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On Thursday, March Madness will be upon us, and the sports world will be thrown into the cavalcade of drama, upsets and channel flipping. Making sense of the chaos and out-of-nowhere Cinderella runs might seem impossible, especially if you haven’t been obsessed with college basketball for the last few months. But never fear, we have a list of Cinderella teams that could bust the bracket wide open, conveniently ranked in order of likelihood. Here’s the list of the next Loyola-Chicagos or VCUs for 2019.
1. Buffalo (No. 6 seed, West Region)
If Buffalo makes the Final Four, would it be a huge upset? By seeding, the AP Poll and advanced metrics no, but by national recognition, absolutely. The Bulls have been on the radar since the beginning of the season, and steamrolled the MAC to the NCAA tournament. Jeremy Harris, Nick Perkins and C.J. Massinburg are all good scorers, and Buffalo can back them up with a strong defense that ranks in the top 30 in kenpom’s adjusted efficiency. Buffalo will likely defeat either of its first-round opponents (St. John’s or Arizona State, who are both near the bottom of the NCAA tournament field) in the first round and meet defensive powerhouse Texas Tech in the Round of 32. Should the Bulls outlast the Red Raiders, they’d likely face Michigan, the weakest No. 2 seed in the tournament, in the Sweet 16.
2. Wofford (No. 7 seed, Midwest Region)
Again, would Wofford really be a Cinderella if it makes the Elite Eight or Final Four? The other members of the Southern Conference who watched Wofford go undefeated en route to an NCAA tournament bid would say no, but the Terriers still are not a household name. That could change quickly. Wofford has a talented squad of brilliant shooters and offensive playmakers. Leading them is Fletcher Magee, who shoots 41% from three and 93% from the free throw line, and has run roughshod over teams in the second half. His teammates Nathan Hoover and Storm Murphy are no slouches either, shooting 46% and 50% from three, respectively. This team doesn’t have much size, but it is the most potent mid-major offense in the field. The Terriers get Seton Hall in the first round before a potential matchup with No. 2 seed Kentucky. A win there could open up a path to the Final Four.
3. Saint Mary’s (No. 11 seed, South Region)
Alright, this is a true Cinderella team. Saint Mary’s has a double-digit seed and looked unlikely to make the NCAA tournament after a disappointing non-conference season. But the Gaels stunned Gonzaga in the WCC tournament final, holding the best offense in the country to just 47 points on a neutral floor. Under Randy Bennett, Saint Mary’s plays at a snail’s pace with intricate offense and strong defense (no, not confusing Saint Mary’s with Tony Bennett and Virginia). With a prototypical Saint Mary’s lineup of very good Australians (Jock Perry and Jordan Hunter) and stellar California natives (Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts), the Gaels have what it takes to make a deep run. The Gaels also match up well with Villanova, Purdue and Tennessee, their projected path to the Elite Eight. And if they get through that, Tony and Randy Bennett could get to lay siege to each other in the Elite Eight (no, they aren’t related, this is just a coincidence).
4. Murray State (No. 12 seed, West Region)
Murray State’s first round matchup against Marquette will pit two of the best guards in the country in Markus Howard and Ja Morant. The Racers’ Ja Morant is a top NBA draft prospect with his passing skills and scoring ability. Morant’s rise to superstardom has propelled the Racers to the top of the OVC. He has the individual talent and his team packs enough shooting to make a run in March. Last year, all four No. 12 seeds lost for the first time in over a decade, but Ja Morant is as good a bet as any to end that uncharacteristic streak.
5. Belmont (No. 11 seed, East Region)
It’s great for overall fairness in college basketball that Belmont made the field despite losing the Ohio Valley to Murray State. But the Bruins are more than a mid-major charity case, and they have a legitimate chance to make a deep run in March. Rick Byrd has once again constructed a dynamic offensive team with the third-best eFG% in America (this is the ninth consecutive year that Belmont has been in the top 15, by the way). Senior Dylan Windler forward is a threat to score 30 points in every game. When Windler or point guard Grayson Murphy collapse defenses, Belmont can attack from every angle. The main issue will be defense, where Belmont has been subpar for most of the season. Belmont will need to win a play-in game against Temple, but the Bruins have a reasonable draw with Maryland and LSU, who are more talented but both very inconsistent major conference teams.
6. New Mexico State (No. 12 seed, Midwest Region)
The Aggies have utterly dominated the WAC over the past three seasons, but this is their best team yet. New Mexico State is comfortable with a 14-man rotation and can shoot and defend with the best. Like Saint Mary’s, New Mexico State can slow the game down and make favored teams work to them. The only issue is a tough draw with a red-hot Auburn team. However, Chris Jans’s Aggies are also on a roll, having not lost since Jan. 3, and will be hungry to win a game in the NCAA tournament for the first time this century. Any hangover for Auburn after winning the SEC tournament will be exploited.
7. Oregon (No. 12 seed, South Region)
In the preseason, when Oregon had Bol Bol and were a top-25 team, the idea of the Ducks being a Cinderella in March was absurd. But after Bol Bol went down for the year, Dana Altman’s team has had dire stretches, going 10–8 in the regular season against a mediocre Pac-12. But Oregon has found form late, making the Big Dance with a four-game tear through the Pac-12 tournament. Now that the Ducks are in the field, Dana Altman has every opportunity to work his magic. No. 5 seed Wisconsin is a winnable matchup (Vegas now favors Oregon). Kansas State and potentially Virginia are also not impossible for the Ducks. Can a team that made the Final Four two years ago be considered a Cinderella? Oregon can certainly bring up the question if it continues its hot streak.
8. UC Irvine (No. 13 seed, South Region)
The Anteaters are also in a good position to make some noise in their quadrant of the bracket. UC Irvine has wins over Saint Mary’s and Texas A&M this year and rolled through the Big West with just one loss. The most important factor in UC Irvine’s upset case is their draw. Kansas State, Wisconsin and Oregon are all built around defensive slugfests, which UC Irvine is perfectly comfortable with. If UC Irvine can out-grind two of those three teams, the Sweet 16 awaits.
9. Northeastern (No. 13 seed, Midwest Region)
The Huskies are not as impressive from a wins or metrics standpoint as the other teams, but their shooting can run any team out of the gym. Northeastern shoots 38.8% from three, 56.4% from two and 75.1% from the line. With those numbers, Northeastern can take on anyone, and it has a game against a wounded, young and vulnerable Kansas team.
10. Yale (No. 14 seed, East Region)
You might think the Bulldogs’ shot to make the Sweet 16 is a “Yale Mary”, but with Miye Oni leading an exciting offense against an LSU team in total chaos, anything is possible. Yale has all the ingredients for a stunning run: senior point guard Alex Copeland is the stereotypical veteran ball-handler, Oni brings athleticism and star power, and head coach James Jones has done this before (2016 vs. Baylor). Meanwhile, LSU is obviously dealing with a ton of off-court issues due to Will Wade’s suspension, and the Tigers are the worst No. 3 seed on kenpom (18th overall). Yale vs. Belmont in the second round? Who says no?