Ranking College Basketball's Best Potential 2019 March Madness Cinderella Teams

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 30, 2019

Ranking College Basketball's Best Potential 2019 March Madness Cinderella Teams

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    Buffalo's CJ Massinburg
    Buffalo's CJ MassinburgMichael Hickey/Getty Images

    Buffalo blew out Arizona in the first round of the 2018 NCAA men's basketball tournament before losing its next game to Kentucky, but the top Cinderella candidate in the country this March has its sights set on multiple wins.

    Believe it or not, it's almost 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.

    Five seasons ago, I took a look at the top Cinderella stories in order 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
    • 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 an ideal opponent.

           

    Please note: In addition to excluding teams from the seven major conferences, Gonzaga, Nevada 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. Furman Paladins

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    Alex Hunter
    Alex HunterRichard Shiro/Associated Press

    Quick Thoughts

    Furman was everyone's favorite Cinderella candidate for the first six weeks of this season. The Paladins picked up unlikely road wins over Loyola-Chicago and Villanova within the first two weeks and proceeded to start out 12-0. They even made it into the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history.

    Since then, though, they are 4-5 without any wins worth bragging about, sliding to the back of the heap of Cinderella candidates. The South Carolina school will have home games against East Tennessee State, UNC Greensboro and Wofford in February, which might help them get back into the at-large conversation, if necessary.

                 

    What They Do Well

    Furman might be the best in the country at creating steals without committing turnovers. The Paladins rank 11th in steal percentage and 12th in defensive free-throw rate, which is a combination that almost never goes hand-in-hand. In fact, as of this past Friday, the only other team that ranked in the top 40 in both categories was Duke, which was No. 1 in steal percentage and No. 27 in defensive free-throw rate—and if you listen to the haters, Duke always gets the benefit of the doubt from the refs.

                  

    What They Don't Do Well

    Furman is usually an above-average three-point shooting team, but it does not have much of a Plan B when those perimeter shots aren't falling. In losses to LSU, East Tennessee and Wofford, the Paladins shot 21-of-80 (26.3 percent) from downtown and failed to score more than 57 points in any of those games.

             

    Ideal First-Round Opponent: Maryland

    For as good as Maryland has been this season, it is a young team that is prone to turnover woes. The No. 21 Terrapins are average in terms of getting to the free-throw line and defending the three-point arc, so that's a lot of things that play to Furman's strengths. Maryland would likely destroy the Paladins on the glass, but rebounding margin can be overcome with good shots and aggressive defense.

9. South Dakota State Jackrabbits

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    Mike Daum
    Mike DaumKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Quick Thoughts

    One of these years, South Dakota State is going to finally win a game, right?

    The Jackrabbits have been to five of the last seven NCAA tournaments and have always been one of the sexy sleepers. The first two years, that was because of minor-conference legend Nate Wolters. The past three years, it's because of equally legendary Mike Daum. Those two guys have more than 5,000 career points between them, but little more than a couple of near upsets in March to show for it.

    But this might be South Dakota State's best team yetat least on offense. The Jackrabbits rank fourth in the nation in effective field-goal percentage and are averaging nearly 85 points per game. Daum is one of three seniors in the starting lineup, and David Jenkins is no ordinary sophomore, having already scored 1,000 points in his career.

                 

    What They Do Well

    There are fewer than 40 players in the country who are both averaging at least 2.4 threes per game and converting on at least 44 percent of attempts, but South Dakota State has two of them in the form of Jenkins and Skyler Flatten. And Daum is no slouch from downtown, sinking better than 38 percent of his 5.5 attempts per game. These Jackrabbits are lethal from distance.

                  

    What They Don't Do Well

    Unfortunately, they need to make a lot of three-pointers because their defense is a travesty. SDSU has allowed 86.2 points in its six losses, and only two of those opponents even rank in the top 100 in adjusted offensive efficiency. The Jackrabbits rank outside the top 300 in turnover percentage and block percentage, and they are almost dead last in defensive three-point rate. Their defensive effort pretty much consists of whispering "please miss it" over and over again.

             

    Ideal First-Round Opponent: Texas Tech

    The vast majority of likely No. 2 or No. 3 seeds would eviscerate this defense. A team like North Carolina or Marquette might put up 120 points against South Dakota State. But Texas Tech often can't hit the broad side of a barn. Navigating the Red Raiders defense would be the furthest thing from a walk in the park, but Daum and Co. might at least have a chance in a 75-70 type of game.

