Every now and then, a lesser-known team comes along in March and messes up a plethora of brackets across the country.
These are the teams few predicted to make the Final Four. These aren’t traditional college basketball powers. These are teams from outside the power conferences. These are teams that grab the college basketball snow globe and shake it up. These are teams that shock the world.
These are Cinderellas.
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We’ve had a few in the past 15 years. The most recent was Loyola Chicago, who, as a No. 11 seed, beat Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State in 2018 to reach the Final Four.
Preceding the Ramblers were Wichita State, a No. 9 seed that beat Pitt, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State to make the last weekend of the NCAA tournament in 2013. And we still remember VCU’s run in 2011, and George Mason’s historic campaign in 2006.
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But what makes a good Cinderella? Can these runs be predicted?
If we use the past four — Loyola Chicago, Wichita State, VCU and George Mason — as case studies, we can find a few similarities.
For starters, all four had veteran-laden rosters. In terms of minutes played, five of Loyola Chicago’s top seven players were either juniors or seniors. Three of the five players who played the most for Wichita State were seniors, and VCU and George Mason both had three senior starters.
Each team also had one thing it did really well. For Loyola Chicago and George Mason, that thing was defense. Each allowed less than 63 points per game. The Ramblers ranked sixth in the country in scoring defense and the Patriots were 21st. George Mason held three of its five NCAA tournament opponents under 65 points.
Wichita State was exceptional in the paint. The Shockers were seventh in rebounding margin, 17th in blocks, third in total rebounds and 17th in scoring. VCU was one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country in 2011, knocking down 339 shots from outside, the second-most in the country.
Each of those teams also had a player or two with potential star power. Clayton Custer led the way for Loyola Chicago in many games, Wichita State had three NBA players in Cleanthony Early, Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, Jamie Skeen dropped 26 points in VCU’s Elite Eight win over Kansas, and who can forget Jai Lewis of George Mason?
There’s a handful of teams in 2019 who share some of the same qualities of past Cinderellas.
Before taking a Sharpie to your bracket, think about these teams and their potential for upsets.
The Terriers might be a popular pick in March, considering their recent success. Mike Young’s side is 17-0 in Southern Conference play and is riding a 16-game winning streak. This past week, they became the smallest school to be ranked in the AP Top 25 poll since 1977.
There’s a few things that Wofford does very well. The Terriers are 15th in the country in assist-turnover ratio (+1.42), 11th in field goal percentage (49.1), 16th in rebounding margin (+6.7), 17th in scoring (82.9 points per-game) and second in 3-point percentage (41.6). The Terriers value possessions and are efficient scorers.
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Wofford played North Carolina, Oklahoma and Mississippi State tough this season, losing each of those contests by only 11 points. They also notched a 20-point road win over South Carolina.
The Terriers are also armed with one of the greatest 3-point shooters college basketball has ever seen, Fletcher Magee. He passed J.J. Redick on the all-time career 3-pointers made list this season. Magee averages 20.1 points per-game and shoots 43.5 percent from behind the arc this season. In 17 games this season, he’s hit at least five three-pointers.
#MageeForThree Counter ⏬— Wofford Men's Basketball (@WoffordMBB) March 1, 2019
South Dakota State
The first thing opposing teams have to worry about when facing South Dakota State is Mike Daum, the Jackrabbits’ double-double machine in the paint. Earlier this season, Daum passed the mark for scoring 3,000 points in his career. Daum averages 25.8 points per-game this season — good enough for fourth in the country — and is second in the country in double-doubles with 19.
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As a team, South Dakota State is second in the NCAA in field goal percentage (50.5), sixth in scoring (85.1 points per-game), third in 3-point percentage (41.3) and 18th in total rebounds (1,147). This is a squad that’s very efficient when it comes to scoring.
In addition to Daum, they have two other players who average in double figures. Senior Skyler Flatten puts up 15.3 points per game and sophomore David Jenkins averages 19.6 points per game.
“For me to get three years of tasting it, I want that one NCAA victory so bad… I’d love to get more than one.”— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) February 25, 2019
Fresh off topping 3,000 career points, Mike Daum tells @TheAndyKatz he still has another goal to accomplish this season with @GoJacksMBB! pic.twitter.com/xM6FOS7kGm
The Racers have been pushed into the spotlight this season because of the stellar play of Ja Morant, but Murray State is much more than a one-trick pony.
Murray State is seventh in the country in assist-turnover ratio (+1.52), 27th in steals per-game (7.9), fourth in 3-point defense (allowing 28.5 percent) and seventh in total assists (512). This is a team that is careful with the ball, one that values possessions and capitalizes when the opponent doesn’t.
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The Racers don’t have many impressive non-conference wins, but played Alabama and Auburn close, and also notched wins over Wright State, Missouri State, Middle Tennessee State and Eastern Kentucky.
But let’s dive into Morant a bit too, because he can single-handily takeover a game. The 6-foot-3 sophomore is eighth in the country in points per game (24.1), first in assists per game (10.3) and also averages 5.5 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game, while shooting 33.8 percent from 3-point range.
🎥: Highlights from @RacersHoops, who defeated Morehead State Thursday night! They're back home for Senior Night, 90s Night, and a chance at the OVC regular-season title on Saturday! #GoRacers 🏇🏀 pic.twitter.com/p3STHjKlGN— Murray State Racers Athletics (@MSURacers) March 1, 2019
This Rams team has bulldozed its way to the top of the Atlantic 10 by using smothering defense.
VCU is sixth in the nation in field goal percentage defense, as opponents make just 38 percent of their shots. VCU also only allows 61.8 points per game, the 12th-best mark in the country. The Rams are also second in 3-point defense (allowing 26.8 percent) and 17th in turnovers forced (460). It is very difficult to score against the Rams this season.
The Rams have won 15 of their last 17 games. In nonconference play, they’ve notched wins over Temple, Hofstra, Texas and Wichita State. VCU also lost to Virginia by just eight points.
There’s no singular star on this VCU team, but four players average at least 9.8 points per-game.
🎥 We took another step toward our goals Tuesday. Another challenge is ahead Saturday at Richmond.— VCU Basketball (@VCU_Hoops) February 28, 2019
⚫️🔶🐏💪#ThisIsRamNation #LetsGoVCU pic.twitter.com/jpuAak3umM
Consider where the Pride rank in these national statistics: 40th in fewest fouls (440), 11th in fewest turnovers (290), fourth in free throws made (509), eighth in scoring (84 points per game) and 15th in 3-point percentage (38.9).
Those are the marks of a team that plays safe and smart. While the Pride put up tons of points, they don’t make many mistakes. If Hofstra gets up on a team, it’s hard for the opposition to mount a comeback.
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Hofstra leads the CAA this season with a 14-3 mark in conference play. The Pride lost just three times in nonconference play, by two points in overtime to VCU, by 11 points to Maryland and by four points to Marshall.
The Pride are also equipped with a scoring threat in Justin Wright-Foreman, who averages 26.8 points per game, a mark good enough for second in the country. The Pride also have a strong post player in Jacquil Taylor, who averages 8.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per-game. Two other Pride players, Eli Pemberton and Desure Buie, also average double-digit scoring figures.
MBB: A beauty of a drive to the basket for Justin Wright-Foreman! #RoarWithPride pic.twitter.com/zrrkKxLCGj— Hofstra Men's Basketball (@HofstraMBB) March 1, 2019
Mitchell Northam is a graduate of Salisbury University. His work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Orlando Sentinel, SB Nation, FanSided, USA Today and the Delmarva Daily Times. He grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore and is now based in Durham, N.C.