Which lower seeds can pick up multiple victories during March Madness to become this season’s Cinderella team?
The NCAA Tournament is about determining college basketball’s national champion, but it has donned the name “March Madness” because of the wild upsets that occur along the way. There are unexpected results at every turn and picking your favorite first-round upset is an annual rite of passage when filling out a bracket.
But there is a difference between pulling an upset vs. becoming a true Cinderella. A true Cinderella wins multiple games and becomes a mainstay in tournament lore rather than a flash in the pan.
Think Saint Peter’s last season or Oral Roberts in 2021. Those are the teams you remember — not necessarily New Mexico State’s upset over UConn in 2022 or the Ohio squad that beat Virginia in 2021.
So, who can be that team in this year’s tournament? Here are three candidates poised to make a run.
If you’re looking for a lower seed that can make a run to the Final Four like North Carolina did last season, Memphis is your team. The Tigers have dealt with a litany of injuries all season long, which is why they’re down as a No. 8 seed, yet they’ve still managed to put up an impressive resume.
Penny Hardaway’s squad finished the season with a top-20 KenPom rating, which is the fourth-highest in the East Region — ahead of favorites like Duke, Kansas State and Kentucky. While the Tigers have eight losses on the season, none have come by more than seven points. Half of them also either came in overtime or were to Houston, who spent much of the year atop the AP poll.
When Memphis is healthy and at its best, though, it’s extremely dangerous. It picked up a 15-point victory over TCU, a nine-point victory over Auburn and four-point victory over Texas A&M in nonconference play. The Tigers were also three points and a late Kendric Davis injury away from potentially upsetting Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Speaking of Davis, he’s the key to a long Memphis run. The fifth-year senior and SMU transfer is one of the nation’s best guards and ranks among the leaders in usage, assist rate, and scoring (22.1 ppg). He excels at creating offense off the bounce and is as consistent as they come, scoring at least 14 points in 31 of his 33 games played and at least 20 points in 23 games. Davis scored 27 points in the win over Auburn, had 30 in the loss to Alabama and put up 31 points in Memphis’ win over Houston in the AAC title game.
Memphis also has a unique style of play that makes things difficult on opponents. The Tigers play at an extremely fast tempo designed to utilize their depth (46th in bench minutes) and athleticism. Their press routinely eats up opponents that lack reliable guard play with the goal of forcing a high number of turnovers.
That’s where the draw really sets up well for Memphis. If they’re able to get past FAU in the first round, Purdue will likely be waiting for them — and the Boilermakers have struggled mightily against pressure this season. We already mentioned the higher seeds that the Tigers rank higher than, but that doesn’t include Marquette, who our Tournament Index rates as the weakest 2-seed ever.
So, along with having a deep, talented team that has proven itself throughout the season and is finally healthy, there is a feasible path for a long Memphis run. I have the Tigers winning the East Region.
Kent State Golden Flashes
Kent State is your double-digit seed that has a great chance to be playing in the Sweet 16. A big part of that, of course, is the draw, and the Golden Flashes got a good one.
Indiana — their first-round opponent — has been a quality team this season but has slid over the last month. The Hoosiers are just 4-4 in their last eight games and aren’t as efficient away from Assembly Hall. The other game in Kent State’s pod features 12-seed Drake and 5-seed Miami, which is the weakest 5-seed in Tournament Index history and may be without star big man Norchad Omier.
Of course, you have to be good enough to capitalize on a draw that gives you any sort of light as a 13-seed, and Kent State certainly is.
The Golden Flashes sport a terrific backcourt in Sincere Carry and Malique Jacobs. Neither senior is a great shooter, but both are excellent playmakers who know how to produce consistently. Carry ranked in the top 4 of the MAC in both scoring and assists while ranking 10th nationally in minutes played. He is crucial to everything Kent State does. Jacobs is more of the defensive stopper, ranking in the top-20 nationally in steal rate.
Defense is where Kent State has separated itself from other mid-majors. They have a top-40 defense, per KenPom, checking in around the likes of Memphis and Texas A&M. Head coach Rob Senderoff’s defense relies on forcing turnovers and limiting 3-point attempts, and it has worked for them.
Kent State did lose all three of its Quadrant 1 opportunities during nonconference play, but it was really close to pulling some major upsets. It lost to Charleston by two, Houston by five and Gonzaga by seven, all on the road. The Golden Flashes even had the lead in the last four minutes in each of those games!
With its personnel, defense and draw, Kent State has a tremendous chance to make it to the Sweet 16 where a potential rematch with Houston may be looming.
I mentioned both Saint Peter’s and Oral Roberts in the intro. Both were 15-seeds that ended up reaching the Sweet 16 (the Peacocks made the Elite Eight). Could a 15-seed cause major damage for a third consecutive tournament?
If one is going to, Vermont has to be the choice. The Catamounts have won 15 games in a row behind incredibly steady guard play. Head coach John Becker generally has three or four guards on the court at all times and they’re experienced with six seniors or super seniors leading the rotation.
Playing that small and that smart helps Vermont do two things well: shoot the three and not turn the ball over, both of which are vitally important given the way the sport has changed. Vermont ranks in the top 10 nationally in turnover rate (meaning they’re great at not turning it over) and shoot a three on 43.3 percent of all possessions that end in a shot. When a team shoots it as well as Vermont does (36.2 percent, 72nd nationally), that’s a huge benefit that can bolster offensive efficiency.
One would think that a team this small in stature would hurt Vermont on the glass, but it doesn’t. In fact, the Catamounts are the sixth-best defensive rebounding team in the country. While they’re the second-worst offensive rebounding team in the tournament, that’s by design — Becker wants his team to get back on defense to limit transition rather than crash the offensive glass.
Vermont has also shown the ability to hang with other NCAA Tournament teams. It lost by just two points at USC and has a road victory over Colgate, another No. 15 seed.
A first-round matchup against Marquette is tough, especially given the way the Golden Eagles looked in the Big East Tournament. But Shaka Smart also suffered a shocking first-round loss after winning the Big 12 Tournament during his final season at Texas. This wouldn’t be unprecedented!