circa 2006 March Madness

The 11th-seeded Patriots received an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament after losing in the Colonial semifinals, and many national critics howled, none more conspicuously than Billy Packer. Three weeks later, he would be dining on a buffet of roast crow.

George Mason went on a Hall of Fame coaches tear, knocking off Michigan State and Tom Izzo and defending national champion North Carolina and Roy Williams in the first week, then took out No. 1 seed Connecticut and Jim Calhoun in overtime in the Elite Eight. Jim Larranaga’s bunch was suddenly one of the unlikeliest Final Four teams in history. The ride ended there against Florida, but the point had been made to all future underdogs — yes, you could get to a Final Four.

P.S. According to the school, those three weekends brought more than $650 million of free advertising to George Mason and out-of-state enrollment has grown 30 percent since that March. George Mason would be back in the NCAA tournament twice in the next five years, and even knock off Villanova in the first round in 2011. But Larranaga was gone to Miami after that win and the Patriots have not been back since, though they did take second in the 2013 CBI tournament.

They went 14-15 this regular season and finished ninth in the Atlantic 10. A 71-66 November win over then-No. 20 Maryland was their first victory over a ranked opponent in 14 years.

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Davidson, 2008

Davidson's sharp shooter, Stephen Curry circa 2008

This was the coming out party for a slick-shooting guard named Stephen Curry. After 40 points against Gonzaga, 30 against Georgetown and 33 against Wisconsin, Davidson was in the Elite Eight and the college basketball universe had decided this kid was pretty good.

Kansas was on the way to the national championship, but the Jayhawks had to fight for their lives to get past the Wildcats in the regional final 59-57, when they — uh — held Curry to 25 points.

P.S. Curry was back for one more run the next season, but Davidson lost to Charleston in the Southern Conference semifinals and had to settle for the NIT. The Wildcats lost in the second round at Saint Mary’s, as Curry went out with 26 points. Then he was gone to make Golden State an NBA force.

Bob McKillop is now in his fourth decade as coach and Davidson hasn’t gone away. McKillop’s last losing season was 21 years ago and he has taken four teams to the NCAA tournaments since the Curry days, though they have gone 0-4. They have also gone 0-4 in the NIT since then. Davidson bears watching this month, with a 25-5 record and Atlantic 10 season title. The usual starting lineup has players from four continents and includes Michigan State transfer Foster Loyer, who has missed only seven of 109 free throws to lead the nation in percentage.

Butler, 2010 & 2011

Butler basketball, circa 2010

If George Mason broke through the Final Four ceiling for underdogs, Butler broadened the horizons, even more, going to consecutive national championship games, and very nearly beating Duke in one of them. That was 2010 when the Final Four was held in Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium, only six miles from campus. Some of the Bulldogs even attended class the Monday of the national title game, which broke new ground for little guy charm.

P.S. One need only look at the transformed campus, the Big East membership and the renovated Hinkle Fieldhouse to understand what those two years meant to Butler. The architect of the fairy tale, Brad Stevens, had one more NCAA tournament in him when the Bulldogs reached the second round in 2013. Then he rocked Butler’s world by going to the Boston Celtics. The Bulldogs have had three coaches since and gone back to the NCAA tournament four times, including the 2017 Sweet 16.

But things are not currently peachy for the Butler Way, as the 13-18 Bulldogs look at a second consecutive losing season, which hadn’t happened in 32 years. That’s brought the heat on LaVall Jordan.

VCU, 2011

VCU men's basketball circa 2011 March Madness

The Rams were invited to the NCAA tournament only because of this new-fangled creation, the First Four. They took that chance and ran with it as far as the Final Four. No team would do that again until UCLA 10 years later. The 2011 tournament was an underdog expo, with possibly the most unexpected Final Four matchup in history: No. 8 seed Butler against No. 11 Seed VCU. The Bulldogs won by eight.

