There were no Cinderella stories in 2020. No surprising schools, overachieving underdogs, who endeared themselves to the hearts of college basketball fans. Along with about every conceivable type of sporting event, college basketball was bitten by a deadly bug.
A worldwide virus produced a new type of March Madness. The global pandemic brought life to a screeching halt all across the planet. Sports were not exempt from the wrath of CoVID-19. For college basketball fans, there were no bracket-busters or buzzer beaters to elicit ecstatic exuberance or somber heartbreak.
In 2020, we had to look back in time to rediscover memories from previous NCAA men's basketball tournaments. We were left to rekindle memories of a madness that fulfilled our insatiable urge for thrills, special stories which seemed to be an intrinsic part of every big dance.
With respect to all the great players and coaches who lost out on their opportunity in 2020, let's look back at a trio of the greatest Cinderella stories in NCAA tournament history. The factors involved in our final decision were so marginal; we left you with four honorable mention Cinderella stories as well.
Seemingly against insurmountable odds, each of our NCAA Cinderella stories was representative of the utter persistence of an overachieving underdog. For a brief moment in time, each of these three teams captured the hearts of college basketball fans everywhere.
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Our first Cinderella story is from an era when the tournament was the NCAA University Division Basketball Tournament. The 23 team field was far different from the 64 final team field we have today.
Ironically, our first team is one of few NCAA schools who have enjoyed the advantage of playing their final four games on their home court. The Louisville Cardinals weren't given but a puncher's chance of tipping off in the 1959 Final Four to be held at Freedom Hall in Louisville.
In front of the 16-10 Peck Hickman coached Cardinals were two impressive top-10 ranked teams. Before Louisville could even prepare for match ups against powerhouses Kentucky or Michigan State, they had to get past in-state rival Eastern Kentucky.
Eastern came into the tournament with hopes of writing their own version of a Cinderella storybook ending. The Colonels finished 16-5 on the season, champions of the Ohio Valley Conference. They were led by 6'5" forward Dale Moore.
Moore was one of three Eastern starters to average double-digit points per game. The Colonel's leading scorer was also their leading rebounder, averaging a double/double per game, a rare statistical feat in 1959.
Louisville used a smothering defense to shut down Moore and the rest of the Eastern Kentucky team. They held the Colonels to 16 points below their lofty 79 point per game season average.
The Cardinals didn't have to even venture out of the state for the second opponent. After disposing of Eastern by 14 points, Louisville stood toe-to-toe with another bitter in-state rival. Coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp, the Kentucky Wildcats had lost but two games during the regular season.
They entered the tournament ranked second in the nation, and along with Michigan State, earned one of the two first round byes in the Mideast Regional. The lofty rankings didn't seem to bother the Cardinals.
Louisville handled their in-state rival Kentucky easily, using the same type of smother defense to beat the Wildcats 76-61. The Cardinals followed up their upset of Kentucky with an albeit harder fought win against the Michigan State Spartans.
The Spartans pushed out to a three-point lead at the intermission, but Louisville's balanced starting five outscored Michigan State by 10-points to complete an improbable comeback. Heading into the 1959 NCAA Final Four, there were three of the season's top-ranked teams.
Cincinnati, West Virginia and California were all in the top-20; the 11th ranked Cal Golden Bears, the lowest-ranked team making to Freedom Hall. The Cardinals weren't ranked, but many envisioned a key advantage for Louisville was the games being hosted on their home court.
In the end, this Cinderella lost her slipper and her carriage turned into a pumpkin. All-American Jerry West was too much for the Cardinals, and his 38 points ended Louisville's dreams of a Cinderella finish to the tournament.
Texas Western 1966
Many people today would find a key part of our next Cinderella story to even be real. Racism in the 1960s was rampant, history textbooks teach us of a dark period in our nation's history. However, one small college basketball team ascended prejudice to claim the ultimate prize.
The University of Texas at El Paso was known in the 1960s as Texas Western College. It had a small enrollment, which wasn't uncommon in the least. The fact that it was an all-black starting lineup on their basketball team wasn't dramatically surprising either.
That is until they reached the NCAA Championship Game against the heralded Kentucky Wildcats, a perennial powerhouse looking for coach Adolph Rupp's fifth NCAA banner. The Miners had little trouble in their first game against an obviously less talented Oklahoma City team.
Texas Western took down one of college basketball's consistently top teams in the 1960s, beating the Cincinnati Bearcats by two. In the Midwest Region Final, Texas Western defeated another NCAA men's basketball team with a legendary history.
As the Miners looked forward to their Final Four matchup against Utah, they had already become Cinderella story worthy. Most felt they could handle the Utes, and they did 85-78. However, in front of the Miners was a colossal giant of college basketball.
Despite being an underdog in two previous games already, Texas Western entered the final showdown with a single loss just like their opponent. The Wildcats and Miners were ranked number one and two in the nation respectfully.
The game itself hasn't ever been seen as a one-for-the-ages monumental upset. However, the entire season, including all the hurdles the 1966 Texas Western Miners had to overcome, has been.
