10 Most Memorable NCAA Tourney Mid-Majors

There isn’t a rigid, universally accepted definition of the term "mid-major." Use of it has increased since the inception of the BCS, when the six major football conferences aligned, drawing the proverbial line in the sand between the "haves" and "have nots." Despite the fact that "BCS school" is technically a football designation, it serves as a differentiator between big-budget athletic programs and those that spend more modestly. Being a supposed "have not" in college basketball isn’t quite as difficult as being one in football, though, as one talented coach and one talented player can almost instantly transform a loser into a winner. Any hot team, regardless of its historical stature or lack thereof, is capable of pulling a shocking upset or two and/or making a deep run in the single-elimination NCAA tournament. The following teams emerged on the national stage in March during the modern era, adding to the mystique of college basketball’s most celebrated month. The order is subjective, of course, but more significant overall accomplishments tend to make a team more memorable. Also, we excluded teams such as 2008 Memphis and 1998 Utah because they featured major conference-level talent, and there wasn’t an element of surprise during their runs.

  1. 2010 Butler Bulldogs (Reached National Championship Game): If you don’t count the 1990 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels as a mid-major, then the Bulldogs hold the distinction of being furthest-advancing mid-major. Led by a proficient trio of Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard and wunderkind 33-year-old coach Brad Stevens, they upset No. 1 seed Syracuse, No. 2 seed Kansas State and defending national runner-up Michigan State en route to their matchup against college basketball Goliath Duke. In what proved to be one of the most dramatic national championship games in tourney history, Duke outlasted the hometown team 61-59 in Indianapolis. The game culminated with Hayward’s desperation heave as time expired that almost won the game for the underdogs.
  2. 2006 George Mason Patriots (Reached Final Four): Here’s a team that truly used the tournament to catapult itself onto the national scene. George Mason, a school named after a "Father of the Bill of Rights" that opened its doors as a branch of the University Virginia in 1957, had never been ranked in basketball before the 2005-06 season. In one fell swoop, it was a national media darling, unexpectedly reaching the Final Four after beating four lofty opponents, including No. 2 seed Tennessee and No. 1 seed UConn in an enthralling overtime Washington DC Regional final. The dream ended in the national semifinal as eventual national champion Florida routed the Patriots — there was certainly no shame in losing to a team with Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer. George Mason was just the second No. 11 seed ever to reach the Final Four.
  3. 1999 Gonzaga Bulldogs (Reached Elite Eight): The poster child of successful mid-major programs, Gonzaga has appeared in the tournament an impressive 13 consecutive years. But its most successful effort during that run didn’t occur under the leadership of Dan Dickau or Adam Morrison or coach Mark Few — it occurred when Richie Frahm was anchoring the 1999 Dan Monson-coached squad. The slipper fit nicely as the Zags knocked off No. 7 seed Minnesota, No. 2 seed Stanford and No. 6 seed Florida on Casey Calvary’s game-winning tip-in with 4.4 seconds remaining. In the regional final against eventual national champion UConn, Quentin Hall’s three with 35 seconds left cut the lead to one, but the Zags eventually lost 67-62. If they had pulled that upset, it’s quite possible they would have been Butler before Butler.
  4. 2004 Saint Joseph’s Hawks (Reached Elite Eight): Entering the 2004 tournament, it was hard for many critics to fathom that an Atlantic 10 team, representing a school of fewer than 4,000 students, was deserving of a No. 1 seed. The Hawks, led by a potent backcourt consisting of Naismith College Player of the Year Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, completed the regular season 27-0 and suffered their first loss in the A-10 tournament. Their second and final loss came in the East Rutherford Regional final in a thriller against Oklahoma State, in which John Lucas III sunk the game-winning 18-footer along with the Final Four dreams of the Hawks. Nelson and West proceeded to enjoy good NBA careers, and the Hawks have appeared in the tournament only once since their departure.
  5. 2008 Davidson Wildcats (Reached Elite Eight): Stephen Curry, son of former NBA sharpshooter Dell Curry, memorably carried the Wildcats on his back to the cusp of the Final Four using many of the same skills his father once flashed on the court. Averaging 25.9 points per game and making more than four out of 10 threes per game during the regular season, Curry continued his magnificent play in the tournament. In the first round against Gonzaga, he scored 40 points — 30 in second half to lead the comeback — while hitting eight of 10 threes. Against No. 2 seed Georgetown, he rebounded from an unproductive first half in which he score just five points, scoring 25 in the second half. In the Sweet Sixteen versus No. 3 seed Wisconsin, he overcame the Badgers usually stingy defense to score 33 points in a convincing win. His 25 points in the Midwest Regional final, however, weren’t enough to upset eventual national champion Kansas — the Wildcats lost 59-57 in a game that came down to the wire. Davidson, a school of fewer than 2,000 students, also proved that size doesn’t always matter come tourney time.
