Ranking College Basketball's Best Potential 2020 March Madness Cinderella Teams

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 30, 2020

Ranking College Basketball's Best Potential 2020 March Madness Cinderella Teams

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    East Tennessee State's Daivien Williamson
    East Tennessee State's Daivien WilliamsonCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Bracket season will be here before you know it, and submitting the perfect bracket in March Madness is all about picking the right spot for a huge upset (or three).

    In case you haven't been paying much attention to the mid-major conferences, we've got you covered with a ranking of the 10 best Cinderella candidates.

    Six seasons ago, I took a look at the top Cinderella stories from the previous decade to come up with criteria for finding those teamsthe anatomy of the major upset, if you will. The five things those teams had in common:

    • 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 consider taking Mercer to upset Duke.

    So which teams meet all of those criteria, and which ones are 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: Teams from the seven major conferences were excluded, and Gonzaga, Dayton and San Diego State were also not considered, as each is currently ranked in the AP Top 10. Hard to call it a Cinderella story if the team is in the running for a No. 1 seed.

10. Furman Paladins

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    Jordan Lyons
    Jordan LyonsJulie Bennett/Associated Press

    Quick Thoughts

    Furman last made the NCAA tournament in 1980, but it has been knocking at that door in recent years. The Paladins have won at least 23 games in each of the past three seasons, and it should only be a matter of time before they extend that streak to four years.

    However, they are one of three Southern Conference teams in our top 10, and it's unlikely any of them will receive an at-large bid. There's little question which mid-major conference tournament figures to be the most entertaining this year.


    What They Do Well: Make Twos and Shoot Threes

    Rick Byrd mastered this offensive art at Belmont over the past few decades, and now Furman has adopted it: Vacate the lane, set lots of screens along the perimeter and shoot a bunch of threes, but take the high-percentage twos when they're there. It's not quite as intense as Belmont's three-year run (2016-18) of leading the nation in two-point percentage while taking more than 50 percent of field-goal attempts from downtown, but Furman is in its third straight season ranking top-10 in two-point percentage with at least 47 percent of shots coming from beyond the arc.


    What They Don't Do Well: Defend the Paint

    D-I opponents are making 55.1 percent of their two-point attempts against Furman, which would likely be the worst mark among tournament teams if the Paladins get in. This was particularly problematic in the losses to Alabama, Auburn and UNC Greensboro. Those three teams shot a combined 71-of-110 (64.5 percent) from inside the arc, demonstrating how bad things can get against a team committed to driving the lane.


    Ideal First-Round Opponent: Marquette

    The Golden Eagles don't shoot well in the paint, and they barely even try to anyway. They also rarely force turnovers on defense, so the Paladins should be able to move the ball around the perimeter until the cows come home.

9. Yale Bulldogs

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    Jordan Bruner
    Jordan BrunerMitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Quick Thoughts

    When Yale stunned Baylor and also nearly upset Duke in the 2016 NCAA tournament, it was an exceptional rebounding team. We're talking 11 boards per game more than their opponents. And the Bulldogs flexed those muscles against the power-conference favorites.

    This year's Yale is a far cry from that, but it has scored a couple of quality winsand a few noteworthy close lossesvia excellent defense and the ability to get hot from three-point range.

    If the Bulldogs make it, go ahead and lock in Jordan Bruner as a fan favorite among stat junkies. Yale's 6'9" senior power forward is averaging 12.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.2 blocks while shooting 38.1 percent from three-point range.


    What They Do Well: Defend the Perimeter

    Great three-point defenses often vanish without a trace in the NCAA tournament, but it bears mentioning that opponents shoot just 27.0 percent from distance against Yale. In five games against KenPom.com Top 90 foes (Oklahoma State, Penn State, Vermont, Clemson and North Carolina), those teams shot a combined 24-of-113 (21.2 percent) against the Bulldogs.


    What They Don't Do Well: Steals or Offensive Rebounds

    If you like teams that extend possessions, force turnovers and generally get more shots off than their opponents, Yale is not for you. In the two-point loss to Penn State, Yale had three offensive rebounds, forced five turnovers and attempted 18 fewer shots than the Nittany Lions. Similar story in the three-point loss to North Carolina: one offensive rebound, eight UNC turnovers and 17 more field-goal attempts for the Tar Heels. No matter how good your three-point defense is, it's hard to win like that.


    Ideal First-Round Opponent: Michigan

    Yale's best hope is to face an opponent that also fails to create extra possessions via steals and offensive rebounds, and Michigan fits that description about as well as any team in the running for a single-digit seed. Of course, the Wolverines have a losing record since the beginning of December, so thinking they could still end up with a No. 5 seed might be a bit generous.

