Ranking the Top Cinderella Candidates for the 2014 NCAA Men's Tournament

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Ranking the Top Cinderella Candidates for the 2014 NCAA Men's Tournament
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Admit it. It's been seven months since the 2013 NCAA Tournament ended, and you're still wondering how you could or should have seen Florida Gulf Coast coming.

Well fear not, friends, because there just might be something of a formula to this whole Cinderella thing.

After looking through five of the biggest bracket busters in recent years, there were five trends that arose.

Maybe it's a coincidence. Maybe it's your ticket to finally winning a bracket pool. Either way, in keeping with the spirit of fives, we found five teams who could be worth keeping an eye on if they make this year's tournament.

 

Criteria considered

Over the course of the last six tournaments, we've witnessed surprising runs from Davidson (2008), Butler (2010), VCU (2011), Wichita State (2013) and Florida Gulf Coast (2013).

So what do they all have in common?

Common Links Between Recent Cinderellas
Davidson ('08) Butler ('10) VCU ('11) Wichita State ('13) FGCU ('13)
Steals 8.1/game 6.8/game 8.5/game 7.5/game 9.0/game
Assists Jason Richards (8.1/game) Ronald Nored (3.6/game) & Shelvin Mack (3.0/game) Joey Rodriguez (5.2/game) Malcolm Armstead (4.0/game) Brett Comer (6.6/game)
Three-Pointers Stephen Curry (369 attempts, 43.9%) Shelvin Mack (184 attempts, 39.1%) Bradford Burgess (166 attempts, 43.4%) Ron Baker (84 attempts, 35.7%) Sherwood Brown (194 attempts, 37.6%)
Non-Conf Challenges UNC, Duke, UCLA, NC State UCLA, Ohio State, Georgetown UCLA, Tennessee, Richmond VCU, Iowa, Tennessee Duke, Miami, VCU, Iowa State
Players Averaging 20+ Minutes/Game 3 SR, 2 JR, 1 SO 1 SR, 1 JR, 3 SO 4 SR, 1 JR 3 SR, 1 JR, 1 SO 1 SR, 1 JR, 3 SO

ESPN Stats

Based on those similarities, we're on the hunt for teams with veteran leadership that create a lot of steals, that have someone willing and able to attempt at least half a dozen three-pointers per game and that have a strong source of assists along the perimeter. A moderately challenging nonconference schedule is also crucial. 

There is bonus consideration for any team with a young, charismatic coach a la Brad Stevens, Shaka Smart or Andy Enfield.

Perhaps the most important criterion, though, is that the team cannot be part of a major conference. As unlikely as it would be to see DePaul make a deep run into the NCAA Tournament, we're looking for the best of the "What conference are they even in?" teams.

Feel free to argue over the definition of a major conference, but all schools from the A-10, AAC, ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Big East, Mountain West, Pac-12 and SEC were excluded from consideration. 

 

No. 5: Chicago State Cougars (WAC)

Criteria for Chicago State
Category Team Steals Assists Leader Three-Point Leader Upper Classmen Non-Conf Schedule
Cougars 9.5/game Jamere Dismukes (3.4) Quinton Pippen (68-of-195) Nine SR, three JR Indiana, Creighton, Cincinnati and Illinois

ESPN Stats

If tournament success is based entirely on veteran leadership, then Chicago State is the early favorite to cut down the nets this season.

Obviously that isn't the case, but the Cougars of Chicago State are positively loaded with seniors.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

This is a very active team on defense. They were seventh in the nation last season in steals per game. That might have gone a lot further if they weren't also 291st in turnovers per game. Seems there's just a lot of give and take when Chicago State is on the court.

Jamere Dismukes averaged 3.4 assists while playing just over 25 minutes per game in 2012-13.

He was actually one of the team leaders in minutes played under Tracy Dildy's adaptation of VCU's Havoc defense. In lieu of a go-to player, the head coach had a rotation of 11 players who averaged at least 10 minutes per game last season, scrapping for steals and rebounds until needing a sub.

