Sports editor Peter Burtnett takes a look at the best moments of March Madness during the 2010s. Photo: University of Dayton redshirt senior guard Vee Sanford (43) shoots a basket that put Dayton (11) up by one with less than 10 seconds to go against Ohio State (6) in the second round of the NCAA tournament, March 20, 2014, at the First Niagara Center, in Buffalo, New York. With the 60-59 win, UD advances and will play on Saturday. Ethan Klosterman/Photo Editor
As Selection Sunday arrives, it’s a good time to look back at some of the best Cinderella runs, game-winning shots, upsets, and classic games of each year during the 2010s.
Butler’s Hayward rims out potential championship-winning half court heave against Duke
Before the Cinderella stories of VCU or Loyola-Chicago, Indianapolis’ own Butler and future NBA All-Star Gordon Hayward, coached by current Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, swept the Horizon League (20-0) to enter the tourney as a 5 seed. From there, the Bulldogs ran through UTEP and scraped by Murray State before defeating perennial contender Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen, upstart No. 7 overall Kansas State, and Tom Izzo’s Michigan State in the Final Four in their own backyard at Lucas Oil Stadium to reach the National Championship Game. Facing the daunting Duke Blue Devils, the Bulldogs epitomized the bulldog spirit and trailed 61-59 with only moments left. The shot came up short, but Butler rode the wave the next season as an 8 seed, getting back to the National Championship Game, where they lost to UConn.
Introduction of First Four gives opportunity for VCU to make Final Four
If not for the introduction of the First Four to kick off the NCAA Tournament in 2011, one of the best Cinderella Final Four runs would not have even happened. Beginning in 2011, the NCAA decided to increase the tournament from 65 to 68 teams, and turned the one-game play-in (already held in Dayton, Ohio, since 2001) to a two-day, four-game extravaganza to kick-start March Madness and give a few extra teams a shot at glory. It paid off right away in its first year, as the Rams charged through USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State, and No. 2 overall Kansas to reach the Final Four. They fell short, losing to fellow Cinderella Butler in a hard-fought battle, but established the mantra of March Madness that anything can happen.
Two 15-over-2 upsets within a matter of hours
The best moment of March Madness isn’t always a Cinderella run, a thrilling championship run, or an all-time team finishing the job with a championship. Sometimes, an upset in the first round that thrashes the brackets of millions is the best a tournament can offer. In 2012, two 15 seeds upset 2 seeds within a matter of hours, leaving hundreds of thousands of brackets in shambles. First, 30-4 Big 12 Champions Missouri fell to Norfolk State from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Then, perennial powerhouse Duke fell to the Lehigh Mountain Hawks from the Patriot League. Although neither the Spartans nor Mountain Hawks advanced past the third round, the upsets left millions of bracket-fillers pulling out their hair. Though people who went “chalk” (picking the top team to win it all) would have been pleased to see No. 1 overall Kentucky lift the trophy at the conclusion of the tournament.
Shocker! Wichita State makes their entrance to the national stage with Final Four run
You may begin to notice a general trend here: Cinderella runs. One-game upsets are common enough to not stand out, and classic games that go down to the wire are not terribly unique when every team is playing a one-and-done. Wichita State’s run in 2013 came almost out of nowhere. The Shockers had made the previous tourney, but lost in the second round to VCU. Before that, their last appearance was in 2006, and 1988 before that. But in 2013, as a 9 seed, they comfortably beat Pittsburgh, snuck past Gonzaga, and handled both fellow Cinderella La Salle and No. 7 overall Ohio State to reach the Final Four. With a name like the Shockers and players like future Toronto Raptors 2018-19 champion Fred VanVleet, Wichita State’s run was widely appreciated and set up the Kansas-based team for NCAA tournament appearances in 2014-18.
An honorable mention for 2013 is Florida Gulf Coast’s Dunk City run, when the 15-seeded high-flying Eagles stunned 2 seed Georgetown with a healthy dose of dunks.
Sanford’s shot over Ohio State gives Flyers lift off to Elite Eight
As a current student at Dayton but a Cleveland-native who went to high school in Columbus, this one is conflicting for me. When Vee Sanford hit a game-winning shot over Aaron Craft with four seconds left in the game, my teenage self was sweating profusely, hoping the Buckeyes could answer. And when Craft’s attempted floater hit the backboard but not the bottom of the net, and the red-faced guard laid on the court with his hands behind his head, I was beside myself. However, retrospectively, the shot propelled the Flyers into an Elite Eight run and gave joy to the fanbase of the university which I now attend, and was arguably the best moment of March Madness in 2014.
