Filling Out Your Bracket: Cinderellas to the Elite Eight and Beyond

Brett LissendenSenior Analyst IDecember 3, 2008

This article is part of a series of articles that uses historical trends in the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament to provide advice for predicting future results. Recent trends will be the most heavily considered, namely from 2000 to the present. Other articles can be viewed from the links in the archives section at the bottom of the page.


There is no better satisfaction than correctly picking an underdog in the NCAA tournament. Most high-seeded teams that we may pick to win usually one win one or two games at most in the tournament. But there are some notable exceptions, and picking a Cinderella to go deep into the tournament correctly could take you to the top of your bracket pool.


Since 2000 there have been five double-digit seeds that have qualified for the Elite Eight. Only one of those teams has moved on to the Final Four, a No. 11 seed. Two No. 8 seeds have also reached the Final Four in the same time period.


  • In 2000, No. 8-seeded Wisconsin and No. 8-seeded North Carolina made it to the Final Four.
  • No. 11-seeded Temple reached the Elite Eight in 2001.
  • No. 12-seeded Missouri and No. 10-seeded Kent State qualified for the Elite Eight in 2002.
  • In 2006, No. 11-seeded George Mason made it all the way to the Final Four.
  • In 2008, No. 10-seeded Davidson advanced to the Elite Eight.

There are some interesting observations that can be made from these Cinderellas:


Three of the seven Cinderellas listed came from power conferences, and another three of them came from fairly prestigious mid-major conferences. Only Davidson, out of the Big South, had success in the NCAA tournament from a small conference.


Five of the seven teams advanced as far as they did by playing one game against another underdog team, where underdog team means any team other than the lowest possible seed they could have played. Interesting enough, each of these five teams had exactly one game like this. The only two teams to earn all of their wins against the lowest possible seeds were Kent State in 2002 and Davidson in 2008.


The common view that underdogs need senior leadership to advance appears to be inaccurate. While all seven Cinderellas had at least one senior that was a major contributor, four of the seven had only one contributing senior.


Kent State in 2002, George Mason in 2006, and Davidson in 2008 were the only teams with more than one contributing senior. It is interesting, yet is likely coincidence, that these teams are the three most recent Cinderellas in the list. Perhaps multiple seniors has become more of a necessity for potential Cinderellas in very recent years.


Another common trend among the seven Cinderellas was defense. Five of the seven teams allowed 64 points per game or less over the course of the season. The two exceptions were North Carolina in 2000 and Missouri in 2002, both power conference teams.


Finally, scoring balance was a key attribute for most of the Cinderellas. Five of the seven teams had at least three players averaging over 10 points per game on the season. George Mason in 2006 and Temple in 2002 had five players averaging over 10 points per game. The two exceptions were Wisconsin in 2000 and Davidson in 2008. 


Wisconsin had an outstanding defense (only allowed 55.8 points per game on the season) so they were able to get away with only one player averaging above 10 points per game. Davidson had one player (Stephen Curry) averaging over 25 points per game, so they were able to have success with only two players averaging over 10 points per game.


In summary, if you are risky enough to try to pick a Cinderella team to advance to the Elite Eight, remember these things:

  • Most underdogs come from distinguished conferences.
  • Cinderellas very rarely make it all the way to the Final Four.
  • If there is a potential for other upsets in a high-seeded team’s side of the bracket, then they have a better chance of advancing further.
  • Multiple seniors may not be as important for Cinderellas, but teams should have at least one key senior contributor.
  • Most Cinderella teams have a strong defense and good scoring balance.



Use Conference Tendencies for the Final Four

Seeds Making the Final Four

"Easy" First Round Picks

Make or Break First Round Picks

Tough First Round Picks

No. 1 and No. 2 Seeds in the Second Round

Other Second Round Games

The Sweet Sixteen

The Elite Eight

The Final Four