8. Akron Zips

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    Loren Jackson
    Loren JacksonKathleen Batten/Associated Press

    Quick Thoughts

    Akron played at West Virginia and at Louisville back in November, and the Zips put up a solid fight in both of those tests. Problem is they lost both of those gamesas well as the subsequent neutral-site game against Liberty—so they haven't actually beaten anyone worth a darn.

    Head coach John Groce has some history as a Cinderella, though. Prior to his tumultuous five-year stint at Illinois, Groce spent four years in the Mid-American Conference as Ohio's coach, leading the Bobcats to a 14-over-3 upset of Georgetown in 2010 and a Sweet 16 run as a No. 13 seed in 2012. Perhaps he can recapture that lightning in a bottle with this squad.


    What They Do Well: Launch Threes

    While the national three-point percentage has dipped significantly because of the extended arc, Akron evidently loves the new distance. After shooting a woeful 32 percent last season, the Zips are sitting at 40 percent this year, and they are taking more than 43 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. Loren Jackson, Channel Banks and Tyler Cheese have all improved drastically from last year, and Dayton transfer Xeyrius Williams has been a great shooter too.


    What They Don't Do Well: End Defensive Possessions

    Akron averages a combined total of eight blocks and steals per game, which isn't good. And the Zips are merely an average rebounding team. As a result, opponents get more than their fair share of shots against this defense, which occasionally ends horribly. In their five losses, the Zips have allowed 86.4 points. And, again, one of those losses came against Liberty, which is one of the slowest-paced teams in the nation.


    Ideal First-Round Opponent: LSU

    LSU's strength on the offensive glass would probably be a major issue for Akron, but the Tigers have the worst three-point defense among the teams currently in the mix for a No. 3-6 seed. With any luck, the Zips would catch fire from deep and pull off an upset.

7. UNC Greensboro Spartans

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    Isaiah Miller
    Isaiah MillerCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Quick Thoughts

    Last-second luck has not been on UNC Greensboro's side. In the bad loss to Montana State, Isaiah Miller hit a layup to put the Spartans up by two with three seconds remaining, only for Harald Frey to make a half-court shot for the win. One month later at NC State, Miller tied the game up with two seconds left, and then Markell Johnson threw in a buzzer-beater from about 55 feet away. The Spartans also lost a double-overtime game against Wofford in which they missed a good look at the end of regulation.

    Flip those three results and you've got one heck of an at-large resume. As is, UNCG is simply one of three Southern Conference teams that could be dangerous if it gets that coveted auto bid for winning the league tournament.


    What They Do Well: Blocks, Steals and Offensive Rebounds

    This has been Greensboro's M.O. for the past few seasons. When the Spartans earned a No. 13 seed in the 2018 NCAA tournament and almost upended Gonzaga in the first round, they ranked top-50 in block percentage, steal percentage and offensive rebound percentage. En route to 29 wins last year, they were top-85 in all three categories. This year, they're back in the top 50 in blocks and offensive rebounds, and they're top-10 in steals.


    What They Don't Do Well: Threes or Free Throws

    It's a good thing all those steals and offensive rebounds allow UNCG to take almost 14 more shots per game than its opponents, because this is not a good shooting team. That all starts with their star point guard (Miller), who makes 25 percent from three-point range and 54 percent from the charity stripe. The Spartans shoot a lot of threes (27 per game), even though no one in the primary rotation is particularly proficient.


    Ideal First-Round Opponent: Colorado

    The Buffaloes might be the best team in the Pac-12, but they allow a lot of blocks and steals on their end of the court. They could be the type of opponent UNC Greensboro flusters with its aggressive approach on defense.

6. Northern Iowa Panthers

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    Trae Berhow
    Trae BerhowJeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Quick Thoughts

    Northern Iowa entered conference play as one of the few Cinderella candidates with realistic at-large aspirations. The Panthers were 11-1 with wins over Colorado and South Carolina, and they led West Virginia by 15 in the second half of their lone loss. However, losses to Illinois State and Southern Illinois already in Missouri Valley Conference play might put Northern Iowa in "auto bid or bust" territory.

    As we spend the next few weeks debating the merits of this tournament resume, though, don't misinterpret that as doubting whether this team is good enough to pull off a couple of upsets en route to the Sweet 16. Northern Iowa has already proved thatif ultimately given the chanceit could win a game or two in the Big Dance.


    What They Do Well: Shoot

    Northern Iowa is one of just a handful of teams ranked in the top 25 in both two-point percentage and three-point percentage, and it is the only member of that club that also ranks top-50 in free-throw percentage. Those numbers are quite similar to how well this team shot in 2014-15 en route to a 30-3 record and a No. 5 seed. UNI's AJ Green and Trae Berhow provide a howitzer of a one-two punch in the backcourt.


