10 Unexpected March Madness Stars
The annual NCAA Tournament rewards teams high and low for proving themselves to be among the best in the country.
Once the games begin, everyone is focused on which of the Davids will slay their Goliaths in the early rounds of the tournament, writing their stories into the pantheons of college basketball history. To achieve that kind of dream, some Cinderellas look to a top player to lead them.
Over the years, several players have stepped up their games when it mattered most, and have established themselves as storied figures that we still think and talk about.
Here’s a look back at 10 of the best.
After making a name for himself the previous year, Curry led Davidson back to the tournament in his sophomore season. He led the Southern Conference in scoring in 2008, but flew well under the radar. In the opening round of the tournament that year, Curry scored 40 points, going 8-for-10 from 3-point range, to help Davidson knock off Gonzaga. Davidson then took out #2 seed Georgetown and #3 Wisconsin before losing in the Elite Eight to Kansas. Curry is now one of the best shooters in the NBA.
Even if Xavier isn’t known for its Cinderella story, the men’s program rose up from nowhere to prominence over the course of four seasons from 1999 through 2003 thanks to its superstar, David West. In that span, they went from missing the tournament, to securing a #11, #7, and then a #3 seed in West’s four years. West’s numbers improved every year, and he became known over time as one of the nation’s best big men, but tourney time was when he shined brightest. In his last game, an upset loss to Maryland, West managed to score 22 points despite having an off night.
Absolutely nobody was talking about Miami (Ohio) before Szczerbiak showed up. There, he led the team to an unexpected Sweet 16 run in 1999 as a #10 seed. He netted 43 points in a first round upset of #7 Washington but it was his 24 points in the second round against #2 seeded Utah that made the country take notice. Szczerbiak had a good NBA career, sticking around for a decade, but it was during the NCAA Tournament were Wally really showed the world his skills.
Hayward wasted no time making a name for himself in the NCAA. As a freshman in 2008, he lead Butler to the Horizon League championship. Two years later, he had Butler in the Big Dance, bringing them all the way to the National Championship game against Duke. Ultimately, Hayward fell one shot short, missing a buzzer-beating heave as time expired. His skills and leadership have translated well to the NBA.
Valparaiso wasn’t an NCAA darling until 1998 when Bryce Drew showed his team was worth some serious consideration. Drew escorted the 13-seed to a second round matchup after he nailed a buzzer beater to take out Ole Miss. He finished the game with 22 points and Drew’s bucket is now known to many simply as “The Shot.” Valpo won another game in the tournament before being sent home. To this day, though, Drew is remembered for one of the biggest moments in NCAA Tournament history.
Weber State Improbably won the Big Sky Conference in 1999 and went to the national tourney behind the sharpshooter Arceneaux. There, they faced off against powerhouse North Carolina in the first round. Arceneaux dropped 36 points on the Tarheels to steal a tight 76-74 victory for the Wildcats. How’d he follow up that performance? With 32 points against Florida. Weber State was ultimately outmatched in overtime and lost to the Gators. Araceneaux unfortunately didn’t get a shot at redemption. Weber State failed to make it back to the tournament in his senior year.
Harper and 13th seed Morehead State knocked out 4th seed Louisville in 2011, nailing a three-pointer with just 4.2 seconds left. That shot, and Harper’s big time overall effort, helped put him on the map for NBA scouts. He was signed by the Blazers last year, but only lasted a month before being waived. He’s playing in the D-League now, waiting for his next opportunity to arise.
Dickau’s carried on the short, but rich, tradition of Gonzaga showing up bigger schools with NCAA success. The Zags went to the Elite Eight in 1999, which set up a new era for the team. Dickau transferred to Gonzaga, after sitting out a season per NCAA rules, and became a central piece of the Zags’ offense. He was an All-American by his senior year, but his best games seemed to come when the spotlight was on him and Gonzaga. He didn’t disappoint.
Sometimes it’s just one NCAA tournament that can bring you fame and fortune. For O’Bryant, his time at Bradley University provided him the chance to stand out, and he took full advantage. Bradley lost to Memphis in the Sweet Sixteen at the 2006 tournament but O’Bryant’s killer performances against high powered Kansas and Pittsburgh that took the team that far.
How does a top-caliber player wind up at Idaho State? Simple. He grew up in Idaho. Steve Hayes was recruited to play elsewhere, but he chose to stay home from 1973 to 1977, playing for a Big Sky team instead of a, say, Pac-10 one. His decision led to the school’s astonishing 1977 NCAA Sweet 16 upset of UCLA. Soon afterward, Hayes was drafted in the fourth round of the NBA Draft by the New York Knicks. He put up good numbers, but no moment ever matched the feeling Hayes had after taking out John Wooden’s Bruins.