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Brian Mull | NCAA.com | March 6, 2019

3 key traits a Cinderella team must have

5 great Cinderella stories

We hear plenty about Cinderella teams every March but we wanted to go deeper. We wondered: what really makes an NCAA tournament Cinderella? What's in a Cinderella's statistical DNA?

First, a definition: We tried to identify a Cinderella team based on geography, conference size, bid type and hot streaks. All proved fruitless.

Instead, we went with this: Any NCAA men's basketball team seeded 11th or worse that has advanced to the Sweet 16 (or beyond) since 2002. That’s the first year in the KenPom database, and using advanced metrics is imperative to identify traits shared by teams who have stunned the college basketball world in March.

Using this criteria eliminated some of the more memorable big dance runs in recent seasons, unfortunately. Steph Curry and Davidson were a No. 10 seed in 2008. Butler was seeded eighth in 2011. The fun-loving, high-scoring Omar Samhan and his Saint Mary’s Gaels (2010) missed the cut as well.

BRACKET TIPS: People pick the wrong March Madness upsets. Here's how to outsmart them

Of the 26 teams who fit the criteria, 14 received an at-large bid. Twelve were automatic bids. We tried to determine the quality of the conference they called home, but the relatively recent realignment carousel caused trouble. Some conferences that used to be multi-bid are generally one-bid, and vice versa. In summary, these schools come from traditional one-bid leagues, Power 5 conferences and conferences outside the Power 5 that typically receive multiple bids. It’s a rather even mix.

Beware the hot team? Not necessarily. More than one-third of our March Madness Cinderellas embraced the fresh start the NCAA tournament provides. There were six teams who were 5-5 in their final 10 games prior to entering the bracket. One, Xavier in 2017, was 3-7.

In addition to our own research, we leaned on a trio of analytics experts for their insight.

Tim Chartier is a Davidson math and computer science professor who in the spring 2013 teamed with his students to start "Cats Stats" to provide advanced analytics studies for the Wildcats men’s basketball team. It’s now an integral piece to game preparation and evaluation for Davidson coach Bob McKillop. Chartier also works with Tresata, a Charlotte-based big data company, to devise formulas which help college basketball fans fill out their NCAA tournament bracket.

One of Chartier’s students, Chris Cardwell, a captain of the Davidson swim team, contributed invaluable insight and research. So did Max Schimanski, a Madison, Wisonsin, area native, who graduated from Davidson with an economics degree. 

Our collective digging uncovered three truths. Before we get to them, let's take a look at the full list of Cinderellas:

Team (seed) Season Pre NCAA record Tournament performance
Southern Illinois (11) 2002 26-7 Lost in Sweet 16
Missouri (12) 2002 21-11 Lost in Elite Eight
Butler (12) 2003 25-5 Lost in Sweet 16
Milwaukee (12) 2005 24-5 Lost in Sweet 16
George Mason (11) 2006 23-7 Lost in Final Four
Bradley (13) 2006 20-10 Lost in Sweet 16
Villanova (12) 2008 20-12 Lost in Sweet 16
Western Kentucky (12) 2008 27-6 Lost in Sweet 16
Arizona (12) 2009 19-13 Lost in Sweet 16
Cornell (12) 2010 27-4 Lost in Sweet 16
Washington (11) 2010 24-9 Lost in Sweet 16
Marquette (11) 2011 20-14 Lost in Sweet 16
VCU (11) 2011 23-11 Lost in Final Four
Richmond (12) 2011 27-7 Lost in Sweet 16
Ohio (13) 2012 27-7 Lost in Sweet 16
NC State (11) 2012 22-12 Lost in Sweet 16
Oregon (12) 2013 26-8 Lost in Sweet 16
Florida Gulf Coast (15) 2013 24-10 Lost in Sweet 16
LaSalle (13) 2013 21-9 Lost in Sweet 16
Tennessee (11) 2014 21-12 Lost in Sweet 16
Dayton (11) 2014 23-10 Lost in Elite Eight
UCLA (11) 2015 20-13 Lost in Sweet 16
Gonzaga (11) 2016 26-7 Lost in Sweet 16
Xavier (11) 2017 21-13 Lost in Elite Eight
Syracuse (11) 2018 20-13 Lost in Sweet 16
Loyola-Chicago (11) 2018 28-5 Lost in Final Four

1) Elite offense is important

The study revealed 16 of the 26 teams were in the top 50 in KenPom offensive efficiency.

