Ranking College Basketball's Best Potential 2021 March Madness Cinderella Teams
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 best Cinderella candidates.
Seven years ago, I took a look at the top Cinderella stories from the previous decade to come up with criteria for finding those teams—the 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.
Note: Teams from the seven "major" conferences (ACC, American, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) were excluded, as was Gonzaga.
8 Other Potential Cinderellas
Abilene Christian Wildcats
Much like Southland Conference rival Stephen F. Austin, Abilene Christian is a colossal nuisance on defense, forcing 20.2 turnovers per game against D-I opponents. But whereas the Lumberjacks teams that pulled off first-round upsets in 2014 and 2016 could score at a high level, these Wildcats are a mess on offense. They gave Texas Tech a run for its money but ended up committing 22 turnovers in a 51-44 loss.
BYU was a legitimate threat for a deep run last year when this was the best three-point shooting team in the country. The Cougars do still have one lights-out shooter in Alex Barcello, and we can't forget about the impact of big man and former Purdue transfer Matt Haarms in the paint. But they probably aren't potent enough on either end of the floor to pull off multiple upsets.
The Wildcats almost upset Texas in November, and they have one heck of a three-headed perimeter weapon in Kellan Grady, Hyunjung Lee and Carter Collins. They're also one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the country. But the lack of a turnover-forcing defense is a deal-breaker here. When Davidson made its Elite Eight run with Stephen Curry, it averaged 8.1 steals per game during that 2007-08 season. This year's team doesn't even get five a night.
Rhode Island Rams
Say this much for the Rams: They have been battle-tested. Their nonconference schedule consisted of seven games (six away from home) against teams who entered play on Monday ranked in the KenPom Top 100. That included wins over Seton Hall and San Francisco and close calls against Arizona State and Western Kentucky. But they're 7-7 overall, they don't shoot all that well and they lost the turnover battle in 10 of those 14 games.
San Diego State Aztecs
Had we put this list together around Christmas, San Diego State would have been an easy choice for the top five. But the Aztecs haven't looked like much of a tournament threat lately, losing three of their last six games and just barely squeaking out two of the three wins. They definitely have the experience factor, though, with five seniors and three juniors in their primary eight-man rotation.
UAB has one of the best turnover margins in the country, forcing 6.4 more turnovers per game than it commits. However, the Blazers do not shoot well at all and have yet to face a KenPom Top 150 foe.
Utah State Aggies
Neemias Queta is one of the most impactful big men in the country. But Utah State doesn't start any seniors, it doesn't force many turnovers, it's just OK from three-point range, and the team leader in assists only averages 3.2. The Aggies don't check any of the boxes for a Cinderella candidate, yet it does feel like they're capable of riding Queta's presence in the paint to an upset.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Western Kentucky is an older version of Utah State. The Hilltoppers' frontcourt star is Charles Bassey, and he can go for 20 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks against just about anyone. He did carry them to early wins over Alabama, Memphis and Rhode Island. However, the only viable perimeter threat on the roster is sixth man Luke Frampton, and beyond Bassey's blocks, the overall effort on defense isn't spectacular.
7. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers
What They Do Well: Create High-Percentage Shots with Ball Movement
Against D-I opponents, Loyola-Chicago entered Wednesday shooting 58.2 percent from inside the arc and recorded an assist on 62.9 percent of made field goals. In both categories, the Ramblers ranked in the top 15 in the nation, per KenPom. The only other team in the top 30 of both categories was Iowa. And if you're alone in a passing and shooting club with this year's Hawkeyes, you're doing something pretty darn well.
And this is a team-wide effort. Cameron Krutwig is the only Rambler averaging so much as four two-point attempts per game, and the team leader in assists is Braden Norris with a modest mark of 3.2. But they have seven guys averaging at least 1.4 assists and eight guys making at least one two-pointer per game. Tough to defend a team that unselfish with that many efficient scoring threats.
