Ranking Men's CBB Best Potential 2022 March Madness Cinderella Teams

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 26, 2022

Ranking Men's CBB Best Potential 2022 March Madness Cinderella Teams

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    UAB's Trey Jemison
    UAB's Trey JemisonIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, and that even pertains to choosing the best candidates to shock the world in the early rounds of the men's NCAA tournament.

    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.

    Not all of these teams will make the tournament, but watch out for the ones that do—especially if they get matched up with an ideal first-round 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.

Honorable Mentions

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    Wyoming's Hunter Maldonado
    Wyoming's Hunter MaldonadoMarco Garcia/Associated Press

    Boise State Broncos: With four starters 6'7" or taller, Boise State is a force in the paint on both ends of the floor. But the Broncos don't get many steals, they don't have a true point guard and their shooting percentages (especially from the free-throw line) leave much to be desired.

    Grand Canyon Antelopes: They got smashed by Stephen F. Austin last week but also clipped San Francisco in mid-December. This is an excellent offensive rebounding team that also leads the nation in three-point defense.

    Iona Gaels: This Rick Pitino fella can coach. And if Iona runs into a team with limited depth, watch out, because the Gaels draw fouls as well as any team in the country. That perimeter defense can be a nightmare too. Just ask Alabama or Liberty, each of which had nightmarish three-point performances in losses to Iona.

    Oakland Golden Grizzlies: Oakland has one heck of a quartet in Jalen Moore, Trey Townsend, Micah Parrish and Jamal Cain. There's almost no depth, though, and none of those four leaders shoots well from three-point range. The Grizzlies also routinely struggle in the paint on defense.

    Ohio Bobcats: The Bobcats battled for 30 minutes on the road against both Kentucky and LSU and otherwise have only lost one game. This is a jack-of-all-trades type of team with no blatant strong suit nor Achilles' heel. The Bobcats don't have much of an argument for an at-large bid, but if they win the MAC and earn a No. 12 or No. 13 seed, they'll be a trendy Sweet 16 pick.

    South Dakota State Jackrabbits: They lead the nation in three-point percentage and can eclipse 80 against any foe. The problem is, they're also liable to allow at least 90 to just about anyone. The Jackrabbits will at least produce an entertaining game if they make the Dance.

    VCU Rams: VCU's defense is as good as it has ever been, which is saying a lot for this program. However, its offense is downright atrocious.

    Wyoming Cowboys: I'm hesitant to believe in Wyoming, which got destroyed by Arizona in its only game against a definite tournament team. It doesn't help that the Cowboys rank among the worst in the nation in steal percentage. But they've got a dominant big man (Graham Ike), a three-point sniper (Drake Jeffries) and a 6'7" point-forward (Hunter Maldonado) who's bound to get a triple-double one of these days. I kind of hope they don't get into the tournament, just so I don't talk myself into picking them to win multiple games.

The Non-Gonzaga Portion of the West Coast Conference

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    San Francisco's Jamaree Bouyea
    San Francisco's Jamaree BouyeaYoung Kwak/Associated Press

    I'm pretty sure we're all in agreement that Gonzaga is not a Cinderella team and has not been one for quite some time.

    But what about the rest of the conference?

    Saint Mary's has finished top-75 on KenPom.com in 14 consecutive seasons, including eight years in the top 40. The Gaels are pretty much always in the bubble conversation. The same goes for BYU, which hasn't finished outside the top 90 on KenPom since 2005-06. Though neither team has been to the Sweet 16 since 2011, it wouldn't exactly be a shocker if either one did so in any given season.

    And while San Francisco hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1998, we've been talking about a potential four-bid West Coast Conference for so long thatthough the Dons have not yet cracked the AP Top 25 at any point this seasoneven most casual fans are aware of their potential to win a tournament game or two this March.

    So, rather than just include San Francisco in the top three or put all of BYU, Saint Mary's and San Francisco in the top five, we're going to lump the trio together here and suggest that there legitimately could be four WCC teams in the Sweet 16 this year.

