With the NCAA Tournament being the real most wonderful time of the year for so many, it only makes sense that one of the most captivating narratives in sports has become the Cinderella—the (usually) mid-major team, slept on by the media and bracket-fillers alike, that defies the odds and the behemoth seeded against it and improbably makes it past the first round—and sometimes, much further.
Ever since George Mason’s magical run to the Final Four in 2006, it seems that the college basketball world has become obsessed with the concept of the bracket buster. Even more so, it seems we have become enamored with stripping the magical underdog run of what makes it so fun in the first place—its unpredictability.
The mystique of the tournament is that any team can fall on any day (well, unless the team in question is a one seed in the first round). But it is human nature to search for meaning, and so every year we pour over the field trying to find this year’s double-digit seed that will slay Goliath.
But not all would-be bracket busters are created equal, and most of the upsets that do occur are not true random events. There are tell-tale factors. A lower-than-deserved seeding, a key player who makes his presence known on a national stage, or a playing style suited to take advantage of an opponent’s weaknesses can tip the scale in an underdog’s favor. Identifying these factors among lower-seeded teams can make it easier to find the next George Mason—or at least the next Mercer.
Disclaimer: Using this article as a guide could theoretically help you pick this year’s Cinderella. It could also convince you to pick against the eventual national champion and destroy your bracket before it even has a chance. March is wild, and Armchair All-Americans is in no way liable for any hypothetical damage done to your bracket as a result of this article.
Now, on to the picks:
1. 16-seed South Dakota State
It seems as if everyone either thinks that Gonzaga will silence their haters and make the Final Four, or that they’ll be exposed and fail to make it past the first weekend. I’m somewhere in the middle. Gonzaga does have some concerns that may arise in the later rounds. But this may truly be the best squad that Mark Few has ever had, and they still have only lost once this season. Sorry, Jackrabbits (and haters, I guess).
Now, for the real picks:
2. 12-seed Middle Tennessee
For those who just know that they’ve heard this team’s name before somewhere, but can’t quite put their finger on where, maybe this will jog a few memories.
It’s unlikely that anyone who chose Michigan State as a Final Four team last season will ever forget the name, though. Middle Tennessee was the most improbable story of last season’s first week, shocking the no. 2 team in their region and becoming just the eighth no. 15 seed in 128 tries to move to the round of 32 (decimating millions of brackets in the process, mine included).
The Blue Raiders are back and three seeds higher this time around, and they return the top two performers from their upset of Michigan State last season, Giddy Potts (15.8 PPG) and Reggie Upshaw (14.5 PPG). They’ve also added Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams, who leads the team with 17.3 points per game, and this team is just as solid on the defensive side of the ball.
Middle Tennessee is facing an equally solid opponent in Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have emerged as one of the biggest surprises of the season coming off of an eight-win effort last year. But if the Blue Raiders’ big three can find ways to score against Minnesota’s stifling defense, they’ll have a chance to repeat last season’s magic.
3. 11-seed Rhode Island
Region: Midwest – Seed: 11th – Opponent: Creighton (6) – BPI: 33 – RPI: 37 – KenPom Ranking: 37
The Atlantic 10 Tournament champions are riding an eight-game win streak, fueled by one of the most impressive defenses in the country and one of the premier rim protectors in college hoops in forward Hassan Martin (2.57 blocks per game, 14th in the country).
However, this pick has just as much to do with who the Rams are slated against as it does their potential. It’s not often that a 11-seed’s placement in the bracket could be described as fortuitous, but facing Creighton may end up being the lucky draw that gets URI through to the next round.
This would likely be a different story if the NCAA Tournament was held in mid-January. Creighton was 17-1 then, and looking like one of the best teams in the country—before it lost senior point guard Maurice Watson Jr. (who led the country in assists at the time) to an ACL tear against Xavier. The Bluejays are a dismal 7-8 since his injury, and slipped all the way down to the sixth seed in the tournament—and possibly, Rhode Island’s lap—as a result.
4. 10-seed Wichita State
Region: South – Seed: 10th – Opponent: Dayton (7) – RPI: 15 – BPI: 31 – KenPom Ranking: 8
It’s almost unfair to slate this team as a Cinderella bid. Considering the Shockers’ recent tournament history, they’ve been as successful as just about any power conference team. Including their magical 2013 run, Wichita State’s tournament runs the past four seasons have ended as follows: Final Four, round of 32, Sweet 16, round of 32.
Recent success isn’t the sole indicator that this team has a higher ceiling (or roof) than the committee gave them credit for. In fact, the best indicator of this team’s potential may just be…having watched them play this season.
In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest the Shockers are one of the most underseeded teams in tournament history. Tenth-seeded Wichita State is the eighth-ranked team in Pomeroy’s rankings; the next-lowest seeded team in KenPom’s top 10 is Virginia, a five seed.
So the team has both the past history and the current production. What else? Oh yeah, their first draw in the tournament is Dayton, who Wichita State outranks in both BPI and KenPom ranking. The Flyers also lost the last two games of the season to Atlantic 10 afterthoughts George Washington and Davidson, including its first game of the A10 conference tournament.
The committee overlooked Wichita State. Do the same at your own risk.