Ranking College Basketball's Best Potential March Madness Cinderella Teams

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 2, 2018

Ranking College Basketball's Best Potential March Madness Cinderella Teams

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    Cody Martin
    Cody MartinBrad Tollefson/Associated Press

    The Nevada Wolf Pack have made multiple appearances in the AP Top 25 this season, and you may want to pick them to reach the Sweet 16 if you want to have the best 2018 men's NCAA tournament bracket in the country.

    Believe it or not, it's already February. And last time I checked, that means March is just around the corner. But, oh no! For the umpteenth consecutive season, you've forgotten to pay attention to the mid-major schools most likely to destroy your bracket!

    Have no fear. We've got you covered with a ranking of the 10 best Cinderella candidates.

    Four seasons ago, I took a look back at the top Cinderella stories to come up with a few criteria for finding those teamsthe anatomy of the major upset, if you will. The five things those teams had in common were: a lot of steals, at least one three-point shooter with a proven ability to catch fire, a point guard with a good number of assists, several significant nonconference challenges and a primary rotation that is primarily upperclassmen.

    Had I looked back at that criteria a few months later, I would've known to pick Mercer to upset Duke that year.

    So which teams meet all of those criteria, and which ones are at least close enough to those goals to be considered?

    Not all of these teams will make the NCAA tournament, but watch out for the ones that do—especially if they get matched up with their ideal opponent.

    Please note: In addition to excluding teams from the seven major conferences, Gonzaga, Middle Tennessee, Rhode Island and Saint Mary's were not considered candidates for this list, as each has been on the national radar for the past several seasons. We're only interested in teams that have not donned the glass slipper in recent years.

10. Wagner Seahawks

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    JoJo Cooper
    JoJo CooperG Fiume/Getty Images

    Quick Thoughts

    We're getting this party started with a serious long shot. The Northeast Conference's representative has been a No. 16 seed in six consecutive seasons, and Wagner was a projected No. 16 seed in my bracket earlier this week. And as you may have heard a few thousand times in recent years, a No. 16 has never upset a No. 1 seed in the men's NCAA tournament.

    But Wagner is on the short list of teams that meet all the criteria I came up with for a Cinderella team a few years ago. Granted, the Seahawks aren't world-beaters in any of those categories, and they weren't even close to winning their toughest nonconference games against Missouri and Seton Hall. Still, we would be remiss to not include them on this list.

          

    What They Do Well

    Led by AJ Sumbry, the Seahawks are strong on the offensive glass and block shots at a rate well above average. They're also a solid three-point shooting team. JoJo Cooper, Nigel Jackson and Romone Saunders each average at least three attempts per game and makes at least 35 percent of them. But the perimeter star is Blake Francis, draining 42.9 percent of his 7.7 attempts per game. 

           

    What They Don't Do Well

    Despite quality three-point shooting, Wagner struggles to convert both inside the arc and at the free-throw line. Moreover, the Seahawks commit a ton of turnovers on offense and even more fouls on defense.

          

    Ideal Opponent: Kansas Jayhawks

    "Ideal" is quite the relative term here, but if Wagner has to face any of the projected No. 1 seeds, Kansas would present the best chance to make history. This is because the Jayhawks rarely get to the free-throw line and don't shoot that well from the charity stripe. They're also a below-average defensive rebounding team. If it happens to be an off night of shooting for Svi Mykhailiuk and Devonte' Graham, who knows?

9. Rider Broncs

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    Stevie Jordan
    Stevie JordanAaron Doster/Associated Press

    Quick Thoughts

    Like Wagner, Rider is a "must include" because it meets all the Cinderella criteria. Rider ranks ahead of Wagner because it fared much better in its nonconference challenges, winning at Penn State and almost winning at Providence. Also, Rider has a much better chance of avoiding a No. 16 seed, making it inherently more likely to pull off an upset.

    But of all the teams on the list, the Broncs might be the least likely to make the NCAA tournament. It's a three-horse race for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference automatic bid, and Rider is 0-2 against the other two teams (Iona and Canisius) battling for that spot.

