Gonzaga and teams from what are typically considered college basketball's top-seven leagues accounted for all 16 of the Final Four spots in the four NCAA Tournaments between 2014 and 2017. Then, out of absolutely nowhere, Loyola-Chicago burst onto the national scene in 2018 with an improbable run to the Final Four.
The Ramblers' run as a No. 11 seed captured the attention of the nation and conjured memories of Final Four appearances made by fellow Cinderella teams George Mason and VCU in 2006 and 2011, respectively. Both were also No. 11 seeds.
But Loyola-Chicago wasn't the first Missouri Valley Conference team to make a deep NCAA Tournament run in the decade. Wichita State made the 2013 Final Four as a No. 9 seed out of the MVC before moving to the AAC before the 2017-18 season.
It's part of what makes college basketball great: every conference gets at least one team into the Big Dance, and if one of them gets hot at the right time, history shows they can make it to the sport's ultimate stage.
So who will be the sport's next Cinderella team? Our experts take a shot at predicting who will be the next Final Four team from outside the seven major conferences in this week's edition of the Dribble Handoff.
The only stipulation was that Gonzaga was off-limits due to its status as a perennial contender.
Some of the most memorable stories in modern college basketball history revolve around schools from the Colonial Athletic Association, Missouri Valley Conference and Horizon League advancing to the Final Four against all odds. It's one of the things that makes the NCAA Tournament special each and every March (except for last March, of course). So it's always fun to think about what program operating outside of one of the top seven leagues in the sport might be the next to play on the final weekend of the season.
My guess: Saint Louis — and perhaps this season.
The Billikens are returning the top eight scorers from a team that closed on a five-game winning streak — most notably Jordan Goodwin, Javonte Perkins, Hasahn French and Gibson Jimerson, all of whom averaged double-figures in points. And, keep in mind, Jimerson only played 10 games last season because of a broken foot suffered in December. In other words, that five-game winning streak happened despite his absence that forced SLU to play shorthanded, which, on some level, makes it even more impressive. The 6-5 guard is currently healthy and expected to make a big impact. And with Dayton's Obi Toppin off to the NBA, Travis Ford's Billikens are now the obvious favorites in the Atlantic 10 and, yes, talented and experienced enough to maybe, just maybe, march all the way to the Final Four. -- Gary Parrish
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The WAC is New Mexico State's to run until further notice. The Aggies have won five conference regular-season championships over the last decade and three under Chris Jans, who took over in 2018.
What Jans has accomplished in short order is both remarkable and, thus far, shockingly sustainable. He's already doubled the program's WAC championships from three to six, made NCAA Tournament appearances in every season he's been at the helm, and established him and his program as the beacon of greatness in the conference in the process. And Jans and his staff have not only won, but won big, claiming those conference regular-season titles by multiple games. They are 31-1 in league play the last two seasons!
Sustaining such a level of dominance would be practically unheard of, but doing so would grant them a bite at the apple to make the tournament -- and potentially make deep runs -- on an annual basis. With eight NCAA Tournament appearances over the last decade and no Sweet 16s to show for it, it's only a matter of time before the Aggies break through in a big way. -- Kyle Boone
BYU finished the 2019-20 season 24-8 (13-3 WCC) and ranked No. 18 in the AP Top 25 under first-year coach Mark Pope as they cracked the poll for the first time since 2011. The Cougars deserved the honor after they won nine straight games over a month-long period from the end of January through the end of February. The run included a win over then-No. 2 Gonzaga, which had won 19 straight games at the time.
But recent success is only part of the reason BYU will be the next team from a mid-tier conference to make the Final Four. Fact is, the Cougars are losing a lot from last season's team and might not be able to immediately replicate last season's success, even with touted Purdue graduate transfer Matt Haarms anchoring the team's front line.
Rather, there are two big reasons why BYU will make a Final Four in the fairly near future: the program's track record of consistency and its potential star coach in Mark Pope.
First off, BYU made 11 NCAA Tournament appearances between 2001 and 2015 under former coaches Steve Cleveland and Dave Rose but only advanced to the Sweet 16 once, which was in 2011 when it had Naismith player of the Year Jimmer Fredette.
This is a program that expects to be in the NCAA Tournament, and now it has a coach with a track record of winning there in Mark Pope, who was a player on Kentucky's 1996 national-title team. Pope led an impressive turnaround at Utah Valley before landing the BYU job and earning acclaim last season. Now he's a hot name in the profession at a spot with a long track record of producing NCAA Tournament teams.
It's a combination brimming with enough potential to get the Cougars to the Final Four. -- David Cobb