What They Don't Do Well: Defend the Three-Point Arc
When the Ramblers made their miraculous run to the Final Four in 2018, their three-point defense was critical. In those five games, opponents shot just 28.7 percent from distance and averaged 6.6 made triples. And that wasn't some drastic change from their norm. Loyola entered that tournament with defensive marks of 32.9 and 6.7, respectively.
This year's team, though, has taken its lumps from the perimeter. In back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Richmond in mid-December, the Ramblers allowed each of those teams to shoot at least 50 percent from downtown. And in recent back-to-back games against Indiana State, they let the Sycamores shoot a combined 15-of-32 (46.9 percent) from deep. Considering Loyola would likely need to go through a lethal three-point shooting team (Drake) to win the MVC tournament, this little issue might keep them from even making the dance.
Star Player: Cameron Krutwig (15.0 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.2 BPG)
As a freshman, Krutwig was an indispensable member of that Final Four team. He wasn't the biggest star, but he was the biggest dude on the roster, tasked with going toe-to-toe with the likes of Grant Williams, Jordan Caroline and Moritz Wagner. (That last one didn't work out so well, as Wagner racked up 24 points and 15 rebounds in eliminating the Ramblers.) Now he is the biggest star, and it'll be up to his broad shoulders to carry this team.
6. VCU Rams
What They Do Well: Blocks and Steals
Anecdotally, the 2010-11 VCU team that rode "HAVOC" all the way to the Final Four was one of the best turnover-forcing defenses ever. In reality, that iteration of the Rams only ranked 65th in defensive turnover percentage and 18th in steal percentage at 12.3 percent.
This year's Rams are recording a steal on a nation-best 15.6 percent of possessions, and they have a nearly identical block percentage of 15.4. At least on the defensive end of the floor, VCU is a lot like that Auburn team that made the Final Four in 2019.
What They Don't Do Well: Anything Else
That is, admittedly, a harsh way to word it. It's not like VCU is terrible at anything. But it is rather mediocre outside of the impact plays on defense.
Against Rhode Island earlier this month, the Rams racked up 11 blocks and 10 steals and still lost by 15. In the process, they became the first team in almost nine years to record at least 10 blocks and 10 steals in a game and still lose by 15 or more points. VCU subsequently only defeated a not-good George Washington team by seven points in spite of 17 steals and six blocks. Lackluster offense and poor rebounding will likely doom the Rams to an early exit—provided they make the tournament at all.
Star Player: Nah'Shon Hyland (18.1 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.2 SPG, 1.5 APG, 35.5% 3PT)
I don't know that we'll ever see a repeat of Kemba Walker willing a team to a national championship almost by himself, but Hyland is Kemba Lite for this VCU squad. He's the Rams' best on-ball defender and has been their leading scorer in eight of the last nine games. He's probably not enough to carry them any deeper than the Sweet 16, but there's also no chance they make the Sweet 16 if he has an off night in the first two rounds.
5. Richmond Spiders
What They Do Well: Win the Turnover Battle with Veteran Savvy
Richmond is one of the oldest teams in the country. The Spiders start four seniors and a sophomore, and the first three guys off the bench are juniors. And with all that experience at their disposal, they don't make many careless mistakes. Richmond only turns the ball over 10.7 times per game (the national average is approximately 13.6). Richmond's rate has been going down as of late, too, with five consecutive games of fewer than 10 turnovers.
Better yet, with Jacob Gilyard leading the way, they force a ton of careless mistakes on defense, averaging 8.5 steals per game (4.0 by Gilyard alone). In that noteworthy November win at Kentucky, Richmond was plus-11 in turnover margin. It has won the turnover battle in each of its last seven games.
What They Don't Do Well: Rebound
It's one thing to thrive in turnover margin or rebounding margin, but the teams who do both (Baylor, Gonzaga, Tennessee, Villanova, Texas Tech, etc.) are often the top threats to win the national championship.
Unfortunately for Richmond, the Spiders struggle on the glass to the tune of a year-to-date rebounding margin of minus-5.1—good for 306th in the nation. In each of their three losses, the Spiders shot barely 30 percent from three-point range and were out-rebounded.
