NCAA Bracket 2013 Predictions: Power Ranking the 20 Best Cinderella Candidates
Cinderella's slipper may no longer fit Gonzaga, but there are plenty of schools looking to take the Bulldogs' place as everyone's favorite sleeper.
And as we move closer to Selection Sunday, there's no better time for those under-the-radar teams to win over America. The NCAA tournament is the perfect opportunity for underdogs to take down the giants, and every year, at least a few lower seeds inevitably take center stage with chill-inducing upsets.
With parity running rampant during this year's college hoops season, the amount of potential sleepers to pick from is at an all-time high.
Let's take a closer look at the best.
Note: All stats are from games played up to March 10
Also note: To qualify as a "Cinderella candidate" a big-six conference team has to be seeded ninth or lower and a mid-major team has to be seeded sixth or lower. Seeds come from Joe Lunardi's projections.
Considering what Ohio did in last year's NCAA tournament and what it returned to this year's team, most kept expecting the Bobcats to rise to the top of the MAC.
But the Akron Zips have continually held them off.
Keith Dambrot's squad has gone 24-6 overall, knocked off Ohio twice and, if not for a slip-up at Buffalo, would be undefeated in conference play.
Considering an MAC team has won a tournament game in two of the past three seasons, that's a pretty noteworthy feat.
Akron is led by 7'0" senior Zeke Marshall, who is an absolute load on both sides of the court—13.0 points, 65.9 percent from the field, 3.6 blocks and a better block rate than Jeff Withey, Jordan Bachynski and Nerlens Noel.
Complementing Marshall down low is super-tough forward Demetrius Treadwell.
However, point guard Alex Abreu (6.0 assists, 1.2 steals) was just suspended indefinitely after being arrested on drug charges, dealing a crushing blow to the Zips, as evidenced by their loss to Kent State on Friday.
Nevertheless, with elite frontcourt play, dominance on the glass and solid experience, Akron is still a team to pay attention to.
If Abreu's suspension ends up keeping the Zips out of the Big Dance, look out for all-world point guard D.J. Cooper and Ohio, who went to the Sweet 16 last year.
The biggest thing the Cavs have going for them in March? They won't play any teams ranked below 100 in the RPI.
In one of the goofiest seasons of all time, Virginia is 8-3 against top-100 teams—including wins over Duke, North Carolina, NC State and Wisconsin (on the road)—and just 13-7 against everyone else—including losses against George Mason, Wake Forest, Clemson and Old Dominion.
It's still up in the air as to whether Virginia squeaks into the tournament, but with a weak bubble, don't be surprised if a squad with so many impressive wins gets the nod.
Like all Bennett—both Tony and Dick—squads, Virginia beats teams with a frustratingly slow pace (333rd-fastest in America) and scrappy defense (11th in points per possession allowed).
But the Cavaliers also boast two threatening offensive weapons in Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell.
Harris, a dark-horse ACC Player of the Year candidate, is averaging 17.0 points and shooting the lights out with a slash line of 47.8/77.3/44.4 (FG%/FT%/3P%). He is capable of scoring in a variety of ways, as Duke fans know all too well.
At 6'8", 234 pounds, Mitchell is hard-working force down low. While he is regarded as one of the best rebounders in the nation (8.9 per game), he also chips in a crucial 13.1 points on 54.1 percent shooting.
When Harris and Mitchell are getting help from senior point guard Jontel Evans and the rest of a very young team, the Cavaliers are difficult and frustrating to deal with—especially if you're a good team, apparently.
You have to wonder a little bit about Villanova's ability to win away from home, but whenever you have a squad that has beaten three Top Five teams (Syracuse, Louisville, Georgetown), you pay attention.
Jay Wright's team has done just that.
The Wildcats aren't overly impressive in any one aspect of the game, but they have three players in JayVaughn Pinkston, Ryan Arcidiacono and Darrun Hilliard who score in double figures along with an impressive inside presence in Mouphtaou Yarou.
Overall, they'll beat you with terrific defense inside the arc and the ability to force a lot of turnovers, as two potential No. 1 seeds and another Top 25 team have already found out the hard way.
Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
The Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders are 28-5 overall and 19-1 in the Sun Belt, but come on. It's the Sun Belt. Ain't nobody got time for that.
Not so fast.
Kermit Davis' squad is one of the best defensive teams in the country—and it has a head coach named Kermit, so there's that.
Behind Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Bruce Massey, the Blue Raiders run what you can call "mini-HAVOC." The pressure isn't quite as ferocious as VCU's, but it's nearly just as effective.
MTSU is fifth in the nation in points allowed per possession, 14th in three-point field-goal percentage defense, 26th in turnovers forced per game, and 15th in opponent turnover rate.