Quinton Pippen—yes, he is the nephew of Scottie Pippen—is their primary three-point threat. He made 34.9 percent of his attempted triples last season after hitting better than 38 percent in his previous two seasons at Missouri State-West Plains Community College.

It makes no sense that a team from Chicago is part of the Western Athletic Conference, but the new alignment could bode well for the Cougars' NCAA Tournament dreams. New Mexico State is the overwhelming favorite to earn the conference's auto bid, but if the Aggies are upset in the conference tournament, it's a total crapshoot among the other eight teams.

Armed with some regular season experience on the road against Indiana, Creighton, Cincinnati and Illinois, they just might be prepared enough to become the first No. 16 seed to shock the world.

 

No. 4: Cal State Northridge Matadors (Big West)

Criteria for Cal State Northridge
Category Team Steals Assists Leader Three-Point Leader Upper Classmen Non-Conf Schedule
Matadors 8.5/game Landon Drew (3.8) and Josh Greene (3.7) Josh Greene (63-of-164) Two SR, four JR USC, Fresno State, Stephen F. Austin

ESPN Stats

Typically, if we're talking about the Big West, it's to point out how much of a joke it is that Long Beach State gets to pad its record and stats by playing 18 games against these "basketball programs."

Chances are that will be the case again before long, as the 49ers are projected to win the conference, as always. But for today, we're paying our respects to a different squad.

USA TODAY Sports

Even though they posted a losing record last season, the Matadors of Cal State Northridge are one of the primary candidates to be this year's No. 15 seed that destroys everyone's bracket.

They're returning four of the five starters from a 2012-13 team that averaged 8.5 steals per game. To that mix, they'll be adding a key transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette in the form of junior forward J.J. Thomas.

As far as our criteria is concerned, senior guard Josh Greene is the key to this team's success. Not only was he their primary three-point threat last season—hitting 38.4 percent of his attempts—but he was also one of the main sources of assists along with freshman point guard Landon Drew.

For what it's worth, in the final game of the 2012-13 season, Greene scored 37 points and had six assists against Hawaii.

Junior forwards Stephan Hicks (15.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.0 steals) and Stephen Maxwell (14.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.0 steals) will also play a huge role for the Matadors.

Unfortunately, they aren't really playing anyone in the first two months of the season. Because of this, they almost didn't make the cut.

However, they were saved by the offseason hiring of Reggie Theus.

New Mexico State was 6-24 in the 2004-05 season before it hired Theus. The Aggies posted records of 16-14 and 25-9 over the next two seasons before Theus departed for a (short-lived) head coaching job in the NBA.

If he can bring a little bit of that magic to Cal State Northridge, it could carry the team to a win in the NCAA Tournament.

 

No. 3: Southern Miss Golden Eagles (C-USA) 

Criteria for Southern Miss
Category Team Steals Assists Leader Three-Point Leader Upper Classmen Non-Conf Schedule
Golden Eagles 9.9/game Neil Watson (4.9) Jerrold Brooks (74-of-205) Four SR, five JR Louisville, DePaul, Western Kentucky

ESPN Stats

Before doing the research, Southern Miss was the odds-on favorite to secure the top spot.

However, because the Golden Eagles lost three of their five leaders in minutes played during the 2012-13 season, they check in at No. 3.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Led by seniors Neil Watson (9.8 points, 4.9 assists, 1.8 steals) and Jerrold Brooks (10.9 points, 2.3 assists, 1.4 steals), they are still in incredible shape for some NCAA Tournament success.

Despite the aforementioned turnover, there's a ton of veteran leadership left on the team.

The Golden Eagles will have four returning seniors in the starting five with a bunch of experienced transfers in the mix as well. Both Aaron Brown (Temple) and Chip Armelin (Minnesota) will be suiting up after sitting out the 2012-13 season.

Nigerian big man and mouthful for announcers, Ude Ifeanyichukwu, also joins the team from Laramie Community College, where he averaged 3.7 blocks per game during the 2011-12 season.

The Golden Eagles were third in the nation in steals last season at just under 10 per game—although it wouldn't have been quite that high without the 27 steals they recorded in a 135-41 drubbing of Dillard College.

