Cinderella Not Invited To This Year’s Ball

Over the course of March Madness history, many Cinderella teams with unrivaled energy, enthusiasm, and desire have made remarkable runs through the tournament by stunning big conference powerhouses. We cheer uproariously for these teams as the Cinderella stories miraculously discard the college basketball giants. Afterwards, we bash them unmercifully as we rip our brackets to shreds. Cinderella teams are never given a chance by the so-called “experts” on CBS or ESPN to win one or two games. This is precisely what makes their runs so extraordinary and the NCAA tournament so special; David is always given a chance to slay Goliath. The mid-majors with no McDonald’s All-Americans or Hall of Fame coaches have a shot to take down the most storied college basketball programs in America. Over the past two decades, Cinderella teams have mesmerized and inspired college basketball fans. Unfortunately, this year’s Cinderellas will not be crashing the big dance.

We don’t have to look too far back to find perhaps the greatest Cinderella story in NCAA tournament history. Head Coach Jim Larranaga’s George Mason Patriots shocked the nation with their incredible journey to the 2006 Final Four. The Patriots were lucky to even be in the NCAA tournament because they received the last at-large bid instead of Hofstra, who beat the Pats twice last year. Larranaga played the underdog card to perfection as he effectively used the Cinderella label to rally his team. George Mason first beat Michigan State and then followed that up by overthrowing defending champion North Carolina before taking down fellow Cinderella story Wichita State in the Sweet Sixteen. This set up a date with the Connecticut Huskies in the Elite Eight.

The regional final game was undoubtedly the most memorable leg of George Mason’s incredible journey. As is the case with all Cinderella teams, George Mason had size, athleticism, talent, and history working against them in this Elite Eight match-up. Four of the players in UConn’s starting line-up would be picked in the first round of the NBA Draft just three months later. However, George Mason’s players were as tenacious and ardent as the opposing Huskies and played the game of their lives. The Patriots did not get rattled when they faced double-digit deficits in the second half as the team hit six straight three-point shot attempts. When UConn’s Denham Brown made a buzzer-beating lay-up to send the game into overtime, the momentum shifted back to UConn. However, George Mason did not stop fighting and made five of its six shots from the field to win the game, 86-84. Each George Mason starter finished in double figures and the team as a whole shot 50% from three-point range. Everything had to break right for the Patriots and everything did.

Several possible Cinderella teams emerged from this year’s field, but ultimately the slipper did not fit any of them. Winthrop, an 11 seed, could hardly be a called a disrespected mid-major. Many analysts picked the South Carolina school to advance into the second round. Despite their impressive performance against the Fighting Irish, the Eagles were promptly dismissed in the next round by a much stronger Oregon team.

VCU seemed to have all the makings of a great Cinderella team. They opened up against the Duke Blue Devils, who had a disappointing season. However, Coach K’s teams are always feared and respected in March. Despite being outplayed by the Blue Devils, VCU caught some breaks and ended up squeaking by to earn a match-up with Pittsburgh. VCU put up quite a fight against Pitt, overcoming a 19-point deficit in the second half to force overtime. Pitt eventually triumphed in the extra session thanks in part to back-to-back threes by guards Levance Fields and Ronald Ramon.

Ten of the top 16 teams remain standing. The tournament still promises to provide the many thrills associated with March Madness and for a change, many people’s brackets are still largely intact. As for Cinderella, she will have to wait until next year to make an appearance at the Big Dance.