          

    What They Do Well

    The scary thing about facing Rider is that there's no telling who is going to be the go-to guy on a given night. Five different Broncs average at least 10 points per game, but no one is above 14.3. Each one scored at least 16 points in a game twice in January. Even sixth-leading scorer Anthony Durham has been in double figures in four of his last nine games.

                  

    What They Don't Do Well

    Rider gets to the free-throw line almost as often as any team in the nation, but it is one of the worst free-throw shooting teams at 60.3 percent. The Broncs have three players shooting worse than 52 percent while averaging at least two attempts per game. The most troubling of the bunch is Frederick Scott, who leads the team at 6.0 attempts per game but only converts 46.0 percent of them.

          

    Ideal Opponent: Kentucky Wildcats

    In addition to poor free-throw shooting, one of Rider's biggest issues is giving up too many three-point attempts. Thus, it needs to face a team unlikely to make it pay for that problem. Enter: Kentucky. The Wildcats are 347th in the country in three-point rate and are perfectly average in terms of percentage. Chances are, Kentucky would "out-athlete" Rider for an easy win. However, this is the matchup with a projected No. 2-4 seed that could be interesting.

8. Belmont Bruins

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    Dylan Windler
    Dylan WindlerMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Quick Thoughts

    In years past, Belmont was a bit of a two-man show on offense, be it some combination of Evan Bradds, Craig Bradshaw, J.J. Mann or Ian Clark running things. But this year? Pick your poison. Four different Bruins shoot at least 39 percent from three-point range and have made at least 45 triples this season.

    With that diverse attack, Belmont has been tough to beat, entering February with a 17-6 record. This team almost won at Providence and put up great fights on the road against Washington and TCU. It also won nonconference games against Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

    What They Do Well

    The calling card of Rick Byrd's teams over the years has been high-percentage shots. This is Belmont's sixth consecutive season ranked in the top three in the nation in two-point percentage. The Bruins are also in the top 15 in effective field-goal percentage for the eighth straight year. They shoot a ton of three-pointers, which is what spaces the floor for those easy deuces.

           

    What They Don't Do Well

    Belmont is only so-so on defense, and the inability to consistently get to the free-throw line or get offensive rebounds limits its overall effectiveness on offense, despite the great shooting numbers.

         

    Ideal Opponent: North Carolina Tar Heels

    The Bruins currently project for a spot in the No. 13 or No. 14 range, which could put them on a collision course with a North Carolina team teetering on the No. 3/No. 4 line. As previously mentioned, Belmont shoots a lot of threes. In fact, 54.9 percent of its field-goal attempts come from downtown, which ranks second in the nation. And UNC's three-point defense is just plain awful.

7. Marshall Thundering Herd

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    Jon Elmore (33) and Ajdin Penava (11)
    Jon Elmore (33) and Ajdin Penava (11)Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Quick Thoughts

    Most mid-major teams with realistic aspirations of becoming the next Cinderella story have a balanced scoring attack. Maybe they have one dominant scorer, like Stephen Curry for Davidson in 2008. If they're lucky, they'll have two guys shouldering the load, like R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow for Georgia State in 2015.

    But Marshall has three stars each averaging better than 16 points per game. In addition to impressive averages, Jon Elmore (21.9 PPG), C.J. Burks (21.8 PPG) and Ajdin Penava (16.3) have each had at least one game this season with 32 points scored. If the Thundering Herd can win the Conference USA tournamentthey have no hope of an at-large bid with this resume—they'll be a terrifying first-round opponent for some unfortunate squad.

          

    What They Do Well

    With three guys averaging a combined 60 points per game, what Marshall does best is put the ball in the hoop. This team plays at the fourth-highest adjusted tempo in the nation and has an effective field-goal percentage well above the national average.