    For Saint Mary's, it's all about the defense. The Gaels rank top-10 in the nation in defensive rebounding, three-point rate allowed and assist rate allowed. Even in their four lossesall to tournament-caliber opponents—the Gaels only allowed 62.5 points per game.

    For BYU, it's the veteran leadership in the backcourt by sixth-year senior Te'Jon Lucas and fifth-year senior Alex Barcello, as well as tenacious rebounding throughout the frontcourt. The Cougars got ambushed by Gonzaga two weeks ago, but they've been a rock-solid all-around team outside that one.

    And San Francisco is sort of a hybrid of the two: great on defense, great on the glass and practically overflowing with fifth-year and sixth-year seniors. Losses to Grand Canyon, Loyola-Chicago and BYU all came right down to the wire, and they gave Gonzaga a pretty good battle in Spokane last Thursday.

    Of the bunch, the Dons arguably have the best shot at reaching the second weekend, especially if Jamaree Bouyea starts cooking.

9. Abilene Christian Wildcats

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    Abilene Christian's Airion Simmons
    Abilene Christian's Airion SimmonsSarah Stier/Getty Images

    What They Do Well: Force Turnovers

    It doesn't always work, but if you want to pull off a stunner or two in the NCAA tournament, forcing turnovers at a ridiculous rate throughout the regular season is a great place to start. It worked for Abilene Christian last year, for South Carolina in 2017, for Stephen F. Austin in both 2014 and 2016 and for both VCU and Ohio in 2012.

    And this iteration of ACU forces turnovers at a rate higher than any team since 2012-13 VCU.

            

    What They Don't Do Well: Anything Else

    Despite that propensity for steals, the Wildcats recently endured a five-game losing streak, thanks to a combination of poor rebounding, too much fouling and an offense that can't hit water in the ocean.

    When they shocked Texas last year, it was a 53-52 final score. In the subsequent round against UCLA, the Wildcats were held to 47 points. And that team at least had an effective field-goal percentage 5.2 points better than it allowed. This year's team has an eFG% 4.2 points worse than it allows. But ACU could still be very dangerous if it happens to draw a team that struggles with turnovers. (*Cough* Michigan State *cough*.)

           

    Star Player: Airion Simmons (10.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.7 SPG)

    Recent losses to Grand Canyon and New Mexico State got out of hand because Simmons missed both of those games. When he plays, the 6'5", 264-pound Swiss Army knife makes Abilene Christian that much more of a matchup nightmare.

8. Oral Roberts Golden Eagles

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    Oral Roberts' Max Abmas
    Oral Roberts' Max AbmasIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    What They Do Well: Get Up High-Percentage Shots

    Max Abmas commands most of the spotlight, but this entire team can stroke it from deep. Sixth-man Trey Phipps has been especially deadly, shooting 41-of-88 (46.6 percent) from downtown. As a team, the Golden Eagles shoot just under 40 percent from distance, averaging more than a dozen triples per game.

    They also typically do a great job of avoiding turnovers. So, at least from an "everyone can shoot" and "doesn't shoot itself in the foot often" perspective, Oral Roberts has a little bit of a mid-major Villanova thing going on.

                

    What They Don't Do Well: Play Defense

    Oral Roberts is ranked outside the top 200 in adjusted defensive efficiency, though at least things have gotten a little better since the season-opening 109-80 loss to Colorado State. This team rarely forces turnovers, and not having a single player taller than 6'7" in the regular rotation means it is prone to getting destroyed in the paint.

    This was equally true of last year's team, which is why it was so flabbergasting when the Golden Eagles held an excellent Ohio State offense to 72 points in a 78-possession game in the first round of the Dance. Can they muster up another one of those miracles?

            

    Star Player: Max Abmas (22.6 PPG, 3.7 APG, 3.5 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 40.1 3P%)

    Abmas is already a March Madness legend after he racked up 80 points and 14 assists during ORU's three-game run through the 2021 NCAA tournament, but who's to say he can't do it again? The Golden Eagles have played six games this season against KenPom top-150 opponents, and Abmas has scored at least 19 points in each of those games, including a season-high 38 points in a win over Tulsa. He also had 32 points and 11 assists with no turnovers in a one-point win over Western Illinois earlier this month.

