Every march there are thrilling upsets, some giant killers win a game then proceed to get blasted in the next round, some keep the streak going and string multiple wins together, others take it all the way to the final four or in extreme instances, the national championship game. The types of teams that proceed these three actions, you have the 13-16 seeds who go win a game and are out, the usual 8-12 seeds who might string a run to the Elite Eight, and then the 5-7 seeds who, while favored in the first game still manage to defy the odds making it way farther than they were supposed to. While the boundaries are very loose, the trends are very apparent and there is usually multiple of each every year. Here are what I call the three tiers of Cinderella’s, and also teams to watch out for that could fit these categories in a month.
All stats are via Kenpom.com unless mentioned otherwise
Tier One: Giant Killers
These are teams that are generally in the 13-16 seed range, they win one game, slaying a giant and then get plummeted in the ensuing round. Since 2010, we have seen 18 teams win a first-round game seeded, a little over two a year. Of those teams, just two: Florida Gulf Coast (2015) and Ohio (2013) made the sweet sixteen and zero made it any farther than that. Last year we saw three giant killer teams: Buffalo (13), Marshall (13), and UMBC (16) all proceeded to lose in the second round. These are always the hardest to predict, mainly because teams that are 14-16 seeds are usually teams that are either A: conference tournament champions from bottom-dwelling conferences such as the SWAC or, B: Teams who upset the conference favorites who would have been a higher seed such as Marshall or UMBC from last year. So even avid college basketball fans do not know much about the teams, much less the masses who fill out brackets. That’s why Marshall shocking Wichita St was much more talked about than when Loyola Chicago notched their first of many upsets against Miami. The Ramblers were a mid-major powerhouse and a trendy upset pick. But while these teams are hard to predict in March, I will try to predict them in February.
Candidate One: Radford
You may know the Highlanders as the team that got absolutely crushed by Villanova, being the first of many of the Wildcats victims last March. But the Big South favorites are back and stronger than ever. While their history as a program is not spectacular by many teams, they have just one tournament win in their history, a first four-win just last year over 16 seeded Long Beach, this might be the best team in their 35-year history. They have a current record of 16-7 and are 7-1 in Big South play, the big showing is their wins over Texas and Notre Dame. While they won’t be tested for the rest of the year, as the Big South ranks 25th in NET and do not feature a single top 115 team. If they were to win their conference tournament, they would likely find themselves as either a 13 or 14 seed (they are currently predicted as a 14 seed on Jerry Palm’s latest bracketology). If the Highlanders were to pull off an upset it would most likely be because of their senior leadership, as seven of their top eight players are upperclassmen. The one who is not, their leading scorer Carlik Jones, a well-rounded sophomore who is a Big South POY contender. The Aiken High School product (located in Cincinnati, Ohio), is averaging 16/5/6 on 57 TS%. Along with senior Ed Polite Jr who is nearly averaging a double-double. Watch out for the Highlanders come March, they could be a serious surprise.
Candidate Two: Georgia St
Another team that made the big dance last year, the Panthers upset Louisiana to win the Sun Belt last season and earned a 15 seed falling to Cincinnati. They are no strangers to upsets. Their two tournament wins both coming in that form. Famously, they defeated Baylor as a 14 seed in dramatic fashion. Less famously they knocked off Wisconsin as an 11 seed in 2001 in Georgia St’s best season to date (29-5). While this year’s team does not have a first round pick like the 2014 team, D’Marcus Simonds is a stud, and the 20 ppg scorer is in ESPN’s top 100 big board. Outside of him, the Panthers have four other double-digit scorers including former top 100 recruit, senior Devin Mitchell. Georgia St already has wins over Georgia and Alabama. A 4 seed such as maybe Villanova or LSU who are not extremely talented at guarding the deep ball could be next. That is of course if the Panthers make it to the Big Dance, they have already dropped three Sun Belt games, including a home loss to Texas St, their biggest competitor, but if they do watch out.
