college basketball

The most surprising MOPs in March Madness history

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Ryan Murphy

March 21st, 2022

The beauty of March Madness is its utter unpredictability. The NCAA Tournament’s single-elimination format and use of neutral sites means that anything can — and often does — happen. Hail Marys are answered almost daily, and favorites fall with surprising regularity.

All of that upheaval means unheralded players occasionally catch fire at just the right time and end up winning the tourney’s most coveted individual honor. Join us now as we rank the top five most surprising Most Outstanding Player award recipients in March Madness history.

Ed Pinckney, Villanova (1985)

The 1985 NCAA Tournament was widely expected to end in another coronation for the Georgetown Hoyas, who had cruised to a 35-3 record during the regular season and easily won the Big East Tournament on the strength of Patrick Ewing’s phenomenal play.

Georgetown dismantled Lehigh, Temple, Loyola, Georgia Tech, and St. John’s on the road to the Final Four, as anticipated, but the Hoyas met an immovable object when they ran into Ed Pinckney and Villanova in the title game. The no-nonsense forward flipped the script on the ultra aggressive Hoyas, and bullied his way to 16 points and six rebounds. His gusty effort resulted in a shocking, 66-64 upset win and the Wildcats’ first national championship.

Donald Williams, North Carolina (1993)

It isn’t hard to understand how the 1992-93 Tar Heels won a national championship. North Carolina was coached by the legendary Dean Smith, after all, and featured an exceptionally talented core that included five future NBA players.

And yet, despite the team’s many A-listers, it was journeyman guard Donald Williams who ultimately led them to victory. The 6-foot-3 sharpshooter scored 25 points on 5-of-7 shooting from deep in the championship game, as North Carolina captured its third national title.

Donte DiVincenzo, Villanova (2018)

It isn’t often that your sixth man is also your best player, but that’s precisely what happened in the 2018 National Championship Game, as Donte DiVincenzo emerged as Villanova’s secret weapon. The hyper athletic sophomore shocked Michigan — and the world — by scoring 31 points in 37 minutes to lead the Wildcats to an easy, breezy 79-62 win over the Wolverines. DVincenzo’s performance earned him Most Outstanding Player honors and led to him being selected 17th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Keith Smart, Indiana (1987)

The "shot heard round the world" may have been fired by patriots in 1774, but the shot heard round America was fired by Keith Smart in 1987. The Baton Rouge native took — and made — the biggest jump shot in Hoosiers history, when he sunk the game-winner in the 1987 NCAA Championship Game. Smart’s 18-footer gave Indiana a 74-73 win over Syracuse, and earned him the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player trophy.

Jeff Sheppard, Kentucky (1998)

Remember Jeff Sheppard? We won’t blame you if you don’t. The 6'4" point guard averaged just 5.8 points per game during his first three years in Lexington and redshirted prior to his senior season.

Expectations for the Georgia native were understandably limited ahead of the 1998 NCAA Tournament, but he consistently proved his doubters wrong by leading the "Comeback Cats" to the school’s seventh national title. Sheppard’s signature game came against Stanford in the Final Four, when he scored 27 points in Kentucky’s thrilling, 86-85 overtime win.