The FAU Owls and the 10 most amazing runs to the men's Final Four

ByJeff Borzello ESPN logo
Wednesday, April 26, 2023

NEW YORK -- The 2023 Final Four is poised to be the land of the unknown. UConn is the only team still standing with a national championship to its name. Neither Creighton nor San Diego State has ever been to a Final Four. Prior to last Friday, Florida Atlantic had never even won an NCAA tournament game as a program. Mark Few and Jim Larranaga have been to Final Fours, but Greg McDermott is the only other Elite Eight coach who had advanced out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament prior to this season.

If someone other than UConn cuts down the nets, three of the past four national champions will have been first-time winners.

Parity has hit college basketball in a major way, with the advent of the transfer portal and the extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic among the reasons.

So in a season and tournament filled with parity, how unlikely was it that FAU -- the team with the most wins in college basketball this season -- would make a Final Four run? Only six teams seeded lower than the Owls have ever played in a national semifinal, so they're in pretty rare company. FAU defeated No. 3 seed Kansas State 79-76 on Saturday at Madison Square Garden.

Here are the 10 unlikeliest Final Four runs since the NCAA tournament expanded in 1985. (One quick note: 1985 Villanova was the unlikeliest national champion, but this isn't the unlikeliest NCAA tournament runs, it's the unlikeliest Final Four runs.)

10. 2017 South Carolina Gamecocks (7-seed)

A 7-seed has won it all before, when Shabazz Napier led UConn's run through the 2014 NCAA tournament. But arguably the most surprising Final Four run came from Frank Martin's 2017 South Carolina team, which entered the NCAA tournament winning three of its final nine games. But the Gamecocks ran through 10-seed Marquette by 20 in the first round, then knocked off 2-seed Duke, 3-seed Baylor (also by 20) and 4-seed Florida in the Elite Eight. Sindarius Thornwell quietly had one of the best NCAA tournament runs of any player in the past decade.

9. 2011 Butler Bulldogs (8-seed)

You might be surprised to learn that 8-seeds have as many Final Four teams as 6- and 7-seeds combined, with six. In fact, four have advanced to the national championship game, including last year's North Carolina team -- and one, 1985 Villanova, won it all. While Villanova's national championship was the most surprising title win in tournament history, it wasn't the most surprising Final Four run in history -- that likely goes to 2011 Butler.

It was a year after the Bulldogs went to the title game and lost in the final seconds to Duke. They were sitting at 14-9 in early February, on a three-game losing streak and hovering in the 60s in KenPom. They didn't lose another game until the final Monday night of the season, to UConn, beating 9-seed Old Dominion, 1-seed Pitt, 4-seed Wisconsin and 2-seed Florida to get to Houston, where they then beat the 2011 VCU team.

8. 2023 Florida Atlantic Owls (9-seed)

On Selection Sunday, one of the bigger talking points was how underseeded FAU seemed. The Owls entered the NCAA tournament with a 31-3 record and a top-30 ranking in most metrics. Yet they were given a 9-seed due to their lack of high-quality wins. But they went out, silenced the doubters and backed up the supporters. It took a last-second shot from Nick Boyd to beat Memphis in the first round before facing 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson in the second round. FDU looked poised for a second straight stunner, but FAU pulled away late. Against a physical and defensive-minded Tennessee team in the Sweet 16, FAU was able to impose its will more than most teams had all season -- and then the Owls took down NCAA tournament star Markquis Nowell and Kansas State in the Elite Eight.

7. 2013 Wichita State Shockers (9-seed)

Until Saturday night, the Shockers were the only 9-seed to advance to the Final Four -- and it was a springboard for Gregg Marshall and Wichita State's 35-0 run to the NCAA tournament the following season. Not only did Wichita State beat a 1-seed, 2-seed and 8-seed on its way to the Final Four, it beat three of the top-12 teams at KenPom that season. The Shockers blew out Pittsburgh in the first round by 18 points, then knocked off top-seeded Gonzaga to advance to the Sweet 16. Once there, they took down an even bigger Cinderella in 13-seed La Salle before beating Ohio State in the Elite Eight.

