By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

Our favorite team usually loses long before the Elite Eight. You'd think that, with spring having sprung and all, we'd get off our butts at that point and go for a walk in the park. But no -- we remain couch-baked potatoes until the last second of the championship game. Most of the time, it's because we still have a team to root for: this year's Cinderella, the ultimate underdog for whom we wish a fairy-tale ending. And we've had some Cinderella stories during the past 25 years.

10. Loyola Marymount, 1990
Out of sorrow rose this Cinderella: during a West Coast Conference tournament game, team star and leader Hank Gathers collapsed and died. The WCC tourney was cancelled, but LMU received an automatic NCAA bid.

Seeded 11th in the West, the high-scoring Lions, who averaged 122.4 points per game, played as if Gathers was out on the court with them. His best friend, Bo Kimble, scored 45 points as LMU trounced No. 6 seed New Mexico State 111-92 in the first round.

In round two, LMU upset 13th-ranked Michigan, the defending champs, 149-115, as Kimble collected 37 and Jeff Fryer went 11 of 15 from 3-point range.

In the regional semifinals, Alabama controlled the tempo and slowed the game way down, but the Lions still ruled, 62-60. The remarkable run finally came to and end in the Elite Eight, as Loyola Marymount was unable to stop UNLV, which was on its way to the national championship.

9. Virginia, 1984
The Cavaliers, led by Olden Polynice and Rick Carlisle, entered the 1984 Tournament unranked and seeded seventh in the East, having lost 11 games. In their march to the Final Four, they defeated Iona, No. 2 seed Arkansas in OT, No. 3 seed Syracuse in the regional semis, and No. 4 seed Indiana in the East Regional final. Three top-20 teams in three games. But then the Cavs met up Houston in the semifinals. Running a diamond-and-one defense to stop power forward Michael Young and center Akeem Olajuwon, the Cavs forced OT, but lost 49-47. "You find yourself thinking, 'We've won these before, we'll win again," said Carlisle. "But we got a lot of breaks to get this far. Today, the breaks just ran out for us."

Rick Pitino
Rick Pitino overcame adversity to lead Providence to the Final Four.

8. Providence, 1987
Rick Pitino's Friars, who had lost eight games before the Tournament, were seeded sixth in the Southeast. And before the first game, Pitino suffered an enormous loss: his infant son, who was born premature, died. Pitino, in mourning, handed over the keys to the team, temporarily, to an assistant.

Then Pitino came back, and Providence, an unranked squad that relied on 3-pointers, rolled, beating, in order, Birmingham by 22, Austin Peay by 3 in OT, ninth-ranked Alabama by 21, then fourth-ranked Georgetown by 15. The great string finally ran out in the semis, when the Friars lost to Syracuse in New Orleans, 77-63.

7. University of Pennsylvania, 1979
No Ivy League team since Penn has reached the Final Four, and if not for Penn's heroics, the ivy drought would reach all the way back to 1965 and Bill Bradley and Princeton. Without a single player on full scholarship, Penn actually did very well, thank you, during the regular season, losing only five games. The selection committee took the competition into account, though and seeded the Quakers No. 9 in the East.

No matter. After a tight first-round win over Iona, Penn's James Salters sunk one of two free throws with two seconds left to seal a thrilling 72-71 win over third-ranked North Carolina. Quaker Ken Hall wasn't surprised. "The ACC games are on television all the time and the ACC players are built up like supermen," he said. "But we believe in our little secret, that we can be giant killers."

Penn went on to beat Syracuse and St. John's before being drubbed by Magic's Michigan State in the semis, 101-67. That game wasn't as close as it sounds: the Quakers trailed 50-17 at the half.

6. Louisiana State, 1986
LSU looked very, very good midway through the 1985-86 season, riding high with a 14-0 record. Then Murphy's Law came to visit. "The troubles on the Bayou have included academic ineligibility, an office-bugging attempt, a player disappearance, that chicken pox bout, an NCAA investigation and, last week, flu that had star forward John Williams taking nourishment intravenously," wrote SI's Alexander Woolf before the Tigers beat Kentucky to reach the Final Four. After the undefeated start, LSU had lost 11 games and finished tied for fifth in the Southeast Conference.

A No. 11 seed in the Southeast region didn't deter coach Dale Brown's team, however. In the first round, LSU beat sixth-seeded Purdue in double-overtime. Then they got past 12th-ranked Memphis in round 2, sixth-ranked Georgia Tech in round 3, and third-ranked Kentucky in the regional final to advance to the Final Four. In Dallas, Louisville, the eventual champs, finally ended LSU's stunning run.

College Hoops: List Mania
Page 2 is all caught up in March Madness! We love our brackets, but we also love our lists. Over the next few weeks, don't miss out on these other top-10 college hoops lists:

  • Biggest surprise conference tournament winners

  • Best clutch shooters: Who do you want taking the final shot?