Team (seed) Season Off. Eff. (Rk) Def. Eff. (Rk)
Southern Illinois (11) 2002 107.1 (73) 93.6 (33)
Missouri (12) 2002 114.2 (12) 96.7 (83)
Butler (12) 2003 112.2 (11) 96.4 (115)
Milwaukee (12) 2005 105.9 (56) 91.5 (37)
George Mason (11) 2006 106.5 (57) 88.5 (17)
Bradley (13) 2006 104.3 (80) 88.2 (13)
Villanova (12) 2008 105.6 (72) 91.8 (41)
Western Kentucky (12) 2008 108.4 (45) 94.0 (66)
Arizona (12) 2009 114.0 (6) 98.4 (152)
Cornell (12) 2010 113.4 (9) 97.7 (150)
Washington (11) 2010 107.8 (45) 90.1 (32)
Marquette (11) 2011 111.5 (18) 93.8 (66)
VCU (11) 2011 108.7 (38) 95.4 (88)
Richmond (12) 2011 109.1 (35) 93.4 (60)
Ohio (13) 2012 103.9 (103) 92.0 (35)
NC State (11) 2012 109.4 (32) 95.2 (79)
Oregon (12) 2013 104.9 (103) 88.1 (11)
Florida Gulf Coast (15) 2013 103.1 (135) 96.8 (100)
LaSalle (13) 2013 111.0 (35) 96.2 (87)
Tennessee (11) 2014 117.3 (15) 93.6 (20)
Dayton (11) 2014 113.2 (36) 99.0 (72)
UCLA (11) 2015 110.8 (40) 96.1 (65)
Gonzaga (11) 2016 115.2 (22) 94.4 (27)
Xavier (11) 2017 115.7 (29) 99 (67)
Syracuse (11) 2018 107 (135) 92.2 (5)
Loyola-Chicago (11) 2018 111.4 (63) 95 (17)

Darrin Horn coached Western Kentucky to the Sweet 16 in 2008. The Hilltoppers caught a break in their conference tournament when host South Alabama, which had swept the regular season series, lost in the first round. WKU capitalized on its good fortune to win the Sun Belt crown and earned a 12 seed in the West where it was paired against Drake, a 5 seed making its first NCAA tournament appearance in 37 years.

The teams delivered a game for the ages, combining to drain a tournament-record 30 3-pointers. WKU produced 1.18 points per possession in the 101-99 victory, then beat San Diego by nine points in the second round.

Courtney Lee is one of the most famous players from the squad, which was 45th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency and 31st in scoring (77.4 ppg). The Hilltoppers' point guard, Tyrone Brazelton, also tied another star of the 2008 tournament, Curry, for the national lead in 30-point games that season.

“We had really good guard play,” Horn said. “We were really athletic and not going to be overmatched from a quickness and athleticism standpoint. We had length at our position and we were flying around.”

A tight loss to a talented Tennessee team in December proved to Horn his team had a chance to be special because the Hilltoppers scored efficiently in the game.

Another high-major coach told NCAA.com: "You can’t expect to shut down an opponent that has one or two NBA-level prospects. You’re going to have to outscore them."

In retrospect, it’s easy to focus on VCU’s ridiculous 3-point shooting during its march to the 2011 Final Four. The Rams outscored their five NCAA tournament victims 159-69 from beyond the arc, an average of 18 points per game. Still, VCU coach Will Wade, an assistant on that team, said the key to the run was the presence of center Jamie Skeen, a former Mr. Basketball in North Carolina, who started his career at Wake Forest.

Skeen was a reliable low-post scorer. He could also step out and hit 3s (went 8-of-16 in the tournament). His presence gave the Rams a "puncher’s chance," Wade said, against the loaded frontcourts of Florida State, Purdue and Kansas, who they defeated in the regional final.

