NCAAB

5 Cinderella Teams That Could Destroy NCAA Tournament Brackets

Aidan Cotter
Aidan CotterAidanCotterFD
5 Cinderella Teams That Could Destroy NCAA Tournament Brackets

If we learned anything from last season's NCAA Tournament, it's that Cinderella's are everywhere.

The 2023 Final Four featured a 4 seed, two 5 seeds, and a 9 seed. Not a single 1 seed sniffed the Elite Eight while a 15 seed made the Sweet 16 for the third straight season.

Anarchy?

Nope.

Just college basketball.

This year figures to be as hectic as ever after bid thieves and underdogs ran rampant in conference tournaments.

Using numberFire's nERD metric -- an indicator of expected point differential over an average opponent on a neutral floor -- and numbers from both KenPom and Bart Torvik, let's run through five Cinderella teams that could destroy NCAA Tournament brackets.

Odds via the college basketball odds at FanDuel Sportsbook.

NCAA Tournament Cinderella Teams

Here are the 10 teams with the highest differential between their nERD and the historical average nERD of teams with their seed.

Team
nERD
Seed
Seed Average
Auburn18.69414.07
New Mexico13.25119.47
Michigan State13.6910.42
Arizona 19.17216.33
Longwood0.3316-2.36
Colorado12.781010.48
BYU14.4612.21
View Full Table

Let's break down some of the top Cinderella candidates.

New Mexico (11 Seed, West Region)

The 11 seed New Mexico Lobos went 26-11 with a 13.25 nERD, 20th in the country. They're currently 23rd on KenPom and 26th at Bart Torvik. Despite that, the Lobos were awarded an 11 seed in the West Region. They open as 1.5-point favorites against the 6 seed Clemson Tigers.

The Lobos were firmly on the bubble prior to their run to the Mountain West Tournament title. They lacked notable non-conference wins but still finished 22nd in the NET thanks to a 7-7 record in the first two quadrants.

New Mexico is well-rounded, ranking 41st in adjusted offense and 23rd in adjusted D. They don't shoot the three particularly well but play at a lighting pace. The Lobos averaged the 14th-most fastbreak points per game and finished eighth nationally in KenPom's adjusted tempo metric. They rarely turn the ball over (15th in turnover rate) and create tons of extra opportunities on offense. New Mexico is 50th in offensive rebound rate and 48th in forced turnover rate.

The Lobos have talent up-and-down their roster. Jaelen House (16.1 points per game), Donovan Dent (14.3 points; 5.6 assists), and JT Toppin (12.5 points; 9.0 rebounds) each made All-Mountain West teams. House made the All-Defensive team, Toppin won Co-Freshman of the Year, and bench man Mustapha Amzil won Co-Sixth Man of the Year.

If New Mexico can get by Clemson, they'd likely face the 3 seed Baylor Bears. The Lobos' frantic style of play gives them a shot against anyone and could prove especially difficult to deal with in a single-elimination format.

New Mexico owns +250 odds to make the Sweet 16.

Michigan State (9 Seed, West Region)

The Michigan State Spartans earned a 9 seed in the West after going 19-14 and finishing with a 13.6 nERD, 18th in the country. They're 19th on KenPom and 24th at Bart Torvik. Michigan State will face the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the First Round. The Spartans open as 1.5-point favorites.

MSU was ranked fourth in the Week 1 AP Poll, so snagging a 9 seed was certainly disappointing relative to preseason expectations. However, their numbers-based ratings have been strong all year -- they never dropped below 33rd on KenPom -- but the resume didn't match the metrics. Michigan State went just 3-9 in Quad 1 and 6-5 in Quad 2, finishing 24th in the NET. They finished 355th in KenPom's luck metric, worst among tournament teams, so there was plenty of bad luck at play.

The Spartans rank 8th in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency and 57th in adjusted offense. They're strong underneath but can be bested by perimeter-oriented teams. Michigan State was outside the top 100 in three-point field goal defense and over 41% of opponents' shot attempts came from beyond the arc, 56th-highest in the country, per Bart Torvik.

It's easy to buy into a Tom Izzo-coached team in March, and they have the personnel to make a run. Michigan State has four players who averaged double-digit points, led by guard Tyson Walker (18.2 points per game). Point guard A.J. Hoggard was one of the top playmakers in the Big Ten, averaging 5.2 assists per game.

If MSU is able to get by Mississippi State, they'd likely match up with the 1 seed North Carolina Tar Heels. UNC has the worst nERD (16.77) among the 1 seeds, so it's a good draw for Sparty.

