For the first 21 years of the 64-team bracket, only one double-digit seed survived to the Final Four – No. 11 LSU in 1986. George Mason broke through, also as an 11 seed, in 2006 and now 11th-seeded Loyola Chicago has advanced to the last weekend – the fourth double-digit seed in the last dozen tourneys and the second in the last three.
Play the parity card if you wish, but Sister Jean’s Ramblers will try to make history when they take on No. 3 Michigan Saturday in San Antonio. For the previous underdog Cinderellas, the Final Four road ended in the semifinals.
Loyola is in the Final Four for the first time since 1963 and 55 years ago the Ramblers won the “Game Of Change” to claim their first and only national championship. While two of the double-digit Final Four teams were from major conferences, Loyola is carrying the flag for The Little Guys. Their inspiring run will continue to move the national needle if they can play on Monday night’s biggest stage.
Depending on perspective and guess work, a double-digit seed is either due to break through … or teams that make it this far suddenly find the air is too thin to maintain competitiveness. Here’s a look back at how the four previous double-digit seeds and how their semifinals unfolded.
1986 No. 11 seed LSU: The Tigers made an amazing run to Dallas despite a stretch of losing 11 of 19 games. With a limited roster, coach Dale Brown employed what he called his “freak” defense – a mishmash of man-to-man and various zone alignments.
LSU benefitted from a rule – which was soon changed – that allowed a school to host the first- and second-rounds. Boosted by a homecourt edge, the Tigers beat No. 6 seed Purdue in double-overtime and then No. 3 seed Memphis. LSU became the only team in NCAA history to knock off the top three seeds in its region when it defeated second-seeded Georgia Tech and top-seeded Kentucky in Atlanta.
LSU had an eight-point lead at halftime thanks to 57 percent shooting. Louisville wasn’t able to get the game turned in its favor until the Tigers went cold. LSU’s inability to score fueled the Cardinals’ fast break and they took the lead for good with just under 13 minutes to play. LSU was within four with 5:30 remaining. This was the first season of the shot clock (45 seconds) but the last without the 3-point shot so LSU’s comeback effort was too challenging.
Louisville, which went on to beat Duke for the national championship, prevailed over LSU, 88-77. The Cardinals had five players in double figures, led by Billy Thompson and Milt Wagner, who each had 22.
2006 No. 11 seed George Mason: Cinderella made her Final Four debut in Indianapolis. The Patriots of the Colonial Athletic Association were the first double-digit seed to truly wow and woo the country. George Mason danced to the pep band’s theme song, Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
The Patriots’ road to Indianapolis started with an upset of No. 6 seed Michigan State 75-65. They then knocked off No. 3 seed North Carolina 65-60, No. 7 seed Wichita State 63-55 and then defeated No. 1 seed UConn 86-84 in overtime in the regional final at Washington D.C. – not far from the school’s Fairfax, Va., campus.
Alas, the dream died quickly against Florida, a No. 3 seed. George Mason’s 2-0 lead to open the game was the only time it had the edge on the scoreboard. The Gators had a 31-26 halftime edge and removed any doubt with a 16-4 run in the first 6:38 of the second half.
The Patriots shot 41.1 percent from the field and were out-rebounded 40-27. The Gators made 12-of-25 from three and outscored George Mason from 36-to-6 from behind the arc on the way to a 73-56 victory.
2011 No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth: Five years after Georgia Mason, another Virginia team representing the CAA and carrying a double-digit seed, made it to the Final Four. Virginia Commonwealth was known for its “havoc” defense under young coach Shaka Smart, who was in his second season.
When the bracket was announced, there were numerous critics of the Rams’ selection as an at-large team.
VCU was 23-11 and assigned to the First Four in Dayton. That meant its run to the Final Four in Houston required five victories.
In a game between two No. 11 seeds, the Rams defeated USC, then knocked off No. 6 seed Georgetown, No. 3 Purdue, No. 10 Florida State in overtime before shocking top-seeded Kansas in the regional final in San Antonio.
In the semifinals, VCU took on Butler, another “mid-major” school. The previous season the Bulldogs had lost in the national championship to Duke. The game between the Rams and the Bulldogs was a rock fight that the rocks won.
The teams combined to shoot 37.6 percent. VCU never was within one possession on the scoreboard for the last 9:56. Butler had a 48-32 rebounding edge and that translated into 19 second-chance points that helped the Bulldogs win, 70-62.
2016 No. 10 seed Syracuse: The Orange entered the tournament with a 19-13 record and benefitted from some upsets to move into the second weekend.
The Orange won over No. 7 Dayton in its first-round game then defeated No. 15 Middle Tennessee State and No. 11 Gonzaga to reach the regional final where they upset top-seeded Virginia.
The Final Four semifinals in Houston pitted Syracuse against another Atlantic Coast Conference foe in top-seeded North Carolina. After the first five minutes, when the Orange jumped to a quick lead, it was obvious the Tar Heels were in control and had little trouble solving Syracuse’s zone.
North Carolina’s lead slipped under double digits just once in the second half. The Tar Heels’ 83-66 victory was constructed thanks to 53.8 percent shooting and a 43-31 rebounding advantage.
By the (KenPom) numbers
Those of us who rely on Ken Pomeroy’s next-level analytics to help us make sense of an insensible sport can now use his web site (kenpom.com) to attempt to dissect and analyze the Final Four teams. KenPom has been crunching numbers since 2002 and based on the numerical “profiles” of 16 championship teams, let’s just go ahead and send the trophy to …
Your Veteran Scribe isn’t much for high-level arithmetic (freshman Algebra I in high school resulted in “passing” with a D-minus) so he decided to keep it simple. Researching KenPom’s adjusted offense and adjusted defense rankings for the last 16 champions yielded the following info:
- Seven teams had combined rankings in single digits.
- The two lowest combined rankings totaled seven. North Carolina in 2009 was No. 1 in adjusted offense and No. 6 in adjusted defense while the 2005 Tar Heels were No. 2 in offense, No. 5 in defense.
- The highest combined ranking is 49 by Connecticut in 2014.
- The worst offensive team was Connecticut in 2014. The Huskies were 39th in adjusted offense.
- The worst defense team was also Connecticut. In 2011, the Huskies’ adjusted defense was 15th.
The average combined ranking for the previous 16 champions is 16. And that’s why Villanova heads to San Antonio as the favorite. The Wildcats are No. 1 in KenPom.com in adjusted offense and No. 13 in adjusted defense.
Villanova will face Kansas in Saturday’s second semifinal. The Jayhawks are five and 42 in the offensive and defensive categories. Michigan is 31 and four while Loyola is 60 and 18. Only UConn’s two championships were won by teams with higher combined numbers compared to the “other” three teams in San Antonio.
If the analytics mean anything – and once the ball is tipped, they don’t – then Villanova is the favorite to cut down the nets for the second time in the last three seasons.