    What They Don't Do Well: Turnover Margin

    Per KenPom, Northern Iowa ranks in the bottom 20 nationally in steal percentage on both offense and defense. On average, the Panthers commit 2.1 more turnovers than they force. They also rarely block shots, averaging two per game.


    Ideal First-Round Opponent: Wichita State

    Stylistically, these teams would appear to be solid foils for one another. Historically, though, this would be a fun one, since Northern Iowa and Wichita State were MVC rivals up until three years ago when the Shockers jumped ship for the AAC.

5. Liberty Flames

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    Scottie James
    Scottie JamesMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Quick Thoughts

    As a No. 12 seed in last year's tournament, Liberty knocked off Mississippi State in the first round and gave Virginia Tech a run for its money two nights later. Perhaps this year the Flames will be able to cross the gap from single upset to Cinderella story.

    However, their strength of schedule is a travesty. They don't even have any KenPom Tier B games on their schedule aside from a loss to LSU and a neutral-site win over Akron. Liberty might enter the tournament with 30 wins, but at least 26 of them are going to be against Quadrant 4 or non-Division I opponents. Facing "real" competition might be a shock to this team's system.


    What They Do Well: Slow the Game Down

    Liberty does a lot of things well. It rarely commits turnovers, it prevents second-chance opportunities and the gap between its two-point offense (54.0 percent) and two-point defense (42.5) has to be one of the largest in the nation. But it all stems from the Flames' Virginia-like ability to force opponents to play their snail-paced game. Per KenPom, Liberty hasn't played a game with 64 or more possessions since mid-December.


    What They Don't Do Well: Crash the Offensive Glass

    Scottie James is one of the best offensive rebounders in the country, but Liberty as a whole is dreadful in that department. To be fair, that's somewhat by design. The Flames use up shot clock probing the defense for the best possible shot and trust it will go in while falling back into their D. But they don't shoot that well and aren't particularly efficient on offense because of that poor rebounding.


    Ideal First-Round Opponent: Wisconsin

    What's the record for fewest possessions in an NCAA tournament game in the shot clock era? Give us Liberty vs. Wisconsin and we might find out. These are two of the slowest-paced offenses, and the Badgers might get a little too comfortable in a game where neither team threatens to score 60.

4. Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks

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    Kevon Harris
    Kevon HarrisGerry Broome/Associated Press

    Quick Thoughts

    Stephen F. Austin had its huge moment in the sun, upsetting No. 1 Duke in November. And in case you haven't given any thought to the Lumberjacks since then, consider this your heads-up that they're doing quite well.

    Yes, they recently lost a home game to Texas A&M Corpus-Christi, and yes, their second-best win of the season was a Quadrant 3 game against Arkansas State. But they are 18-3 overall, and their physical style of play is going to be a colossal headache for some unlucky No. 3 seed.


    What They Do Well: Force Turnovers

    We're used to seeing Stephen F. Austin get a lot of steals. The Lumberjacks have ranked top-10 in turnover percentage in five of the past six seasons, including landing in the No. 1 spot in both 2015-16 and 2017-18. They ended both of those seasons at 25.9 percent. But they are at 29.0 percent this year, absolutely wreaking havoc on the competition. In the win over Duke, they shot just 2-of-10 from three-point range but won thanks to 13 steals.


    What They Don't Do Well: Possess the Ball

    The Lumberjacks taketh, but they also giveth away, turning the ball over an average of 17 times per game. Their aggressive approach on defense also results in nearly 25 free-throw attempts per game for the opposition.


    Ideal First-Round Opponent: West Virginia

    Insert Spider-Man vs. Spider-Man meme here, but Stephen F. Austin blitzed Press Virginia en route to a first-round upset in the 2016 NCAA tournament. If the selection committee sets up a rematch, expect a similar result. West Virginia is one of the worst free-throw-shooting teams this season, and it also turns the ball over way more than your average AP Top 15 team.

3. Saint Mary's Gaels

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    Jordan Ford
    Jordan FordJed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    Quick Thoughts

    It was a tough call on whether Saint Mary's can actually be considered a Cinderella candidate, considering the Gaels have been in the at-large conversation for the vast majority of the past 13 seasons. But they haven't made it to the Sweet 16 since 2010 and haven't been to the Elite Eight since 1959, so yes, a deep Saint Mary's run would be considered a Cinderella story.

    In this case, Cinderella has tried on a lot of glass slippers but is still looking for one that fits. Or should I say Fitts? As in stretch 5 Malik Fitts? I'll show myself out.


