Top 5 Most Shocking National Title Wins of March Madness

Other Sports | March 18, 2021

An open secret of the NCAA tourney is that while Cinderella might get to attend the dance, and even play under the bright lights of Final Four domes, rarely does the iconic damsel ever get over the finish line victorious. It’s uncommon for a #4 seed to win the NCAA Tournament, let alone a Cinderella #9 seed that manages a Region championship and arrives in the big-time.

Heck, even this post has a predictable ending. Jim Valvano’s North Carolina State Wolfpack owns the forever trophy for best March Madness upset bid. It takes a Joe Frazier to make a Mohammad Ali, a Team USSR to make the Miracle on Ice team, and it took Houston’s “Phi Slama Jama” squad featuring more than one future NBA Hall-of-Famer to make NC State into the basketball underdog of a century.

But “darling” Cinderella bids like Loyola-Chicago or Gonzaga-Y2K receive more than enough water-cooler attention. It’s time to celebrate the surprise teams who actually won the NCAA title, cut down the net, and inspired a generation of big-dance underdogs to keep trying despite the crush of long odds and longer opponents.

#5 – Kansas Jayhawks 1987-88

The Kansas Jayhawks were only seeded 6th in the 1988 NCAA Tournament, but it’s just as significant that KU’s win snapped a 4-decade cold streak for the Big Eight conference, a forerunner of the Big 12. Kansas’ breathtaking NCAA Tournament Final win over the Oklahoma Sooners introduced head coach Larry Brown as a worldwide hoops celebrity, and forward Danny Manning’s MVP performance in the Jayhawks’ 83-79 triumph gave Kansas basketball a brand new nickname, “Danny and the Miracles.”

Incidentally, even #1 seeded OU could have broken the spell for Midwestern teams by beating Kansas in the final game. Big Eight officials already knew they were representing a national champion after watching the 1988 semifinals – quite a relief after losing since 1952.

#4 – Connecticut Huskies 2013-14

If there’s a program “futures” gamblers will always have a soft spot for, it’s the national champion UConn Huskies of 2014. Connecticut was a #7 seed offered at 95-to-1 championship odds at Las Vegas sportsbooks – after Selection Sunday.

UConn’s odds to win the NCAA Tournament didn’t shorten much after the Round of 64. If anything, the Huskies were viewed with even more skepticism after needing OT to conquer #10 seed St. Joseph. Once the team qualified for the Sweet Sixteen by whipping Villanova 77-65, bookmakers began taking UConn seriously. It was too late to rescind the $95-on-a-dollar bet slips two weeks later when Connecticut’s underdog Men’s squad joined a dynastic Women’s team as fellow NCAA Division 1 champions.

#3 – Villanova Wildcats 1984-85

Villanova’s surprise 1985 championship has rarely been said to eclipse NC State’s performance of two seasons prior. But the Wolfpack enjoyed one advantage the Wildcats did not, avoiding early tip-offs against #1 seeds. As the only #8 seeded school ever to win the NCAA Tournament, Villanova had to play and defeat #1 seeded Michigan in the Round of 32, escaping 59-55. Another huge hurdle remained in the title tilt as the Georgetown Hoyas had arrived with a young Patrick Ewing in the paint. The Wildcats prevailed 66-64 in what many consider the greatest single-game upset in NCAA history.

#2 – Texas Western Miners 1965-66

Cinderella champions don’t have to be modest seeds, in fact, basketball’s greatest old-time collegiate team played in the NCAA Tournament before the present-day seeding system was introduced. Texas Western, now the University of Texas El-Paso, interrupted a string of championships for UCLA that otherwise lasted from 1964 to 1973.

Most importantly, the Miners did as much to integrate college basketball in the United States as Jackie Robinson did for Major League Baseball, becoming the first 100% African-American starting lineup to ever win a national tourney title. Texas Western basketball even reached a milestone that few teams on “Cinderella” lists can boast, seeing its historic season and championship dramatized in the 2006 Hollywood production Glory Road. 

#1 – North Carolina State Wolfpack 1982-83

Most fans are familiar with the final game of 1983’s NCAA Tournament, the image of Terry Gannon of NCSU taking a brave charge from Clyde “The Glide” Drexler of Houston, and how head coach Jim Valvano allowed the media (and the Cougars) to think North Carolina State would stall the ball, only to scream at his cagers to shoot and score at will from the opening tip. But an oft-overlooked nugget is that the Wolfpack should probably be the only double-digit seed to win a national championship, not the #6 seed that the squad actually was. After a 10-loss regular season, it was only North Carolina State’s ACC Tournament victory that earned the program a middle seed in March Madness. Taken as a whole, the Wolfpack’s performance in early 1983 remains the most unlikely run of postseason victories in hardwood history.


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Kurt Boyer

Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.

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