Winning the office bracket pool is great, but for many people, an even bigger March Madness thrill comes from identifying the upsets and dark horses in the tournament field. Being the only person around to pick the 12-seed’s win over the No. 5 gives you bragging rights, as well as a tidy profit. Here’s how to find those Cinderella teams.
With 68 candidates, how do you find the ones likely to be Cinderella in March? Here’s what the authors of past upsets often had in common.
Teams in the NCAA Tournament don’t know each other well and don’t have much time to scout, which is the polar opposite of what teams have gone through over the last two-plus months of conference play. That means that the value of having a “coach on the floor” is intensified. A skilled, experienced guard can control the pace of the game, slowing down an opponent that likes to run or speeding up a methodical foe.
The most famous upset in NCAA history was No. 16 seed UMBC’s takedown of top-seeded Virginia in 2018. UMBC featured K.J. Maura, who was third-team All-Conference and the America East Defensive Player of the year, and Jairus Lyles, a first-team All-Conference player, and 20 ppg scorer.
Both members of the duo were senior guards. They were matched against Virginia’s Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy who, while both future NBA players, were sophomores. Jerome was in his first year as a starter.
One Go-to Scorer
Teams that go on a run of upsets in the tournament often ride on the back of a one-star player. Remember when No. 7 seed South Carolina upset No. 2 Duke and went to the Final Four in 2017? That run was fueled by a red hot stretch of play by their best player—Sindarius Thornwell.
Davidson made a Final Four run in 2008, led by a guy named Steph Curry. Last year, after barely making the tournament field, UCLA went to the Final Four when Johnny Juzang got hot. Team play and balanced scoring are great but in a one-and-done tournament, you need a guy the team can always turn to. Look for a future pro ready to break out.
Shooting Out the Lights
Remember Princeton? The Ivy League darlings seemed to flirt with a monumental upset every year, giving top-seeded Georgetown and UNLV fits. Princeton never seemed to finish off those upsets, however, simply capturing everyone’s attention before falling in the end to bigger, more talented squads.
That’s because the Tigers simply didn’t hit enough shots. Against Georgetown—a one-point loss—Princeton made less than half their shots and was 5-of-16 from three.
In order to spring the upset—or upsets—in the tournament, a team needs to be strong from the outside. Nothing turns a game faster than a hot stretch from three, and nothing keeps a better-seeded team from reestablishing dominance like a run-busting three-pointer for the underdog.
Don’t be like Princeton and end up moaning over what might have been. Make sure your upset picks have the potential to knock down threes at a high rate.
Experience in the Program and on the Sideline
Look at some of the teams that have made Cinderella runs in the tournament in the last 10 years. No. 8 seed Kentucky in 2014, No. 7 Michigan State in 2015, No. 10 Syracuse in 2016, No. 11 UCLA last year. It’s endearing to think of the little school no one has heard of as the March Cinderella, but just as often, the glass slipper is worn by a blue blood team that has had a down year.
March basketball is a different animal. It’s a string of strange arenas, odd tip times, unfamiliar opponents, and travel nightmares. Teams that have been through it before having a distinct advantage, as do coaches who have won in March before. Before putting money on an unheralded hotshot, take a look at the big names with bad seeds.