We hear plenty about Cinderellas this time of year. In the weeks ahead, we're certain to hear more. But what makes an NCAA tournament Cinderella? What's in a Cinderella's statistical DNA?
First, a definition: We tried to identify a Cinderella based on geography, conference size, bid type and hot streaks. All proved fruitless.
Instead, we went with this: Any 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.
Of the 23 teams who fit the criteria, 12 received an at-large bid. Eleven 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 Cinderellas embraced the fresh start the NCAA tournament provides. There were five teams who were 5-5 in their final 10 games prior to entering the bracket. Three others were 6-4.
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, who has won 14 regular-season conference titles in 28 seasons at the school. 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.
RELATED: Five tips from Tim Chartier
One of Chartier’s current students, Chris Cardwell, a senior and 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. He also worked on "Cats Stats" while enrolled and writes for the basketball analytics site Nylon Calculus.
Our collective digging uncovered these truths:
- 1) Elite offense is important
The study revealed 15 of 23 teams were in the top 50 in KenPom offensive efficiency. The trend has grown stronger in recent seasons, with 13 of 16 Cinderellas since 2002 fielding a top 50 offense.
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, now a shooting guard for the New York Knicks, is the most famous player 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,” said Horn, now a Texas assistant. “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.
Having next-level talent like Lee doesn’t hurt. That’s something 10 of the teams on this list had in common. The Longhorns are 10-19 this season and must win the Big 12 tournament to make the NCAA field. Still, Horn knows what scares most favorites when they gaze across the bracket in March. “Can they score the ball?” Horn said. “If they can score at a high level, they’re going to give themselves a chance. A team shoots well from 3, they’re great on the glass, if they’re a team that can stay in the game. Otherwise your talent level is going to find a way to pull it out. In March you have to be able to score.”
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, current 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.
“Can they score the ball? If they can score at a high level, they’re going to give themselves a chance. In March you have to be able to score.” - Texas assistant Darrin Horn, who led Western Kentucky to 2008 Sweet 16
Skeen was a reliable low-post scorer. He could also step out and hit 3s (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 22 of the 23 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.
Also, offensive scoring and efficiency has spiked in recent seasons across college basketball. This trend has translated to the tournament. Our last four Cinderellas — Tennessee (2014), Dayton (2014), UCLA (2015) and Gonzaga (2016) — averaged at least 1.11 points per possession and ranked in the top 40 nationally in offensive efficiency.
|Team||Season||Pre NCAA record||Off. Eff. (Rk)||Def. Eff. (Rk)||3P Pct. (Rk)||3PA / FGA (Rk)||
|Last 10 games prior to NCAA||Yrs. experience of Top 3 scorers|
|Southern Illinois (11)||2002||26-7||107.1 (73)||93.6 (33)||36.6 (77)||28.4 (246)||19.4 / 21.6||*7-3||10|
|Missouri (12)||2002||21-11||114.2 (12)||96.7 (83)||39.1 (23)||37.0 (63)||20.0 / 20.0||*5-5||9|
|Butler (12)||2003||25-5||112.2 (11)||96.4 (115)||39.1 (12)||42.7 (11)||17.4 / 20.0||*8-2||11|
|Milwaukee (12)||2005||24-5||105.9 (56)||91.5 (37)||35.3 (133)||39.1 (45)||19.5 / 24.3||9-1||10|
|George Mason (11)||2006||23-7||106.5 (57)||88.5 (17)||35.6 (125)||35.6 (125)||19.6 / 20.4||*8-2||12|
|Bradley (13)||2006||20-10||104.3 (80)||88.2 (13)||33.6 (222)||28.5 (266)||21.3 / 23.1||7-3||10|
|Villanova (12)||2008||20-12||105.6 (72)||91.8 (41)||34.4 (196)||36.5 (255)||20.4 / 23.4||*6-4||6|
|Western Kentucky (12)||2008||27-6||108.4 (45)||94.0 (66)||38.9 (26)||32.8 (205)||20.1 / 24.5||9-1||10|
|Arizona (12)||2009||19-13||114.0 (6)||98.4 (152)||38.9 (21)||29.1 (270)||19.3 / 18.0||*5-5||9|
|Cornell (12)||2010||27-4||113.4 (9)||97.7 (150)||43.3 (1)||39.8 (37)||18.7 / 20.9||9-1||12|
|Washington (11)||2010||24-9||107.8 (45)||90.1 (32)||33.6 (197)||25.7 (313)||17.5 / 22.2||8-2||9|
|Marquette (11)||2011||20-14||111.5 (18)||93.8 (66)||34.9 (147)||26.1 (314)||18.2 / 20.6||*5-5||10|
|VCU (11)||2011||23-11||108.7 (38)||95.4 (88)||37.0 (55)||41.2 (22)||17.1 / 22.1||*5-5||11|
|Richmond (12)||2011||27-7||109.1 (35)||93.4 (60)||39.0 (16)||36.6 (78)||16.4 / 19.6||9-1||12|
|Ohio (13)||2012||27-7||103.9 (103)||92.0 (35)||34.0 (176)||38.4 (60)||19.4 / 26.4||8-2||9|
|NC State (11)||2012||22-12||109.4 (32)||95.2 (79)||35.5 (110)||26.1 (317)||18.7 / 18.6||*5-5||7|
|Oregon (12)||2013||26-8||104.9 (103)||88.1 (11)||33.3 (202)||27.3 (299)||17.7 / 20.5||7-3||9|
|Florida Gulf Coast (15)||2013||24-10||103.1 (135)||96.8 (100)||33.4 (191)||34.4 (137)||21.0 / 22.1||8-2||9|
|LaSalle (13)||2013||21-9||111.0 (35)||96.2 (87)||37.7 (30)||36.0 (86)||17.1 / 21.3||*7-3||10|
|Tennessee (11)||2014||21-12||117.3 (15)||93.6 (20)||31.9 (286)||30.6 (234)||16.8 / 16.9||*6-4||10|
|Dayton (11)||2014||23-10||113.2 (36)||99.0 (72)||37.7 (54)||31.9 (195)||18.1 / 18.8||8-2||9|
|UCLA (11)||2015||20-13||110.8 (40)||96.1 (65)||36.8 (71)||28.9 (295)||17.6 / 17.9||*6-4||7|
|Gonzaga (11)||2016||26-7||115.2 (22)||94.4 (27)||37.8 (42)||35.6 (163)||17.1 / 15.1||8-2||10|
2) Winning the turnover battle is imperative
Coaches love to lament the difficulty of defending a fastbreak. 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, 20 of 23 Cinderellas won the turnover margin battle. The three who didn’t (2009 Arizona, 2012 NC State, 2016 Gonzaga) offset their deficiency with NBA-caliber talent.
Teams like VCU in 2011, Ohio in 2012 and La Salle in 2013 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,” said Pearl, now the coach at Auburn. “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.
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 three of our 23 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.
Eleven of the 23 teams finished 100th or worse in 3-point percentage. Twelve were in the bottom half among Division I schools in the percentage of their field goal attempts that were 3s. Bradley, for example, made the 2006 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 and 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. He’s hoping to lead Auburn back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003, if not this year, than soon. 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.