Ranking College Basketball's Top Cinderella Candidates Halfway Through 2013-14

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 7, 2014

Ranking College Basketball's Top Cinderella Candidates Halfway Through 2013-14

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    Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

    Fun as they may be, let's take a quick break from Top 25 rankings and all the talk of undefeated seasons to pay some attention to the teams like Southern Miss and Belmont that are going to make or break your bracket this March. In other words: Cinderella candidates.

    Way, way back in early November before a single game of the 2013-14 season had even been played, we took a shot at nominating five Cinderella candidates based on a number of common trends between teams who had recently made a surprising run in the NCAA tournament.

    Well, now that those teams have played about 15 games, it's hard to imagine some of them even have a shot at making the NIT tourney. Thus, it's time to refresh the list.

    Using the same criteria as before—a copious number of steals on defense, a better-than-average point guard, a gunner who takes and makes a lot of three-pointers and a non-conference schedule with a handful of quality opponents—we've updated and expanded those rankings based on how teams fared in the first two months of the season.

    Please note that even though a deep run by Fordham or DePaul is about as unlikely as anything that will actually happen in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, all teams from the 10 "major" conferences have been excluded from consideration.

    Those conferences are the AAC, ACC, Atlantic-10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Mountain West, Pac-12, SEC and West Coast. Wichita State was also removed from the field of candidates, but other teams from the Missouri Valley were welcome to throw their hat into the ring.


    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics on the following slides are courtesy of ESPN.com and are current through the start of play on Monday, January 6.

9. Bryant Bulldogs

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    James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

    Storybook Beginning

    The Bulldogs are one of just three teams that met all of the criteria for a Cinderella story, but I can't convince myself to put them any higher on the list than this. That's probably because they lost by 26.7 points per game against Gonzaga, Harvard and Ohio State.


    Major Characters

    If Bryant has one thing on its side, it's veteran leadership.

    Junior shooting guard Dyami Starks is attempting nearly nine three-pointers per game and draining 38.7 percent of them. All in all, he's averaging 21.2 points per game, which puts him in the Top 20 in the country in scoring.

    Benefiting from Starks' points, senior point guard Corey Maynard is averaging 5.0 assists per game to go along with 11.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Senior forward Alex Francis is also stuffing the stat sheets by averaging 17.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.


    Chances of a Fairy-tale Ending

    Considering the Northeast Conference's representative hasn't been given anything better than a No. 15 seed since Central Connecticut State got a No. 14 seed in the 2002 NCAA Tournament, it'll be a tall order for Bryant to win anything other than a play-in gameespecially given its earlier "success" against Ohio State.

8. Detroit Titans

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    Storybook Beginning

    Detroit's story didn't get off to a much better start than Cinderella's. Instead of cleaning floors for their wicked step-mother, the Titans were taken behind the woodshed and brutally beaten in their first two games against Division I opponents. After opening the season with a 16-point loss at South Alabama, they lost on the road by 46 points to Connecticut.

    To be fair, though, they lost a lot of key players from last year's team. Ray McCallum went to the NBA, Jason Calliste transferred to Oregon and Doug Anderson and Nick Minnerath both graduated. That's 59.8 points per game they needed to figure out how to replace, and it certainly wasn't happening in early November.


    Major Characters

    Juwan Howard Jr. and Evan Bruinsma are the only players on the roster who averaged more than 8.0 minutes of playing time last season, so it's none too surprising that they're leading the team in scoring. It helps that they are both very good free-throw shooters, combining to hit 82.6 percent of their one-pointers thus far.

    Sophomore shooting guard Anton Wilson is making a charge up the team's scoring leaderboard, though. Wilson has averaged 14.4 points and four made three-pointers per game in Detroit's last five contests.


    Chances of a Fairy-tale Ending

    Unfortunately for Detroit, there's another team from the Horizon League further up on this list, and there's simply no way that conference is sending two teams to the tournament. Even if the Titans had a 15 percent chance of beating any opponent they face in the NCAA tournament, those odds drop considerably once you factor in their chances of even making it to the dance.

7. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns

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    Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

    Storybook Beginning

    Louisiana-Lafayette does have a couple of near-quality wins against Louisiana Tech, Houston and Oakland, but a 19-point loss to Baylor and 113-74 loss to Louisville might keep anyone from ever truly buying this team as a tournament sleeper.


    Major Characters

    Elfrid Payton is one of the most underrated players in the entire country. The 6'3" guard is averaging 20.7 points, 6.0 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game. He isn't a great free-throw shooter (66.2 percent), but only Niagara's Antoine Mason has attempted more freebies this season than Payton.

    In a double-overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday, Payton had a triple-double34 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds. The man can play against teams you've actually heard of, too. In the Ragin' Cajuns' loss to Baylor, he finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.