6. 2016 Syracuse Orange (10-seed)

Only one 10-seed has ever reached the Final Four -- and it was Jim Boeheim's last Final Four of his career. The Orange backed into the NCAA tournament, losing five of their final six games to enter Selection Sunday at just 19-13 overall and 9-9 in the ACC. But the committee gave them a bid and Boeheim's famed 2-3 zone came to life, flummoxing everyone on its path. Syracuse blew out 7-seed Dayton in the first round by 19, had a fortunate draw against 15-seed Middle Tennessee in the second round (the Blue Raiders upset 2-seed Michigan State) and then took down Gonzaga and Virginia on its way to the Final Four.

5. 1986 LSU Tigers (11-seed)

LSU doesn't exactly scream Cinderella, but the Tigers are one of just five 11-seeds to reach the Final Four -- and they're the only one to go through the best possible seed in each round. They started off by beating 6-seed Purdue, followed it up with an 83-81 victory over 3-seed Memphis, knocked off 2-seed Georgia Tech and then defeated top-seeded Kentucky to advance to the Final Four. The win over the Wildcats was especially satisfying, given they had faced them three times before the NCAA tournament -- and lost all three.

4. 2021 UCLA Bruins (11-seed)

Given their blue-blood status, the Bruins don't quite fit with the other candidates at the top of the rankings. But they were still an 11-seed and still only the second First Four team ever to make the Final Four. UCLA entered the NCAA tournament on a four-game losing streak, including an overtime Pac-12 tournament loss to Oregon State that jump-started the Beavers' Elite Eight run. After beating Michigan State in overtime of the First Four, UCLA went and beat BYU and 14-seed Abilene Christian by double digits, then knocked off 2-seed Alabama in overtime, 1-seed Michigan by two -- and Gonzaga needed a Jalen Suggs 40-footer to beat the Bruins in the Final Four.

3. 2018 Loyola Chicago Ramblers (11-seed)

Sister Jean! Loyola Chicago was actually one of the hottest teams in the country entering the NCAA tournament, winning 17 of its final 18 games, but a difficult first half of the campaign resulted in an 11-seed. Once there, the Ramblers had some of the best close-game performances we've ever seen in the tournament. They beat 6-seed Miami by two, 3-seed Tennessee by one and 7-seed Nevada by one -- before erupting against 9-seed Kansas State in the Elite Eight, blowing out the Wildcats by 16. They didn't go through the region's 1-seed to get to the Final Four, but it was also the program's first NCAA tournament since 1985, so No. 3 seems fair.

2. 2006 George Mason Patriots (11-seed)

After losing to Hofstra in the semifinal of the CAA tournament, it looked like George Mason might be left out of the NCAA tournament. But the Patriots got an at-large bid ahead of the Pride and made history after that. Jim Larranaga guided his team to wins over three of the biggest programs in the sport, beating 6-seed Michigan State in the first round, 3-seed North Carolina in the second round, knocking off 7-seed Wichita State in the Sweet 16 -- and then the biggest stunner of them all, an 86-84 victory over 1-seed UConn, arguably the tournament favorite.

1. 2011 VCU Rams (11-seed)

HAVOC! The first First Four-to-Final Four team, the Rams are tied with four other 11-seeds as the lowest seed to ever make the Final Four -- but they're the most improbable of the group. VCU lost four of its final five games to end the regular season, lost in the CAA tournament and entered the NCAA tournament ranked No. 84 at KenPom. But something flipped for Shaka Smart's team in the Dance, where the Rams beat USC in the First Four, upset Georgetown by 18 in the first round and then stunned 3-seed Purdue by 18 in Chicago. They got a good break when 10-seed Florida State upset Notre Dame in the second round, but they still had to take down top-seeded Kansas to get to the Final Four.