10 Most Improbable Final Four Teams in History

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March 31st, 2011 in Entertainment, Feature

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The 2011 Final Four is the most improbable ever. According to Neil Paine at College Basketball at Sports-Reference, there was just a 0.00008 percent chance (about 1 in 1,229,650) of it happening. Compare that to other improbable years such as 2006 — 0.00213 percent chance — and 2000 — 0.00092 percent chance — when brackets were unmercifully brutalized by upsets and surprise runs. Years like this encapsulate the spirit of March Madness, providing memorable storylines. Virginia Commonwealth and Butler are national darlings, and even though Kentucky and UConn are college basketball powerhouses, few people expected them to reach Houston. The following teams (from recent history) weren't supposed to be in their respective Final Fours — and in the case of VCU and Butler, aren't supposed to be in this year's Final Four — but they persevered against the odds and proved they were among college basketball's best.

  1. VCU, 2011: By now, VCU's story has been well-documented. The Rams' bubble had seemingly burst after losing 11 games with an unimpressive schedule. But when their name was announced on selection Sunday, it was met with outrage by television analysts, namely those at ESPN. Using the reactions of guys such as Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale as motivation for his team, Shaka Smart has become the latest early 30s wunderkind coach. His offense has been firing on all cylinders, scoring more than 70 points in each of its games, excluding the play-in game, and winning four of VCU's five games by margins of 13, 18, 18 and 10 points. Can No. 11 seed VCU ride the hot streak for two more games? Butler may have something to say about that.
  2. Penn, 1979: Any time an Ivy League school does damage in the tournament, it deserves recognition. Lost amid the hoopla surrounding Princeton's upset and near upset of Georgetown in more recent years is the fact that Penn actually strung together four wins en route to the Final Four. Along the way, the Tony Price-led No. 9 seed — the Big Dance consisted of 40 teams in 1979 — upset No. 1 seed North Carolina 72-71, but the dream ended when Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans, the eventual national champs, obliterated the Quakers 101-67 in the national semifinal.
  3. George Mason, 2006: In 2010, Butler was that year's George Mason. Virginia Commonwealth is this year's George Mason. In other words, the Patriots hold the distinction of being the first true mid-major to earn a Final Four berth, and each team that has since duplicated its run is just imitating. Their journey as an 11 seed included wins over traditional powers Michigan State, North Carolina and UConn, the latter of which was the game of the tournament. They exemplified team play throughout the season — remarkably, five players averaged double figures in scoring.
  4. Butler, 2010: Last season's Butler team will be remembered as the first true mid-major to play for the national championship — note that Memphis's status as a mid-major is highly debatable. Coach Brad Stevens did his best Norman Dale impression as the No. 5 seed Bulldogs, which represent an Indianapolis school of 4,500 students, made a Hoosiers-like run. In a fitting matchup against goliath Duke, Butler, or David, hung close throughout the game, and Gordon Hayward's desperation heave nearly caused the underdogs to pull the upset before the hometown crowd.
  5. Butler, 2011: Minus its best player from the 2010 team, Gordon Hayward, Butler is one game from repeating its 2010 performance. Despite returning key players Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack, the Bulldogs weren't exactly dominant during the regular season, and they weren't projected to accomplish what they have. Their 23-9 record and Horizon Conference tournament championship earned them a No. 8 seed and matchups against No. 9 seed and equally dangerous mid-major Old Dominion, No. 1 seed Pittsburgh, No. 4 seed Wisconsin and No. 2 seed Florida — the Pittsburgh and Florida games were two of the best of the tournament. Because they're so battle tested, anything short of a national title will be a disappointment.
  6. LSU, 1986: It's amazing to think the 1986 LSU team, a No. 11 seed, experienced more success in one year than the entire Shaq and Chris Jackson era that started not long after. But it didn't become the lowest seed to make the Final Four — VCU and George Mason, of course, would later reach the Final Four as No. 11 seeds as well — without a little help. The Tigers had the fortune of playing their first two games at home in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, where they defeated No. 6 seed Purdue and No. 3 seed Memphis State with a thrilling last-second basket. Impressively, they would also upset No. 2 seed Georgia Tech and No. 1 seed Kentucky in a hard-fought contest between SEC foes.
  7. Wisconsin, 2000: The 2000 Final Four, the second-most improbable ever, featured two No. 8 seeds (Wisconsin and UNC), a football school (Florida) and a season-long power (Michigan State). The Badgers did it how they've always done it — by slowing the pace of the game with tough defense and a conservative offense. During the season, only one Wisconsin player, Mark Vershaw, averaged double figures in scoring. Most notably, the grind-it-out style enabled them to knock off a No. 1 seed Arizona team that was stacked with talent — Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson, Loren Woods, Michael Wright, Jason Gardner, Luke Walton and Josh Pastner were all contributors, though Pastner contributed more to Lute Olson's game planning than the actual on-court action.
  8. North Carolina, 2000: If North Carolina had lost its regional final, then Bill Self's Tulsa Golden Hurricane would've become the first modern mid-major to reach the Final Four, and 2000 would've been even more bizarre. The Heels did manage to overcome Tulsa's best effort, winning 59-55. Their March surge, led by veteran point guard Ed Cota — who played on Carolina's 1997 and '98 Final Four squads — made up for an underachieving year in which they posted an 18-13 regular season record and fell out of the polls for the first time since 1990-91. Coach Bill Guthridge, Dean Smith's longtime assistant, felt the heat all season, and even the Final Four run didn't stop him from retiring after it was all said and done.
  9. Providence, 1987: It was Rick Pitino's first taste of tourney success. Inheriting an 11-20 team, he built the Friars into a Final Four squad in just two seasons. With point guard and now two-time national title-winning coach Billy Donovan as the floor general, three of the No. 6 seed's four wins came by margins of 22, 21 and 15 points, the latter two were against No. 2 seed Alabama and No. 1 seed Georgetown respectively. As evidenced by VCU this year, there isn't a better time to play your best ball of the season than March.
  10. Villanova, 1985: Nova is the one team on this list to actually win it all, and the Cats did it in impressive fashion, playing the "perfect game" and shooting 78.6 percent from the field to upset the ultra-talented Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown Hoyas. As a No. 8 seed, nobody — including the Philadelphia media — expected them to take home the title, let alone reach the Final Four. Today, they remain the lowest seed to have won it, and serve as inspiration for recent underdogs such as VCU and Butler.

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