Michigan State has +330 odds to make the Sweet 16 and +3500 odds to win the college basketball National Championship.

McNeese State (12 Seed, Midwest Region)

The McNeese State Cowboys drew the 12 seed in the Midwest after going 30-3 in the regular season. They finished with an 8.18 nERD -- 66th overall but a bit lower than the average 12 seed. McNeese is 60th on KenPom but 81st on Bart Torvik.

In the First Round, the Cowboys open as 6.5-point underdogs against the Gonzaga Bulldogs. That's a tough draw -- Gonzaga's the top-rated 5 seed on KenPom -- but McNeese's 30 wins show they'll be tough out against anyone.

The Cowboys hardly turn the ball over (23rd in turnover rate), and they're a lethal three-point shooting team (7th in 3P%). They're top 30 in both effective field goal percentage and free throw rate, demonstrating their ability to score in multiple ways.

Coach Will Wade has transformed McNeese into a mid-major power in his first season at the school. Before this, Wade led LSU to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments. He is 4-5 all-time in the Big Dance.

McNeese has the star-power to make a run. TCU transfer Shada Wells won Southland Conference Player of the Year thanks to averages of 17.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. The senior notably scored 23 and 30 points, respectively, in non-conference road Ws over VCU and Michigan. He's hardly McNeese's only offense as the Cowboys finished 41st in bench scoring. Four players average double-digit points, and eight average at least 16 minutes per game.

If the Cowboys manage to upset Gonzaga in the first round, they'd see either the 4 seed Kansas Jayhawks or 13 seed Samford Bulldogs.

McNeese is listed at +920 odds to make the Sweet 16.

Oregon (11 Seed, Midwest Region)

The Oregon Ducks snagged an 11 seed after winning the Pac-12 Tournament. Oregon finished with a 23-11 record and the 54th-best nERD (9.28). They are 55th on KenPom and 57th on Bart Torvik.

The red-hot Ducks open as 1.5-point underdogs in their first-round matchup with the South Carolina Gamecocks. Notably, South Carolina finished just two spots higher in numberFire's ratings despite being given a 6 seed.

The Ducks are a well-rounded team, ranking 50th in adjusted offense and 70th in adjusted D. They do a good job taking care of the ball (47th in turnover rate) and should be well-tested. Oregon finished with the 67th-most difficult schedule in the country, according to KenPom.

Oregon is led by star big man N'Faly Dante. Dante averaged 16.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks in the regular season -- scoring 25 points on 12-of-12 shooting in the Pac-12 championship. Guards Jermaine Couisnard and Jackson Shelstad both average over 13 points per game, so there's plenty of talent on this Ducks roster. An X-factor here could be reserve Kwame Evans. The freshman isn't a major contributor, but he's among The Ringer's Top 50 NBA prospects.

If Oregon can get past South Carolina, they'd play the 3 seed Creighton Bluejays or 14 seed Akron Zips. Creighton would be a tough draw, but Dante is one of the top players in the field and a matchup nightmare for anyone.

Oregon has +470 odds to make the Sweet 16.

Grand Canyon (12 Seed, West Region)

The Grand Canyon Lopes won the WAC after going 29-4 and now find themselves as the 12 seed in the West Region. Grand Canyon finished 53rd with a 9.34 nERD, a tick higher than the historical average nERD for a 12 seed. The Lopes are 55th on KenPom and 70th at Bart Torvik. For their first-round game, Grand Canyon opened as 4.5-point underdogs against the Saint Mary's Gaels.

Grand Canyon enters the tournament tied for the fifth-most wins in the country and boasts sound metrics on both ends of the floor. The Lopes are 63rd in adjusted offense and 51st in adjusted defense. They're outside the top 225 in turnover rate -- a potential problem when they face upper-echelon defenses. However, they're 39th in forced turnover rate and 30th in offensive rebound rate, so they do have other ways to offset their turnover woes. The Lopes do an incredible job getting to the line, ranking fifth nationally in free throw rate.

Guard Tyon Grant-Foster leads the way with 19.8 points per game. The WAC Player of the Year is a force on both ends of the floor and enters the tournament having scored 20 points in four of his last five games. At 6'7", Grant-Foster has the size to produce against top competition, and he's certainly the key to Grand Canyon's Cinderella chances.

If Grand Canyon can upset Saint Mary's, they'd play either the 4 seed Alabama Crimson Tide or 13 seed Charleston Cougars. While 'Bama comes in at No. 11 in numberFire's ratings, their 112th-ranked defense could make for an advantageous matchup for the well-rounded Lopes.

Grand Canyon sits at +610 odds to make the Sweet 16.


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