Save for the road game against Louisville, the nonconference schedule is quite poor—especially for a team that likely missed out on last year's tournament because of conservative nonconference scheduling—and though head coach Donnie Tyndall doesn't exactly fit the Brad Stevens model, it should be a strong year for Southern Miss, nonetheless.

This team should win the Conference USA regular-season title and might even creep into the Top 25 at some point during the year.

 

No. 2: Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (C-USA)

Criteria for Louisiana Tech
Category Team Steals Assists Leader Three-Point Leader Upper Classmen Non-Conf Schedule
Bulldogs 9.1/game Kenneth Smith (5.0) Raheem Appleby (52-of-173) Four SR, five JR Louisville, Saint Mary's, Oklahoma

ESPN Stats

Much like Chicago State, Louisiana Tech is loaded with returning players who were given a fair amount of playing time last season. The Bulldogs had 11 players who averaged at least 9.5 minutes per game in 2012-13, and nine of them are back for another year.

Perhaps most notably among them is point guard Kenneth Smith. With 6.8 points, 5.0 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game, the 6'3" junior did it all while leading the team in minutes played.

And Smith would've had even more assists if the team's leading scorer, Raheem Appleby, was draining three-pointers the way he was two years ago. Appleby hit exactly 40 percent of his three-point attempts as a freshman, but that success rate plummeted all the way to 30.1 percent in 2012-13.

The Bulldogs do have three returning players who attempted at least 140 three-pointers last season, but Appleby is their go-to guy. He had more than twice as many field-goal attempts as the next-most active shooter on the team and was the only person to eclipse 8.0 points per game.

Major bonus points to the Bulldogs for head coach Michael White. Just like Smart and Enfield when they had their magical runs, White is entering the third season of his first head coaching job, and was considered one of the top young—he's still only 36 years old—assistant coaches when they signed him after the 2010-11 season.

It'll be interesting to see how they fare in the new 16-team Conference USA after winning their first 16 games in the WAC last year. Road trips against presumed favorites Southern Miss and UTEP could keep the Bulldogs from winning the regular season crown, but a strong showing in a conference of this size might be enough for an at-large bid should they falter in the conference tournament.

From there, only time will tell how far Appleby can carry them.

 

No. 1: Oakland Golden Grizzlies (Horizon)

Criteria for Oakland
Category Team Steals Assists Leader Three-Point Leader Upper Classmen Non-Conf Schedule
Golden Grizzlies 8.2/game Duke Mondy (5.1) Travis Bader (139-of-360) Five SR, four JR Michigan State, North Carolina, Gonzaga, UCLA, Indiana

ESPN Stats

Forgive me for encroaching on blasphemy, but this feels like a carbon copy of the 2008 Davidson Wildcats.

We'll probably never see another Stephen Curry, but Oakland's Travis Bader is certainly trying to fill his shoes. Unless he gets hurt, Bader is going to shatter the all-time record for three-pointers made in a collegiate career. J.J. Redick currently holds the record with 457 triples, but Bader is already at 357 through three seasons.

And Bader is just one of Oakland's six leading scorers returning from last season—each of which is either a junior or senior.

Senior point guard Duke Mondy stuffed the stat sheets in 2012-13, averaging 12.0 points, 5.1 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 3.0 steals per game. That last data point is the most noteworthy, because he led the nation in steals last year.

All that's left on the Cinderella checklist is a challenging nonconference schedule, and Oakland's is one of the best in the country. In addition to the marquee games listed in the table above, games against California, Ohio and Illinois State aren't exactly walks in the park, either.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Head coach Greg Kampe doesn't qualify as young or charismatic, but neither did Bob McKillop when he led Davidson to the Elite Eight in his 19th season with the program. This is Kampe's 30th season coaching at Oakland, which makes him the third-longest tenured coach in college basketball—trailing only Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.

If Bader can catch fire from behind the arc in the tournament—unlike his 2-of-11 effort in Oakland's four-point loss to Texas in the 2011 NCAA Tournament—this might finally be the year that Kampe makes it to the Round of 32—and beyond.

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