Candidate Three: UC Irvine
UC Irvine is an extremely obscure school in the Big West. In their 42 years of existence, they have just one tourney appearance in which they lost 57-55 to four seeded Louisville. The Anteaters (no joke) play one of the slowest tempos in college basketball, having the 295th fastest in the nation and a defense to back it up, holding opponents to just 65.6 ppg, 37th in the nation. While coach Russ Turner does not have a star to rely on, they have nine players that score over 5 ppg, they have very good depth. Senior Robert Cartwright was the 69th recruit coming out of high school, while he has not lived up to the hype he is a serviceable player transferring from Stanford. Juniors Max Hazzard and Evan Leonard are knockdowns three-point shooters hitting five per game on a 40% clip between the two of them. Racing off to a 19-5 start (7-1 in Big-West) are looking like a sure fire thing to reach March, as a 12-14 seed. Teams that don’t want to be matched up with this team: Villanova, Iowa and Texas Tech. Watch out for the Anteaters in a month.
Tier Two: Fist Weekend Madness
These teams are usually seeded in the 9-11 range, they take advantage of the Madness in March and come away with multiple upsets during the first weekend. While they usually fall soon after in the sweet sixteen or in some cases the Elite Eight. Prime examples from the last three years would include Syracuse (2018), Xavier (2017), Wisconsin (2017), Kansas State (2018), FSU (2018), and Gonzaga (2016). As you can see these are primarily teams that are somewhat household names that struggled at times, but were still very talent primarily. Also note that Loyola Chicago from last year, Butler in 2010, Syracuse from 2016 and VCU in 2011, while double-digit seeds that reached the second weekend, made it all the way to the final four so they don’t fit, these are not extremely tight guidelines and there are plenty of exceptions. This year the field of possibilities do not look as strong because of the weak bubble. But these are the best candidates…
Candidate One: UCF
UCF has found itself squarely on the bubble. If the Knights are to make the tournament, they have all the tools to notch their first-ever March Madness win and would mark their first appearance since 2005 when they were a 15 seed coming out of the Atlantic Sun. Like UC Irvine, UCF plays at a very slow pace, ranking just 328th in the nation. The Knights feature an experienced big three in B.J Taylor, Audrey Dawkins, and Tacko Fall. In the American Conference, they have multiple chances to get a quality win, to go with their gaudy 16-4 record that includes wins over Alabama (ironic), Temple, and Northern Kentucky. Within the next month they a treacherous stretch with two matchups against 13 Houston and two against 25 Cincinnati. We’ll see if the Knights are truly for real, I already believe they are. Their backcourt is tremendous, the two average 31 ppg. The real difference maker for coach Johnny Dawkins is 7’6″ senior Tacko Fall. He is a frequent offensive rebounder and changes the whole dynamic of the game when is defending the rim making it very hard for opponents to finish at the rim. In this cores, final year expect a really good team.
Candidate Two: Lipscomb
Lipscomb made its first-ever tournament appearance last season and got its welcome party in the way of a thirty point loss to UNC. This year’s team has been terrific and could be the first Atlantic Sun team to make an at-large appearance since 1994, back when it was the TAAC and Charleston secured an at-large bid going 24-4. That was also the only at-large team to come out from the Atlantic Sun. Lipscomb is 18-4 and ranks 32 in NET and 34th in KenPom. No team lower than 34th in RPI (NET is the new RPI) has ever missed the tournament. Lipscomb losses include two losses to Belmont by a combined six points (more on them soon), a four point loss to Louisville, who is projected 4 seed, and a road loss to fellow bubble team Clemson. They have also notched four quad one and two wins, with road, wins over TCU, Liberty, and SMU as well as a home win over Vermont. So the Bisons have wins over teams they would be projected to face round one (they are projected as a 10 seed and TCU is a projected 7). Lipscomb also plays at a perfect pace to win games against quality opponents. On offense, they play an up-tempo and get high-quality shots early in the shot clock (11th highest pace in the country). But on defense, they play 30 seconds of grinding defense and make you earn your buckets, this is perhaps their biggest strength. The Bisons give up just 92.7 points per 100 possessions when adjusted for opponents, that eclipses teams such as Iowa St, Nevada, Syracuse, Oklahoma, Gonzaga, Marquette, Cincinnati, Tennessee, Maryland, and many more sure-fire tournament teams. They held TCU to an 87.7 ORTG (107.9), SMU to a 94.8 ORTG (111.5), Louisville to a 94.7 ORTG (111.9), Vermont to a 94.3 ORTG (109.9) and Liberty to an 89.4 ORTG (113.6). The numbers in parentheses are these teams normal ORTG, extremely impressive that they held all these top 60 offenses to under a point per possession, their raw DRTG ranks eighth in the nation at 89.9. For comparison, the Bucks lead the NBA in DRTG with a 104.38 DRTG granted it is a whole different league but you can see what I’m saying.