  • Best Cinderella stories in Tournament history

  • Wednesday, March 24: Best regional final games

  • Friday, April 2: Best individual performance in the Final Four
  • 5. Gonzaga, 1999
    It's hard to believe, but it's been five years since the Zags were a true Cinderella -- back when we had to search Yahoo! to find out the small Catholic school really did exist in Spokane, Wash. But the Zags, seeded 10th in the West, may have been the most underrated Cinderella team since Penn in 1979. They lost only six games coming into the Tourney, and their coach, Dan Monson, had no doubt that they could play with the big boys.

    The West Coast Conference champions, captivated the country -- remember Matt Santangelo? Casey Calvary? Richie Frahm? -- as they upset upset Minnesota, seventh-ranked Stanford and 23rd-ranked Florida to make it to the Elite Eight. Even when the Zags lost a close game to top-seeded UConn (the eventual champs) in the regional final, they gained even more respect for battling a great team down to the final minute. "There are a lot of teams at home now with better basketball talent," said Monson after the win over Florida. "But our kids make up for that with chemistry and character."

    4. Wisconsin, 2000
    The Badgers, sixth in the Big Ten with an 8-8 conference record, came into the 2000 Tournament with 13 losses and a long history of hardcourt ineptitude. If you had bet someone in mid-February that Wisconsin would even make the Tournament, you would have gotten odds -- on Feb. 20, their record stood at 13-12. But the Badgers reeled off five straight wins after that, and, because they faced tough competition all season, entered the West bracket seeded eighth.

    Then Wisconsin surprised everyone, making it all the way to the Final Four with three straight wins over ranked teams: No. 4 Arizona, No. 10 LSU and No. 25 Purdue.

    In the semifinals at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, the Badgers faced Michigan State, a team they had lost to three times already in 1999-2000. The fourth time wasn't a charm, as the Spartans beat Wisconsin 54-42.

    Danny Manning
    Danny Manning led unheralded Kansas to a '88 NCAA title.

    3. Kansas, 1988
    In 1988, the Jayhawks set a record: most losses by an NCAA men's championship team. Coached by Larry Brown, Kansas entered the Tourney unranked with 11 losses, but made it all the way to the semis and then beat fifth-ranked Duke and fourth-ranked Oklahoma in the final.

    Danny Manning, the Tourney's most outstanding player, carried the team. He scored 31 points and had 18 rebounds and 5 steals against the Sooners, a team that had beaten Kansas twice in the regular season. But he had a good supporting cast, and, as Brown put it, a healthy dose of good fortune followed Kansas to the end. "Someone I was talking to the other day made a great point," Brown said before the final. "You can throw out all the logical things. Logic doesn't happen in the Final Four."

    2. North Carolina State, 1983
    The Wolfpack ended the regular season with a 17-10 record, and, despite winning the ACC tournament, entered the NCAA Tournament a No. 6 seed in the West. But Jim Valvano's squad took squeekers all the way to the title game against Houston. The Pack barely made it past the first round, finally beating Pepperdine 69-67 in double OT. They beat sixth-ranked UNLV 71-70 in round 2, and in the semis just made it past fourth-ranked Virginia, 63-62. And the final fit under the category of miracle finish: Lorenzo Charles slammed home Dereck Whittenburg's 30-foot desperation heave with just two ticks left as the Wolfpack put Akeem Olajuwon's Phi Slama Jama to bed.

    "We earned the right," Charles said, "to be called the Cardiac Pack."

    1. Villanova, 1985
    The Wildcats, coached by Rollie Massimino, lost 10 games during the regular season and were seeded eighth in the Southeast. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Final Four: Villanova beat Dayton, second-ranked Michigan, Maryland, and seventh-ranked North Carolina. In the semis, they took out fourth-ranked Memphis State. They capped it all with the title win over the defending champs and No. 1-ranked Georgetown. In the final, Villanova played almost perfect, shooting 22 of 28 (9 of 10 in the second half) from the field and 22 of 27 from the free-throw line, and beat Patrick Ewing's Hoyas, 66-64.

    Sophomore guard Harold Jensen, a sub who averaged four points a game during the season while shooting 38 percent, epitomized the Wildcats' unlikely run. Jensen played the game of his life against Georgetown, scoring 14 points while hitting all five of his field-goal attempts. He hit the go-ahead jumper with 2:36 left, and ended up making the all-Tournament team. "Honestly, I was surprised that the ball came my way as much as it did," Jensen said. "There were times that I know I was trying to do too much. I've struggled for two years and coach has never given up on me."

    Roly Poly Rollie never gave up on his Wildcats, either, which is why they were able to beat mighty Georgetown.

    Also receiving votes:
    Valparaiso, 1998
    Cleveland State, 1986
    Chattanooga, 1997