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The Slipper Still Fits Series – Part 4: The Deep Run

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We’ve made it to the Final 4 in the 2017 NCAA tournament. Thank God for South Carolina who in future years might find their way into this region or Sindarius Thornwell who could be featured in the star bracket.

Here’s a reminder of the criteria for the teams that made it into this side of the bracket:

These squads were no one and done flash in the pan. While many were not as high seeds as some of the other categories, they made up for the low-ish seed by making a deep run in the tournament. Elite 8 is an absolute must in this category, and the final 4 is the ideal landing spot. These teams remain in the public consciousness not because of  a singular shot, player, or moment, but because they slayed Goliath over and over and over again.

The Deep Run Region:

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(1) #11 George Mason Final 4, 2006 – “By George, the dream is alive!”

In 2006, George Mason was a clear cut bubble team and may have even been the last team admitted to the field. Dickie V was on ESPN like he always is, ranting and raving about how teams from major conferences (like Cincinnati and Florida State) should have made the tournament over the Patriots.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but coming into the ’06 tourney George Mason had never won an NCAA tournament game. And without leading scorer Tony Skinn for the tourney opener against Michigan State it looked like it would be another one and done. But Jim Larranaga inspired his troops to pound the Spartans on the boards, to a 40-24 advantage. Larranaga and the Patriots weren’t even close to done though. Next up was another college basketball powerhouse, defending National Champion North Carolina. That Carolina team lost their top 7 scorers though and even with stud freshman Tyler Hansbrough, the Tar Heels coughed up an early 16-2 lead and Roy Williams made a crucial coaching mistake down the stretch to allow George Mason to pull out the W. Larranaga started to make a name for himself too, I mean check out this motivational quote:

“The last comment I made to them was, ‘What color is kryptonite?” Larranaga said. “They said, ‘Green.’ I said, ‘Look at your jerseys. You have everything you need to win this game.”

Becoming just the 3rd CAA team to make the second weekend, George Mason would continue to prove they weren’t just happy to be there. Playing in Washington D.C. just a few miles from campus, they beat Witchita State to set up an Elite 8 upset that will never be forgotten.

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(4) #9 Witchita State Final 4, 2013 – Shockers shock the world

2013 was just the beginning of Gregg Marshall and Witchita State announcing themselves as a college basketball powerhouse. But back then, there was no way to see the type of 4 year run that Marshall would take these Shockers on.

After easily dispatching #8 seed Pitt in the first round, Witchita was expected to bow out in the second round to the more nationally respected mid-major Gonzaga. But Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker, Fred Van Vleet and co. were about to become March mainstays. A 12-0 run put top seeded Gonzaga & Kelly Olynyk up 49-41 midway through the second half. But the Shockers showed the resiliency that would become their trademark and closed on a 35-21 run capped by a ridiculous Van Vleet shot to seal it.

After beating fellow upstart La Salle in the Sweet 16, Witchita moved to the Elite 8 to face #2 seed Ohio State. Gregg Marshall implored his team to “play angry” throughout the tourney and they heeded that advice in taking a 20 point lead deep into the second half against the heavily favored Buckeyes. Even a ferocious rally from Ohio State to cut the lead to 3 in the final minutes was not enough to deny the Shockers their Final 4 berth.

Verdict:

This one is a blowout, George Mason easily moves to the next round. While Witchita State’s run was surprising, they faced a Gonzaga team that many pundits believed was a weak #1 in the second round and a #13 seed in the Sweet 16. George Mason on the other hand defeated the two previous National Champions and 1/2 of the previous years Final 4.

(2) #5 & #8 Butler make back-to-back Championship game appearances, 2010-2011  – The Butler did it

Similar to both Witchita State and VCU on this list, Butler’s runs in 2010 & 2011 were just a precursor to what they would become. In March 2010 however, no one could imagine Brad Stevens & Gordon Hayward turning this tiny school into an elite college basketball program capable of going toe-to-toe with the big boys.

Butler’s run through the 2010 & 2011 tournaments was not only memorable because of the Cinderella story, but because of the crazy number of extremely close games they played. Butler entered the 2010 tourney on a nation best 20 game winning streak, but coming from the Horizon League they still got no respect. After barely squeaking by #13 seed Murray State in the second round, that respect was still nowhere to be found.

