Cinderella stories are part of what make the NCAA tournament so exciting, and 2014's event should offer several squads capable of making noise on the first March Madness weekend and beyond.
Among the potential mid-major forces seeking to become the next Butler, Wichita State (or slightly before them, George Mason), several stand out as the odds-on favorites to go on a significant run. The dangerous thing about picking these teams is that they could easily be intimidated by the big stage or not match up as expected with their power-conference opponents in the round of 64.
However, there are some teams that are more well-known in college basketball that aren't receiving much hype but could make impressive pushes of their own in rattling off a number of victories.
Here is a look at all the bracket information, along with predictions as to how the top Cinderella candidates will fare in their Big Dance trips and their odds to win it all included.
Note: Odds are courtesy of OddsShark.com.
All Your Bracket Essentials:
Predictions for Potential Cinderellas
How is this possible? One of the most hyped freshman classes in college basketball history hasn't yielded the immediate returns Big Blue Nation expected in 2013-14. Now it has Kentucky entering the tourney as a total wild card and Cinderella as a result.
The Wildcats sank to a 24-10 record (12-6 in the SEC) and did not play up to their potential all year long on a consistent basis. However, there were inevitable flashes of excellence that suggest coach John Calipari's squad could be poised to make an improbable run in the NCAA tournament.
Sunday's SEC title game final was evidence that Kentucky could be on the cusp of something special. Although it benefited from missed free throws, a valiant second-half comeback effort resulted in a 61-60 loss to No. 1 overall seed Florida.
ESPN's Myron Medcalf wasn't sure what to make of the Wildcats afterwards:
Adam Himmelsbach of the Courier-Journal documented what sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein had to say about the squad's position in the bracket:
If the deck wasn't so stacked against the Wildcats in the Midwest region, perhaps they wouldn't even be considered a Cinderella despite their unranked status. With these adverse circumstances, though, Kentucky has a prospective round of 32 matchup with undefeated Wichita State.
Emerging from that contest with the Shockers victorious would be shocking enough. Even if that happens, a potential Sweet 16 date with reigning national champion Louisville looms. Standing in the way of a Final Four berth could be No. 2 seed Michigan or third-seeded Duke.
Talk about a tough draw. As Cauley-Stein said, it is the Wildcats against the world. With backcourt freshman twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison, James Young and dynamic forward Julius Randle along with Cauley-Stein's defensive prowess, Kentucky just might pull off the magic fans have been waiting for at the perfect time.
With so many tough opponents to get through, though, Kentucky won't go any further than the Sweet 16—but look for them to pull off the first big upset over the Shockers.
Prediction: Sweet 16
Oklahoma State (40-1)
In the same vein as Kentucky, there is too much talent on this Cowboys team to discount them as dangerous sleepers. They gain the Cinderella label due to their extremely long odds and stretches of poor play this season.
Headlined by potential NBA lottery pick Marcus Smart, there are other explosive offensive options such as Markel Brown, Le'Bryan Nash and massively improved sophomore Phil Forte III. Although they don't have much depth, Smart and the members of his formidable quartet are as lethal as any in the nation.
Yes, Oklahoma State lost two of its last three games, but one came in overtime to Iowa State and the other was a seven-point defeat to Kansas in the Big 12 conference tournament. There is little shame to be had in those.
Seth Davis of CBS Sports believes that the No. 1 seed in the West region in Arizona is in trouble should it encounter the Cowboys:
The ninth-seeded underdogs still have to fight through Gonzaga in the round of 64, but with a possible big showdown with the Wildcats on the horizon, they should come out firing on all cylinders.
In a matchup that would be the ultimate test of strengths—Arizona's elite defense against Smart and Co.—the Cowboys would have a puncher's chance of advancing through and well beyond. San Diego State would likely await in the Sweet 16, along with the either Creighton or Wisconsin if the seeds go to plan.
Unfortunately for fans in Stillwater, the Wildcats have the edge on the glass and should edge Oklahoma State in one of the third round's better games.
Prediction: Round of 32
There is typically only one true mid-major team that makes a big run, and Harvard's circumstances give them the best chance to do so in this year's edition of March Madness.
Coach Tommy Amaker is building a consistent winner and has tangible experience for his nucleus of players to draw on after the Crimson beat third-seeded New Mexico in the round of 64 last year. Junior swingman Wesley Saunders netted a team-high 18 points in that landmark win over the Lobos and is the leading scorer on the squad now.
Dave Zirin of The Nation has plenty of confidence in Harvard's chances versus the Cincinnati Bearcats in the opener, as the Crimson should be a trendy No. 12 seed to pull off a victory:
Three out of four No. 12s won in the round of 64 last year, so it stands to reason that it should happen at least once this time around. Once Harvard gets through that, a tough clash with Big Ten tournament champion Michigan State awaits in all likelihood.
Since the Crimson have excellent balance and shoot three-pointers at an exceptional 38.7 percent as a team, they can get hot from beyond the arc and hang with anyone.
The problem Michigan State will present is its size with Adreian Payne, who is stronger than Harvard up front. A broken foot for center Kenyatta Smith has not prevented the Crimson from winning the Ivy League yet again, but it will halt their bid at a potential big run in the NCAA tourney.
That doesn't mean their matchup with the Spartans—should it happen, as is predicted here—won't be entertaining. Great offense beats great defense any day, which gives both Harvard and Oklahoma State hope in the round of 32.
Kentucky is the true team to watch for among this strong trio of Cinderellas. Its highly touted youngsters have endured as much scrutiny and adversity as any due to their massive expectations. Using the SEC title game as a launching point, the Wildcats should at least push to the Sweet 16.
Given how crazy March Madness can get, don't be surprised if any of these three teams goes deeper than their lackluster seeds would indicate.
Prediction for Harvard: Round of 32
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