This Cinderella story was so moving, it became a movie Glory Road. So moving and nationally instrumental was the 1966 NCAA Tournament victory by the Miners, the entire team has since been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
North Carolina State Wolfpack 1983
Not that there wouldn't be more teams worthy of the Cinderella label across the next 17 tournaments, our next pick skips the 70s and jumps right to 1983. As classic as North Carolina State's 1983 championship was, real-life events have turned it into an even more iconic story.
If advancing the championship final from the sixth seed wasn't enough, this game would stamp its place in NCAA Cinderella history if by the final shot alone. Any sports fan must get a lump in his throat when they hear the story of Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano.
He became known as Jimmy V, and then by his slogan "Don't Ever Give Up" speech he gave in 1993 before succumbing to cancer. In 1983, he led one of the most unlikely ascents in NCAA tournament history.
As if to set a table for the thrilling finale` that would end the 1983 season, NC State won its first two games in the tournament by a total of three points. It seemed that his team infused a sense of urgency as the Wolfpack made easy work of Utah to reach the regional finals.
However, it was back to business as usual for the Wolfpack, as they narrowly escaped against conference rival Virginia by a single point to win the West Region. As the country anticipated the 1983 Final Four, there was talk that the semifinal match between Louisville and Houston was the true National Championship game.
NC State had other ideas for the naysayers. After taking down Georgia with little fanfare compared to most of their victories to reach the final, the Wolfpack got a date with Phi Slama Jama.
Most oddsmakers felt the consensus number-one team in the nation, an incredibly talented basketball team on a 26 game winning streak, was unbeatable. Well, as we said, the Wolfpack had other ideas.
Valvano's rapid sideline encouragement sparked a rabid defense that held one of college basketball's most prolific offenses to 25 first-half points. However, as the second twenty minutes started, the sleeping giant seemed to awaken.
Houston dominated the paint and reeled off a 17 to 2 run take a seven-point lead. But, for all their talent, the Cougars could not shake the pesky Wolfpack. NC State chiseled away at the lead and held the ball for one final shot tied at 52.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that the failed shot attempt to win the championship would go down in history as an air ball. However, Lorenzo Charles' timely presence under the basket and unabated put back at the buzzer is still one of the most dramatic ends to any basketball game at any level.
Getting to the Final Four as an overachieving number-six seed is easily Cinderella worthy. But, taking down the best team in the country on a last-second miracle is the type of things of which sports legends are made.
Jimmy V's 1983 NC State Wolfpack embraced the words of their beloved coach 10 years before he spoke them. "Don't ever give up," and they didn't. Like their gallant coach, the 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack left an endearing imprint on the minds of college basketball fans forever.
With so many Cinderella stories across the years, it was difficult to narrow our list down to just three. We could fill volumes with stories about teams who beat the odds, one game at a time, to advance in college basketball's one-and-go-home tournament. Here's a quick list at some teams who are likewise worthy Cinderella stories.
Villanova 1985 – The Wildcats remain the lowest seeded school to capture the NCAA Championship. From the number-eight seed, Villanova barely escaped the first-round beating Dayton, another would-be Cinderella, by a single basket.
They navigated their way to the championship game, where Villanova pulled off one of the biggest upsets in sports history, taking down the Georgetown Hoyas 66-64. On April Fools' night, the Wildcats masterminded what is still called The Perfect Game, to capture the school's first NCAA title.
LSU 1986 – The LSU Tigers entered the 1986 tournament as a lowly number-11 seed. They are still the only school to take down the top three seeds in their bracket to reach the Final Four. Quite an achievement for a team that lost no less than three of their top players before Christmas break.
Each regional bracket victory was a thriller, as LSU won by an average margin of less than four-points. The 2-point win over top-seed Kentucky was revenge for a three-point loss in the SEC Conference Tournament semifinal. In the end, the Louisville Cardinals were too talented. However, a run from the number-11 through the top-three seeds in your bracket is Cinderella story worthy.
Loyola Marymount 1990 – Another 11 seed, the Lions played the tournament without one of college basketball's best players of the time. Hank Gathers died tragically during the conference tournament, and Loyola dedicated the tournament to their fallen star.
The Lions made a valiant run to the Elite Eight, but fell short of making the Final Four. The highest scoring team in NCAA history couldn't out run the Runnin` Rebels of UNLV. However, they raced their way into the hearts of the basketball world in 1990.
Dayton 1967 – The Flyers won an impressive 21 regular season games during the 1966-67 season. However, they weren't even viewed as one of the top-20 teams in college basketball ahead of the tournament.
Dayton won a donnybrook against another small school, Western Kentucky in round one. They then proceeded to dispose of Tennessee, Virginia Tech and North Carolina. But, ultimately they ran into one of the greatest players and teams in college basketball history, falling in the championship to Lew Alcindor and UCLA.
Unfortunately, we will all remember 2020 for things that never happened. One thing missing from these memories will be that time when basketball fans - both casual and fanatic – join together for a few weeks of mayhem and madness.
There were no Cinderella stories in 2020, but these schools all prove to us that there will be a new cast of endearing underdogs, young men with a goal who play their way into our hearts. In 2020, the world was looking for a different type of Cinderella story, but in a vastly different kind of March Madness.