While their defense is outstanding, they have a pair of superstars who are capable of carrying an offense. Garrison Mathews is the best player you have never heard of. Per 40 minutes the guard is averaging 28.55 ppg, 7.6 TRB, and just 3.3 TO (13 TO%) on crazy efficiency numbers. He shoots 42% from three on seven attempts a game, boasts a 64 TS%, and .239 WS/48. He had 23 points against TCU, 20 against Louisville, and 22 against Liberty, this dude shows up against big teams. Pair that with Rob Marberry (16 ppg) and you have a team primed to make a run in March.
Candidate Three: Belmont
Hidden in the Ohio Valley Conference and overshadowed by Ja Morant is the Dylan Windler led Belmont Bruins. Belmont swept Lipscomb, beat Murray St on the road and also defeated UCLA, with a 6-2 record in quad one and two games they have a real shot at an at-large bid if they play their cards right. Led by legit NBA prospect Dylan Windler, the Bruins have a high octane offense that ranks 5th in ppg (86.7) with only the 25th fastest pace in the nation. Head coach Rick Byrd has built a ball moving machine that can score at will against even the most stout defenses, see it’s 87 point performance against Lipscomb for proof. While they have a trio of bad loses to Jacksonville St x2 and to Green Bay, they are a team that is just waiting to catch a defense lenient team off guard, like Iowa or Auburn. The main running point of their offense is their big four of senior’s Dylan Windler and Kevin McClain as well as freshman Nick Muszynski and Grayson Murphy. Windler averages 19 points and 10 rebounds as a 6’8 wing who can also shoot the three ball. Kevin McClain averages 16 points and four assists acting as the team’s main ball handler, even though he is not the team’s leading assist getter. That would be freshman Grayson Murphy who averages 6 apg which is good for second place in the OVC behind Ja Morant. Too round out the big four is freshman phenom Nick Muszynski, the 6’11 center averages 16 points and six rebounds on an outstanding 66 TS%. Belmont has reached seven tournaments in the last 12 years but is yet to win a game, this outstanding group should be the first of they get the right matchup.
Tier Three: Dark Horses
These are the teams that least happen, mainly because there are only four teams that make the final four. These are usually seeded 5-7 that make a run to the final four, in a way teams like Loyola-Chicago and VCU would fall in this category more than tier two. Last year I predicted Houston to be a final four team, and I would have been right if it were not for Jordan Poole’s lucky shot for Michigan. In 2017, South Carolina defied the odds defeating Duke, Baylor, and Florida on their way to the final four. While “Dark Horses” have an advantage in the first round that is usually the only advantage they get on their trip. So what are some dark horse candidates to get to Minneapolis?
