The Northern Kentucky Norse are going to the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament — aka March Madness — in the first year of their eligibility.
Pretty heady stuff for a basketball program way off everyone’s radar. The Norse have actually been playing DI basketball for five years now in the Horizon League, but this year was the first year they could attain a seeding. They did so by beating the Horizon League’s lowest-seeded team, Milwaukee, 59-53 on Tuesday night in the Horizon League final.
What a story that may have been too, had 11-24 Milwaukee made it into the Big Dance.
Now it is up to the assuredly wide-eyed Norse to play well in the tournament and maybe even win a game or two. As they will probably be seeded fairly low, around 15th, their chances will be slim.
However, there is precedent of lower seeded schools — some famous, some nearly unknown — doing major damage at the DI tourney.
Here are 10 of the lowest seeded schools to make surprising Cinderella runs of varying length in tournament history.
10. Butler – 2011
The Northern Kentucky Norse, if they actually need any inspiration right now, could look on another former Horizon League school’s performance before getting into action next week. In 2011, the Butler Bulldogs, who were coming off a finals loss to Duke in 2010 (as a 5th seed), entered the tournament as an 8th seed, having won the Horizon tournament and posting a record of 23-9. The Bulldogs just squeaked by 9th seed Old Dominion 60-58 in the Round of 64 and would have to face no. 1 ranked Pittsburgh in the Round of 32. Well, the Bulldogs, led by the shooting of current NBAer Shelvin Mack (30 points) and star forward Matt Howard, the Bulldogs nipped Pitt 71-70. In their Sweet 16 match against no. 4 Wisconsin, Butler got 20 from Howard in a 61-54 victory and then used 27 points from Mack in an Elite Eight victory over no. 2 Florida. In the final four, Butler faced another upset, the Southwest Region’s no. 11 seed VCU. Butler disposed of them 70-62 on 24 points from Mack. The Bulldogs, alas, didn’t have enough in the tank for the final again, this time dropping a 53-41 contest to West Region no. 3 seed UConn.
9. Wisconsin – 2000
In 2000, it had officially been 59 years since the Badgers had been to a Final Four. That all changed for a school historically known for football and hockey at the Big Dance. Wisconsin won their only national title in 1941 and in between, they had only been to the tournament four times. having lost out in the first round of the 1999 event, the Badgers rolled into the 2000 tourney as an at-large no. 8 seed in the West Regional with a fairly pedestrian record of 18-13. This Badgers team was fronted by senior guard Jon Bryant and junior forwards Andy Kowske and Mark Vershaw. These three played key roles in the Round of 64 victory over no. 9 Fresno State (66-56), then a huge upset of no. 1 Arizona in the Round of 32 by a count of 66-59. The Badgers took care of no. 4 seed LSU in the Sweet 16, before disposing of no. 6 Purdue 64-60 in the Elite 8. Unfortunately, the Badgers magical ride ended in the Final Four, as they lost to no. 1 Midwest seed Michigan State, which would go on to win the title.
8. Villanova – 1985
The Villanova Wildcats men’s basketball program was already steeped in lore before the 1984-85 edition hit the floor at the 1985 tournament. They had been to the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 several times previous to that year, but hadn’t been to the Final Four in 46 years. In ’85, the Cats would put Villanova basketball on the world wide map. This team, coached by Rollie Massimino, had a player in senior center Ed Pinckney and a leader in senior guard Dwayne McClain. They entered the ’85 tournament as the no. 8 seed in the Southeast Regional with a 25-10 record in the Big East. They beat Dayton 51-49 in the Round of 64, then shocked powerful no. 1 Michigan 59-55 in the Round of 32. No. 5 Maryland was no match in the Sweet 16, falling 46-43 to the Cats. Villanova’s wild ride caught momentum in an Elite 8 upset of North Carolina (56-44), setting up their first Final Four appearance in nearly a half century. McClain poured in 19 as Villanova clipped no. 2 seed Memphis State 52-45 and he led all scorers again as the Wildcats became the lowest seeded champion ever, beating no. 1 Georgetown 66-64 in the final.
7. Wichita State – 2013
Prior to the 2012-13 season, the Shockers had only been to March Madness nine times in school history, their best finish coming in 1981 when they made the Elite 8. The 2012-13 campaign saw Wichita State go 26-8 and win an at-large bid as a no. 9 seed in the West Regional. Right out of the gate, they had to tangle with no. 8 Pittsburgh, who they beat handily, 73-55. That set up a match with perennial power Gonzaga, the no. 1 seed. The Shockers, undeterred by a tough Bulldogs squad, won 76-70 to advance to a Sweet 16 match-up with another upstart, no. 13 La Salle. The small Philly school was no match, falling to the Shockers 72-58. Now in their first Elite 8 match-up in 32 years, WSU had to tangle with no. 2 Ohio State. The Buckeyes couldn’t beat them either, falling 70-66. But, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end as the Shockers lost a tight 72-68 Final Four tilt to eventual champion Louisville.
6. George Mason – 2006
In their team’s to then 40-year history, the 2005-06 George Mason Patriots had been to the NCAA DI tournament a grand total of three times — losing in the first round on each occasion. In 2006, the Patriots of the Colonial Athletic Association got an at-large no. 11 seed in the nearby D.C. Regional with a 25-7 record. The Fairfax, VA based school would win its first ever March Madness game, a 75-65 dismantling of no. 6 seed Michigan State. In the Round of 32, the Patriots one-upped themselves, stunning powerhouse no. 3 seed North Carolina 65-60. Not done yet, they had to get by no. 7 seed Wichita State in the Sweet 16, prevailing 63-55. The tournament Cinderellas then came up with the school’s biggest ever victory, clipping no. 1 UConn in the Elite 8, 86-84. Like a few other teams on this list, George Mason would exit the Big Dance in the Final Four against an eventual champion, bowing 73-58 to Florida.
