One of the commentators on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” said it best earlier this week: Upsets are the life-blood of the NCAA Tournament. Even if it’s at the cost of a busted bracket, people want to see Cinderella stories and have lovable underdogs.
Case in point: When Michigan State benefited from a couple shaky referee calls to knock off 12-seed New Mexico State in this year’s tourney, the crowd was loudly booing as the upset bid fell short. Were there a lot of NM State Aggies fans in Spokane, Wash., that night? Not really. In fact, the crowd by all rights should have been pro-Spartans, seeing as retired MSU coaching legend Jud Heathcote lives in Spokane. But above all else, the crowd wanted to see the improbable happen.
With that in mind, we put together this list of our Top 16 (Sweet 16?) Favorite March Madness Cinderella Underdogs; the teams and players that captured the nation’ fancy, if even for just one game:
16. Larry Hughes, Saint Louis — The last time the Billikens were relevant was when Hughes, as a freshman in ’98, led them to a 10-over-7 upset against UMass before going pro. That was about 38 tattoos and $80 million ago.
15. Luis Flores, Manhattan — The Wizard of Washington Heights transferred from Rutgers and went on a three-year tear at Manhattan. He led the Jaspers to the tourney in ’03, outscoring Carmelo Anthony 20-17 in a first-round loss to the eventual national champs. Then in ’04, Flores dropped 26 points in a 12-5 upset over Florida before barely losing to Chris Paul and Wake Forest. CP outscored Flores 29-20 in that game.
14. Alabama-Birmingham’s whole team — Under current Mizzou coach Mike Anderson, the 9-seed Blazers went to the Sweet Sixteen in ’04. Who doesn’t love a bunch of short, fast guys with dreads who play “40 Minutes of Hell” style? They dragged Washington and overall No. 1 seed Kentucky to hell before losing to Kansas. Notable players: Mo Finley, Demario Eddins and Squeaky Johnson.
13. Tyson Wheeler & Cuttino Mobley, Rhode Island — Just three years removed from winning a national championship, ex-UCLA coach Jim Harrick was trying to rehabilitate his career at URI. The Wheeler/Mobley backcourt got Harrick his wish when they guided the Rams to the Elite Eight in ’98 as an 8-seed, knocking off 1-seed Kansas along the way. Cuttino was the one who had an NBA career, but Wheeler was The Man on this squad; kind of like the Deron Williams/Dee Brown dynamic at Illinois.
12. Brett Blizzard, UNC-Wilmington — A name made for headlines. In ’02, Blizzard dropped 18 to lead his team to a 13-4 upset over USC, before they lost by single-digits to Jared Jeffries’ Indiana squad. In ’03, Wilmington was leading defending national champ Maryland by one with five seconds left before Drew Nicholas hit his famous buzzer-beater.
11. Jackie Stiles, SW Missouri State — Yeah, I know it’s the women’s Tournament, and maybe it doesn’t count as a true “underdog” because her team was a 5-seed, but I had to include Stiles here. The girl was a BEAST back in 2001, copping national P.O.Y. at a mid-major school while averaging 30 points a night, and she’s still the only female to score 1,000-plus in a single season. Stiles dropped 41 on Duke in the Sweet Sixteen, and 32 on C. Vivian Stringer’s Rutgers team the round before. At 5-8, she wasn’t hitting a ton of threes, either; picture a tiny, female Derrick Rose getting wherever she wanted for mid-range J’s and layups. This was the first time a lot of us made a female player appointment-viewing. Stiles’ team lost to Purdue in the Final Four, then she went pro and her body fell apart after a couple of years.
10. Rashad Phillips, Detroit — He was like 5-10 with a throwback Afro before they were cool again, dropping 20-25 points a night with a lazy-smooth demeanor. In ’98, Phillips led Detroit to a 10-7 upset over St. John’s, and the next year, a 12-5 upset over UCLA and Baron Davis.
9. Princeton’s whole team — You can’t make a video montage of one shining moments without including the ’96 Princeton squad that knocked off defending champ UCLA in the first round. Coach Pete Carril, college basketball’s resident Yoda at the time, neutralized UCLA’s athleticism with his deliberate backdoor-cutting system that has since become used (in different variations) by top-level college squads and even by NBA teams.
