2023 NCAA Tournament Cinderella Guide (March Madness)

Mar 14, 2023 - 4:08 PM

One of the greatest excitements when filling out your bracket: What team will be that special Cinderella? While it doesn’t happen all too often, teams that go on Cinderella runs are impossible to forget, and every year offers a new opportunity for one to be born. This tournament has some of the best double-digit seeds, and some of the worst lower-digit seeds, so don’t be surprised to see a lot of close games.

The term “Cinderella” is thrown around and doesn’t have a solidified meaning. In this case, I am simply referring to any team seeded 13 or lower as a Cinderella candidate. There are some pretty incredible 12 seeds in this tournament, but I will not be including those in this article. Here’s a look at the 16 lowest-seeded teams in the tournament, along with their chances of a first-round upset (out of five 💥).

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No. 13 Seeds

Furman Paladins (27-7 SU; 18-13 ATS; 17-14 O/U)

A heartbreaking buzzer-beater loss kept Furman out of last year’s NCAA Tournament, but the Paladins left no doubt this time around with an 88-79 win over Chattanooga in the Southern Conference championship game to secure their automatic bid. Furman runs its top-40 offense through Jalen Slawson and Mike Bothwell. Slawson has an effective deep shot and the size to guard anyone on the court with his 6-foot-7 frame. Bothwell is effective at getting to the rim and takes care of the ball at a high clip.

The Paladins depend heavily on shooting from deep, with 35% of their points coming from beyond the arc, the 62nd-highest mark in the nation. A physical team could give Furman problems, and the Paladins’ 184th-ranked defense will not match up well with high-powered offenses. But Furman knows how to win, and there is a lot of experience on this team. Bob Richey coaches a team that could spring a first-round upset simply by virtue of a strong offense capable of getting hot.

They match up quite well with Virginia, considering Virginia’s preference for allowing perimeter looks, and with the absence of Ben Vander Plas, Furman should be able to find plenty of mid-range looks. This will be a game that comes down to the final seconds; the Paladins are capable of pulling off the upset.

Upset Potential💥💥💥💥💥

Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (36-7 SU; 16-13-1 ATS; 17-12-1 O/U)

The Ragin’ Cajuns made their way into the NCAA Tournament by winning the Sun Belt tourney. After dropping three straight games at the end of December, Louisiana-Lafayette has lost only three games in 2023, all on the road. Bob Marlin leads an effective offense that shoots well from beyond the arc but can take it inside as well with top-100 2pt% shooting. Jordan Brown is a 6-foot-11 center who is an incredible rim protector and rebounder, with the ability to kick it out to shooters Greg Williams and Kentrell Garnett.

Louisiana-Lafayette’s defense isn’t the best, particularly when it comes to defending the perimeter, but the Ragin’ Cajuns don’t have any glaring weaknesses. Bob Marlin has coached in the NCAA Tournament before, and with Louisiana-Lafayette’s ability to rebound and get to the hoop, this will be a difficult team to stop. Facing an interior-based defense wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the Cajuns, as leaning on their high-percentage perimeter shooting is something they’ve done in the past.

Tennessee isn’t the best draw. Despite missing Zakai Zeigler, Tennessee still has one of the best defenses in the nation and won’t allow much down low. Louisiana-Lafayette’s subpar defense is a good matchup for Tennessee, which is still trying to find itself offensively.

Upset Potential💥💥

Kent State Golden Flashes (28-6 SU; 20-11-1 ATS; 12-20 O/U)

The Golden Flashes enter the tournament having won six straight games and running through a difficult MAC tournament. Sincere Carry is a talented guard and sharpshooter Jalen Sullinger adds to Kent State’s 110th-ranked offense. But this is a defense-first squad. Ranking 38th in adjusted defense, Kent State forces turnovers at a high rate and gives up almost nothing inside.