8. Saint Louis Billikens

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    Javon Bess
    Javon BessMichael Reaves/Getty Images

    Quick Thoughts

    Historically, Saint Louis has had more tournament success than just about all of our other top 10 teams combined. During that brief, annoying window when the NCAA was calling the second round "the third round," the Billikens made it to that stage in 2012, 2013 and 2014, winning at least 26 games in each of those three seasons.

    Since then, however, it's been tough sledding in Saint Louis, so we're willing to consider this a potential Cinderella story. At any rate, the Atlantic 10 is probably going to be a one-bid league, and that's always where the shocking second-weekend, double-digit seed comes from.

                 

    What They Do Well

    The Billikens will get after you on defense. They aren't Michigan, Texas Tech or Virginia, but they are comfortably among the nation's second tier of quality defenses. They have held 16 of 20 opponents to 65 points or fewer by forcing a lot of turnovers, blocking more than their fair share of shots and controlling the defensive glass. 

                  

    What They Don't Do Well

    Among all teams with even a remote possibility of an at-large bid, Saint Louis has the least efficient offense, and it's not even close. Former Michigan State transfer Javon Bess is the only guy on the roster who can consistently score, and even he needs 12 field-goal attempts to get his 16 points per game. Despite playing at an average tempo, the Billikens have only scored more than 75 points in a game once all season.

             

    Ideal First-Round Opponent: Wisconsin

    It's tough to argue that there is an ideal opponent for a team that doesn't score often, but a team that prefers to play games in the upper 50s or low 60s might be a good fit here. And among potential No. 5 or No. 6 seeds, Wisconsin best fits that description. If the Billikens can stifle Ethan Happquite the large "if" therethey would have a good shot at taking down the Badgers.

7. Texas State Bobcats

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    Texas State head coach Danny Kaspar
    Texas State head coach Danny KasparGerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Quick Thoughts

    When the Sun Belt Conference's regular-season champion also wins the conference tournament, get ready for a major upset. It has only happened five times in the past 11 years, but four of those five teams won at least one game in the Big Dance. And this year, it's looking like Texas State is the Sun Belt team to beat.

    There's not a single player on the Bobcats roster taller than 6'8", but what they lack in size, they make up for with veteran experience (all five starters are juniors or seniors), tough on-ball defense (four Bobcats average better than one steal per game) and a lot of ball movement. They didn't get many chances to prove their mettle in nonconference play, but they did darn near win a road game against Arkansas.

                 

    What They Do Well

    For an undersized team, the Bobcats rebound shockingly well. They out-rebounded Arkansas by eight, and they average seven more rebounds than their opponents. This is also a solid three-point shooting team. Texas State's three leading scorersNijal Pearson, Tre'Larenz Nottingham and Alex Peacockhave combined for better than seven triples per game, shooting a collective 40 percent from downtown.

                  

    What They Don't Do Well

    Texas State is a nightmare at the free-throw line. Between the three-point loss to Arkansas and the four-point loss to Georgia State, the Bobcats missed 27 free-throw attempts. Had they just been able to make a few of those freebies, they'd be 18-2 and perhaps an AP Top 25 team right now.

             

    Ideal First-Round Opponent: Virginia Tech

    The Hokies might be the best three-point shooting team in the country, but they also give up threes at an alarming rate. And outside of 6'10" Kerry Blackshear, Virginia Tech's tallest guy is only 6'6", so Texas State could capitalize on the glass.

6. Hofstra Pride

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    Justin Wright-Foreman
    Justin Wright-ForemanMitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Quick Thoughts

    Hofstra has quietly put together the nation's longest active winning streak, reeling off 16 in a row since late November. Led by Justin Wright-Foreman, the Pride have been almost unstoppable on offense, ranking in the top 20 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, effective field-goal percentage, turnover percentage, three-point percentage and free-throw percentage.

    But do the Pride have what it takes to beat a tournament-caliber opponent? The Long Island school is 19-3 overall, but all 19 of those wins have come against Quadrant 3 or Quadrant 4 opponents. Beating up on North Carolina A&T and UNC-Wilmington might help their metrics, but the Pride could be in for a rude awakening against the likes of North Carolina or North Carolina State in the Big Dance.

                 

    What They Do Well

    This team puts the ball in the hoop about as well as anyone. Wright-Foreman averages 26 points a night, but he is just one of five guys on the roster who can get hot from both three-point range and the free-throw line. Senior point guard Desure Buie is a great leader on both ends of the floor, too, averaging better than five assists and two steals per game.

