In 2009, ESPN published a College Basketball Encyclopedia. My contribution to the 1,000-plus pages of hoops awesomeness was an essay on Cinderella.
In it I listed the sweetest 16 Cinderella runs in NCAA tournament history, revisiting the magic moments of Loyola-Chicago, North Carolina-Charlotte, Indiana State, George Mason and a dozen more.
Now I want to rewrite it.
I would like to include the Butler combo run of the past two tourneys. But most of all, I want to put Virginia Commonwealth’s current surge at the top of the list. Nobody has Cinderella street cred like the Rams.
VCU’s 2011 Final Four rampage is the new glass-slipper standard by which all others should be measured. It is the all-timer. Sue me for hyperbole if you wish, but let me make my case first.
The competition for all-time Cinderella comes from three other schools that made the Final Four: George Mason in 2006, LSU in 1986 and Pennsylvania in 1979. Mason and LSU were, like VCU, No. 11 seeds. Penn was a No. 9, but carries the extra payload of being from the Ivy League.
Let’s make a quick examination of those three before moving on to the Rams:
Penn '79: The Quakers were a No. 9 seed in a 40-team tournament, which means they were among the eight lowest-seeded teams in the entire affair.
Their path to the Final Four is the most similar to VCU’s. It went as follows: a four-point win over No. 8 seed Iona (coached by Jim Valvano, in a format similar to the current First Four); a one-point win over No. 1 North Carolina; an eight-point win over No. 4 Syracuse; and a two-point win over No. 10 St. John’s.
Average margin of victory: 3.8 points.
Average seeding of defeated teams: 5.8.
LSU '86: The Tigers were the first No. 11 seed ever to make the Final Four, and did so in a 64-team tournament.
Their path to the Final Four: a seven-point victory in double overtime over No. 6 seed Purdue; a two-point victory over No. 3 Memphis; a six-point victory over No. 2 Georgia Tech; a two-point victory over No. 1 Kentucky.
Average margin of victory: 4.3.
Average seeding of defeated teams: 3.
George Mason ’06: The Patriots were a No. 11 seed as well.
Their path to the Final Four: a 10-point victory over No. 6 Michigan State; a five-point victory over No. 3 North Carolina; an eight-point victory over No. 7 Wichita State; a two-point overtime victory over No. 1 Connecticut.
Average margin of victory: 6.3.
Average seeding of defeated teams: 4.3.
Now VCU '11: The Rams are a No. 11 seed.
Their path to the Final Four: a 13-point victory over No. 11 USC; an 18-point victory over No. 6 Georgetown; an 18-point victory over No. 3 Purdue; a one-point victory over No. 10 Florida State; a 10-point victory over No. 1 Kansas.
Average margin of victory: 12.
Average seeding of defeated teams: 6.2.
Margin of victory is a clear indicator that VCU has had the most impressive run of the four. It has had just one life-and-death struggle to win, whereas the other three all had at least two games decided by five points or less.
By seed, the Rams played the weakest competition -- but they also played one more game than any of the rest, thanks to the advent of the First Four. Given an additional chance to lose, most lower-seeded teams would have.
And there are some significant caveats to the other three runs.
Penn was probably underseeded back in ’79 -- the first year the tourney was publicly seeded. The Quakers had been to the NCAAs seven other times in the '70s, and their winning percentage for the decade trailed only UCLA, Marquette, North Carolina and Kentucky. Despite the Ivy affiliation, that was a quality team that had a great season.
LSU was hardly Cinderella material -- it was a big-boy program in every sense but seeding. And it was granted the extreme good fortune of opening the '86 tournament at home against luckless Purdue in the first round and Memphis in the second. No wonder the NCAA changed its rules in later years about teams being able to play in their home arenas -- it's a joke for a No. 11 seed to get home-court advantage.
George Mason demonstrated its prowess in the 2006 regular season, winning the Colonial Athletic Association outright at 15-3. Only a close CAA semifinal loss to Hofstra put the Patriots in any bubble jeopardy.
VCU, on the other hand, finished fourth in the same league in 2011. It had lost five of eight games in February. Until defeating regular-season champ George Mason in the semifinals and playing a close championship game against Old Dominion, there was no reason to suspect anything from the Rams -- including admittance into the Big Dance.
Unlike some Cinderellas, there is no sure-fire future pro leading the Rams. No Larry Bird (Indiana State '79), Bob Lanier (St. Bonaventure '70), Artis Gilmore (Jacksonville '70), David Robinson (Navy '86) or Stephen Curry (Davidson '08) elevating a program for a brief time.
All evidence considered, there was no reason to suspect VCU was anywhere near capable of doing what it has done. It was not a logical candidate for advancement -- much less domination.
Yet here the Rams are in the Final Four, completing the Brothers Grimm storyline. If that’s not the work of a fairy godmother, I don’t know what is.