Predictability never describes what happens during the nation’s premier college basketball tournament.
What really ensues during the NCAA Tournament is madness. The grind to earn a spot as one of the lucky 68 teams is tough. Some teams are a shoe-in, ranking high in the Associated Press Top 25 poll throughout the year to ensure themselves a place in the “Big Dance,” but for others, a conference tournament win is their only chance.
These teams, noticed but for a brief moment on national television, sunk away deep into newly formed conferences, composed of average talent on their rosters.
In the last decade, they’ve been hard at work, busting brackets and proving their worth. Three unexpected teams in recent years found a way into the tournament and the undivided attention of viewers across the nation.
George Mason’s bracket-busting defense:
Heavily scrutinized for their selection from the Colonial Athletic Association, the George Mason Patriots put on a show during the 2006 NCAA Tournament, playing to their coach, Jim Larranaga’s, mantra, “just have fun” — and did they ever.
Their first win as the No. 11 seed in the Washington D.C. Regional round came against Tom Izzo’s No. 6 Michigan State Spartans. Off 49 percent shooting from the field and stout defense against a historically great MSU defense, the Patriots routed the Spartans 75-65 for their first-ever NCAA tournament win.
The following week became “madness” in every sense of the word for the Patriots. In the second round of regional play in D.C., they beat heavily favored defending champion No. 3 North Carolina 65-60 in the biggest upset of the tournament to that point.
But they didn’t stop there. The round of sixteen pitted George Mason against Wichita State, whose superb shooting during the regular season earned the team a spot in the tournament. But things fell apart when the team clashed with the Patriots. George Mason shocked everyone, beating Wichita State 63-55.
The Patriots had already busted all sorts of brackets and turned the tournament upside down. But they weren’t quite done causing a fuss.
Playing just 20 miles from their campus in Fairfax, Va., the Patriots had to fight with epic fortitude to beat the Connecticut Huskies in a tightly contested game that resulted in an 86-84 overtime Patriot victory
The George Mason win marked the first Final Four appearance for the Patriots, the first 11-seed to make it that far since LSU in 1986.
Their dream tournament run came to a close in a blowout loss to the eventual champion Florida Gators 73-58.
Virginia Commonwealth — Anything but common:
The VCU Rams finished off the 2010–2011 regular season second in the Atlantic 10 Conference, losing to Old Dominion in their championship game but earning a No. 11 seed in the Southwest Region of the NCAA tournament. With less shooting power than Wichita State last year, they dazzled with great defense and relentless grit.
The Rams ousted fellow No. 11 seed USC by holding the Trojans to just one field goal in the final nine minutes of play to cap off a 59-46 win. Many called it an anomaly, but their 13-point victory set the tone for a historic run.
No. 6 Georgetown helplessly bowed down to VCU in the next round, watching the Rams blast them from behind the line for 12 threes, six coming from Brandon Rozzell, who finished with 26 points, en route a 74-56 win.
The Rams continued to steamroll their way to victory, notching another double-digit victory in near-flawless fashion over No. 3 Purdue, 94–74. Their speed and quickness became a problem for the Boilermakers, who seemed just as stunned as the rest of the nation as the underdog team bulldozed its way into the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history.
Florida State finally gave the Rams some competition in the Sweet Sixteen. After nearly blowing a nine-point lead in the final eight minutes of play, the Rams came out on top 71-70 against the No. 10 Seminoles in overtime. But an Elite Eight game against No. 1 Kansas loomed overhead.
The Jayhawks were not a problem for the Rams. In what was the biggest upset in the tournament in years, the Rams knocked off the last remaining No. 1 seed, becoming the third 11-seed to advance to the Final Four, George Mason making it in 2006, and LSU in 1986.
But like Wichita State last year, the Rams’ dreams of going to the biggest stage fell short in a loss to No. 8 Butler 70-62.
Wichita State’s ‘shock’ heard around the world:
Entering the tournament as the No. 9 seed in the West bracket, Wichita State had little expectation to make a deep run against the best of the best, losing to Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game.
The Shockers kicked off their tournament run with a route of No. 8 Pittsburgh, 73-55, off big nights from Malcolm Armstead, who scored 22 points on seven shots, including a perfect 9-9 from the free throw line. Off the bench, emerging junior star Cleanthony Early put the nation on notice, scoring 21 points of his own off the bench.
The team continued to puzzle the nation’s brackets, taking out the tournament’s consensus no. 1 seed, Gonzaga, 76-70. These two wins silenced some critics, but the Shockers’ next two wins etched their season into tournament history lore for good. Following its win against Gonzaga, Wichita State stamped a third victory into its bracket with a huge 72-58 win over No. 13 La Salle on its way to the Sweet Sixteen.
The Shockers beat no. 1 Gonzaga, so why not beat no. 2 Ohio State as well? They won 70-66 over the Buckeyes, crowning themselves West Region champions, locking in their Final Four spot against No. 1 Louisville. But the Shockers’ energy fell, and they lost 72-68 to the Cardinals, who won in late comeback fashion off clutch shots from Russ Smith and Luke Hancock.
This year the Shockers, following a perfect 34-0 season, look to take their talents farther than the Final Four and play for what may have escaped them last year in a margin of just four points — a national championship. ESPN’s college basketball analyst Joe Lunardi projects them to be a No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional.
What does it all mean?
Tournament history is just that — history. Just as George Mason surpassed impossible odds to beat North Carolina and Wichita State during its 2006 run, another team will come around and bust brackets, if only for a moment. Florida Gulf Coast University did it last year, winning two games in its first-ever appearance in the tournament, and Wichita State nearly made it to the biggest stage of all. But if anything is expected during March Madness, it’s the unexpected.