As every college basketball media member will remind you, the NCAA Tournament can be VERY unpredictable. With that being said, there are certain trends from past seasons that can provide insight into what it takes to win in March. There’s no reason to assume these trends will necessarily continue, but for those filling out brackets, every little edge counts.
(Credit to KenPom for statistics: as of 2.25.20)
Potential Cinderella Teams
How often do Cinderella Final Four runs happen, and what kind of teams have worn the glass slipper? Going back to 2001-02, 32/72 (44.4%) Final Four teams have been ranked in the top five of KenPom headed into the NCAA Tournament. 17/72 (23.6%) were in the 6-10 range, and 14/72 (19.4%) were ranked between 11-20.
Now, onto the true Cinderellas, the Final Four teams that entered the tournament ranked outside the top twenty. 9/72 (12.5%) Final Four teams fit these criteria over the last 18 seasons, equating to one such team every other season. No Cinderella made a Final Four run last year (Auburn was ranked 15th), so perhaps we’re due for one this March.
The above chart includes two Butler teams, the Shabazz Napier UConn team from 2014, and most recently Loyola Chicago in 2017-18. Is there anything these nine teams have in common? 7/9 entered the tournament with a defense ranked in the top 30, with VCU and Butler in 2010-11 the two “super-outliers.”
So perhaps a strong defense is key to being a Cinderella, but if true, it’s not clear exactly why this would be the case. Maybe it’s easier for teams with a strong defense and average offense to get hot offensively during a tournament run than it is for teams with a strong offense and average defense to suddenly play high-level defense come March.
What teams fit the profile of potential Cinderella candidates this season? The below 16 teams are currently outside the top 20 in KenPom and have defenses ranked 30th or better.
We can filter this list a bit farther, as several of these teams are unlikely to even make the NCAA Tournament. Among the nine past Cinderellas, 8/9 entered the tournament ranked in the top 50 of KenPom (2010-11 VCU, 82nd), so let’s take out the teams that don’t hit this threshold.
Say goodbye to Clemson, Memphis, Texas, and Washington. Of these, only Memphis has a realistic shot at an at-large bid (projected Next Five Out).
Of the 12 remaining teams, each of Colorado, Illinois, Penn State, and Wisconsin are safe bets to reach the tournament. Several of Arkansas, Purdue, Rhode Island, Rutgers, Stanford, Virginia, Wichita State, and Xavier will likely be dancing, but calling them “locks” might be a bit strong at this point in time.
Let’s run through these 12 teams and see who seems best fit for a Cinderella run.
The Razorbacks’ 47th ranking put them barely in the top 50 threshold, and the way things have been trending, this team could very well miss the tournament. Prior to its home victory over Missouri on Saturday, Arkansas had lost five straight games.
There’s some reason for optimism though. Sophomore Isaiah Joe (16.2 ppg.) missed all five games of the losing streak before returning for the Missouri win, in a game he scored 21 points. With Mason Jones and Jimmy Whitt alongside him, the Razorbacks have plenty of offensive talent. If Joe stays healthy and the team can build some momentum, Arkansas could be dangerous come March. Head Coach Eric Musselman has exceeded tournament expectations before at Nevada.
At 24th in KenPom, the Buffaloes are almost too good to qualify as a Cinderella. The team ranks 3rd in minutes continuity per KenPom (behind Air Force, Notre Dame) and has the 24th-best 3-point percentage in the nation (37.2%). McKinley Wright is the type of experienced lead guard that can lead a team to a win or two in the tournament.
When healthy, sophomore Ayo Dosunmo is one of the best closers in the sport, and Kofi Cockburn’s powerful presence down low has led the team to the 6th-best offensive rebounding percentage in the nation (36.3%).
After winning seven straight games in January, Illinois lost four straight before getting back on track against Penn State and Nebraska this past week. Of the four recent losses, the Illini were competitive and against solid teams.
At 21st in KenPom, the Nittany Lions are another team that might be too good for the Cinderella category. Before its recent back-to-back losses, the team was playing lights out, winning eight straight games. The recent stretch might seem slightly concerning, but Penn State’s been without Myreon Jones for five games (14.1 ppg.), who’d been playing great before his injury. If he returns soon as expected, the team should get back to being one of the Big Ten’s best.
Purdue’s incredible home performances against the likes of Virginia, Michigan State, and Iowa have been well documented, but with a record of only 14-14, the Boilermakers may have a hard time getting a tournament bid. If it gets in, the team’s streaky 3-point shooting undoubtedly gives it a high ceiling. It’ll have to play away from home, which is something that they have struggled with this season.
I’m not as high on the Rams as others, but the team has experienced upperclassmen that could make it dangerous. Ranked 11th in minutes continuity, Rhode Island has a lead guard in Fatts Russell that is capable of dropping 30 on a given night.
The Scarlet Knights have caught some flak for its inability to win away from home, but almost all these losses have come by single-digits. Still, Rutgers has lost five of its last seven, and it’s hard to see this team making a deep run come March.
Like Northwestern a few seasons ago, perhaps Steve Pikiell’s squad can secure a meaningful bid for the program and win a game in the tournament. Doing anything beyond that seems improbable.
After losing four straight games, Stanford has bounced back with road victories over Washington and Washington State. Although only ranked 122nd in offensive efficiency, its 20th-best effective field goal percentage ranking suggests its offense has potential if it can improve its turnovers, offensive rebounding, and free-throw shooting. The Cinderella Loyola Chicago team had a comparable profile, with only the 63rd-best offense but the 7th-best effective field goal percentage.
Stanford still isn’t playing all that well and is maybe too young (334th in experience) for a deep tournament run. The team is worth monitoring, however.
The Cavaliers barely met the top 50 threshold (49th), but one can’t count out the defending national champs, right? On the other hand, Virginia’s 214th-ranked offense is less than ideal.
A Final Four run seems extremely unlikely, but if Tomas Woldetensae can get red-hot from downtown like he’s been as of late, the Cavaliers might surprise some people.
The Shockers already made a Cinderella run in 2012-13, so why can’t Gregg Marshall do it again? Wichita State is only 5-6 in its last 11 games, however, and has struggled to hit shots all season (32.1%). Like Stanford, this team might be a year away (only 331st in experience).
The Badgers have been playing really well since the Kobe King departure, winning 5 of their last 7 games and recently winning 4 straight. Micah Potter has provided the team an extra gear offensively, but it’s unclear whether the backcourt is strong enough for a March run.
Just like last year, the Musketeers are playing well towards the end of the regular season. The team has a talented and experienced trio of Naji Marshall, Paul Scruggs and Tyrique Jones that should be valuable in the postseason. The team has to prove it can keep up its recent level of play that has put them in a position to make the Big Dance.
Although 12 teams technically made the cut, my gut tells me the following teams just aren’t realistic Cinderella candidates (although who knows?!): Rhode Island, Rutgers, Stanford, Virginia and Wichita State. That leaves seven teams remaining: Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Xavier.
Maybe the Final Four will go chalk this season (like 2007-08), but if things get a bit crazy like it has already this season, these teams are all reasonable Cinderella candidates.