5. Virginia Commonwealth University – 2011
In 2011, the NCAA introduced four more teams to the 64-team event, with four at-large teams taking on four other at-large teams just for the right to be a low seed in their regional. In 2011, then, the 23-11 VCU Rams of the CAA were one of those teams, having to dispose of USC for the no. 11 seed in the Southwest Regional, making their road a little tougher to hoe. Undaunted, the Rams crushed no. 6 Georgetown 74-56 in the Round of 64 and followed it up with an absolute thrashing of no. 3 seed Purdue, 94-76. Up next was a pitched battle against no. 10 Florida State in the Sweet 16, the Rams coming out on top 72-71. In the Regional Final, the task seemed monumental, take down no. 1 Kansas or go home. VCU electrified the basketball world by beating the Jayhawks soundly, 71-61, making them one of three lowest seeds ever to make the Final Four (no one lower than no. 11 has ever made it). But, the Rams ride would be halted by that other low seed we previously mentioned, no. 8 Butler, who beat them 70-62.
4. LSU – 1986
The Tigers have never really been a stranger to the DI tournament, having played in it 21 times. In 1985-86, the Tigers entered the tournament as a no. 11 seed with a fairly ho-hum overall record of 26-12 in the SEC. Facing no. 6 Purdue in the Round of 64, the Tigers needed double OT to knock off the Boilermakers 94-87. In the Round of 32, the Tigers nipped Memphis State 83-81 in advance of a tilt with Georgia Tech in the Sweet 16. They beat the Yellow Jackets 70-64, setting up a huge match against no. 1 Kentucky in the Elite 8. Again, the Tiger outlasted a superior (on paper) opponent, 59-57 to advance to the Final Four for the third time in school history. The Tigers expended everything they had in their first four games and were no match for no. 2 seed Louisville, losing 88-77. The Cardinals would beat Duke 72-69 in the final.
3. Missouri – 2002
The history of March Madness basketball at “Mizzou” didn’t really get rolling until the mid-1970s. The Tigers basketball team did “win” two national titles in the 1920s (the Primo-Porretta National Champions as it was called then), however, they made just one appearance at the tournament in 1944 before making it again in 1976. Under coach Quin Snyder in the first decade of this century, the Tigers made the tournament four years in a row (2000-2003). There biggest run, though, came in 2002, when the Big 12 school got an at-large bid as a no. 12 seed with a so-so 21-11 record. Led by future Toronto Raptors first round pick Kareem Rush (current NBAer Brandon’s brother), Mizzou blasted no. 5 Miami in the first round of the West Regional, before crushing no. 4 Ohio State 83-67 in the Round of 32. Entering the Round of 16, the Tigers knew they had their hands full with no. 8 UCLA, which featured future NBA players Jason Kapono and Matt Barnes. Mizzou handled them too, 82-73, becoming the first and only no. 12 seed ever to make the Elite 8. The glass slipper fell off, though, when no. 2 Oklahoma beat them 81-75.
2. Cleveland State – 1986
When basketball aficionados think of basketball in Ohio, they think OSU, Cincinnati and the Cleveland Cavalier. The Cleveland State Vikings barely register on the fan-o-meter. In the history of the university, they have gone to the DI tournament a grand total of two times, in 1986 and 2009. That first year in the Big Dance would be a heck of an introduction to Vikings basketball. The current Horizon League members (like Northern Kentucky) played in the AMCU-8 conference in 1985-86 (Valparaiso was included) and they compiled a respectable 29-4 record, just good enough to earn a no. 14 seed in the tournament. And wouldn’t you know it, the Vikes drew no. 3 seed Indiana (16th ranked, nationally) in their first ever March Madness contest. In the annals of the tourney, Cleveland State’s 83-79 victory was one for the ages. In the Round of 32, Cleveland State kept it rolling, beating no. 6 seed St. Joseph’s to become the first no. 14 seed to advance to the Sweet 16. If not for some guy from Navy named David Robinson (the Admiral), who sunk a clutch basket in the dying seconds against Cleveland State to win 71-70, the Vikings would have gone into uncharted territory in the Final Four.
1. Florida Gulf Coast – 2013
The Atlantic Sun Conference isn’t a powerhouse league like the SEC, that’s for sure. In 2013, the conference’s top team, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (from Fort Myers), got an automatic bid to the tournament and were slotted as the no. 15 seed in the South Regional. That meant the Eagles would have to tangle with Big East giant and no. 2 seeded Georgetown (25-6, ranked seventh nationally). On paper, it seemed like a total mismatch, that is until the game was actually played. The Eagles snuffed out the Hoyas tournament hopes with a resounding 78-68 victory. Next up were the no. 7 seeded San Diego State Aztecs in the Round of 32, who the Eagles made short work of too, beating them 81-71. That victory ensured they would be the only no. 15 seed in the history of the Big Dance to make it to the Sweet 16. But, the small school from Fort Myers ran up against the big school from Gainesville, the Florida Gators. And the Gators stomped FGCU 62-50 to end the Cinderella run.