The Golden Flashes’ physical play leads to foul trouble sometimes, and Kent State doesn’t have a lot of depth. The Golden Flashes have stuck with some top opponents this year, losing by five at Houston, falling to Charleston in a one-possession game, and losing by single digits at Gonzaga. This is a tough team that will be a tough out. Rob Senderoff has led Kent State to the tournament once before, so this isn’t anything new for this experienced squad.

What I love about their matchup against Indiana is how much the Hoosiers depend on interior scoring, and how much Kent State eliminates inside looks. The Golden Flashes have seen some fantastic bigs, like Drew Timme; they should be able to whip up a game plan to handle the Hoosiers. I love picking the Golden Flashes here to not only beat Indiana but potentially make a Sweet 16 game as well.

Upset Potential💥💥 💥 💥

Iona Gaels (27-7 SU; 20-14 ATS; 15-19 O/U)

With Rick Pitino as head coach, is it really a surprise that Iona finds itself back in the NCAA Tournament? The Gaels have been impressive under Pitino, ranking 75th in KenPom. The Gaels’ perimeter defense is elite, with opponents scoring fewer than 27% of their points from beyond the arc, shooting at a sub-30% clip. The Gaels force turnovers at a high rate, but their rebounding is subpar, opening the door for opponents’ second-chance looks.

Offensively, the Gaels dominate on the interior, rebounding at a high rate while taking care of the ball. Iona doesn’t have to be perfect against its opponents to stick with them. The Gaels love to get out in transition, and they score effectively off steals. They play lockdown defense, forcing opponents deep into the shot clock and giving them tough looks. If things go the Gaels’ way, Iona is a capable team of pulling off a first-round upset.

UConn is a team that allows a good amount of mid-range looks, so Iona should not have too much trouble scoring. Where the Gaels may truly struggle, however, is on the glass. They will have to eliminate the offensive boards for Connecticut if Pitino and Co. hope to pull this one off.

Upset Potential💥 💥

No. 14 Seeds

UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (27-7 SU; ATS 20-10-2; O/U 20-12) 

The Gauchos out of the Big West find themselves in another tournament led by their high-powered offense. Ajay Mitchell is a leading guard with a top-100 assist rate in the nation who can get to the rim at a high clip. Miles Norris and Calvin Wishart are both effective sharpshooters who can catch fire when needed. Santa Barabara has height and plays slow, getting inside the paint for most of their scoring. What is questionable about the Gauchos is how their defense will play when lined up against better Division I opponents. Ranking 162nd in adjusted defensive efficiency, their interior defense is subpar at best. They truly lack depth, ranking 343rd in bench minutes. Any up-tempo, dribble-drive team can cause major issues for Santa Barbara, and it remains to be seen whether their offense is good enough to keep up with their opponent.

Baylor is truly a solid matchup, considering Baylor’s 104th-ranked defense and preference for perimeter looks. The frontcourt of Baylor can very well be tough to keep up with, but in a potentially high-scoring affair, the Gauchos could surprise here.

Upset Potential💥💥💥

Montana State Cougars (25-9 SU; 19-11-2 ATS; 14-18 O/U) 

The metrics weren’t exactly high on the Bobcats this year due to a high number of close wins, but Montana State seemed like the best team in the Big Sky Conference, finishing the regular season with a road victory over Eastern Washington and then taking down the Big Sky Conference tournament. This team is led by RaeQuan Battle, an effective guard who has Division I experience after transferring from Washington.

A defensive-based team, Montana State is solid on the interior, with Jubrile Belo being one of the better rim defenders out there. The Bobcats will get to the rim and rank in the top 10 in free-throw rate. While they don’t exactly shoot well from beyond the arc, point guard Darius Brown has the ability to get hot, shooting at a 40% clip from deep this season. Facing a team that is solid on the interior and avoids foul trouble will spell trouble for Danny Sprinkle and Co. But any physical team Montana State faces could fall into their trap, and the Bobcats could keep things close with their top-100 defense.

