What makes an Underdog?
To be fair, the idea of a March Madness Underdogs lends itself to some subjectivity.
While some might consider the Danny Manning-led Kansas team that won the 1988 national title an underdog story given the fact that the sixth-seeded Jayhawks were a victorious underdog in three consecutive tournament games, others might reasonably ask how a historic program led by a Hall of Fame coach and #1 draft pick could be considered a Cinderella. More likely, some would argue, the Jayhawks endured a turbulent 18-11 regular season before entering the NCAA Tournament and catching fire behind the stellar play of Manning.
Let's identify the four traits of true March Madness underdogs:
First, underdogs are at least a #8 seed.
Though a #8 seed is “technically” a favorite in the opening round, those #8-#9 games are a toss up. In fact, #8 seeds hold a slim 51-49 advantage in head-to-head matchups against #9s. But after that first coin-flip game, #8 seeds face a #1 seed. Eighth-seeded squads win about 20 percent of those matchups. And there, the underdog label fits, though admittedly not as perfectly as it does for double-digit seeds.
An Underdog Story: Entering the 1985 NCAA Tournament with a 19-10 record, Villanova sported a modest 9-7 record in the competitive Big East. As a #8 seed, the Wildcats knocked off #9 Dayton, #1 Michigan, #5 Maryland, and #2 North Carolina to reach the Final Four. At Rupp Arena in Lexington, Villanova dropped Memphis before toppling Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in one of the greatest championship game upsets of all time. Villanova is still the lowest-seeded team to ever win the national title.
Second, underdogs generally come from outside the traditional power conferences – though there are exceptions.
As Villanova’s 1985 squad proves, underdogs can – and do – come from high-profile conferences. Ditto for 12 th -seeded Missouri’s Elite Eight squad in 2002 and LSU’s Final Four run in 1986 as an 11-seed. Most often, though, underdogs are not part of college’s basketball’s aristocracy. They come from the Colonial and the Ivy, the Sun Belt and the A-Sun, the Valley and the Horizon. They lack brand names and rarely boast Top 100 recruits.
An Underdog Story: Butler of the Horizon League and VCU of the Colonial Athletic Conference both penned Cinderella stories for the ages in 2011. Butler, fresh off its run to the 2010 national title game against Duke, returned to the national championship despite losing NBA lottery pick Gordon Hayward, while VCU made it from the First Four in Dayton to the Final Four in Houston. Both “small schools” played with an edge in knocking off schools from larger conferences. A #8 seed, Butler downed #1 Pitt, #4 Wisconsin, and #2 Florida en route to the Final Four, while #11 VCU topped #3 Purdue and #1 Kansas to earn the program’s first Final Four appearance.
Third, to be a Cinderella Story you must win multiple games.
To be considered a Cinderella, an underdog must at least win two games and advance to the Sweet Sixteen. So, sorry Steve Nash and your Santa Clara Broncos. My apologies UMBC, which made history in 2019 as the first 16-seed to knock off a #1 (74-54 over Virginia). You authored historic opening-round victories but fell in your next game. You live in our memoires, but you’re not a true Cinderella.
A Cinderella Story: Three #15 seeds – 2013 Florida Gulf Coast, 2021 Oral Roberts, and 2022 Saint Peter’s – made it to at least the Sweet Sixteen and, therefore, live in March Madness lore. It’s that second victory that elevates the narrative, thrusts a Cinderella into the nation’s consciousness, and, quite often, prompts a surge in the school’s application rate the following academic year.
Finally, Cinderellas remain memorable long after the fairy tale ends.
Okay, this one admittedly gets a bit more subjective as our memories can differ. While I might fondly recall Cornell’s 2010 run to the Sweet Sixteen, the Big Red’s turn on the big stage might not resonate with you. But there are some visuals that etch their way into our collective memories. Steph whirling around a screen to launch a three. Sister Jean. Doug Edert’s mustache.
A Cinderella Story: It’d be hard for any college basketball fan this century to forget Davidson’s magical run in 2008 as a #10 seed. Steph Curry’s coming-out party, after all, planted the seeds for a basketball revolution. The Wildcats, who had not won an NCAA Tournament game since 1969, downed #7 Gonzaga, #2 Georgetown, and #3 Wisconsin before falling by a bucket to #1 Kansas. Curry dazzled and mesmerized with three-point bombs, shifty moves, and a sly grin that said, “I knew it all along. Where were you?” So, with another Big Dance upon us, it’s time to toss up the ball, college basketball fans. Let’s see if a new Cinderella crashes the party.