The Blue Raiders have the propensity to struggle on offense, but if you don't have guards who can take care of the ball, their pressure defense is going to make you pay.
Of course, now that they've been ousted from their conference tourney, they are squarely on the edge of the bubble, according to Joe Lunardi. Nevertheless, if the selection committee includes the Blue Raiders (RPI 32, but just one win over a tournament-quality team) because of a soft bubble, they will make for a 13th or 14th seed that no one wants to play.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
During a season in which madness has reigned supreme, there is something to be said about consistently winning games.
And that's exactly what Louisiana Tech—26-5, 16-2 in the WAC, 18-2 in its last 20—has done. So, even though the Bulldogs play their games in a weak conference, don't overlook them.
In fact, they have an impressive five wins against top-100 teams, which includes a 10-point drubbing of tournament hopeful Southern Miss.
Michael White's squad doesn't have a consistent offensive option behind scoring guard Raheem Appleby, but it plays extremely tough, pressure-filled defense—ninth in the nation in points allowed per possession, 15th in opponent turnover rate.
If teams don't like playing at a fast pace, the Bulldogs, who average a speedy 72.3 possessions per 40 minutes, will make them very uncomfortable.
Two losses in a row to end the season isn't exactly encouraging, but winning the WAC tournament would quickly quell those problems.
South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Nate Wolters, Nate Wolters and um, Nate Wolters. There. That's your reason for this team being a potential sleeper in March.
Listen, this team is far from perfect. It has dropped road games to powerhouses such as South Dakota—and you thought North Carolina-Duke was fierce—Cal State Bakersfield and Hofstra, and it is an atrocious 227th in the nation in points allowed per possession.
But once again, Nate Wolters.
The 6'4" future NBA guard—if I had anything to say about it, which I don't—is averaging 22.7 points on an efficient 49.5/80.0/40.0 shooting, and in addition to being one of the best scorers in America, he's one of the best pure point guards, as well.
Wolters averages 5.6 assists (and just 2.3 turnovers despite a high usage percentage) and 1.7 steals per contest.
According to Sports Reference, only 11 players in America average 15 points, five assists and one steal, let alone 22, five and one. Of those, Wolters is only behind Trey Burke in turnovers per game.
You won't find a more dynamite-but-still-steady point guard in America, and if the Jackrabbits crack the tournament, Wolters—who nearly knocked off Baylor in the tourney last year—has the ability to carry them to a victory.
Considering the lack of dominant big men in college basketball this season, Mike Muscala has the ability to take over games against anyone in the nation.
The 6'10", 235-pound senior is averaging 19.0 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.4 blocks. He can score from the inside, has a consistent mid-range jumper, is an underrated passer and defends the rim well.
Bucknell surrounds the dominant big with two deadly shooters in Cameron Ayers and Bryson Johnson, giving the Bison a dangerous inside-outside combination that will make them tough to stop defensively.
Additionally, they take extremely good care of the ball (third in the nation in turnover rate), rebound well and play solid, hard-nosed defense. There are very few weak spots on this team.
All right, I'm going to do Buffs fans a favor this year. I'm going to watch every one of their games in March.
Why is that a favor, you ask?
Every single time I watch this team, I'm impressed. It showcases its immense talent, plays hard and wins—except for the controversial loss at Arizona. That's the only time I've seen this team lose.
Then, when I don't watch the Buffs, they go and lose to Washington, lose to Utah, score 46 points against California.
This very well may be the most Jekyll-and-Hyde team in America, but one thing is certain: It has the talent for a Sweet 16 run.
I see three future NBA players on this team: Andre Roberson, a 6'7" forward with unbelievable athleticism, an uncanny nose for the ball and one of the best rebounders in America; Xavier Johnson, a smooth freshman lefty who can score from anywhere on the court; and Spencer Dinwiddie, an ultra-quick scoring guard with NBA size (6'5").
Heck, even Josh Scott, a 6'10" freshman who can score with either hand, is a candidate to play at the next level.
It's worth noting, of course, that Roberson, one of the best rebounders and defenders in America, is currently out indefinitely with a "viral illness," and the Buffs already look completely unpredictable without him.
Consider their Cinderella status reliant on Roberson's health.
Is there anyone in the nation who is more quietly scoring at 19.9 points per game than Khalif Wyatt?
It's not really surprising, though. Wyatt doesn't beat defenders with super speed or athleticism, but instead with an "old-man's" game.
He has an array of crafty, almost slow-motion moves around the basket to go with a long-range shot that can be deadly, and while it's not always spectacular, he consistently puts the ball in the hoop.
Wyatt needs help, though.
Scootie Randall, the team's second scoring option and a major part of Temple's recent success, is inconsistent. He averages nearly 12 points a contest, but he has scored six or less on nine different occasions.