Kansas State is indeed a team that fouls a lot, sending teams to the charity stripe at nearly the 60th-highest clip in the nation. But Kansas State has a similar play style. Take the over in this game, and it will be close; it’s just a matter of if Montana State can pull it off late.

Upset Potential💥💥💥

Kennesaw State Owls (26-8 SU, 20-10-1 ATS, 17-12-2 O/U)

Who? Hoo. The Kennesaw State Owls will represent the ASUN conference in the NCAA tourney after winning 16 of their final 18 games, capped by an upset of Liberty in the ASUN title game.

The Owls are led by Terrell Burden, a facilitating guard, and Chris Youngblood, a sharpshooting forward who can drive and finish at the basket as well. This is a physical team that can also light it up from deep. There is a ton of experience on this team, which makes it easier to understand how the Owls finished the season so well. Any offensive-based team the Owls face may be surprised by their physicality, but Kennesaw State will have to shoot well from deep if it hopes to advance past the first round.

I simply see Xavier’s offense as too much for the Owls with their 116th-ranked adjusted defense. They will have to keep up with the Musketeers’ fast pace, and I don’t exactly trust in their ability to do that.

Upset Potential💥💥

Grand Canyon Antelopes (24-11 SU, 15-18 ATS, 25-8 O/U)

The Antelopes upset Sam Houston State and Southern Utah to claim their automatic bid and a shot at another upset in the Big Dance. Grand Canyon is an offensive-based team that shoots the lights out from the perimeter, ranking 23rd in the nation at 3-point shooting. Chance McMillian and Noah Baumann both shoot above 40% from deep and are a big reason why Grand Canyon finds itself in this position.

The problem is that going up against any perimeter-based defensive team will make it tough for Grand Canyon to adjust, as only 45% of their points come from inside the arc, ranking 326th in the nation. However, Grand Canyon does have a reputable defense that forces opponents to beat them on the dribble drive. Grand Canyon doesn’t force many turnovers, so opponents are able to get a lot of good looks. Grand Canyon is somewhat one-dimensional, but what they do, they do well. It’s just a matter of whether the Lopes’ opponents can stop them.

Gonzaga’s offense is perfect for Grand Canyon’s over trend, but not perfect for their upset hopes. The Bulldogs rank first in the momentum metric right now per Haslametrics, so I would truly be surprised by an upset here.

Upset Potential💥

No. 15 Seeds

Princeton Tigers (21-8 SU, 15-12 ATS, 16-11 O/U)

The Ivy League representative is often a difficult out in the tournament, and Princeton is no doubt planning on wreaking havoc with its tenacious all-around play. The Tigers rank 108th in adjusted offensive efficiency with some solid interior play, scoring at a 54% clip inside the arc. The Tigers take care of the ball but don’t rebound at a high rate, so they will have to be hot, as they won’t get many second-chance opportunities. Defensively, however, Princeton takes away opponents’ second-chance looks with an effective perimeter defense. Tosan Evbuomwan and Keeshawn Kellman made up one of the best frontcourts in the Ivy League, and their ability to kick to shooters like Matt Allocco and Caden Pierce (the Ivy League’s Freshman of the Year) makes the Princeton offense difficult to contain. On paper, there is nothing flashy about Princeton, but the Tigers’ grit with Mitch Henderson at the helm will make them a tough out.

Arizona doesn’t line up all too well with the way Princeton runs their offense, as the Wildcats allow a majority of opponents’ looks to come from beyond the arc. Princeton will have to be super hot to upset the Wildcats, but we’ve seen crazier things.

Upset Potential💥💥

Vermont Catamounts (23-10 SU, 20-12-1 ATS, 19-14 O/U)

The Catamounts are kings of the American East again, and head coach John Becker enters his fifth NCAA Tournament with Vermont. The Catamounts are a veteran team that ranks in the top 100 in Division I experience. Vermont depends on its offense to get things done, taking care of the ball and posting a top-25 interior shooting percentage. The Catamounts’ penchant for taking care of the ball and preference for the perimeter look gives them a dangerous offense. The backcourt combination of Dylan Penn and Aaron Deloney (the latter being a 41% shooter from beyond the arc) combined with the frontcourt duo of Robin Duncan and Matt Veretto makes Vermont a difficult team for opposing defenses to stop.