P.S. The NCAA bids have kept coming for Shaka Smart and the two coaches who followed, Will Wade and Mike Rhoades. The Rams earned a bid in eight of the next nine tournaments. The entire sport felt sympathy for them last March when they were sent home from Indianapolis before their first-round game because of COVID positive tests. Now they’re trying to get back with a 21-8 record and tie for second place in the Atlantic 10. If they get a bid, they’ll get to play this time.

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Florida Gulf Coast, 2013

Florida Gulf Coast men's basketball, circa 2013

It was hard not to fall in love with Dunk City. A fearless and high-flying team from an unheralded school in its second year of full Division I membership became the first No. 15 seed ever to advance to the Sweet 16, upsetting Georgetown and San Diego State. Florida put a stop to the party in the Sweet 16.

P.S. A lot of futures were enriched by FGCU’s run. Start with coach Andy Enfield, who three days after the Florida loss moved 2,600 miles to the Southern Cal job. The relatively new school itself was strapped to a booster rocket as far as national exposure and recognition. Enrollment applications increased 35 percent the next year, season ticket sales went up 134 percent, school merchandise sales more than 400 percent.

On the court, the Eagles have been back to the NCAA tournament twice, winning a First Four game in 2016. But recent years have been without much magic. They went 21-11 this season but were ousted their second game in the Atlantic Sun tournament and coach Michael Fly was fired.

Loyola Chicago, 2018

Loyola Chicago basketball circa 2018

Can you get more Cinderella than this? A program that had not won an NCAA tournament game in 32 years marching to the Final Four, led by a nun. Sister Jean was the star of San Antonio when the 11th-seeded Ramblers showed up to play Michigan. They lost 69-57 but their place in lore was secure.

P.S. The glow has not gone away. Loyola went to the Sweet 16 last March, and for a bonus, hammered in-state royalty Illinois to do it. That was good enough to get Porter Moser the Oklahoma job, so now Drew Valentine — the youngest Division I coach at age 30 — is charged with keeping the good times going. The Ramblers just won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament to get back to the NCAA Tournament — the first time in 58 years they have made it in consecutive seasons. They’re led by Lucas Williamson, a face still remaining from the glorious March of 2018.

UMBC, 2018

UMBC men's basketball circa 2018 March Madness

The shock was coast to coast the night the Retrievers played Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. To become the first No. 16 seed to dump a No. 1 would be stunning enough, but to do it with a 20-point rout? They were summarily evicted by Kansas State by seven points in the second round, but they’re in the record book for keeps.

P.S. Coach Ryan Odom stayed three more years — going 21-13, 16-17 and 14-6 — before leaving for Utah State. No more NCAA Tournament heroics. Under new coach Jim Ferry, UMBC went 16-13 this season and beat Pittsburgh, probably the biggest upset win since the Virginia game. They face Hartford Wednesday in the semifinals of the America East tournament. Getting out of the league tournament will be difficult, with Vermont 17-1 in America East play.

In a way, the most powerful postscript was how a humiliated Virginia team used the hunger for atonement to win a national championship 12 months later.

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Oral Roberts, 2021

Oral Roberts men's basketball circa 2021 March Madness

First, it was an overtime win over Ohio State for the 15th-seed Golden Eagles in the NCAA Tournament, with 59 points from the two-man wrecking crew of Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor. Next, it was a three-pointer over Florida with 58 more points from the dynamic duo. Move over FGCU, another No. 15 had crashed the Sweet 16. Only this one nearly went even further, losing 72-70 to Arkansas in the last three seconds. But the future looked right, with Abmas and Obanor both returning.

P.S. Turns out, Obanor was heading for Texas Tech. Abmas stayed and is the fifth leading scorer in the country at 22.8 points a game. Oral Roberts went 19-12 but was knocked out of the Summit League semifinals Monday 92-72 by North Dakota State. No magical run this year.

But there’s one guarantee about Cinderella stories in the NCAA tournament: Sooner or later, you know there’ll be a new one.

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