7. Fresno State Bulldogs

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    Fresno State's Orlando Robinson
    Fresno State's Orlando RobinsonEthan Miller/Getty Images

    What They Do Well: Play at Their Preferred Pace

    Both on offense and on defense, Fresno State ranks among the 25 slowest-paced teams in the country. The Bulldogs aren't exactly "Virginia Slow," but best of luck speeding up this squad. Fresno State has only played in two games all season with more than 67 possessions, and its average since the beginning of December is 61.8 possessions.

    That doesn't necessarily mean anything, but well-balanced, slow-paced teams such as Liberty, Loyola-Chicago and Saint Mary's have been a serious nuisance in recent NCAA tournaments. Fresno State could join that club this year.

            

    What They Don't Do Well: Shoot Threes

    In Fresno State's losses to Boise State, California, San Francisco and Utah, it shot a combined 21-of-90 (23.3 percent) from three-point range.

    The Bulldogs do have one lethal perimeter threat in Anthony Holland (46.4 percent), but the rest of the team is shooting below 29 percent on the year. And with only one guard to worry about, opponents can double-team FSU's star big man without much fear of getting burned.

            

    Star Player: Orlando Robinson (19.7 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.5 BPG, 1.1 SPG, 35.2 3P%)

    I will always be a sucker for a shot-blocker with three-point range, especially one who also leads his team in scoring by a laughable margin. To that end, "Big O" has been Mr. Everything for the Bulldogs, averaging 23.0 points, 12.0 rebounds and a combined total of 6.1 assists/blocks/steals through his first four games of January. Put the 7-footer in a stalemate against a Kofi Cockburn or Zach Edey, and Fresno State probably gets crushed at the other four spots on the floor, but he could carry the Bulldogs to a couple of wins with a favorable draw.

6. Liberty Flames

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    Liberty's Darius McGhee
    Liberty's Darius McGheeMarco Garcia/Associated Press

    What They Do Well: Make It Rain

    Liberty is one of the most lethal three-point shooting teams in recent history. The Flames have taken 51.4 percent of their field-goal attempts (against D-I opponents) from three-point range, making 38.9 percent of them. They rank fourth in the nation in the former and seventh in the latter. The only teams in the past decade to finish a season in the top 10 of both categories were Creighton in 2013-14 (Doug McDermott's last ride) and North Florida in 2015-16.

    When they make at least 31 percent of their three-point attempts, the Flames are 13-2, and the two losses came in Hawaii against Stanford and BYU by a combined margin of eight points.

            

    What They Don't Do Well: Create Second-Chance Opportunities

    You'll often hear color commentators say something along the lines of: The most dangerous shot in college basketball is a three-pointer right after an offensive rebound. That's not how Liberty does its damage, though. In fact, the Flames didn't get a single live-ball offensive rebound in a recent game against North Florida, and they rank among the worst in the nation at creating second chances.

    In fairness, that's by design. Much like BYU in 2019-20 or Virginia for much of the past decade, Liberty works hard to get a good look and then has at least four, if not all five guys fall back to prevent transition buckets. All the same, rebounding was a key factor in the close losses to BYU, Stanford and Iona.

           

    Star Player: Darius McGhee (23.0 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.4 SPG, 40.7 3P%)

    McGhee is an even smaller version of Oral Roberts' Max Abmas, but at 5'9", he sure packs a scoring punch. McGhee had 41 points in the loss to Stanford and went off for 48 (on 25 field-goal attempts) in a recent win over Florida Gulf Coast. If he gets into a groove, anything is possible.

5. Murray State Racers

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    Murray State's Tevin Brown
    Murray State's Tevin BrownButch Dill/Associated Press

    What They Do Well: Crash the Offensive Glass

    In KJ Williams, DJ Burns and the lesser-used Nicholas McMullen, Murray State has a trio of big men who each grab a lot of offensive rebounds. The Racers weren't able to do much of anything on the glass in their loss to Auburn, but they are far from the only team to struggle with Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith. Normally, they're one of the best in the nation on the offensive glass.