         

    What They Don't Do Well

    Though Penava averages 6.4 blocks per 40 minutes, Marshall's defense is woeful. The Thundering Herd allow 81.4 points per game, and it isn't just a product of their fast pace. They gave up 112 and 114 points, respectively, in losses to Western Kentucky and William & Mary. Also, their average rebound margin (minus-4.9) is among the worst in the country.

         

    Ideal Opponent: Rhode Island Rams

    It's hard to find a top-25 team that wouldn't beat Marshall to a pulp on offense and on the glass, but Rhode Island might be the exception. The Rams are average in rebounding (plus-0.2 margin), and they aren't exactly lethal with their shooting, ranking outside the top 100 nationally in three-point, two-point and free-throw percentage.

    Rhode Island also doesn't mind playing the occasional uptempo game, so Marshall could get into its usual rhythm for an upset.

6. Oakland Golden Grizzlies

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    Kendrick Nunn
    Kendrick NunnDave Reginek/Getty Images

    Quick Thoughts

    Oakland was my preseason pick to become this year's NCAA Cinderella story. Despite the worst record (14-9) among the teams on this list, the Golden Grizzlies are still one of the most dangerous mid-major teams in the country.

    Kendrick Nunn ranks second in the nation in scoring at 26.4 points per game. The senior is jacking up threes like there no tomorrow, averaging 5.5 makes and 13.2 attempts in 10 Horizon League games. If anyone is going to explode for 40 points in a first-round upset, you're looking at him. But he's no one-man show, as fellow-seniors Jalen Hayes (19.3 PPG) and Martez Walker (17.9 PPG) can also fill up the box score in a hurry.

           

    What They Do Well

    There have been a handful of duds this season50 points against Syracuse, 51 against Wright State, 59 against Kansasbut Oakland can score in bunches, averaging better than 80 points per contest. Each member of the aforementioned trio of leading scorers has put up at least 11 points in each of the last 13 games.

           

    What They Don't Do Well

    Oakland makes Marshall look good on defense. The Golden Grizzlies rarely force turnovers, they're average on the glass and they give up way too many easy looks in the paint. Both Kansas and Michigan State scored whenever they wanted to against this defense.

               

    Ideal Opponent: Cincinnati Bearcats

    Cincinnati's defense is among the best in the country, but if there's one area where the Bearcats can be exploited, it's the three-point line. Nunn is going to end up attempting at least 15 three-pointers regardless of the opponent, and he might make seven or eight of them against Cincinnati. Meanwhile, the Bearcats aren't nearly as potent on offense as some of the other title contenders, meaning Nunn could shoot Oakland to victory.

5. South Dakota Coyotes

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    Matt Mooney
    Matt MooneyCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Quick Thoughts

    Because of sensational big man Mike Daum, I've had an eye on South Dakota State for the past three years. This season, though, that eye has been wandering to the other basketball program in the Mount Rushmore State. South Dakota darn near won road games against both TCU and UCLA earlier this year, and the Coyotes laid the smack down on the Jackrabbits one week ago.

    Unfortunately, that was South Dakota's only RPI top-150 win of the season, so the Coyotes would be lucky to even get a No. 14 seed if they do win the Summit League tournament. Don't let that lack of quality victories fool you, though. These guys can play.

        

    What They Do Well

    South Dakota is sort of a jack-of-all-trades team. It doesn't rank in the top 35 nationally in anything on KenPom except for minutes continuity, but it does rank in the top 150 in just about every category. Though there's not one specific thing the Coyotes do well, the wide variety of things they do better than the national average should serve them well.

          

    What They Don't Do Well

    The one area where South Dakota is very much not in the top 150 in the nation is block percentage, where it ranks 348th. The Coyotes have either blocked zero or one shot in 14 of 21 games against D-I opponents this season.

         

    Ideal Opponent: Auburn Tigers

    Because of that inability to block shots, South Dakota would be best suited to taking down a team that doesn't particularly thrive in the paint. Among the contenders for a top-three seed, Auburn most fits that description. The Tigers shoot a pedestrian 50.0 percent on two-point attempts and rank 328th nationally in percentage of points that come from two-point attempts.

