Famous Latter-day Saints

7 Mormons Who Made March Madness History


Is your bracket filled out? Good. Mine is too.

Yet sometimes I wonder—what's the point? I don't mean to be a Debbie Downer, but you've got a better chance of winning the Powerball jackpot than filling out a perfect bracket. Actually, you've got a better chance of playing in the NBA. In fact, DePaul University math professor Jeff Bergen calculated that the odds of correctly picking all 67 games is roughly one in 9.2 quintillion. 

Of course, if you're educated about college basketball, that number can dwindle down to a mere one in 128 billion. But ultimately, the quest for a perfect bracket isn't what makes March so mad. In fact, the tournament's unpredictability is really what creates the magic. For three weeks, college basketball fans are treated to buzzer-beating heroics, Cinderella runs, and of course, the musical number that can bring even the manliest of men to tears—One Shining Moment.

Historically, Mormons are a basketball-loving people—we even connect courts to our chapels. It should come as no surprise, then, that a select few Latter-day Saints have graduated from the madness of church ball and made NCAA history. So in honor of the upcoming tournament, let's take a look back at some of March's most magnificent Mormon moments. 

Arnie Ferrin

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Photo from Continuum Magazine

Any list of Mormons in March Madness has to start with the great Arnie Ferrin, who starred for the University of Utah in the 1940s. Utah won the whole tournament in 1944, back when it consisted of just eight teams. In New York's Madison Square Garden, the Utes captured their first and only title in dramatic fashion, edging out Dartmouth 42-40. Ferrin was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player and went on to play professionally with the Minneapolis Lakers. Later in his life, he served as a mission president in Michigan and was the University of Utah's athletic director.

Jimmer Fredette

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Video Companion
Jimmer Fredette Destroys Gonzaga (NCAA)

One of the best pure scorers in college basketball history, Jimmer was so good that his name became a verb. His junior year, he "Jimmered" the University of Florida in the first round of the tournament, scoring 37 points in BYU's double overtime victory. The next year, he scored a combined 66 points in big wins over Wofford and Gonzaga, leading the Cougars to their first Sweet Sixteen since 1981. Though Florida got their revenge in overtime, Jimmer's outstanding senior season (in which he won National Player of the Year) prompted President Obama to call him "unbelievable" and the "best scorer . . . in the country."

Vernon Hatton

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Photo from Big Blue History

A Kentucky basketball legend, Vernon Hatton led his team into the 1958 tournament with one of the best shots in college basketball history—a half-court buzzer beater in triple overtime over Temple University. An All-American his senior season, he and Hall-of-Fame coach Adolph Rupp led the Wildcats to a championship win over Elgin Baylor and the Seattle Redhawks. Hatton scored 30 points in the title game. He was the 9th pick in the NBA draft later that year and went on to a successful career with the Philadelphia Warriors.

2012 BYU Basketball Team

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Photo from Vanquish the Foe

They didn't have Jimmer, but the BYU Cougars didn't need him to pull off one of the most thrilling victories in NCAA tournament history. In the first round of the tournament, the Cougars and the Iona Gaels were fighting for the 14th seed—it didn't exactly have the makings of a March classic. When the Gaels took an astonishing 25-point lead in the first half, BYU fans began dejectedly filing out of the stadium. They must have been surprised to read the papers the next morning. BYU ended up winning the game 78-72. The Cougars' 25-point turnaround remains the largest comeback in March Madness history.

Shawn Bradley

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Image from Bleacher Report

Heavily recruited out of Utah's Emery High School, Shawn Bradley only played one season for the BYU Cougars before leaving on a mission to Australia, but he made that season count. Bradley led the nation in blocked shots and set freshman NCAA records in that category. The secret to his success? Bradley stood an astonishing 7'6", one of the tallest basketball players in history. In his first March Madness game, Bradley led the Cougars to a win over Virginia and set an NCAA record with 10 blocked shots. Ironically, that record would be broken against BYU the very next year by LSU's Shaquille O'Neal.

Thurl Bailey

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N.C. State 54 - Houston 52 (1983)

Though he wouldn't join the Church for another decade and a half, in 1983 Thurl Bailey became a March Madness legend. Bailey led his North Carolina State Wolfpack in scoring and rebounding during a regular season that was good enough to earn his team the 6th seed in the tournament's West bracket. Despite their low seeding, Bailey's Wolfpack defied expectations, beating Pepperdine, UNLV, Utah, Virginia, and Georgia to reach the championship game. In the final, NC State beat the heavy favorites, Houston's legendary "Phi Slama Jama" squad (which featured current BYU head coach Dave Rose), on a buzzer-beating dunk by Lorenzo Charles. NC State's Cinderella run is considered to be one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history.

Danny Ainge

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1981 NCAA Tournament.mov

If any list of Mormon basketball heroes has to start with Arnie Ferrin, it has to end with Danny Ainge. One of the greatest college basketball players in history, Ainge was named the National Player of the Year his senior season. That year, he led the 1981 BYU Cougars to the Sweet Sixteen, where they faced off against the formidable Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. With seven seconds remaining in the game, Notre Dame led 50-49. That's when Ainge made one of the most incredible plays March Madness has ever seen. Taking the inbound pass, he drove the ball the entire length of the floor in three seconds, blowing past all five Irish players to win the game with a layup as time expired. Ainge's legendary "coast-to-coast" sent BYU to its first and only Elite 8 appearance.

Lead image from Bleacher Report

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