  6. 2000 Tulsa Golden Hurricane (Reached Elite Eight): Tulsa has achieved quite a bit of success over the last three decades under coaches Nolan Richardson, Tubby Smith and Bill Self. In Self’s final and career-launching season, the 32-5 Golden Hurricane reached the program’s first Elite Eight, notably defeating No. 2 seed Cincinnati in the second round, which had spent much of the season ranked No. 1 in the polls. Despite losing Naismith College Player of the Year Kenyon Martin due to a broken leg prior to the tournament, the Bearcats featured talented freshmen guards DerMarr Johnson and Kenny Satterfield and senior forward Pete Mickeal. In the South Regional final, Tulsa was eliminated by North Carolina in a close-fought 59-55 battle. Tulsa exhibited true team play during the 1999-00 season — five players averaged more than 10 points per game and one other, Tony Heard, averaged 9.7 points per game.
  7. 2001 Temple Owls (Reached Elite Eight): Given its rich basketball tradition, it’s arguable as to whether Temple should be classified as a mid-major. Hall of Fame coach John Chaney ensured the Owls were a perennial tournament team, and 2001 might have been his best work. As a member of the A-10 conference, the 24-13 Owls weren’t expected to do much entering mid-March, but they defied expectations. As an 11 seed, they were one of the lowest seeds to reach the Elite Eight, culminating a run that included wins over No. 6 seed Texas and No. 3 seed Florida, the previous year’s national runner-up. Temple hung close with defending national champion and top-seeded Michigan State, but the Spartans’ talent, highlighted by underclassmen Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph, was too difficult to overcome.
  8. 2002 Kent State Golden Flashes (Reached Elite Eight): Under coach Stan Heath, the 30-6 Golden Flashes set MAC records in overall wins and conference wins, and reached the NCAA tournament for just the third time in their history. Riding an 18-game winning streak, they proceeded to defeat No. 7 seed Oklahoma State, SEC champion and No. 2 seed Alabama by 13 points and No. 3 seed Pittsburgh in a 78-73 overtime win. Eventual national runner-up Indiana ended their season and 21-game winning streak. Interesting and often forgotten fact: Kent State’s leading scorers for the season were guard Trevor Huffman and none other than Antonio Gates, forward and future NFL All-Pro tight end.
  9. 1999 Temple Owls (Reached Elite Eight): Overshadowed by Gonzaga’s Cinderella run, the 1999 Owls, led by Pepe Sanchez, Lamont Barnes, Mark Karcher and Rasheed Brokenborough, quietly fought their way to the Elite Eight where they fell to No. 1 seed and national title-favorite Duke. Up until that point, their path was a bit more favorable than those of other memorable mid-majors — they beat No. 11 seed Kent State in the first round and No. 10 seed Purdue in the Sweet Sixteen, the latter of which was attempting to make its own Cinderella run as a low seed. The Owls’ most impressive victory came in the second round when it defeated Pete Mickeal, Melvin Levett, Kenyon Martin and the rest of the No. 3-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats 64-54. Much to his chagrin, the 1999 NCAA tournament was John Chaney’s last, but he went out with a bang.
  10. 2004 Xavier Musketeers (Reached Elite Eight): Xavier, too, didn’t receive the attention it deserved for its deep run into March because of the accomplishments of its A-10 foe Saint Joe’s. The Musketeers, A-10 tournament champions, defeated the Hawks by 20 points in the A-10 tournament quarterfinals, handing them their first loss of the season. With star guards Lionel Chalmers and Romain Sato, Xavier carried the momentum all the way to the Elite Eight, beating No. 2 seed Mississippi State and No. 3 seed Texas in the process. The Atlanta Regional final versus Duke was a nerve-racking contest featuring 11 ties, 12 lead changes, and a margin between the teams that never exceeded six points, but freshman Luol Deng’s play down the stretch eventually propelled Duke to yet another Final Four — Xavier would return to the Elite Eight in 2008. Of course, it should be noted that, like Temple, you can debate whether or not Xavier should be considered a mid-major given its history of success, hence its placement on this list. Some might consider a few of the aforementioned teams "high majors," but that grey area could inspire an entirely different article.