Star Player: Jacob Gilyard (12.8 PPG, 5.5 APG, 4.0 SPG, 2.3 RPG, 33.3% 3PT)
With an honorable mention to leading scorer Blake Francis, Gilyard is the guy Richmond could least afford to lose—which is probably why he plays 37.7 minutes per game. He has at least three steals in 11 of 12 games this season and is rapidly approaching the top 10 on the career leaderboard. (He is currently tied for 25th with former Duquense/Arizona guard T.J. McConnell.) And while some steal artists can do that and little else, Gilyard is a respectable shooter and a great distributor.
4. Winthrop Eagles
What They Do Well: Run
Winthrop basketball is like hockey on hardwood. The Eagles have 11 different players averaging at least 10 minutes and 4.3 points per game, as they are constantly subbing to stay fresh and run as fast as possible on offense. And it's not some gimmick they abandon in tight games. In a one-point win over Campbell, all 11 guys scored and played at least eight minutes.
As was the case last year, the Eagles are also rock solid on the glass with an average rebound margin just under nine boards. Ten of the 11 guys average at least two rebounds a night.
What They Don't Do Well: Get Opportunities to Prove They Belong
Winthrop almost always plays multiple games against major-conference competition. Last year, it played at Duke and at TCU. Two years ago, it was road games against Kentucky, Florida State and Vanderbilt. And the Eagles typically put up a good fight in those games, giving us reason to believe they could pull off a No. 13 over No. 4 type of upset in March.
This year, though, their nonconference plans were ravaged by COVID-19. They ended up only playing three games against UNC Greensboro, Little Rock and Furman. And the Big South (aside from Winthrop) is pretty awful. That does mean there's a decent chance Winthrop enters the NCAA tournament with an undefeated record. But then they're going to run into a team like Texas Tech, Creighton or Ohio State that is much, much better than anything the Eagles have faced all year.
Star Player: Chandler Vaudrin (12.1 PPG, 7.7 APG, 7.1 RPG, 1.4 SPG)
Vaudrin already has two triple-doubles this season, and he has put up at least six points, five assists and four rebounds in every game but one. Like BYU's Kyle Collinsworth or UCLA's Kyle Anderson from the days of yesteryear, this point-forward isn't much of a shooter, but he has a hand in just about everything Winthrop does. While everyone else plays 10 to 24 minutes, Vaudrin is out there 32-plus minutes a night as the undisputed leader of the team.
3. Drake Bulldogs
What They Do Well: Make Shots
It's always nice to be one of the best at the most fundamental part of basketball: putting it through the hoop. Excluding the games against D-II schools St. Ambrose and McKendree, the Bulldogs are shooting 43.5 percent from three-point range and 57.0 percent from inside the arc. Their effective field-goal percentage (59.6) ranks fifth in the nation. And on the off chance they do miss a shot, they get the offensive rebound 36.4 percent of the time.
Drake is now more than two weeks into a COVID-19 pause that is likely to result in a gap of at least 22 days between games played, so we'll see how well it can maintain that efficiency when it gets back on the court. It also bears mentioning that the toughest opponent Drake has faced all season was KenPom No. 150 Indiana State. But the Bulldogs were lights out for the first six weeks against not-great competition.
What They Don't Do Well: Draw Fouls or Avoid Fouling
It takes some serious nitpicking to find fault in a 13-0 team with an average scoring margin of plus-24.0 points, but it is a little weird/concerning that Drake has been outscored at the free-throw line nine times already this season. That has only happened to Baylor once since the beginning of December, and it hasn't happened to Gonzaga since its Dec. 2 game against West Virginia.
The reason for concern is: What happens when Drake faces a physical team that draws fouls and actually contests its shots? In my latest bracket projection, I have the Bulldogs as a No. 10 seed drawing Florida State in the first round, which could be a disaster with the Seminoles capable of just throwing waves of athletes at them for 40 minutes.