8. Eric Maynor, Virginia Commonwealth — Of all the players who have made a career out of taking down the hated Duke Blue Devils, Maynor is the only guy who has a shot named “The Duke Dagger.” In ’07, the defensive terror of a point guard scored 22 points, generally made Greg Paulus’ life miserable, and stuck the game-winner in VCU’s 11-6 upset over the Evil Empire. Two years later, Maynor almost knocked off UCLA with a buzzer-beater in the first round but came up short.
7. Bryce Drew, Valparaiso — His career included more than just “The Shot,” although that’s all we needed to put him on this list. As a senior in ’98, Bryce was the star while his dad, Homer Drew, was the coach of 13-seed Valpo. In the first round against Ole Miss (shout-out to Ansu Sesay), they ran the hook-and-ladder play that got Bryce open for an NBA-range triple that beat the buzzer and beat the Rebels. Valpo then beat Florida State in the next round before losing in the Sweet Sixteen.
6. Gonzaga — Most of us at the magazine are too young to really remember John Stockton’s run, and by the time Adam Morrison came around, the ‘Zags were getting national respect and high seeds in the Tournament. So this spot is for dudes like Matt Santangelo, Cory Violette, Casey Calvary, Blake Stepp, Richie Frahm and Dan Dickau. It seemed every year they were a Cinderella before people finally realized coach Mark Few was building a legit top-level program.
5. Steve Nash, Santa Clara — As a freshman in ’93, Nash hit clutch free throws down the stretch to ice a 15-2 upset over Arizona. As a senior in ’96, he dropped 28 on Maryland in a 10-7 upset. And we still didn’t think he’d be good enough to win multiple MVP trophies in the NBA and go down as one of the best point guards of all-time.
4. Wally Szczerbiak, Miami (Ohio) — Remember back when any White kid between 6-6 and 6-9 who got buckets in college was being compared to Larry Bird? Preceded by Keith Van Horn and succeeded by Kyle Korver and Adam Morrison, “Wally World” was the Great White Hope of ’99, when he led the Redhawks to the Sweet Sixteen as a 10-seed. He dumped 43 points on Washington in the first round, then hit 2-seed Utah for 24 before losing to Kentucky.
3. George Mason’s whole team — The only true Cinderella to crack the Final Four, at least as far back as we can remember, Mason’s run in 2006 was truly incredible. They beat powerhouses Michigan State, North Carolina and UConn (and, um, Wichita State) before losing to the unfairly-stacked eventual national champ Florida Gators. This team was balanced, as all five starters averaged between 11-13 points during the season: Folarin Campbell, Will Thomas, Lamar Butler, Tony Skinn, and the pre-Gooch himself, Jai Lewis.
2. T.J. Sorrentine & Taylor Coppenrath, Vermont — And on that Szczerbiak note, once upon a time Dime put Coppenrath in a Larry Bird jersey for a photo shoot. Anyway, this was the reason everybody was a little giddy to see Syracuse/Vermont pop up as a 1-16 matchup in this year’s Tournament. Back in ’05, big man Coppenrath and little man Sorrentine led the 13-seed Catamounts to a monumental upset over the ‘Cuse in overtime. And don’t forget Germain Mopa Njila, who was actually the team’s high scorer with 20 points. Sorrentine’s epic three-pointer in OT sealed it and provided one of Gus Johnson’s greatest calls ever.
1. Stephen Curry, Davidson — It seems silly now, but for two years there was a raging debate about whether Curry would be a decent NBA player. In ’08, the babyfaced sophomore dropped 30-footers and broke ankles on his way to leading the 10-seed Wildcats to the Elite Eight, upsetting Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin before losing to eventual national champion Kansas by just two points. The next year, Curry had Davidson making national TV appearances in the regular season, but his team ended up missing the Big Dance before Curry went pro. He’s now laying the groundwork for an All-Star NBA career.
Honorable mention: Matt Maloney & Jerome Allen (Penn), Kyle Korver (Creighton), Anthony Johnson (College of Charleston), Harold “The Show” Arceneaux (Weber State), Earl Boykins (Eastern Michigan),