Since the NCAA Tournament expanded the field to 64 teams in 1985, 12 different programs have made their Final Four debuts. When the Gonzaga Bulldogs and South Carolina Gamecocks arrive at the Final Four this weekend, they’ll become teams 13 and 14 on that list. Both will also be looking to buck a trend.
Just one school (Connecticut) since 1985 has won a national championship in its first Final Four trip. That year, the Huskies finally broke through after years of knocking on the door of the sport’s final weekend. And despite a formidable opponent in the one-loss Duke Blue Devils, UConn prevailed 77-74 in a thriller.
The Huskies are one of just three debuting teams to even make it past the National Semifinal – something either Gonzaga or South Carolina is guaranteed to do since they’ll face one another on Saturday. Beyond UConn and the Gonzaga/South Carolina winner, the others on the list are Seton Hall (1989) and Butler (2010). It’s a small but notable club. Connecticut is also the only one of them to win a title at all.
Here is a rundown of all 12 Final Four debuts since 1985:
1988: Arizona Wildcats
Arizona only came to national prominence in the 1980s, with the 1988 Final Four trip serving as the first of four in a 14-year stretch through 2001. The Wildcats fell to Oklahoma in their debut, then again to Arkansas in 1994. They finally broke through to win it all in 1997. Despite a pretty nice run of success over the last decade or so, it’s been 16 years since Arizona made a Final Four.
1989: Seton Hall Pirates
Seton Hall’s lone Final Four trip was the culmination of a decade of quality basketball, and it almost ended in a title for the Pirates. Instead, they lost by one to Michigan in overtime. They haven’t been back to the Final Four since.
1990: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Georgia Tech was sort of a speed bump on the way to UNLV’s 1990 championship. The same could potentially be said of their 2004 Final Four appearance, which ended in a title game loss to UConn. Tech hasn’t really come close in the 13 years that followed.
1994: Florida Gators
Before Florida was a back-to-back champ in the mid-2000s, they were an upstart falling to Duke in their first Final Four. The Gators would take another step closer to a title when they lost to Michigan State in the 2000. Then the championships came. Florida was heavily favored for their third title in 2014, but lost to UConn in the National Semifinals. UF nearly made it to this year’s Final Four as well.
1996: UMass Minutemen
John Calipari led UMass to its lone Final Four following a dominant one-loss campaign and an Atlantic-10 title. The Minutemen would lose to Kentucky in the National Semifinal, then were eventually stripped of the trip entirely for NCAA violations. UMass has only made two NCAA Tournaments since 1996.
1996: Mississippi State Bulldogs
Like UMass, Mississippi State also made its Final Four debut in 1996, and similarly lost before the championship round (in MSU’s case, to Syracuse). Unfortunately, they’ve been relegated to first- and second-round losses in limited recent trips.
1997: Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota marched through the Midwest region as a one-seed, then lost to Kentucky (as was the norm for many in the late 90s). That Final Four appearance was later vacated by the NCAA. It was the most recent of just four trips to the Sweet 16 for the Golden Gophers.
1999: Connecticut Huskies
As covered earlier, UConn capped a dominant campaign with an exciting win over Duke for their first title.
2001: Maryland Terrapins
Before the Terps won it all in 2002, they lost to Duke in 2001. To date, those two seasons are still Maryland’s only Final Four appearances.
2006: George Mason Patriots
Jim Larranaga and George Mason shocked the world on their way to the most unlikely Final Four bid, though the magic ended with a double-digit loss to eventual champ Florida. Mason still took down four single-digit seeds on the way, however (including top-seed UConn).
2010: Butler Bulldogs
Surprising Butler nearly beat Duke at the buzzer to win the title. Despite the loss, the Bulldogs regrouped the following year, only to lose the championship game (to UConn).
2011: VCU Rams
In the first year the First Four was held, 11-seed VCU made it all the way to the Final Four. No other First Four team has made it that far since – nor has VCU.
These teams and events all occur independent of one another, of course. But when Gonzaga and South Carolina tip off in the National Semifinal, you can’t just push their respective first-time statuses aside. Nor can you ignore that the Bulldogs are the first West Coast Conference team to make the Final Four since San Francisco in 1957 (the last of three consecutive trips for the Dons).
Tidbits like those, and many others, are all part of the larger story of this year’s Final Four. Now we’ll see if either the Bulldogs or Gamecocks join UConn as the only first-timer (since 1985) to win it all.