After limping into halftime defecits against two higher seeded squads, Butler made sure not to make the same mistake thrice against top seeded Syracuse in the Sweet 16. But they did relinquish a 10 point halftime lead with 5 minutes left and still found the “resolve” (Brad Stevens’ buzz word that year) to advance past the Orange into the Elite 8 for the first time in school history.  Ever the cardiac kids, Butler proceeded to blow a half-time lead to #2 seed Kansas State & Jacob Pullen yet once again found the resolve to move on to the Final 4 in nearby Indianapolis.

The 2010 run had all the makings of a Hoosiers sequel.  And after beating another college basketball powerhouse in the Final 4, Michigan State, it seemed this movie would have a similar ending (they even stopped Draymond Green’s go ahead attempt in the waning seconds).  Alas, Gordon Hayward’s miracle shot against Duke was one inch off, and Butler couldn’t pull off the most magical run in March Madness history.

But that didn’t mean they wouldn’t try again the very next year.

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(3) #11 VCU and Shaka wreak HAVOC to the Final 4, 2011 – From First 4 to Final 4

That next year brought us another extremely unlikely Cinderella story, as the 2011 bracket was chock full of upsets right out the gate.  Like George Mason, VCU was a mid-major that left the majority of the college basketball world wondering how they were admitted as an at-large selection. VCU wouldn’t have even been in the tournament the year before, they only got in because of the field expansion to 68 teams and the invention of the “First 4”.

Initially an experiment that was seen as doomed to fail, the Rams immediately demonstrated why adding the First 4 could accelerate the Madness of March. Led by 33 year old star-in-the-making coach Shaka Smart, VCU didn’t just go all the way to the Final 4, they obliterated teams in the process.

They beat USC in the first 4 game by 13, where USC had only one field goal over the game’s last 9 minutes. Their patented HAVOC press defense was way too much for Georgetown (there they are again!) in an 18 point destruction. It was more of the same against #3 seed Purdue in the second round as they put up 94 points on their way to another 18 point win. It looked like they’d continue their dominance against Florida State in the Sweet 16, but they coughed up a 10 point lead with 6 minutes to play to go into overtime.  But the Commonwealth were able to stay composed, and a layup with 7 seconds left in OT sealed the deal:

Against top seeded Kansas in the Elite 8, the magic was sure to run out.  They faced a team that hadn’t been trailing by more than 2 all tournament featuring the Morris twins, yet they didn’t know what hit them as VCU hit 9/12 three pointers on their way to a 17 point lead just 15 minutes into the game. Kansas couldn’t come back from the shocking start, and just like that VCU went from First 4 to Final 4 in a fashion that no one will forget.

Verdict:

It’s wild that the same year VCU made their magical run, Butler made their second straight Championship appearance. While VCU had the tougher road in their one outing, Butler going to back-to-back title games from the Horizon League is something I don’t think we’ll ever see again. Between that and the incredible number of close games they played, Brad Stevens and co. move on.

Elite 8:

(1) #11 George Mason Final 4, 2006 – “By George, the dream is alive!”

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(2) #5 & #8 Butler make back-to-back Championship game appearances, 2010-2011  – The Butler did it

These are 2 Cinderella POWERHOUSES.

On one hand, you have George Mason who beat a who’s who of NBA talent and college basketball behemoths on their way to the Final 4. Beating Rudy Gay’s UCONN team in particular was arguably the most memorable upset of my lifetime, a game in which the Patriots found themselves down 12 in the first half, 9 in the second, and eventually took the lead before a wild Denham Brown layup swung the momentum back the other way to force OT. Mason became the first mid-major to crash the dance’s last weekend since Larry Bird’s Indiana State team did it in 1979!

On the other hand you have Butler, the team that made Cinderella sexy again. After a 2010 run and title game against Duke that was straight out of a movie, the 2011 run was maybe even more unbelievable. There was the Old Dominion buzzer beater in the first round:

There was the Butler – Pitt game in the second round which was the zaniest finish of any tournament game I can remember (2 fouls in the last second)!!

And that was just to get to the second weekend! Then they beat Wisconsin to reach the Elite 8, and stunned Florida in OT with help from a gimpy Shelvin Mack 3 pointer to reach their second straight Final 4. After dispatching fellow Cinderella VCU, Butler did the unthinkable in reaching their second consecutive title game.

While they didn’t win and played in the ugliest championship game in recent memory, it doesn’t take away from their accomplishment. More than anything though, these successive runs paved the way for Butler to advance from the Horizon League to the Big East and earn a reputation among college basketball’s big boys. Butler would never have beaten Villanova twice this year if they didn’t first have the magical March of 2010-11. Butler moves on to another Final 4:

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Tags : Slipper Series

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