    Of course, there aren't many offensive rebounds to be had, as Murray State is also one of the better three-point shooting teams. Tevin Brown and Justice Hill are both lights-out from downtown and shot a combined 12-of-18 in the recent blowout of Belmont.

            

    What They Don't Do Well: Convert from the Charity Stripe

    A bunch of teams are shooting at least 78 percent from the free-throw line on the season, but Murray State hasn't even had a single game at that threshold. The Racers have been at 60 percent or below nearly as many times as they've been at 70 percent or better.

    Brown and Hill are both relatively reliable, but everyone 6'6" or taller is a liability, and you can't hide them all.

            

    Star Player: Tevin Brown (17.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.4 SPG, 41.3 3P%)

    When Ja Morant posted that historic triple-double in the first-round blowout of Marquette in the 2019 NCAA tournament, Brown was actually Murray State's highest scorer (19 points) in the game. He has started every Racers game over the past four seasons, has scored in double figures in each game this season and is just under a 40 percent career three-point shooter.

4. Davidson Wildcats

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    Davidson's Hyunjung Lee
    Davidson's Hyunjung LeeIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    What They Do Well: Shoot Threes

    Davidson entered play Tuesday tied with Auburn for the longest active winning streak in the nation at 15. And that success has been predominantly fueled by the three-point shooting of Foster Loyer, Hyunjung Lee and Michael Jones.

    The Wildcats had a rare off night (3-of-13) in a close call against Fordham last Saturday, but they were 141-of-337 (41.8 percent) from downtown over the previous 14 games. They shot 50 percent from distance against each of the two toughest opponents during that stretch (Alabama and VCU). Anything is possible when those shots are falling.

           

    What They Don't Do Well: Play Any Sort of Defense

    Davidson ranks among the best in the country at defensive rebounding, but it'd be great if it could convert some of that energy into playing defense before the shot goes up. In five of their last 10 games, the Wildcats have allowed at least 10 made three-pointers while forcing fewer than 10 turnovers.

    Over the past month or so, that woeful defense has merely resulted in quite a few close wins in spite of lights-out shooting. It's liable to be their undoing in the first round of the NCAA tournament, though.

           

    Star Player: Hyunjung Lee (16.2 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.2 APG, 41.4 3P%)

    It's really a four-pronged assault of Lee, Loyer, Jones and Luka Brajkovic, each of whom averages at least 12.8 points and 2.2 assists per game. Any of the four could catch fire in March, although Lee is the one who has piqued the interest of the NBA draft community. The 6'7" wing opened the season with 16 consecutive games scoring in double figures.

3. Colorado State Rams

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    Colorado State's David Roddy
    Colorado State's David RoddyJack Dempsey/Associated Press

    What They Do Well: Shoot the Rock

    Pick your poison when trying to defend Colorado State. The Rams have five players who (against D-I competition) both average at least one made triple per game and connect on at least 37.5 percent of their long-range attempts. And as far as the national rankings are concerned, three-point percentage is their weak point. They're merely top-20 from that distance, compared to top-10 on both two-pointers and free throws.

    The Rams also generally do a great job of avoiding turnovers. They did get a little sloppier than usual against an aggressive Air Force defense last Saturday, but they entered that game averaging just 10.0 turnovers per contest.

           

    What They Don't Do Well: Defend the Perimeter

    Colorado State does a good job of packing the paint and keeping opponents from getting shots up from point-blank range. But the trade-off is it doesn't force many turnovers and there's a lot of space along the perimeter for three-point attempts, which made home games against Northern Colorado (18-of-37), New Mexico (14-of-33) and Air Force (10-of-21) closer than they should have been.

    The Rams are 15-1 because of how good the offense is, but they are hovering around 100th place in adjusted defensive efficiency.

