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Sam Richmond | | February 2, 2016

College basketball: The 4 key ingredients for a Cinderella to make a deep March Madness run

Is there a recipe to become a Cinderella team and make a seemingly-improbable run deep into March? There is – and we’ve found it.

We looked at the eight teams from the last 15 years who made at least the Elite Eight as a No. 9 seed or higher: 2001 Temple, 2002 Kent State, 2002 Missouri, 2006 George Mason, 2008 Davidson, 2011 VCU, 2013 Wichita State and 2014 Dayton.

Those teams shared four common traits -- or had the perfect shoe size, if you will, to fit into the glass slipper and become the tournament’s lovable giant slayer.

1. Have an elite offense

If defense wins championships, then offense helps you take down Goliath.

  • Six of our Cinderella's had an offense ranked in the top 40 in adjusted offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions that have been adjusted for opponent).
  • George Mason, the only team to have a non-top 40 offense, was still ranked 58th in efficiency. They are the only Cinderella whose defense was significantly better than its offense.
  • Three of our teams – 2002 Kent State, 2002 Missouri and 2008 Davidson had top-15 offenses. The Wildcats were the best offensive team, finishing with a top-five offense.

Note: Adjusted offensive efficiency data is not available prior to 2002, so Temple was excluded from this section.

2. Shoot the 3

Cinderellas who shoot the 3-ball can go deep into the tournament. Stephen Curry’s run with Davidson in 2008 is the greatest proof of that, but the other teams are prime examples as well.

  • Four – yes, four – of our eight teams ranked in the top seven during their respective seasons in 3-point attempts per game: Temple (No. 3), Missouri (No. 4), Davidson (No. 7) and VCU (No. 2).
  • Wichita State wasn't in the top 10 but still let it fly from beyond the arc often. Led by Malcolm Armstead and Cleanthony Early, the Shockers attempted the 20th most 3-pointers.
  • Interestingly enough, the majority of these five teams weren’t particularly efficient from beyond the arc. Temple ranked 165th, Davidson 113th and Wichita State 175th in field-goal percentage from long range. The threat of the shot and the potential to get hot appears to be valuable on its own.
  • Missouri (24th) and VCU (58th) were the two most efficient shooting teams.

3. Be at least average on defense

Offense is key, but that doesn't mean you can be a slouch on defense and make a deep run. To a degree, balance is critical for a Cinderella.

  • Each team had a defense that ranked in the top 84 in adjusted defensive efficiency.
  • The majority of these defenses were just OK. Four of the seven ranked within the 50-84 range.
  • The other three defenses ranked inside the top 25: 2006 George Mason (No. 13), 2008 Davidson (No. 21) and 2013 Wichita State (No. 25). Of note: two of those teams, George Mason and Wichita State, made the Final Four.
  • But our only other Cinderella to make the Final Four, VCU, had the worst defense of our bunch, finishing No. 84 in defensive efficiency for its respective season.

Note: Adjusted defensive efficiency data is not available prior to 2002, so Temple was excluded from this section.

4. Rebound well

A critical component to becoming Cinderella is having guys adept at doing the dirty work down low. The data shows rebounding is absolutely crucial.

  • Seven of our eight Cinderellas ranked among the top 40 in rebounds per game during their seasons.
  • 2002 Mizzou and 2013 Wichita State were particularly good, ranking fifth and sixth, respectively.
  • Dayton, the lone team to finish outside the top 40, just missed the cut as it averaged the 42nd most rebounds per game during the 2014 season.

So, who is this year's Cinderella?

This team most likely to be Cinderella this year is -- drum roll, please -- Gonzaga. Projected to be a No. 9 seed in Joe Lundardi’s latest Bracketology, the Bulldogs have the most potential to ultimately fit our criteria -- with one critical adjustment. 

  • They are balanced, but are led by the offense (47th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 56th in adjusted defensive efficiency).
  • The team boasts one of the country’s best rebounders in Domantas Sabonis (11.8 RPG), and ranks 19th in rebounds per game.
  • The only potential hole in Gonzaga’s Cinderella resume is its 3-point shooting. They rank just 204th in 3-point attempts for the season. That would seem to spell doom for the Bulldogs' Cinderella run. However, the silver lining is that Gonzaga has the potential to be absolutely dominant from beyond the arc. The Bulldogs rank 33rd in 3-point field goal percentage and a truly absurd 44.2 3-point field goal percentage during conference play. Don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs are one of the last teams standing if they start to shoot the 3-pointer more.

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