The Catamounts are riding a 15-game winning streak entering the tournament. Vermont’s weakness is its sub-150th-ranked defense. Despite their strong defensive rebounding rate, Vermont lost seven of its first nine games to start the season, mostly against opponents who ranked higher than anyone they saw in the American East. We have yet to see Vermont take down a top-100 KenPom team, but March is the time for madness.

Right now on Evan Miya, Vermont is a 7-point underdog to Marquette. That is alarmingly close for Shaka Smart and Co. Marquette’s subpar 3-point defense opens the door for the Catamounts to keep up with the Golden Eagles’ high-powered offense, and while I don’t see this upset as too likely, the computers like the matchup more than the books do.

Upset Potential💥💥

Colgate Raiders (26-8 SU, 17-16 ATS, 20-13 O/U)

Colgate does one thing very well: shoot from deep. Ranking first in the nation with a near-41% success rate on 3-pointers, this offense can light it up. Colgate showed how dangerous it could be when it beat Syracuse 80-68 earlier this season. Oliver Lynch-Daniels has a silky-smooth shot and has made 50.3% of his 3-pointers this season to lead the nation. The Raiders ran their way through the Patriot League with only a single loss on the road by 1 point. Each of their Patriot League Tournament games resulted in double-digit wins — they’re playing their best basketball at the right time.

Even if Colgate isn’t hot from deep, it scores at a top-10 rate from inside the arc and takes care of the ball incredibly well. Colgate’s glaring weakness is its defense, which ranks outside the top 200. But the Raiders rebound well and are great at avoiding fouls.

The athleticism of Texas might simply be too much for Colgate, however, as the Longhorns are red hot coming off a Big 12 victory. Texas’ interior scoring does not bode well for Colgate and I have to imagine they will force more turnovers than what Colgate is used to. This will be quite the uphill battle for the Raiders.

Upset Potential💥 💥

UNC Asheville (27-7 SU, 18-13-1 ATS, 16-16 O/U)

The winners of the Big South Tournament enter the Big Dance having won nine straight games and 18 of their last 19. UNC Asheville is led by Drew Pember, the Big South Player of the Year and the Defensive Player of the Year, who paced the team in points and rebounds per game. He is an elite athlete with true next-level potential, as he can shoot from beyond the arc to go along with his facilitating abilities. Pember will be a problem for any opponent. Taijon Jones is one of the best sharpshooters in the nation at 45%, and Asheville can get to the hoop as well, with a top-15 free-throw rate.

The Bulldogs’ depth may be an issue against a fast-paced or physical team, however, as they rank outside the top 270 in bench minutes. But the Bulldogs are well-coached, with an above-average defense that won’t allow much from beyond the arc. At the least, they should put up a fight against whatever team they face.

Lucky for the Bulldogs, UCLA is not a fast-paced team. Unlucky for the Bulldogs, the Bruins have the top-ranked adjusted defense in the nation. Despite missing Jaylin Clark, UCLA is still a filthy team to face on a short turnaround. While I do love Asheville against the spread, and I do see Drew Pember with some serious NBA potential, I imagine it will be incredibly tough for them to pull off the upset.

Upset Potential💥

No. 16 Seeds

I’m not going to go team-by-team covering the 16 seeds and their upset potential because I see the chances of that happening as infinitesimal. It has happened only once in the history of the tournament and a slow-paced team in Virginia was the perfect team to fall victim to the 16.

If you told me a 16 seed won in this tournament, my guess would be Howard. They have an above-average pace with a good amount of depth, rank 31st in shooting from beyond the arc, and are playing their best basketball right now, ranking second in the momentum metric. Kansas is banged up and already lacks depth. If fatigue sets in during the second half, it may open the door for Howard to go on a run.

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