           

    Star Player: David Roddy (18.7 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.1 SPG, 44.7 3P%)

    Not only does Roddy fill up the stat sheet on a regular basis, but he also really shows up against quality opponents. In six games against the KenPom top 120, Roddy has averaged 24.2 points, including the 36-point gem in the November win over Creighton. Honorable mention to point guard Isaiah Stevens, who helps give the Rams one of the best one-two punches in the nation.

2. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers

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    Loyola-Chicago's Lucas Williamson
    Loyola-Chicago's Lucas WilliamsonIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    What They Do Well: Hit Shots

    This will ring hollow after Loyola-Chicago trailed 62-42 with seven minutes remaining in Saturday's home loss to Missouri State, but it is usually one of the most accurate shooting teams. Even with that recent dud included, the Ramblers rank top-20 in the nation in three-point percentage, top-10 in two-point percentage and top-five in effective field-goal percentage.

    They are a perfect 13-0 when shooting at least 45 percent from the field, and they shot 62.8 percent in a 29-point thrashing of Evansville just before that loss to Missouri State. They also hit 17 three-pointers in a road win over Vanderbilt and were virtually unstoppable in the paint in the win over San Francisco. 

                

    What They Don't Do Well: Defend Like They Used To

    Last year's Ramblers had one of the most efficient defenses in the country. During the 2018 Final Four run, they held each of their five tournament opponents below 70 points. But this year's team isn't anything special on the defensive end, and that's particularly been true in the three weeks since coming back from a lengthy COVID-19 pause.

    They've been more than fine on offense without mustachioed big man Cameron Krutwig, but they definitely miss his presence in the paint on D. San Francisco's primary big (Yauhen Massalski) shot 10-of-10 from the field against Loyola-Chicago, and both Missouri State and Valparaiso shot better than 60 percent inside the arc against the Ramblers. I shudder to think what Gonzaga, Arizona or Purdue would be able to do against this frontcourt.

           

    Star Player: Lucas Williamson (12.4 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.2 SPG, 42.4 3P%)

    The lone remaining player from that magical 2018 run is now Loyola-Chicago's leader in points, rebounds and steals. Williamson had 16 points and eight rebounds in the near-upset of Michigan State in November and has scored in double figures in eight of the last 10 games. 

1. UAB Blazers

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    UAB's Jordan Walker
    UAB's Jordan WalkerIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    What They Do Well: Own the Turnover Battle

    With the exception of the steal machine known as Abilene Christian, UAB has the best average turnover margin in the nation, ranking top-30 in both offensive and defensive turnover percentage. In fact, the only games this season in which the Blazers lost the turnover battle were against West Virginia and Saint Louis, posting a minus-one in each of those contests.

    Between that near-constant turnover edge and offensive rebounding that ranks well above the national average, UAB gets up 8.2 more field-goal attempts per game than it allows. The Blazers have yet to lose by more than six points, and they are undefeated when shooting better than 30.0 percent from three-point range.

            

    What They Don't Do Well: Win the Free-Throw Battle

    Forcing turnovers is great until you draw an officiating crew with a quick whistle. A significant chunk of these free throws came in the final minute as they were trying to foul their way out of a deficit, but between the losses to Rice and West Virginia, UAB attempted 25 free throws while its opponent made 42.

    The Blazers do run nine deep without any drop in production, so it's not an issue of foul trouble as much as it is an issue of giving away a few too many free points.

           

    Star Player: Jordan Walker (17.9 PPG, 4.3 APG, 2.7 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 42.8 3P%)

    Walker started his career at Seton Hall, deep on the depth chart behind Myles Powell and Khadeen Carrington. And now after four years and two transfers, he's putting up numbers on par with those former stars of the Pirates. With more than twice as many assists and more than twice as many three-pointers as his closest teammate, Walker is the one guy the Blazers could not afford to lose to foul trouble at any point in the tournament.

          

    Statistics are current through the start of play on Tuesday, Jan. 25 and are via KenPom.com, NCAA.com and Sports Reference unless otherwise noted.

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