Cinderella stories: Ranking SEC's 10 best underdogs in NCAA Tournament history
The clock struck midnight earlier than everybody anticipated this year.
The NCAA Tournament was wiped out, and with it, so were the monumental upsets that have defined the event.
The SEC has been on both sides of that, but we’re staying positive. Here are 10 of the biggest upsets the league pulled off since the event expanded to 64 teams in 1985. In some cases, the same team pulled off multiple upsets.
10. No. 12 seed Kentucky (1985)
Picking at least one 12-5 upset each year is bordering on cliché, but it wasn’t always that way.
Kentucky delivered 2 upsets in the 1985 tournament, beating No. 5 seed Washington in the opening round and then No. 4 UNLV to reach the Sweet 16.
The Cats were fortunate to make the NCAA Tournament. After losing their opening game of the SEC Tournament to Florida, they were just 16-12.
Their run ended with a loss to No. 1 seed St. John’s in the Sweet 16. St. John’s, of course, reached the Final Four that year, 1 of 3 Big East teams to do so.
9. No. 7 seed Texas A&M in 2018
The Aggies finished 9-9 in the SEC, lost their opening game in the SEC Tournament and had to sweat out Selection Sunday with a 20-12 record.
After outlasting Providence in the opening round, they drew No. 2 seed North Carolina in Round 2.
The Tar Heels were defending national champions and had reached the previous 2 national title games. They still featured Joel Berry, MVP of the 2017 Final Four.
No matter. The Aggies’ athletic frontcourt dominated throughout in an 86-65 thumping to send A&M to the Sweet 16 for just the 5th time.
8. No. 11 seed Auburn in 1985
A year after Charles Barkley’s college career ended with a loss to No. 12 seed Richmond — don’t blame Barkley; he stuffed the stat sheet with 23 points, 17 boards, 4 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks — the Tigers made a surprising run to their 1st Sweet 16.
Auburn wouldn’t even have been in the Big Dance had it not won the SEC Tournament.
The Tigers, behind Chuck Person, beat No. 6 seed Purdue by 1 and held off No. 3 seed Kansas by 2. The Jayhawks were led by a freshman named Danny Manning, who cut down the nets 3 years later.
7. No. 12 seed Arkansas in 1996
These Hogs were 2 years removed from the NCAA title and in Year 1 after Corliss Williamson. (Goodness, what a beast “Big Nasty” was. I digress…)
No matter. They still gave teams hell in March. No, they didn’t reach the NCAA title game for a 3rd consecutive year, but they made short order of No. 5 Penn State and No. 4 Marquette to get back to the Sweet 16.
6. No. 10 seed Auburn in 2003
The Tigers caught No. 2 seed Wake Forest at the perfect time. Well after Tim Duncan … and a year before Chris Paul arrived. Still, the Deacs were ACC champs and entered the NCAA Tournament with a 24-5 record. Auburn sent them home in the 2nd round.
5. No. 8 seed Alabama in 2004
Who saw this coming? The Tide finished 8-8 in the SEC and was pretty firmly on the bubble with 12 losses and just a 2-5 record against ranked teams.
They needed a shining moment from Antoine Pettway just to sneak past Southern Illinois in the opening round.
Up next: No. 1 seed Stanford, which was 30-1, led by future NBA player Josh Childress and playing on the West Coast in Seattle.
No matter. Alabama erased a 13-point deficit in the final 8 minutes, going on a 16-0 run to reach the Sweet 16. They upset No. 5 Syracuse to reach the Elite 8 for the only time in program history.
4. No. 8 seed Auburn in 1986
The Tigers beat No. 4 UNLV to reach the Elite 8 for the 1st time.
In terms of upsets, that was child’s play.
In the 2nd round, the Tigers faced No. 1 seed St. John’s, which won the Big East Tournament and entered the NCAA Tournament with a record of 30-4. Chuck Person dominated with 27 points as the Tigers rolled to an 81-65 victory.
3. No. 8 seed Kentucky in 2014
It’s difficult to think of Kentucky as an underdog. But with John Calipari fully reinventing the wheel every offseason with a fresh crop of freshmen, regular-season consistency hasn’t always been a given. Such was the case in 2014, when the Cats didn’t win the SEC regular-season or tournament title.
In a vacuum, if you swap Kentucky’s name with virtually any other in the SEC, we’re talking about one of the greatest and most unexpected posteason runs in league history. Just one that included 7 eventual NBA players.
Nobody in America had more collective talent than the Wildcats, and they put it all together when it mattered most.
By “they,” we mostly mean “Aaron Harrison,” who rescued the Cats in 4 consecutive games to reach the national title game.
He and his twin brother dominated as UK took out tournament darling and No. 1 seed Wichita State to reach the Sweet 16. How sweet that was. The Cats drew rival Louisville, and Aaron Harrison hit a late 3 that sent the No. 4 seed Cardinals home. In the Elite 8, he hit a deep 3 with 2.3 seconds left to beat No. 2 Michigan and advance to the Final Four.
He still had a bit more magic left: Down 73-71 in the final seconds, Aaron hit another game-winning 3 to beat No. 2 Wisconsin.
2. No. 7 seed South Carolina in 2017
South Carolina closed the regular season with 5 losses in 8 games. Not ideal. The Gamecocks then lost their opening game of the SEC Tournament.
The veteran Gamecocks, empowered by their fiery head coach and playmaking guard Sindarius Thornwell went on a run nobody outside of Columbia saw coming.
South Carolina served notice when it upset No. 2 Duke in the 2nd round to advance to the Sweet 16. That Duke team featured future NBA star Jayson Tatum.
They pounded No. 3 seed Baylor by 20 to reach the Elite 8.
They knocked out No. 4 seed Florida to reach their 1st Final Four. Thornwell led the charge each time.
1. No. 11 seed LSU in 1986
The Tigers could have 4 entries on the list. After sweating out an at-large invite with an 18-11 mark that lacked any signature wins, the Tigers went to work quickly in the NCAA Tournament.
They knocked off No. 6 Purdue in double overtime, No. 3 Memphis State by 2 and crushed a No. 2 Georgia Tech team led by future NBA standouts Mark Price and John Salley just to reach a 4th date with No. 1 seed Kentucky in the Elite 8 in Atlanta.
LSU had lost to Kentucky all 3 times that season, including twice already in March. But those 2 games were at Rupp Arena.
Ricky Blanton scored the game-winner on a layup with 15 seconds left to send the Tigers to their 3rd Final Four.
These Tigers became the 1st No. 11 seed to make the Final Four in the seeding era (1979-present) and remain the only SEC to start that low and finish that far.
Heady, unexpected stuff for a program that hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game in the previous 4 seasons.