    What They Do Well: Efficient Offense

    As always seems to be the case, Saint Mary's comfortably ranks in the top 25 in adjusted offensive efficiency thanks to excellent three-point shooting and an aversion to turnovers. The Gaels have seven players averaging at least one three-point attempt per game, and all seven shoot better than 40 percent. They also barely commit 10 turnovers per game. And Jordan Ford is the type of veteran guard who can take over a game or two in the NCAA tournament.


    What They Don't Do Well: Defend the Paint

    During a recent four-game rough patch that included losses to Pacific and Santa Clara, opponents made 53 percent of their two-point attempts while the Gaels averaged fewer than two blocks per game. Heck, in the four-overtime loss to Pacific, they played 60 minutes without blocking a single shot. They don't have much of an answer for a team committed to pounding the paintunless you count "try to trade threes for twos" as an answer.


    Ideal First-Round Opponent: Virginia Tech or Marquette

    The Hokies and the Golden Eagles don't have much of an inside game, nor do they have a turnover-forcing defense. Both would be happy to participate in a three-point-shooting contest with Saint Mary's, which the Gaels are going to win more often than not.

2. East Tennessee State Buccaneers

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    Tray Boyd
    Tray BoydEd Zurga/Getty Images

    Quick Thoughts

    After falling behind 27-10 barely 10 minutes into a road game against Kansas, East Tennessee State battled back and got that deficit down to five in the final six minutes before running out of gas. One month later, the Buccaneers went to LSU and put a hurting on the Tigers, leading by as many as 23 points in the second half of what ended up being an 11-point victory.

    Those were the only two games the Buccaneers got to play against major-conference opponents, and you couldn't ask for a much better showing from that small sample size. They are now 18-4 and are all but certain to reach at least 24 wins for the fifth consecutive season under Steve Forbes. If and when ETSU wins the SoCon, get ready to hear that name often in relation to major-conference vacancies.


    What They Do Well: A Little Bit of Everything

    ETSU can beat you in a lot of different ways. A lite version of Press Virginiadominating the turnover battle and getting a lot of offensive reboundsis the preferred method, but the Buccaneers also do a fine job of contesting shots and have gotten hot from three-point range on occasion. They can also win at pretty much any pace. This is probably the most versatile of the Cinderella candidates.


    What They Don't Do Well: Free Throws

    Nothing in ETSU's profile jumps out as a glaring concern, but this team could certainly improve from the free-throw line. In the LSU game, the Bucs won in spite of shooting just 4-of-9 on freebies. In the recent loss at Furman, they only made 3-of-9. For the season, they're sitting at a subpar 68.1 percent.


    Ideal First-Round Opponent: Villanova

    The Wildcats don't have a great interior defense, and they don't commit many fouls, which would keep ETSU's primary weakness from being exploited. And an ETSU defense that has held 11 consecutive opponents below 36 percent from three-point range might pose a problem for Villanova's "let it fly" offense.

1. BYU Cougars

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    Yoeli Childs
    Yoeli ChildsRick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Quick Thoughts

    It's hard to know what to make of BYU, as it has played more than half of its games without star big man Yoeli Childs. He was suspended nine games at the start of the season for working with an agent while testing the NBA draft waters last spring, and then he missed four more games in mid-January with a dislocated finger.

    Despite playing without a guy who has averaged roughly 21 points and 10 rebounds per game since the start of last season, the Cougars won at Houston, beat Virginia Tech on a neutral floor and almost ended San Diego State's quest for perfection before it began. With Childs back in the mix, what is the ceiling for this team?


    What They Do Well: Shoot

    The Cougars are lethal from the field. Seven players average at least one made three-pointer per game, and they shoot better than 41 percent from distance as a team. This is also one of the most accurate two-point-shooting teams, making 56 percent of shots from inside the arc. Combine the two and BYU ranks second in the nation in effective field-goal percentage.


    What They Don't Do Well: Manufacture Points

    For as great as BYU shoots, this is one of the worst offensive rebounding teamseven with a healthy Childs, who is much more of a menace on the defensive glass. It also does a woeful job of getting to the free-throw line. BYU is nothing special on defense either, so even a five-minute stint of cold shooting could send things spiraling out of control in a hurry.


    Ideal First-Round Opponent: Iowa

    Not only would Childs vs. Luka Garza be an amazing matchup, but Iowa's general mediocrity on defense could also bode well for BYU. It would be nice to see a high-scoring game for a change too. Kansas' 105-79 win over Austin Peay in the first round of the 2016 NCAA tournament was the top point total of the past decade. A BYU-Iowa showdown could beat that.