                  

    What They Don't Do Well

    With the exception of Purdue transfer Jacquil Taylor, this is a small team. Hofstra starts four guards, and its sixth man is a 6'1" shooting guard. As a result, the Pride were minus-18 in rebound margin in their November loss to Maryland—the only game they've played this season against a team with any hope of receiving a single-digit seed. Also, Hofstra is barely in the top 200 in adjusted defensive efficiency.

             

    Ideal First-Round Opponent: Oklahoma

    The Sooners don't shoot well and they are far from dominant on the glass. They tend to win with defense, limiting fouls and protecting the paint at an elite level. But they have had a few major lapses defending the three-point arc, which is where Hofstra could capitalize and score an upset.

5. Fresno State Bulldogs

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    Braxton Huggins
    Braxton HugginsKyusung Gong/Associated Press

    Quick Thoughts

    Fresno State is not much of an at-large candidate, and it plays in the Mountain West Conference, where Nevada is the overwhelming favorite to earn the auto bid. But if the Bulldogs do happen to get into the Big Dance, they could be a problem.

    Similar to their MWC overlords, the Bulldogs have been built on the backs of former transfers. Four of their five leading scorers began their college careers elsewhere, and just about everyone who steps foot on the floor is either a junior or senior.

                 

    What They Do Well

    Fresno State is an excellent three-point shooting team. Leading scorer Braxton Huggins shoots just under 40 percent from distance. Sam Bittner is hitting nearly 50 percent of his long-range attempts. Both are among the five Bulldogs averaging at least 1.3 makes per game. They have hit at least 10 three-pointers in more than half of their games. They also defend the three extremely well, with opponents collectively shooting 29 percent.

                  

    What They Don't Do Well

    There isn't a specific thing that jumps off the page as a huge weakness for Fresno State, as this team is just average across the board aside from the above three-point notes. The Bulldogs will be hoping to avoid a first-round draw against an opponent with a dominant frontcourt presence, though, as they are undersized.

             

    Ideal First-Round Opponent: Kentucky

    Three-point defense has been an oft-discussed Achilles' heel for Kentucky, and the Wildcats don't start anyone taller than 6'8". They clearly have more talent than Fresno State from top to bottom, but it could make for an intriguing clash of strengths and weaknesses.

4. Wofford Terriers

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    Storm Murphy
    Storm MurphyLance King/Getty Images

    Quick Thoughts

    Wofford made national waves a year ago when it went into the Dean Dome and upset North Carolina, but this season's Terriers are a whole heck of a lot better than yesteryear—even though Fletcher Magee's three-point accuracy has deteriorated. They put up solid fights against North Carolina, Oklahoma and Mississippi State, and they blew out South Carolina by 20 points on the road.

    Cameron Jackson is one of the best stat-sheet-stuffing big men in the country, Keve Aluma has become a significant force in the paint as a sophomore, and both Storm Murphy and Nathan Hoover have made up for Magee's 6.5 percent slippage on converting threes by serving as secondary snipers. The effort on defense still leaves much to be desired, but this offense is loaded with great options.

                 

    What They Do Well

    Same as Hofstra and Fresno State, Wofford is lethal from distance. The Terriers shoot just under 40 percent from three-point range despite jacking up more than 26 attempts per game. Already this season, there have been 11 games in which the Terriers shot better than 41 percent and made at least 10 threes. They are 10-1 in those games and would be a threat to catch fire in the tournament.

                  

    What They Don't Do Well

    Outside of Jackson and Aluma patrolling the defensive glass at a high level, Wofford is bad on that end of the floor. Samford scored at will against Wofford last week, shooting 64.3 percent from inside the arc and 73.3 percent beyond it. The Terriers shot 13-of-22 from three against Mississippi State, but they still lost by double digits because the Bulldogs made 14 threes of their own.

             

    Ideal First-Round Opponent: Purdue

    It might end up being a 95-90 type of game since the Boilermakers are so strong on offense, but Purdue's three-point defense (or lack thereof) would play right into Wofford's hands. Purdue is 2-4 when allowing at least 10 makes at a clip of 41 percent or higher.

3. Murray State Racers

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    Ja Morant
    Ja MorantMichael Hickey/Getty Images

    Quick Thoughts

    There's an episode of The Office where Dwight gets a concussion and at one point is typing his name over and over again into a folder name. It's tempting to do that here, except instead of typing "Dwight" a few hundred times, the screen would just be full of "Ja Morant." There's no question the soon-to-be lottery pick is the reason Murray State is on the fast track to becoming the most popular No. 12 over No. 5 upset pick in NCAA tournament history.

