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Best of March Madness Underdogs

On April 5, 2022, the Kansas City Jayhawks took down the North Carolina Tar Heels to nab the NCAA’s national basketball championship title. The final match was a close battle, with the Jayhawks narrowly winning with a 72-69 victory in New Orleans.

The championship title is the fourth for Kansas City, with a recent 2008 win against the Memphis Tigers. Both wins have come under coach Bill Self, whose Jayhawks have made ten championship appearances since he joined the team in 2003.

With Self at the helm, many NCAAB fans have already started to project next year’s March Madness seeds and other bracket finalists—and they’re keeping the Jayhawks on their radar. In fact, college basketball odds at Oddschecker.com/us currently list the Kansas Jayhawks as a close favorite to win next year’s bout, along with the Duke Blue Devils, North Carolina Tar Heels, and UCLA Bruins.

Still, despite the hype around predicting next year’s March Madness champions and finalists, underdogs who stay off the radar are one of the most exciting aspects of forecasting the tournament.

Though most ‘blue blood’ schools stay at the top of the list, like those mentioned above, there’s always a new dark horse on the horizon.

Here are three of the best underdog runs in recent years.

Arizona Wildcats, 1997

Today, the Wildcats are one of the most consistent competitors in college basketball… but that wasn’t always the case. Back in 1997, the school was scrapping for its first-ever championship—and for the Wildcats to take home their first national title, they’d have to face off against the top-three seeded teams in the country.

The team’s first challenge came in the Southeast Regional semis against the Jayhawks, which they escaped with a three-point 85-82 win. Then came the Final Four battle against the Tar Heels, which saw the Wildcats pick up their momentum with a 66-58 win. Last was a battle of the Wildcats as Arizona faced Kentucky. The game went into an unforgettable overtime stretch, which ended with an 84-79 win for Arizona and their first-ever national title.

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Syracuse Orange, 2003

Heading into the 2002-03 March Madness tournament, the Syracuse Orange was led by Jim Boeheim. After leading the Orange to the Final Four in 1987 and 1996, Boeheim was eager for a victory—and in 2002, he had starting freshman Carmelo Anthony on his squad.

Heading into the tournament, the Arizona Wildcats were favored by most pundits. As the tournament commenced, all eyes shifted to the Kansas City Jayhawks (led then by Roy Williams).

However, Boeheim, with Anthony on his roster, took it all the way for an 81-78 victory over the Jayhawks.

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Florida State Gators, 2006

Heading into March Madness, the Gators were expected to bounce from the tournament after the first round, as with recent years. However, the Gators, who were unranked by the Associated Press at the start of the season, went all the way under coach Billy Donovan back in 2005-06.

First, the Gators smashed favorites Villanova and Georgetown, then battered through UCLA—a university that leads the nation in NCAA national titles. It’s important to note the Gators didn’t just skate by the Bruins—they walked away with a 73-57 win. Even better, the Gators would snag the 2006-07 title under Donovan the next year.

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UConn Huskies, 2014

Unlike most of the underdogs on this list, the Huskies didn’t enter the season unranked. In fact, the Huskies have one of the most consistent records in terms of March Madness appearances.

However, there were more than a few unique circumstances surrounding the 2013-14 season that made their underdog comeback even more meaningful.

First, the Huskies had been barred from the 2013 March Madness tournament. The ban stemmed from the university’s lagging academics, in which athletes were underperforming. By 2014, they were back in action—and they faced a grueling loss in the AAC final against Louisville.

Despite a tougher seeding, the Huskies soon battered through the nation’s toughest competitors. First came a win against the 10th-ranked Villanova, which was followed by Iowa State. Then came a battle against the 11th-ranked Michigan State… and then a stunning and jaw-dropping victory of the 1st-ranked Florida Gators with a strong 10-point lead. Last came a 60-54 win against the Kentucky Wildcats to nab the national title.

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Honorable Mention: ‘The Perfect Game’

Back in 1985, Villanova had yet to carve out a place as royalty within March Madness. Their momentum started after what Sports Illustrated called ‘The Perfect Game’, a finals battle between Georgetown and Villanova.

At the time, Villanova was unranked—and, worst of all, Georgetown had Patrick Ewing playing as a center. Georgetown was coming off a 35-2 record, and Villanova 19-10. But none of that mattered when the Villanova Wildcats took the court and notched a 66-64 win over the national favorites.

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A Look at 2022’s Underdogs

As mentioned above, odds from top sportsbooks place the Jayhawks, Bruins, Blue Devils, and Tar Heels at the top of the pack as favorites for next year’s national championship. But some fans instead choose to search for a quality underdog for the next March Madness tournament.

Looking ahead, analysts have their eye on Loyola Chicago, San Diego State, Colorado State, and UAB as potential dark horses. At the forefront is Loyola’s new head coach, Drew Valentine. While he’s yet to prove himself and must fill Porter Moser’s shoes, Valentine has served as Moser’s understudy assistant coach for the last four years, hinting he’s in a perfect spot to push the Ramblers into the Big Dance.

Meanwhile, the Aztecs are coming off a strong year on the court. Heading into 2022, they’ll keep most of their roster. However, their incredible defense will need to come back just as strong if their odds are to shorten this season.

Colorado State has also commanded attention from analysts. Well before the 2022-23 season started, many fans and experts were already assigning the team a Top 25 ranking… but much of this depends on whether star David Roddy will come back for another season. If he chooses to enter the NBA Draft, the Rams odds at an underdog run lengthen extensively.
UAB’s roster won’t be nearly as compromised. Last year’s breakout stars KJ Buffen, Tavin Lovan, and Trey Jemison are all expected to return for another season of play with the Blazers. With all three in top shape, UAB will be a top competitor in the C-USA.

About Carolyn Lang