    And yet, Payton doesn't even lead the team in scoring. Sophomore forward Shawn Long is averaging 21.5 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game. Entering play on Monday, he ranked 15th in the nation in scoring and fourth in rebounding.

    It's a shame the team can't play defense worth a darn, because this is one of the most offensively gifted duos in the game today.


    Chances of a Fairy-tale Ending

    They shouldn't have too much difficulty earning the Sun Belt's automatic bid. However, even with all that talent on offense, a highly ranked team will almost certainly outscore them with ease.

6. UC Santa Barbara Gauchos

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    Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

    Storybook Beginning

    The Gauchos have convincing road wins over UNLV and San Diego, a home win over California and a pair of relatively close losses at Colorado and at UCLA, where even the best teams would be prone to losing.

    They technically shouldn't have made the list because they missed the steals criterion by a considerable margin (currently averaging just 5.7 per game), but we couldn't leave them out considering they rank in the top 30 in both RPI and SOS while meeting all of the other criteria.


    Major Characters

    Alan Williams is evolving into something of an urban legend. More than 95 percent of the country has probably never seen him play a game, and yet his Offensive Rating (according to KenPom, subscription required) is slightly better than that of Julius Randle, Russ Smith and Jabari Parker.

    Unlike most teams who seem determined to get their less-talented players involved, UC Santa Barbara is riding Williams harder than any other player in the country is being ridden. When he is on the floor, he takes 39.5 percent of the team's shots—the highest individual rate in the nation.


    Chances of a Fairy-tale Ending

    It's certainly not easy to base your tournament dreams on a single post player, but if an opponent overlooks UC Santa Barbara and allows Williams to reach his season averages of 23.5 points and 10.7 rebounds, anything's possible.

    In his latest projected bracket, ESPN's Joe Lunardi had UC Santa Barbara as a No. 12 seed drawing Memphis in its first game. I would certainly take the Gauchos to win at least one game if that happened.

5. Belmont Bruins

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    Storybook Beginning

    The Bruins pulled off one of the most surprising (at the time) upsets of the season when they went into the Dean Dome and knocked off the Tar Heels on November 17.

    Since then, the waters have been quite choppy. They've won two straight games to open conference play, but those victories came on the heels of four consecutive losses by double digitstwo of which came against teams outside the RPI Top 150.


    Major Characters

    J.J. Mann was the three-point shooting hero against North Carolina, but Craig Bradshaw (45.0 percent) and Drew Windler (52.8 percent) are the Bruins' full-time snipers. The two long-range assassins combined for 43 points while giving Kentucky a run for its money in late December.

    Windler is the one they'll be counting on to be a matchup nightmare in the tournament. How in the world do you game-plan for a 6'9" forward who hits better than 50 percent of his three-point attempts?


    Chances of a Fairy-tale Ending

    Due to the sheer number of times that we have wanted them to be the Cinderella team over the past decade, it might be hard to believe the Bruins have never won a game in the NCAA tournament.

    Could this finally be the year?

    It certainly doesn't seem like anyone in the Ohio Valley is particularly interested in stopping them from making the tournament. From there, it's just a question of whether the three-point shooters can get hot enough to hide the fact that this team is incapable of playing defense.

4. Manhattan Jaspers

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    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    Storybook Beginning

    If you don't like whistles, do yourself a favor and don't watch a single Manhattan basketball game this season. According to KenPom (subscription required), the Jaspers have the highest ratio of free-throw attempts to field-goal attempts.

    It isn't any prettier on the other end of the court, either. According to NCAA.com, only Nicholls State commits more personal fouls per game than Manhattan.

    And no, that isn't a product of playing a bunch of close contests with late-game foul parades. In an 18-point win over South Carolina, Manhattan attempted 39 free throws and committed 30 fouls. This team simply plays rough-and-tumble basketball every single night.

    Thus far it has worked for them. The Jaspers lead the nation in free-throw attempts per game and have a commanding lead in made free throws per game thanks to a 72.8 percent success ratio.


    Major Characters

    George Beamon is Manhattan's Prince Charming. He leads the team in points and rebounds and nearly leads the nation in made free throws. He has attempted more than twice as many field goals as any other member of the team.

    The Jaspers also rely heavily upon Rhamel Brown. Even if they aren't reaching their average of 9.2 steals per game, they know that the 6'7" rejection machine is patrolling the paint to collect his 4.0 blocks per game.


    Chances of a Fairy-tale Ending

    Against a deep team, Manhattan doesn't stand much of a chance. But what if it draws a team like Iowa State that only really runs a seven-man rotation, or a team that's dealing with an injury and is saddled with a short bench?

    Like it or not, the Jaspers are going to draw 25 or more fouls per game. If that results in a team needing to rely on guys who barely played at all in the months of January or February, it could be the great equalizer.

    A multi-game winning streak in the tournament doesn't seem very likely, but Manhattan is going to be a huge headache for the team it draws in the second round.

