Searching for Cinderella


One of the reasons why March Madness so compelling is that there always seems to be a good Cinderella story. Over the last four tournaments, Shaka Smart’s VCU Rams from the Colonial Athletic Conferece, Andy Enfield’s Florida Gulf Coast Eagles from the Atlantic Sun Conference, Jim Groce’s Ohio Bobcats from the Mid-American Conference, Brad Stevens’s Butler Bulldogs (twice), Chris Mooney’s Richmond Spiders, John Gianni’s La Salle Explorers, Ben Jacobsen’s Northern Iowa Panthers, Randy Bennett’s St. Mary’s Gaels, Gregg Marshall’s Wichita State Shockers, and Steve Donahue’s Cornell Big Red have all at least made it to the Sweet 16 and some have gone even farther as “mid-major” schools.

Everybody has different criteria that must be met before a team can be considered a Cinderella. Some base it off of seed. Others base it off of what conference the team comes from. Others base it off of who the team had to upset to get deep into the tournament. The only constant is that people all across the country root for David to beat Goliath.

Since the 2010 tournament, 13 double-digit seeds have made it to the Sweet 16. That doesn’t include Butler’s unexpected championship game run or Northern Iowa’s Sweet 16 run that included an upset over #1 Kansas, nor does it include Norfolk State’s upset over #2 Missouri as a 15-seed in 2012 since they got blown out by Florida in the third round nor Lehigh as a 15-seed that upset Duke that same year.

Every year, tremendous storylines arise from the conferences that are mostly afterthoughts. Whether it’s a captivating athletic performance like Florida Gulf Coast’s “Dunk City” last season or Northern Iowa’s tenacious defense, it’s one of the developments that makes March Madness beautiful, even though we’ve yet to see one of these teams go all the way.

It doesn’t seem like a Cinderella team will cut down the nets in Arlington, TX this season either, but there are sure to be a couple of teams that catch America’s attention by making an unexpected run. They may not have value from a big futures wager standpoint, but their odds will be included regardless. If nothing else, these should be teams that can give some big name opponents a real scare throughout the tournament.

Who are the teams that may need to be fitted for a glass slipper?

1. Harvard (Ivy, +50000, 5Dimes) – The smart guys from the Ivy League could definitely make some noise in this tournament. One look at the line for the Harvard-Cincinnati game, with Cincinnati favored by only 2.5 points, and that tells you what the thought is about the Crimson. Harvard hung right in on the road at Colorado in the altitude against a Buffaloes team that still had Spencer Dinwiddie back in November and beat Wisconsin-Green Bay by 12 on a neutral floor. Wisconsin-Green Bay should have won the Horizon League, but failed in the conference tournament.

The Crimson play in the poor Ivy League, but they did average a 15.4-point differential in conference play. There’s a good mix of experienced talent with guys like junior leading scorer Wesley Saunders and fellow junior Steve Moundou-Missi, the team’s leading rebounder, and youthful exuberance with sophomore Siyani Chambers. The Crimson have a good amount of size among their forward group with several guys at 6’9” or taller.

It’s a very difficult draw with Cincinnati and Michigan State for the Crimson, but they’re sure to be a poised team and teams that play good defense and take care of the ball can upset the big names.

2. Stephen F. Austin (Southland, +100000, 5Dimes) – The Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks draw a tough opponent in the first round with a matchup against the “Havoc” defense of VCU. The Lumberjacks have played the 325th-ranked schedule out of the 351 Division I teams, so it’s not like they’ve played quality competition, but they ended the season 31-2 with a perfect 18-0 conference mark. Say what you will about their conference, but the Lumberjacks won their conference games by an average of 15.5 points.

Back in mid-November, the Lumberjacks took on the Texas Longhorns in Austin. It was a tied game with 2:39 left before the Longhorns put the game away. The Lumberjacks took a four-point lead into halftime after falling behind 11-0 to start the game. They’re a balanced team with veteran senior guards in Desmond Haymon and Deshaunt Walker, something that you need to look for in a team looking to be a Cinderella.

SFA would be looking at a second round matchup with UCLA if they get past VCU and that may not be as bad of a matchup as it seems with a SFA team that is accustomed to controlling the pace.

3. Dayton (A-10, +75000, 5Dimes) – The Dayton Flyers got in the tournament despite losing their first Atlantic 10 Tournament game. That should give you some sort of indication what the Committee thought of their overall body of work. The Flyers meet Ohio State in the 6 v 11 matchup from the South region. The Flyers had wins over Gonzaga and California on a neutral court, a win over Saint Louis on the road, and a road win at Ole Miss. This is a team that can and has won away from home this season.

Interestingly, the Flyers are led by Ohio State transfer Jordan Sibert. The Flyers run nine deep with nine guys averaging over 12 minutes per game this season, so staying fresh will not be an issue for this team. Consistency has been the biggest problem, so they can be maddening, but this is a team entering the tournament with nothing to lose. They were one of the last teams added to the field and will get a crack at the biggest name in the state of Ohio.

The A-10 was an underrated conference throughout the season and Dayton is certainly battle-tested enough to make a little bit of a run. Ohio State is definitely vulnerable and Dayton may wind up being a difficult matchup for Syracuse, since the Orange struggle to score and Dayton is a tenacious bunch.

There’s sure to be a few surprises over the first round and maybe this will be the year that midnight never comes for a Cinderella.

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Adam Burke

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Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.

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