6 March Madness Cinderellas who can bust your bracket in men’s NCAA tournament

March Madness scholars may debate this, but it is widely accepted that there are two types of NCAA tournament Cinderellas: 1) The 13-16 seed that pulls off a first round stunner and occasionally makes it to a Sweet 16 or beyond, and 2) The 8-12 seed (especially from a mid-major conference) that makes a run all the way to a regional final or Final Four.

There are plenty of options in this year’s field that fit one of the two descriptions. Let’s look at the six with the best opportunity to make good on their Cinderella potential.

1. Samford

The entire country is about to get a briefing on “Bucky Ball” this week.

The term comes from Samford head coach Bucky McMillan, who is in his fourth season with the Bulldogs. McMillan has basically spent his entire life in the Birmingham area, and was hired at Samford in 2020 after a successful 12-year stint as the head coach at Mountain Brook High School. He had never spent a second as a college head coach or assistant.

The gamble has paid off in a major way. McMillan has been named the Southern Conference’s Coach of the Year in each of the last three seasons, and this year he has the Bulldogs in the NCAA tournament for just the third time ever and the first time since 2000.

Don’t be surprised if that isn’t where this Samford team’s story ends.

Part of “Bucky Ball” is pressing for a full 40 minutes. Off makes, off misses, off turnovers, off everything. That’s not exactly an ideal matchup for a Kansas team that is dealing with injuries to its two star players.

Want more evidence to support the upset pick? Samford shoots a ton of threes and it makes a ton of threes. The Bulldogs are a hitting at a 39.3 percent clip from beyond the arc, the eighth-best mark of any team in Division-I.

It sounds strange to say out loud, but Samford over Kansas is a very live shot.

2. Oregon

Dana Altman’s Oregon Ducks are coming off a week in which they won the Pac-12 tournament, knowing that it was their only route to the NCAA tournament. The last time that happened was 2019, when Oregon was awarded a 12-seed in the Big Dance and advanced all the way to the Sweet before narrowly falling to eventual national champion Virginia.

History could very easily repeat itself this week.

The Ducks are an 11-seed with a fairly friendly first round matchup against a South Carolina team that has overachieved all season. Win that one and a matchup against Altman’s old school, Creighton, could be waiting in round two.

No one flips disappointment on its head quite like Altman. The last three times his Ducks have returned to the NCAA tournament after a year or two of missing out, he’s taken them to the tournament’s second weekend. With talks in recent weeks about him needing to retire or the school needing to move in a different direction, it feels even more likely that this could be a week where forces the narrative to do a 180.

3. James Madison

It’s time for a 12-seed revival.

The 12 over 5 has been America’s favorite first round upset pick for a while now, but in recent years, the 12-line hasn’t lived up to their historic hype. Just two 12-seeds have made runs to the second weekend of the tournament over the last decade, and in the 68-team era (since 2011), there have been just as many No. 15 seeds to make the Sweet 16 as No. 12s (four).

Basically, 12-seeds need a boost. Enter James Madison.

Every Final Four but one since 2012 has featured at least one team seeded seventh or worse. I think the Dukes have a really chance to be that team this year.

The South Region has mega “could fall apart quickly and dramatically” potential.

Top-seeded Houston has been rock solid for most of this season, but is coming off of an eye-opening (in all the wrong ways) 69-41 loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament title game. Second-seeded Marquette played the entire Big East tournament without star point guard Tyler Kolek, who also missed the final three games of the regular season with an oblique injury. Third-seeded Kentucky epitomizes the old cliche of “can beat anyone in the tournament and lose to anyone in the tournament. And fourth-seeded Duke has been so disappointed by its play in its last two games, that Blue Devil players reportedly went the infamous “players only meeting” route after their quick return home from the NCAA tournament.

James Madison is 31-3. They opened their season with a true road victory over a Michigan State team that’s in the field as a 9-seed. They shoot the ball well, they have guards who take care of the ball well, and they defend well.

If they can get past Wisconsin, this could be a team that sees the world burning around them and takes full advantage.

4. South Dakota State

Look, a 15 has beaten a 2 in three straight NCAA tournaments, so it would feel wrong to have a list like this without featuring at least one 15-seed, right?

I love this Iowa State team and I love T.J. Otzelberger as a head coach, but for weeks now, the Cyclones have matched the statistical profile of past well-seeded teams that have flamed out early in the NCAA tournament. I know they rolled to the Big 12 tournament title, I know the talk around them is about how they should have been the No. 5 overall seed, I know … I’m just sayin’.

Furthermore, there have been 23 No. 2 seeds in tournament history that started the season unranked and entered the tournament ranked in the top 10. Fifteen of those 23 teams (including Marquette last season) have failed to make it to the Sweet 16. One team fits that description this year: Iowa State.

This is South Dakota State’s seventh NCAA tournament appearance since 2012. It’s a program that expects to be here. The Jackrabbits, like the other little guys featured on this list, shoot the ball extremely well (36.2 percent from three as a team, 50th-best in D-I). They’re also entering March Madness riding the nation’s fifth-longest winning streak at eight straight games.

Despite all their success, SDSU has never won a game in the NCAA tournament. Everyone in the world outside of New England thought they were going to beat Providence two years ago, and it didn’t happen. Maybe they just needed more of an element of surprise on their side.

5. Charleston

Like South Dakota State, Charleston isn’t quite as well-regarded as they were the last time they made the NCAA tournament two seasons ago.

The Cougars are 27-7 and have won 12 straight games — the nation’s second-longest winning streak — but they have no wins over teams in the NCAA tournament or teams ranked in the top 100 on KenPom. What they do have is a head coach in Pat Kelsey who is widely regarded as one of the brightest young stars in the sport, and an erratic first round opponent in Alabama who seems to scream first round upset … or 35-point first round rout.

The metrics have loved this Alabama team all season long, but the Crimson Tide’s play, especially of late, has made a lot of people wonder why.

Alabama has 11 losses, the most of any team seeded on the top four lines. They’ve lost four of their last six, and have allowed over 100 points in three of those four losses. On the flip side, they’ve also scored 100 points or more in four of their last nine games.

If ‘Bama is playing its A or A- game, there’s not much Charleston is going to be able to do about it. If ‘Bama is playing its C or C- game, the Cougars absolutely have the experience, the discipline and the coaching to take full advantage.

6. Drake

A 10-seed doesn’t really fit the “Cinderella” moniker … unless it’s a team (especially a mid-major) making a run to a regional final or beyond. Drake can without question be that team.

While everyone was focused on Indiana State for the last month, the Bulldogs might be poised to be the Missouri Valley team everyone winds up remembering from this season.

They have a bon-a-fide star in Tucker DeVries (coach Darian DeVries’ son), who has been the MVC Player of the Year each of the last two seasons. He is absolutely good enough to have one of those Wally Szczerbiak two-week runs that everyone remembers forever.

The Bulldogs are in the nation’s top 40 in pretty much every offensive stat that matters, they’re solid defensively, they’re one of the best rebounding teams in the country, and perhaps most importantly, they seem to have a favorable draw.

They would probably need someone else to take care of UConn for them in the top half of the South Region, but that happened, Drake could be this year’s Florida Atlantic.

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