“In our case we had really good shooters around him,” Wade said. “Anytime you have somebody like that down low that commands a presence in the paint, it opens up the perimeter. Teams could either guard him 1-on-1 and he was talented enough to score it. If you played with him with a double team we were good enough to shoot it and had 4 guys, playing 4-on-3 in the perimeter. He was a central piece, critical.”

While offense trumps defense as it pertains to predicting March success, it’s also worth noting that 25 of the 26 teams on our list were top 40 in either offensive or defensive efficiency. The outlier? 2013 Florida Gulf Coast, a 15 seed, that was 100th or worse in each category.

2) Winning the turnover battle is imperative

Coaches love to lament the difficulty of defending a fast break. It’s hard to stop a 2-on-none or 3-on-1, they say while studying points off turnovers.

Schimanski studied teams that upset favorites prior to last year’s tournament. He said via e-mail:

“If an underdog can turn their opponents over consistently, they get free possessions in the tourney against a [usually] more talented opponent. If these are live-ball turnovers, they're even more valuable, as those, on average, are some of the most efficient types of possessions.”

On the season, 22 of 26 Cinderellas won the turnover margin battle.

Team (seed) Season Off. TOV % Def. TOV % TOV% differential
Southern Illinois (11) 2002 19.4 21.6 2.2
Missouri (12) 2002 20 20 0
Butler (12) 2003 17.4 20 2.6
Milwaukee (12) 2005 19.5 24.3 4.8
George Mason (11) 2006 19.6 20.4 0.8
Bradley (13) 2006 21.3 23.1 1.8
Villanova (12) 2008 20.4 23.4 3
Western Kentucky (12) 2008 20.1 24.5 4.4
Arizona (12) 2009 19.3 18 -1.3
Cornell (12) 2010 18.7 20.9 2.2
Washington (11) 2010 17.5 22.2 4.7
Marquette (11) 2011 18.2 20.6 2.4
VCU (11) 2011 17.1 22.1 5
Richmond (12) 2011 16.4 19.6 3.2
Ohio (13) 2012 19.4 26.4 7
NC State (11) 2012 18.7 18.6 -0.1
Oregon (12) 2013 17.7 20.5 2.8
Florida Gulf Coast (15) 2013 21 22.1 1.1
LaSalle (13) 2013 17.1 21.3 4.2
Tennessee (11) 2014 16.8 16.9 0.1
Dayton (11) 2014 18.1 18.8 0.7
UCLA (11) 2015 17.6 17.9 0.3
Gonzaga (11) 2016 17.1 15.1 -2
Xavier (11) 2017 18.4 17.5 -0.9
Syracuse (11) 2018 19.2 19.5 0.3
Loyola-Chicago (11) 2018 19.1 19.4 0.3

Teams like Washington in 2010, VCU in 2011, and Ohio in 2012 crushed opponents in this area, generating more opportunities to score.

So did Milwaukee in 2005 under coach Bruce Pearl. The Panthers applied frenetic pressure and forced opponents into turnovers on 24.5 percent of possessions, the 32nd highest rate in the nation. The harrowing style was effective in the tournament. Milwaukee forced 41 turnovers in defeating Alabama and Boston College on the first weekend, while committing only 23.

“Because we were a running pressing team, had a unique style and it caused problems,” Pearl said. “Whether it’s a matchup zone, or a slowdown game or a fast pace, pressing, or a different offense, those teams are tough matchups. When it’s something you haven’t seen all the time it can be a formula for success.”

3) Experience is valuable (and shooting, too, sort of)

Cornell (2010) and Richmond (2011) are two teams that fit the stereotype of an underdog team that makes a run in March. Both featured experienced players and a collection of sharpshooters. The Big Red led the nation in 3-point shooting (43.1) to fuel the nation’s ninth-best offense. Richmond was 16th in shooting and 35th in offense. Also, the three leading scorers on each team were seniors.

