South Carolina has proven Cinderella doesn’t have to hail from a small conference.
In their first NCAA tournament appearance in 13 seasons, the seventh-seeded Gamecocks crashed college basketball’s biggest stage by toppling the likes of Duke, Baylor and Florida over the past two weeks.
How does South Carolina’s improbable run compare to what past unexpected Final Four teams have done? It’s not the most unfathomable, but it’s up there. Here’s a look at the most surprising Final Four teams dating back to when the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
1. George Mason (No. 11 seed, 2006): Before Butler, VCU and Wichita State, George Mason had to prove it was even possible for a program from outside college basketball’s traditional power structure to reach the Final Four. The Patriots toppled sixth-seeded Michigan State, third-seeded North Carolina and seventh-seeded Wichita State before pulling off the biggest stunner of all, an 86-84 victory over a top-seeded UConn team that was favored to win the national title and loaded with future pros. That this George Mason team could make such a remarkable run was unfathomable before the NCAA tournament began. The Patriots were one of the last at-large teams selected and a controversial choice, one that CBS analyst Billy Packer insisted during the selection show didn’t belong.
2. Virginia Commonwealth (No. 11 seed, 2011): Having finished outside the top two in its league in the regular season and failed to win the CAA tournament, VCU was a long shot to make the field. The Rams didn’t even convene to watch the unveiling of the brackets and a parade of analysts panned their selection, arguing other teams deserved it more. Motivated by the disrespect, a VCU team led by the likes of Joey Rodriguez, Bradford Burgess and Jamie Skeen made a run from the First Four, dismissing USC, Georgetown, Notre Dame and Florida State to set up a matchup with tournament favorite Kansas in the regional final. “You guys had a nice run, but it’s time for y’all to go home,” one of the Morris twins told VCU before tipoff. Final score: Rams 71, Jayhawks 61.
3. Wichita State (No. 9 seed, 2013): The most remarkable part of Wichita State’s Final Four run was the Shockers did it with ex-walk-ons, junior college transfers and overlooked prospects that the teams they defeated wouldn’t have dreamed of recruiting. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State’s leading scorer, lacked the grades to play at a Division I school out of high school and attended a lower-level New York junior college. Carl Hall, the Shockers’ top big man, previously gave up basketball after experiencing fainting spells and went to work in a light bulb factory. Ron Baker, their starting shooting guard, initially walked on after only receiving scholarship offers from South Dakota State and Arkansas Little Rock. That collection of castoffs made an improbable run, toppling Gonzaga and Ohio State on the way to the Final Four and then taking eventual champion Louisville down to the wire.
4. South Carolina (No. 7 seed, 2017): Only two weeks ago, South Carolina was still mired in a 44-year drought without an NCAA tournament win. Now the Gamecocks are making their first trip to the Final Four. A South Carolina team that has traditionally been a doormat even in the basketball-bereft SEC caught fire at an ideal time, ousting high-scoring Marquette, preseason title favorite Duke, formidable Baylor and conference rival Florida. The Gamecocks have been an excellent defensive team all season, but their offense is suddenly dangerous too, producing an average of 1.17 points per possession in the NCAA tournament. Between South Carolina’s lack of tradition and poor finish to the regular season, it was tough to see this coming. The Gamecocks lost six of nine games entering the NCAA tournament.
5. LSU (No. 11 seed, 1986): Once 12-0 and ranked in the top 10 in the country early in the season, LSU faded so badly during SEC play that it nearly missed the NCAA tournament. The Tigers went 9-9 in league play but eked out an NCAA bid after beating Florida and playing Kentucky close in the SEC tournament. LSU caught a massive break by getting to play its first two NCAA tournament games at home, but the Tigers were not gifted anything in terms of the teams they faced. They beat sixth-seeded Purdue, third-seeded Memphis and second-seeded Georgia Tech to set up a rematch with a top-seeded Kentucky team that had swept three meetings earlier in the season. In round 4, LSU contained Kentucky star Kenny “Sky” Walker, eked out a 59-57 win and became the first No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four.
Others worthy of consideration:
Syracuse (No. 10 seed, 2016): A controversial at-large selection after finishing 9-9 in the ACC and dropping its opening-round conference tournament game, Syracuse capitalized on its good fortune, advancing all the way to the Final Four for the second time in four years.
Butler (No. 8 seed, 2011): Having lost star Gordon Hayward and key role players Avery Jukes and Willy Veasley from its national runner-up team from the previous season, Butler wasn’t supposed to be able to produce an encore. Instead the Bulldogs made it all the way back to the national title game, where they fell to UConn.
Wisconsin (No. 8 seed, 2000): Dick Bennett’s slow-paced, defensive-oriented Badgers may be the only Final Four team that was ever 13-12 at one point in the season. They played their best down the stretch, limiting all five NCAA tournament opponents to 60 points or fewer.
More NCAA tournament coverage on Yahoo Sports:
• Christian Laettner welcomes Luke Maye to the Kentucky killer brotherhood
• De’Aaron Fox’s devastated reaction to UK’s loss shows other side of March Madness
• Four early storylines for the Final Four: The West returns and defense triumphs
• Hours after hitting game-winner, UNC’s Luke Maye gets standing ovation in class
• Only 39 Yahoo Tourney Pick’em players had all four Final Four teams
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