Candidate One: Buffalo
Buffalo has been the mid-major darling of this season. After last years dismantling of the DeAndre Ayton led Wildcats, they went into Morgantown and became the first team to beat WVU in their home opener in nearly 30 years. They proceeded to go on an 10 game winning streak that including wins against Syracuse and San Francisco, they reached 14th in the rankings before falling to Marquette. In MAC play they are just a modest 6-2, this has caused some skepticism and their projected seed as fell from a four to a six. But they still are a dark horse team if they end in the six-seven seed range. Unlike last year’s team, which had a sub 100 defense, the Bulls have improved to a top 20 defensive efficiency, to go with their top 30 offense. They play very similar to Lipscomb in the way that they get quick shots on offense, pushing the ball in the open court. But they also play suffocating defense forcing opponents into dwindling shot clocks. But unlike the Bisons, the Bulls are an exceptional three-point shooting team and also have two excellent stretch bigs in Montell McRae and Josh Perkins.
But the best thing the Bulls have going for them is a bonafide superstar in CJ Massenburg. While his simple box score stats of 18/6/3 doesn’t seem spectacular, he has some of the best efficiency metrics in the nation. Those 18 points are on a 63 TS% and a terrifically low 22% usage rate. He has an 11.1 BPM, a 27 PER, and .261 WS/48. His ability to hit clutch shots is outstanding. Against WVU he had 40 points, including a fading 30 footer to send it to overtime. Against Syracuse, he had 20 points in the last 15 minutes and had a game-tying shot from damn near the logo against Northern Illinois. There might be no better player in the clutch this year, especially outside the top four seeds.
Candidate Two: Iowa St
Iowa St might finish too high of a seed to be in this category as they could very well finish as a four seed. But for now, they are a projected a five to six seed by most bracketologists. Led by Virginia transfer Marial Shayok and Lindell Wigginton, the Cyclones feature four 12 ppg scorers. They are also one of the few teams that feature both a top 25 offense and defense. The Cyclones have already beat a plethora of tournament teams including Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Texas, and Ole Miss and have acquired zero bad loses. Virginia transfer, Marial Shayok has been a breakout star and is the potential BIG-12 POY averaging nearly 20 ppg, the senior is ultra-athletic and is a walking matchup nightmare. Lindell Winnington and Talen Horton Tucker are going to be drafted this summer and are both athletic scorers. Outside of these three, they have many good scorers and matchup problems to mess with teams. Assuming they lose a game or two more than they are projected to and finish with a six seed, a three seed matchup with a team like Houston or Marquette would be ideal as they rely on smaller guards, and Iowa St can overpower both teams.
Candidate Three: Mississippi St
Coach Ben Howland was fired from UCLA after making a final four just a couple years prior, now at Miss St, it is looking like he will lead the Bulldogs to their first tournament appearance in a decade. Led by guards Quandary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters they have a veteran-laden squad. Weatherspoon is their primary scorer averaging 18 ppg while Peters is the primary ball distributor averaging 6 apg. Down low, Aric Holman is a great rim protector and can play the perimeter extremely well for a big guy and freshman Reggie Perry is a tough freshman who plays older than his age. Most of this core was on the team last season when they reached the NIT final four on one of Witherspoon’s five career game-winners. This team knows how to win in the postseason. This year they were expected to break out and they have mostly delivered and have established themselves as a top five SEC team. In the non-conference, they went an impressive 11-1 that included wins over Cincinnati, Clemson, Wofford, and St. Marys. While they have somewhat struggled in SEC play going just 4-5 a majority of their loses have been too good teams and have wins against Auburn, Florida, and Ole Miss. They are 6-3 against quadrant one teams. The Dogs have a top 20 offense and can score at will against most teams. The best potential second-round matchup would be a team like Texas Tech or UNC. While they play vastly different they both give Miss St advantages. Texas Tech has the second best defense in the country, but an abysmally ranked 111th offense. If Miss St hits their shots, their average defense is enough to subdue the Red Raiders scoring. UNC pushes the tempo which is what Miss St prefers, but the Tarheels rely on offensive rebounds a lot and the Bulldogs are great at keeping teams to one shot. Louisville showed what happened if UNC struggles to shoot and recoup their misses, the Cardinals won by 25 at Chapel Hill.
Those are the candidates for this year’s Cinderellas, in every shape and form. Hope you enjoyed the blog!