4. Buffalo Bulls

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    C.J. Massinburg
    C.J. MassinburgBrett Carlsen/Getty Images

    Quick Thoughts

    If a team challenging itself in nonconference play is as important as we believe, Buffalo did a wonderful and important job of getting battle-tested. The Bulls faced Cincinnati, Texas A&M, Syracuse and St. Bonaventure. Granted, they lost all four of those games, but they weren't blown out of the water in any of them.

    Plus, they weren't at full strength for those games. Missouri transfer Wes Clark didn't make his 2017-18 debut until Dec. 19, meaning he missed the battles with Cincinnati and St. Bonaventure and was just getting his feet wet against Syracuse and Texas A&M. Since then, Buffalo is 9-1 and looks like a team destined for one of those No. 12 over No. 5 upsets without which the NCAA tournament would be incomplete.

    What They Do Well

    Buffalo has three juniorsNick Perkins, C.J. Massinburg and Jeremy Harriswho are each averaging at least 15 points and 6.5 rebounds per game in Mid-American Conference play. They also have Clark running the show as a senior with 12.3 points and 5.3 assists per conference game. All four of those upperclassmen are viable threats from three-point range. The result is a balanced, veteran attack that is almost impossible to slow down, averaging 85.9 points over the last 10 games.

         

    What They Don't Do Well

    On both offense and defense, the free-throw line is not Buffalo's friend. In their six losses, the Bulls shot 66-of-98 (67.3 percent) from the charity stripe while the opposition was 147-of-186 (79.0 percent). Those losses were by a combined total of 57 points, and they made 81 fewer free throws than their opponents.

       

    Ideal Opponent: Michigan Wolverines

    If there's one team in the projected No. 5 seed range that wouldn't make Buffalo pay for its free-throw disparity, that team is Michigan. The Wolverines average just 9.9 made free throws per game and they shoot worse than 66 percent from the line. The game would also be an interesting mismatch in styles, as Buffalo and Michigan differ in tempo by nearly 10 possessions per game.

3. New Mexico State Aggies

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    Jemerrio Jones
    Jemerrio JonesMichael Hickey/Getty Images

    Quick Thoughts

    This team doesn't meet the usual Cinderella criteria for steals, assists or three-point shooting, but it's obviously doing something quite right to be 19-3 and a top-40 team on KenPom.

    New Mexico State pounced onto the national radar in a big way in mid-December, winning consecutive games against Illinois, Davidson and Miami. The Aggies were also mighty close to a win over USC, which would have been four good wins away from home in the span of 10 days.

    Do yourself a favor and familiarize yourself with Jemerrio Jones. NMSU's 6'5" point forward is averaging 10.1 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. It's a given he'll be the guy everyone is talking about if the Aggies can win a game or two.

        

    What They Do Well

    NMSU has one of the best perimeter defenses in the country. Opponents shoot just 30.3 percent from three-point range and register an assist on 40.5 percent of made field goals. In both categories, the Aggies rank in the top 10 nationally. They are also well above average on the defensive glass, resulting in just three games with 70 or more points allowed.

    What They Don't Do Well

    This team is a mess at the free-throw line. New Mexico State ranks 341st in free-throw rate and 328th in free-throw percentage. You'd almost feel better about the Aggies coming from behind for a last-second win than trying to preserve a late lead at the charity stripe.

    Ideal Opponent: Louisville Cardinals

    The Cardinals are already an average team from three-point range and have the worst assist rate among the viable contenders for a spot on the top five seed lines. Against this New Mexico State defense, their offense could disappear. Louisville would probably lean on its extreme size advantage with Anas Mahmoud and Raymond Spalding, but this matchup has the makings of 60-56 type of nail-biter.

2. Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns

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    Bryce Washington
    Bryce WashingtonJim Mone/Associated Press

    Quick Thoughts

    The Sun Belt Conference has produced a lot of quality teams lately. Georgia State upset Baylor in 2015. Arkansas-Little Rock knocked off Purdue in 2016. And if Texas-Arlington had been able to win the conference tournament last year, everyone had the Mavericks pegged as a potential Cinderella story.

    This year, Louisiana is that team poised to break brackets with three seniors and three juniors in its primary six-man rotation. The Ragin' Cajuns are running a freight train through this conference, sitting at 9-0 with all nine wins coming by a double-digit margin. They also won a neutral-court game against Iowa back in November, though, their first-round opponent in the NCAA tournament will be a heck of a lot better than the Hawkeyes.

    And if you're buying stock in teams like Nevada and Oakland because they're led by former major-conference transfers, be sure to do the same here. Four of Louisiana's five startersFrank Bartley IV (BYU), Jakeenan Gant (Missouri), Malik Marquetti (USC) and Marcus Stroman (South Carolina)began their college careers at bigger programs.

    What They Do Well

    Like New Mexico State, Louisiana has an outstanding perimeter defense. The Ragin' Cajuns rank in the top 40 nationally in defensive three-point rate, three-point percentage, steal percentage and assist rate. Seven times already this season, they have finished a game with more steals than their opponents had assists. Meanwhile, they share the ball beautifully, ranking eighth in assist rate on offense.

    What They Don't Do Well

    This is the part that's going to make me think about picking this team to the Sweet 16: Louisiana doesn't have an obvious weakness. In its three losses (Clemson, Ole Miss and Wyoming), it just went ice-cold from the field, which can happen to anyone. One nitpicking concern is the Ragin' Cajuns occasionally gift their opponent way too many opportunities at the free-throw line.

         

    Ideal Opponent: Arizona State Sun Devils

    Arizona State has not been the same team for the past five weeks and has probably played its way out of the conversation for a top-four seed. But this is a potential No. 6 vs. No. 11 matchup that would favor Louisiana. The Sun Devils do not defend the perimeter well at all, and the Ragin' Cajuns are equipped to stop Tra Holder and Shannon Evans II from catching fire.

1. Nevada Wolf Pack

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    Jordan Caroline
    Jordan CarolineGary Kazanjian/Associated Press

    Quick Thoughts

    It's almost unfair to include Nevada on this list. Unless the Wolf Pack falls apart down the stretch or the NCAA selection committee royally screws them over, they're going to be a single-digit seed in the tournament. Winning a first-round game wouldn't even be a Cinderella story here. It's the expectation.

    But Nevada has the talent to reach the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. I'd even go so far as to say this team has Final Four potential with the right draw. And what a story that would be for a team with five transfersCaleb and Cody Martin (NC State), Jordan Caroline (Southern Illinois), Kendall Stephens (Purdue) and Hallice Cooke (Iowa State and Oregon State)among its seven leading scorers.

              

    What They Do Well

    Nevada's offensive efficiency is downright lethal. The Wolf Pack rank fourth in the nation in offensive turnover percentage and 11th in three-point percentage. Because of that combination, they average better than 83 points per game, despite playing at a tempo on par with the national average. That efficiency makes them difficult to beat. Their four losses have come by a combined total of 13 points, two of which required at least one overtime.

         

    What They Don't Do Well

    Two areas of concern for Nevada are rebounding and two-point defense, which means a team like Arizona, Duke, Gonzaga, Michigan State, Saint Mary's or Xavier could be a matchup nightmare for the Wolf Pack. But it's not like they're awful in either category. Opponents are just barely above the national average in two-point percentage, and Nevada has an average rebound margin of plus-1.4.

    Ideal Opponent: Florida Gators

    This may be a different story when John Egbunu returns, but Florida is currently not a team that would be in a position to capitalize on Nevada's weaknesses. Clemson would also be a nice second-round matchup for the Wolf Pack, as the Tigers haven't been the same in the paint since losing Donte Grantham to injury.

                               

    Statistics courtesy of KenPom.com and Sports Reference.

    Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.