    But the Racers are more than just the sophomore point guard. They also have a great three-point shooter in Tevin Brown, an offensive rebounding machine in Darnell Cowart, and a solid defender and secondary scorer in Shaq Buchanan. 

                 

    What They Do Well

    Murray State's bread and butter is ball movement that leads to open looks near the rim, but this is also one of the best three-point defenses in the country. Opponents shoot 27.4 percent against the Racers, and only two teams have either shot better than 36 percent or made more than eight triples. Part of that is a product of their strength of schedule, but they have a strong perimeter defense.

                  

    What They Don't Do Well

    Murray State has blown all of its opportunities against quality opponents, losing at Alabama and Auburn in nonconference play and recently losing a home game to Belmont. As a result, the Racers do not have a single win against a team in the NCAA Evaluation Tool's top 140. That's not much of an endorsement for a team that will probably be facing a top-20 opponent in the first round of the tournament. Also, Murray State's interior defense is an issue. Both Auburn and Belmont scored easily in the paint against the Racers.

             

    Ideal First-Round Opponent: Marquette

    Not only is this a dream pairing for college basketball fans who want to watch Morant go up against Markus Howard, but it's probably Murray State's best chance at winning a game. Marquette does not score well inside the arc, and the Golden Eagles could struggle with Murray State's three-point defense.

2. Lipscomb Bisons

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    Garrison Mathews
    Garrison MathewsMitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Quick Thoughts

    Last year was Lipscomb's first trip to the NCAA tournament, and the Tennessee school got smoked by North Carolina. But the Bisons have improved by leaps and bounds, going from No. 167 in the KenPom.com rankings at the end of last season to a spot inside the top 50 this year.

    Lipscomb has wins over TCU, Vermont and SMU, and it almost won a road game against Louisville. This veteran-heavy team won't be afraid of the moment if and when it arrives.

                 

    What They Do Well

    Baby, the Bisons were born to run. This team loves to push the pace, converting defensive rebounds and turnovers into outlet passes and getting up shots in a hurry. Even though they aren't that efficient on the offensive end, they're averaging 85 points per game thanks to their tempo. 

                  

    What They Don't Do Well

    Lipscomb is awful on the offensive glass, and it allows more than its fair share of both blocks and stealswhich explain the offensive inefficiency. Force this team to run a half-court offense and it is likely to shoot itself in the foot before long.

             

    Ideal First-Round Opponent: Iowa

    Lipscomb wants to draw an opponent that is willing to play fast, but not necessarily one like Duke or North Carolina that lives for fast-break opportunities. Iowa fits that description, and it isn't anything special on defense as far as blocks or steals are concerned. The Hawkeyes have some work to do to get up to the No. 4 or No. 5 seed line, but that's a major-conference opponent Lipscomb could upset.

1. Buffalo Bulls

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    CJ Massinburg
    CJ MassinburgJeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    Quick Thoughts

    Maybe it doesn't feel like a Cinderella story to you if it's not a double-digit seed, but Buffalo had never won an NCAA tournament game until last year. If the Bulls, ranked 18th and owners of an 18-2 record, happen to make a deep run, it'll be in glass slippers.

    CJ Massinburg and Co. have already beaten Syracuse, West Virginia and San Francisco, and they put up a good fight in their lone nonconference loss to Marquetteeven though the final margin got a bit ugly in the last nine minutes. Buffalo is loaded with experience, and this is not a team that anyone will want to draw in March.

                 

    What They Do Well

    Buffalo rarely allows steals and forces opponents to play long offensive possessions. Both of those things keep teams from getting into any sort of prolonged rhythm against the Bulls. That might not seem like a big deal, but it's a nice advantage for a team that is above-average in the vast majority of the game's elements.

                  

    What They Don't Do Well

    Buffalo doesn't do anything poorly, but it could certainly improve at shooting. Both from the three-point arc and the free-throw line, the Bulls are right at the national average. But if that hasn't stopped Duke from becoming one of the favorites to win the national championship, it shouldn't keep Buffalo from reaching the Sweet 16.

             

    Ideal Second-Round Opponent: Nevada

    The actual ideal situation for Buffalo would be getting to face both a No. 12 and a No. 13 seed to reach the Sweet 16. But assuming they need to go through either a No. 4 or No. 5 seed to reach the second weekend, the best option would probably be Nevada. Neither team would commit more than a couple of turnovers in that game, but the Wolf Pack would struggle to find its usual allotment of perimeter looks against the Bulls.

                   

    Advanced statistics courtesy of KenPom.com.

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