3. Eastern Michigan Eagles

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    Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

    Storybook Beginning

    Though they didn't win any marquee games, you have to respect the Eagles' aggressive non-conference schedule. They have only played against three teams that are currently outside the RPI Top 100, and it certainly wouldn't have been a stretch to assume that Oakland, Robert Morris and Texas-Arlington could be in the Top 100 at this point in time.

    The final scores in their games against ranked opponents don't tell the whole story.

    Despite trailing by 20 points in the first half, they closed to within five points of Syracuse in the second half before the Orange turned on the afterburners. Both Duke and Kentucky were fighting tooth and nail with the Eagles early in the second half. EMU even held a lead over Massachusetts midway through the second half.

    They came up short in each of those endeavors, but the Eagles are one of the most battle-tested teams in the country.


    Major Characters

    Not only does Eastern Michigan run a 10-man rotation, but playing against those aforementioned teams makes it exceedingly difficult for anyone to have statistically excelled to this point in the season.

    However, the team's post presence has been the story so far.

    Glenn Bryant and Da'Shonte Riley have combined for 63 blocks. Both big men rank in the top 30 in percentage of blocked shots (KenPom subscription required). Aside from a solid effort against Massachusetts (10 points, nine rebounds and five blocks), Riley has yet to really show up in any of the big games, but Bryant is a legitimate threat on the low blocks on both ends of the court.


    Chances of a Fairy-tale Ending

    Much like Detroit, Eastern Michigan unfortunately has to contend with a few teams that are much more likely to win the conference. Not only is Toledo the overwhelming favorite to win the MAC, but Ohio and Akron are more than ready to pick up the pieces if Toledo stumbles in the conference tournament.

    Eastern Michigan could be the No. 13 or No. 14 seed to make it into the Sweet 16, but it needs to actually make it into the tournament first.

2. Green Bay Phoenix

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    Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

    Storybook Beginning

    The Phoenix made some waves during the non-conference portion of the season by nearly beating Wisconsin and actually beating Virginiawhich was a pretty big deal at the time.

    Unfortunately, they followed up that win over the Cavaliers with a loss to Eastern Michigan and haven't really been heard from since. Rest assured that this is a very good team capable of beating anyone, and the overwhelming favorite to earn the Horizon League auto bid.


    Major Characters

    Alec Brown is a freak of nature. The 7'1" giant is averaging 3.6 blocks per game and shooting 43.2 percent from three-point range. In addition to those stats, which don't seem to belong together, he's scoring 15.7 points and grabbing 6.4 rebounds per game.

    He had a triple-double (15 points, 10 rebounds, 10 blocks) against D-II Minnesota-Duluth in late November and scored 40 points in a game against Fairfield in late December.

    On the opposite end of the height spectrum is 5'11" leading scorer Keifer Sykes. Sykes is predictably averaging 0.0 blocks per game and shooting just 27.5 percent from downtown, but is scoring 19.5 points per game while averaging five assists per night.


    Chances of a Fairy-tale Ending

    Aside from Brown's blocked shots, there's nothing in particular that Green Bay does to stand apart from the crowd. This is just a generically better-than-average team across the board.

    That certainly isn't meant as an insult. If anything, it's a compliment. Other than perhaps giving up a few too many offensive rebounds, there's no weakness to exploit and no strength to focus on stopping. Green Bay will be a tough out, no matter the opponent.

    With a favorable draw, the Elite Eight is a real possibility.

1. Southern Miss Golden Eagles

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    Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

    Storybook Beginning

    Aside from a 69-38 loss to Louisville in which they had nearly twice as many turnovers as made field goals, it has been a relatively successful opening two months for the Golden Eagles.

    Wins over Drexel and North Dakota State are about as good as it gets in terms of quality wins and non-conference strength of schedule, but they have honed their craft as a slow-paced, defensive-minded team that any Virginia or Wisconsin fan would be proud to watch.


    Major Characters

    Neil Watson leads the team in scoring, assists and three-point shooting. At 41.9 percent, he's the only Southern Miss player hitting better than one out of every three attempted triples. He's also shooting 91.5 percent from the free-throw line, single-handedly keeping the team (67.4 percent) from being one of the worst in the country.

    Jerrold Brooks has really struggled to find his shot this season (36.2 percent from the field, 30.3 percent from behind the arc), but he will need to become one of the key scorers if Southern Miss is going to put up enough points to support its defense.


    Chances of a Fairy-tale Ending

    Before the season began, I picked Southern Miss as my sleeper team to make the Final Four, and I still believe it's a remote possibility. If you're not used to playing at the Golden Eagles' slow pace, it can be a real challenge.

    Wichita State shocked the world last year, not by outscoring its opponents, but by controlling the pace and keeping them out of their comfort zone. Southern Miss just might be able to follow that blueprint.