Anthony Lee, a tireless worker on the glass and on defense, can only be called upon to do so much on offense.
As a result, the Owls rank just 148th in effective field-goal percentage and 65th in points per possession, and they aren't much better defensively.
Nevertheless, this is a team that has knocked off Syracuse, St. Louis, La Salle, Villanova and VCU, so it's clearly a threat come tourney time, no matter what the stats may say.
San Diego State Aztecs
Jamaal Franklin can do it all.
According to Sports Reference, only 10 players this season are averaging at least 17 points and nine rebounds like the 6'5" explosive junior.
Of those players, Franklin is first in assists, second in three-pointers made and third in steals. Plus, I'm guessing none of those players has done this in a game or would continue to stay as productive while wearing a sweatshirt.
Lately, however, Franklin hasn't been enough, as the Aztecs have lost four of their last seven contests.
Still, though, that very well may just let them fly under the radar more easily. They're still a good defensive team with a star capable of taking over games.
Saint Mary's Gaels
Contrary to what my mom says, Gonzaga isn't the only team in the WCC.
The Zags have certainly made it seem like that with their dominant play, but don't forget about Matthew Dellavedova and St. Mary's in what could be its last run before sanctions put to danger its future success.
Dellavedova is the obvious leader—brilliant assist-to-turnover ratio, ugly mouthguard and all.
But pay attention to Stephen Holt, who is one of the vastly underrated players in America. Although sometimes inefficient from the field, the junior can light it up in a hurry, knocking down shots from the outside and getting to the lane with ease.
Even more impressively, though, is his passion for the game. Holt is a hustler. He is seemingly around every ball, and at just 6'4", he averages an impressive 5.3 rebounds per game to go with 1.2 steals.
Led by the savvy backcourt, St. Mary's is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country and has the potential to give anyone trouble.
Boise State Broncos
For those of you that didn't know, Boise State has a pretty good basketball team, too.
The Broncos' gridiron stars tend to get most of the attention, but the boys on the hardcourt have caught fire as of late and are seriously playing themselves into the tournament.
Leon Rice's club can absolutely light it up.
Led by junior Jeff Elorriaga, who is knocking down more than three treys per game at a 45.3 percent clip, the Broncos have four major shooters who all rip the nets from long range at at least 39 percent.
In addition to being able to shoot it, Derrick Marks is an electric scorer capable of getting to the rim whenever he wants.
Combine all of that together, and you've got a team that is 13th in America in three-point percentage, 29th in effective field-goal percentage and 46th in points per possession.
An enigmatic defense could end up hurting the Broncos, but don't ignore them in your bracket.
Iowa State Cyclones
The Cyclones have been inconsistent at best, but no one is questioning their immense talent all over the court.
Perhaps most importantly, they have two fifth-year seniors holding down the guard spots in Korie Lucious—yeah, he's still playing—and Chris Babb. Veteran experience in the backcourt is crucial in March, and Iowa State couldn't have more of it.
That's not all.
Also on the perimeter are senior scorers Will Clyburn and Tyrus McGee. Clyburn can do a little bit of everything as Iowa State's best player, and McGee is a cold-blooded killer from long range.
Throw in super-versatile freshman Georges Niang, and it's no wonder Fred Hoiberg's squad is 13th in America in points per possession.
Iowa State often struggles defensively, but if its shot is falling, it can win a shootout against anyone in the country, like it nearly did against Kansas—twice.
Wichita State Shockers
The Shockers struggled down the stretch with a home loss to Evansville and a 12-point drubbing at Creighton, but don't overlook this team.
JUCO transfer Cleanthony Early is a big-time talent capable of scoring from anywhere on the court. He isn't always the epitome of efficient from deep (31.2 percent on 3.7 treys per game), but when he gets it going from the outside, he's nearly impossible to stop on that side of the floor.
Big man Carl Hall and quick guards Malcolm Armstead and Demetric Williams give the Shockers senior experience, while depth is also a strength—Gregg Marshall tends to go eight or nine men deep in his rotation.
Inconsistency has plagued this team, however, and it will take the right matchup for it to make some noise in March, but stiff defense (39th in points allowed per possession) and weapons on offense should make the Shockers a popular upset pick from the 11 or 12 spot.
La Salle Explorers
Get used to the name Ramon Galloway.
La Salle's 6'3" senior guard has been off the charts this season, averaging 17.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.1 steals. He is one of just seven players—and the only likely tournament-bound player—to average 15, three, three and two.
He's not alone in the backcourt, either.
Point guard Tyreek Duren is a masterful floor general, and much like Galloway, he can light it up from the outside. Combined, the two guards knock down over four three-pointers per game at a clip better than 40 percent.
The Explorers can be dominated on the inside at times, so the matchup will be crucial, but the Galloway-Duren combo has the potential to do special things on the first weekend.