With lack of upsets in second round, Georgia State stands out
Most years, there is a healthy dose of upsets and teams below the 8-seed line making it into the third round. But in 2015, only five teams that were a 9-seed or worse upset their opponent in the first round. With this lack of upsets and a final between 1 seeds Wisconsin and Duke, the best and biggest upset came in the second round (Round of 64), when Georgia State beat Baylor on a last-second shot. However, this goes much deeper than a “simple” buzzer-beater in March Madness. R.J. Hunter, junior guard and son of head coach Ron Hunter, hit the winning shot to send the Panthers to the next round. Making the moment even better was that Ron, recovering from an Achilles tear suffered while celebrating the teams Sun Belt Championship, felt out of his chair and slapped the floor in jubilation.
This one had it all
Some years have Cinderella runs, others have stunning shots, some have rampant or shocking upsets, and others have classic games that go down to the wire. In 2016, all that and more happened.
The Cinderella run went to a team that normally was a top seed (10 seed Syracuse made the Final Four). But the biggest story was the number of close games and thrilling finishes, with nine games separated by 3 points or less (including the final, but more on that later), with many more coming down to the final minutes and decided by narrow margins.
The first big shot was by Northern Iowa’s Paul Jesperson…
… but those same Panthers gave up a 12-point lead with 44 seconds left to Alex Caruso’s Texas A&M Aggies, eventually losing in overtime.
Middle Tennessee ruined countless brackets by upsetting one of the tournament favorites (Michigan State) in the Round of 64, and the Final Four was historically boring, with both games being decided by a combined 61 points.
Two powerhouses, Villanova and North Carolina, met up in what turned out to be perhaps the best final in recent memory, with arguably the best finish of all-time. The biggest moments came on a three by UNC where guard Marcus Paige made an incredible shot adjustment in mid-air with 4.7 seconds left to tie the game at 74 as legend Michael Jordan (UNC alum) raised his arms in celebration. Then, Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono took the ball up the court, turned and found Kris Jenkins on the wing, and the forward drained the three as the buzzer sounded to give the Wildcats an extraordinary 77-74 win in the National Championship Game.
Step down from previous year, 2017 March Madness supplies competitive Final Four
Although the March Madness of 2017 was a step down from the history-rich 2016 season, the Final Four was the opposite of the combined 61-point differential from the previous year. Gonzaga beat 7-seed South Carolina 77-73, and North Carolina beat Oregon 77-76 in a thrilling contest between a 1 and a 3 seed. North Carolina then got redemption from the previous year, defeating Gonzaga 71-65 in a highly-competitive final that resulted in a dousing of long-time Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams.
Sister Jean shines as Loyola-Chicago Rambles to Final Four; UMBC becomes first No. 16 seed to defeat a 1 seed
2018 March Madness has two major moments or stories that are impossible to ignore.
First, 16-seed University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) shocked No. 1 overall Virginia in a thoroughly conclusive 74-54 dismantling of the top team.
Then, the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers lived up to their nickname, starting their improbable run with last-second shots against Miami (FL) and Tennessee to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Continuing to fight with the prayers of team chaplain Jean Dolores Schmidt (or Sister Jean), they held off Nevada and then cruised past Kansas State (in the first 9 vs. 11 matchup in the history of the NCAA Tournament) to reach the Final Four.
Loyola-Chicago’s dreams were dashed by Michigan in the Final Four, but Sister Jean and the 2018 Ramblers will not soon be forgotten.
Redemption for Virginia after 2018 mishap
One year after becoming the first 1 seed to ever lose to a 16 seed (1 are seeds 139-1), the Virginia Cavaliers achieved the ultimate redemption. By running through a “chalky” tournament, the Cavaliers had no issues in double-digit wins over Gardner-Webb and Oklahoma. Their Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight matchups against Oregon (53-49) and Purdue (80-75 in overtime) were hard fought wins, but against Auburn in the Final Four, they had to claw back from the brink (scoreboard once showed that time expired) with three free throws from Kyle Guy to advance to the final.
In their second overtime game of the tournament, the Cavaliers defeated Texas Tech 85-77 and finished their redemption arc.
Like Virginia’s redemption story, the NCAA Tournament itself has the opportunity for their own redemption after the 2020 tourney was cancelled because of COVID-19. The First Four begins on Thursday, and will take place exclusively from the state of Indiana, culminating in the Final Four and Championship Game in Indianapolis April 3 and 5.