When the big dogs weren’t so big

Looking back on March Madness underdog classics

When the big dogs weren’t so big

Max Wirth, Sports Co-Editor

As every spring season rolls around, a bright orange basketball rolls right along side it. March Madness brings a tantalizing excitement to all corners of the country: powerhouse programs showcase their excellence in pursuit of the NCAA National Championship.

Hallowed tales of Christian Laettner and Coach K’s Blue Devils riddle the Final Four, coupled with Coach John Calipari’s Massachusetts Minutemen (Final Four appearance vacated due to NCAA infractions), Memphis Tigers (Final Four appearances vacated also due to NCAA infractions) and one-and-done Kentucky Wildcats.

The Fab Five of Michigan made back-to-back trips to the title game with a boisterous group of young guns. The best of Indiana’s basketball dynasty comes from their illustrious tournament success, with five national championship banners handing from the rafters of Assembly Hall — might this be the year a banner finally is displayed in Mackey Arena?

What do all these historic, glorified teams have in common? They were supposed to be there.

Flip the script. Think of the rest of the tournament field. Not all teams are Top 25 ranked, not even close. Not all of the squads that make the big dance are filled to the brim with future-NBA superstars.

These are the Cinderella stories, the stories from every decade that the college basketball fanatic can never forget. The NCAA tournament is transformed into a platform for mid-major programs to shine and move past their underdog positions.

Mr. Ryan Davis ‘06 can recall a very bright team from not too long ago. They hail from Fort Myers, Florida: renamed Dunk City after their tournament success. After a win in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles were ready to take flight.

“Florida Gulf Coast was one of my favorites in recent history. I fell in love with the high flying, laid back, Sunshine State aura of the team. They were throwing alley oops every other possession. They beat Georgetown, a two seed, in the first round.”

The Eagles blew up lots of brackets when they advanced to the second round and defeated San Diego State 81-71, moving onto the Sweet 16.

Davis also recalls a famous upset win. “Houston was called Phi Slamma Jamma. This team had two future Hall of Famers, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. NC State, led by Jim Valvano, won on a last second dunk. Valvano had the ultimate mentality, never giving up,” he said.

Senior Jack Robinson, collegiate basketball expert and analytic fanatic, remembers a no-name school sprouting up out of nowhere.

“My favorite underdog in the history of March Madness is the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams from 2011. I remember cheering them on in grade school and seeing them upset team after team,” he said.

The Rams competed in the inaugural “First Four” play-in game. “They knocked off a very strong Kansas team in the Elite 8 to immortalize their history run which coined the phrase, ‘First Four to Final Four’,” he said.

The Rams upset a slew of heavyweight basketball schools with history: Southern California, Georgetown, Purdue and Kansas. In the Final Four, VCU ran into Butler.

Two Number-1 seeds remain in this year’s tournament, but Virginia and Xavier are out.