Star Player: Roman Penn (12.1 PPG, 5.8 APG, 2.8 RPG, 44.4% 3PT)
Penn is Drake's version of Kansas' Frank Mason III in the years before he exploded and won the Wooden Award as a senior. He's like a metronome at point guard, in the middle of his second consecutive season averaging at least 12 points and five assists while shooting better than 40 percent from distance. When necessary, though, he can take over. He had 21 points against Indiana State in Drake's lone close call this season. He also went for 26 points, eight assists and eight rebounds in upsetting Northern Iowa in last year's Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
2. Saint Louis Billikens
What They Do Well: Create Extra Possessions
Saint Louis has averaged nearly 10 more field-goal attempts per game than its opposition, thanks to 8.8 steals and 11.9 offensive rebounds per game.
Those numbers are a bit inflated by the fact that half of the Billikens' eight games have been played against teams outside the KenPom Top 250. But this isn't a new focal point for them. They also averaged 7.5 steals and 12.4 offensive rebounds last year. They're just better at it now that their entire primary six-man rotation is a year older and wiser.
What They Don't Do Well: Defend Without Fouling
Through the first seven games of this season, Saint Louis was allowing 23.6 free-throw attempts per game. In their lone loss thus far, the Billikens committed 30 fouls at Minnesota, awarding the Golden Gophers with nearly as many free-throw attempts (41) as field-goal attempts (48).
This has been an issue for the Billikens for seven seasons now. And the one time they made the NCAA tournament during that stretch (2019), they let Virginia Tech score one-third of its points from the charity stripe in a 66-52 game that was never close. (Giving up so many free throws is also a significant factor in Saint Louis averaging so many more field-goal attempts than it allows.)
Star Player: Jordan Goodwin (16.9 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 3.8 APG, 2.1 SPG)
Goodwin is quite the anomaly. Last year, the 6'3" guard became the first player to average 15 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals in a season since Bo Outlaw in 1992-93. And now he's well on his way to running it back for a second straight year. Because of the way he fills up the stat sheet, Saint Louis is able to thrive with a starting lineup in which the point guard (Yuri Collins) rarely shoots, the 6'7" center (Hasahn French) never shoots threes and the shooting guard (Gibson Jimerson) basically only shoots threes.
1. Boise State Broncos
What They Do Well: Get Up Shots
Boise State ranks in the top eight in the nation in both block percentage allowed and steal percentage allowed while on offense. That means their possessions result in an unblocked shot at perhaps the highest rate in the country.
In KenPom history, only nine teams have ever finished a season top eight in both categories, three of which were mid-majors who made the NCAA tournament: the Bucknell team who blew a second-half lead against No. 6 seed Butler in 2013, the Georgia State team who upset No. 3 seed Baylor in 2015 and the Kent State team who made it to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed in 2002. Not a bad club.
What They Don't Do Well: Hard to Say
Boise State has only faced two opponents worth a darn: a season-opening loss to Houston and a 74-70 road win over BYU. But neither Devonaire Doutrive (12.5 PPG) nor Emmanuel Akot (9.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3.1 APG) played in the Houston game, and while Akot was out there against BYU, Doutrive was still out, as was Marcus Shaver (13.1 PPG). Hard to truly assess this team when it has not yet been at full strength against a KenPom Top 190 opponent.
However, it does appear that slowing down the opposing team's go-to guard is a bit of an Achilles' heel for Boise. Not only did Houston's Quentin Grimes and BYU's Alex Barcello put up 25 and 22 points, respectively, but Sam Houston State's Zach Nutall (22 points), Air Force's A.J. Walker (23 points) and San Jose State's Richard Washington (26 points) each fared well against the Broncos.
Star Player: Derrick Alston Jr. (16.5 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.3 APG, 37.5% 3PT)
When everyone is available, Boise State runs impressively deep. Seven Broncos average at least nine points per game, and they also have Mladen Armus putting up 6.7 points and 7.2 rebounds a night. If anyone is going to put the team on his back, though, it's Alston. The 6'9" senior wing no-showed in the loss to Houston, missing each of his six shots while the Broncos managed just 58 points. But in the 12 games since, he has averaged 17.8 points and they have scored 83.8.