California Golden Bears
As we know, being hot at the right time is integral for March success.
Well, with the exception of just a handful of teams, you aren't going to find a team more on fire than the California Golden Bears, despite losing their season finale at home to Stanford.
But if you've watched the Golden Bears lately, you know they pass the eye test.
Speedy point guard Justin Cobbs and electric scorer Allen Crabbe are playing as well as any backcourt in the nation; freshman wing Tyrone Wallace is improving seemingly every game; Richard Solomon has the athleticism and size of an NBA big man; David Kravish and Robert "The Thurmanator" Thurman add more size and toughness.
Cal has the versatility, inside-outside strength and gaudy athleticism to compete with anyone in the country.
Butler's recent struggles and 32-point humiliation at the hands of Shaka Smart and VCU just mean that Brad Stevens' squad has a chance to fly under the radar.
The Bulldogs have a lot of intriguing pieces.
Their success hinges significantly on whether or not Rotnei "I'll Shoot from Michigan" Clarke is knocking down his threes, and as the nation's ninth-ranked player in three-pointers made, there's a good chance he will be.
Throw in Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall down low, Roosevelt Jones and super-talented freshman Kellen Dunham on the wing and Alex Barlow, the best clutch player in America, and it's not surprising the Bulldogs have knocked off Gonzaga, Marquette, Indiana and North Carolina this year.
Butler doesn't grade out well in advanced stats—55th in Ken Pom's rankings—but hopefully everyone has learned by now not to bet against Brad Stevens in tournament play or big games.
There has been a lot debate this season regarding the nation's best backcourt, and Belmont has wrongly been excluded from most of those conversations.
It starts with 6'4" senior shooting guard Ian Clark, who is allergic to missing shots. En route to 18.1 points per contest, Clark is shooting a ridiculous 54.1/84.0/46.3. He's fifth in America in points per shot, seventh in effective field-goal percentage and eighth in true shooting percentage.
Clark, as a mostly outside shooter, has a rare combination of volume (12.1 attempts per game) and efficiency.
His backcourt mate, senior Kerron Johnson, flies even further under the radar.
As Chris Traeger would say, the speedy 6'1" point guard is literally impossible to keep out of the lane. Not only does that make him a good drive-and-kick option (4.8 assists per game) for Belmont's slew of three-point shooters, but it makes him a constant threat to get to the line.
Johnson got to the charity stripe 21 times against Morehead State in late January, has visited the line over 10 times in a game on six occasions this season, is 23rd in America in free-throw rate and proved in the OVC Tournament that he has the propensity to knock down the big shot.
Led by those two, Belmont is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. The Bruins rank third in effective field-goal percentage, third in points per shot, fourth in true shooting percentage and 13th in points per possession.
Throw in plenty of experience—Rick Byrd starts three seniors and two juniors—and Belmont is going to be an incredibly difficult out for anyone in March.
Colorado State Rams
Colorado State isn't going to win any medals for being pretty to look at, but the Rams couldn't care less.
Instead, they'll just beat you up.
With Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson and Pierce "I Don't Know That I'm 6'5" Hornung bruising people down low, it's not a surprise that the Rams are second in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, first in defensive rebounding percentage, first in total rebound percentage and likely first in blood shed and black eyes caused.
Undoubtedly one of the most physical teams in America, Colorado State has a true shooting percentage that ranks just 100th, but because of the endless second opportunities it creates, it ranks 10th in points per possession.
While Larry Eustachy's squad has struggled a little bit down the stretch, six of its seven total losses have come by less than 10 points, and it's clear that no one wants to play the Rams in March.
This team is going to go as far as Doug McDermott carries it.
The coach's son is one of the most unbelievable scorers in America. He isn't overly athletic, but he can score off the dribble. He can score with his back to the basket. He can score off the catch-and-shoot. He can score with a blindfold on. He can score with an egg on his head. He can score while eating spaghetti.
McDermott is first in America in points per 40 minutes, 10th in points per shot and 22nd in effective field-goal percentage. He is one of the most versatile scorers in the country, and when he gets it going, there is arguably no one in America that is more fun to watch.
Of course, for as good as the 6'8" junior is, it's important not to take away from Creighton's other key role players.
Seniors Gregory Echenique, the hard-nosed, physical center down low, and Grant Gibbs, quite possibly the most heady, underrated point-forward in the nation, provide a lot of versatility for the Bluejays.
The offensive numbers are sparkling: third in America in points per possession, first in field-goal percentage, second in three-point field-goal percentage, first in points per shot, 20th in free-throw percentage, first in true shooting percentage and 13th in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Creighton tends to struggle defensively, but it was arguably as good on that side of the ball in the Missouri Valley tournament as it has been all year. If that keeps up, a trip to Georgia is possible.