Team (seed) Season 3P Pct. (Rk) 3PA / FGA (Rk) YRs. EXP. of Top 3 scorers
Southern Illinois (11) 2002 36.6 (77) 28.4 (246) 10
Missouri (12) 2002 39.1 (23) 37.0 (63) 9
Butler (12) 2003 39.1 (12) 42.7 (11) 11
Milwaukee (12) 2005 35.3 (133) 39.1 (45) 10
George Mason (11) 2006 35.6 (125) 35.6 (125) 12
Bradley (13) 2006 33.6 (222) 28.5 (266) 10
Villanova (12) 2008 34.4 (196) 36.5 (255) 6
Western Kentucky (12) 2008 38.9 (26) 32.8 (205) 10
Arizona (12) 2009 38.9 (21) 29.1 (270) 9
Cornell (12) 2010 43.3 (1) 39.8 (37) 12
Washington (11) 2010 33.6 (197) 25.7 (313) 9
Marquette (11) 2011 34.9 (147) 26.1 (314) 10
VCU (11) 2011 37.0 (55) 41.2 (22) 11
Richmond (12) 2011 39.0 (16) 36.6 (78) 12
Ohio (13) 2012 34.0 (176) 38.4 (60) 9
NC State (11) 2012 35.5 (110) 26.1 (317) 7
Oregon (12) 2013 33.3 (202) 27.3 (299) 9
Florida Gulf Coast (15) 2013 33.4 (191) 34.4 (137) 9
LaSalle (13) 2013 37.7 (30) 36.0 (86) 10
Tennessee (11) 2014 31.9 (286) 30.6 (234) 10
Dayton (11) 2014 37.7 (54) 31.9 (195) 9
UCLA (11) 2015 36.8 (71) 28.9 (295) 7
Gonzaga (11) 2016 37.8 (42) 35.6 (163) 10
Xavier (11) 2017 34.5 (192) 36.1 (182) 8
Syracuse (11) 2018 31.8 (324) 32.8 (292) 6
Loyola-Chicago (11) 2018 39.8 (17) 35.4 (229) 10

Unless a team features a freak collection of young, NBA-level talent (UCLA 2015), veterans are required to lead a team into the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. The leading three scorers on all but five of our 26 teams had at least three years experience per player. George Mason’s 2006 Final Four team joined Richmond and Cornell as a team with three seniors leading the way.

While we’re here, let’s take a closer look at 3-point shooting. It’s important, but not as important as you might think.

Thirteen of the 26 teams finished 100th or worse in 3-point percentage. Fifteen were in the bottom half among Division I schools in the percentage of their field goal attempts that were 3s. Syracuse, for example, made the 2018 Sweet 16 despite rarely shooting 3s and shooting them poorly all season. Same goes for Oregon (2013) and Tennessee (2014). The Vols are interesting because they were 286th in 3-point percentage, yet 15th in offensive efficiency — and 20th in defensive.

Finally, numbers aside, we’d be foolish not to mention intangibles.

VCU was likely the last at-large team selected in 2011. Wade mentioned the value of playing each game under intense pressure during the last six weeks of the regular season.

“You’re basically playing a NCAA tournament-style game every game,” he said. “It’s not necessarily that you have to beat somebody it’s that you can’t lose to somebody. When you are in those leagues and you get to the NCAA tournament there’s a lot of pressure that’s off of you… you’ve been dealing with that for six weeks and it’s like, 'Hey, we made it. Let’s let our hair down and go play now.'”

Pearl's teams at Milwaukee and Tennessee fed off his fiery personality. His explanation on how some teams can kill giants in the tournament: smaller schools compete with an edge.

“They didn’t get recruited by those schools and they think they’re as good as they are. This is their one shining moment. This is their chance to prove. So they go in hungrier. They’re just hungrier,” Pearl said. “Going to the tournament is so much more difficult at that level. You and your fans and a university appreciate a bid whereas so many high majors they just take a bid for granted.”

Chartier has crafted statistical models for teams built around a superstar like Curry, but they haven’t produced reliable results. So maybe there’s magic in March that can’t be quantified. The element of the unexpected permeates through every bracket. Players seemingly exceed capabilities. Teams find qualities they’ve searched for all season.

It’s what makes March Madness magnificent. And why we can’t wait to watch again.

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