2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament

NCAA Tournament 2014: Cinderella Rankings for March Madness Hopefuls at Week 16

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 18, 2014

NCAA Tournament 2014: Cinderella Rankings for March Madness Hopefuls at Week 16

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    Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

    Everyone loves a Cinderella story during March Madness, but how does one go about determining the best candidates to wear the glass slipper?

    Based on common traits among previous Cinderella teams, there were six criteria considered in selecting these 10 teams. Each team must have:

    • At least 6.5 steals per game
    • At least one player averaging 3.5 or more assists per game
    • At least one player averaging 2.0 or more made three-pointers per game and shooting at least 35.0 percent from behind the arc
    • At least three nonconference games against the RPI Top 75
    • Must currently have an overall record of .500 or better
    • Must be from a non-major conference

    On that last bullet, please note that even though a deep run by Fordham or DePaul is about as unlikely as anything that will actually happen in the 2014 NCAA tournament, all teams from the 10 "major" conferences have been excluded from consideration.

    Those conferences are the AAC, ACC, Atlantic-10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Mountain West, Pac-12, SEC and West Coast. Wichita State was also removed from the field of candidates, but other teams from the Missouri Valley were welcome to throw their hat into the ring.

    Let's take a look at a few total long shots before working our way up to the handful of teams that no team wants to draw on Selection Sunday.

     

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics on the following slides are courtesy of ESPN.com or KenPom.com and are current through the start of play on Tuesday, February 18.

10. Gardner-Webb Runnin' Bulldogs

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    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    Storybook Beginning

    Gardner-Webb is 0-4 vs. RPI Top 100 and is currently tied for fourth place in one of the worst conferences in the nation. If nothing else, the Runnin' Bulldogs have the "scrubbing the wicked stepmother's floor" portion of the Cinderella story down to a science.

     

    Major Characters

    Thanks in large part to junior point guard Tyler Strange, Gardner-Webb makes the back end of the list. Strange has averaged 5.5 assists and 1.9 steals per game.

    Despite an 0-for-6 showing in this past weekend's loss to Coastal Carolina, Naji Hibbert has been the team's primary three-point threat. Hibbert has 2.0 made three-pointers per game at a 36.6 percent clip from long range.

     

    Chances of a Fairy-Tale Ending

    We had to include Gardner-Webb because it meets all of the criteria, but the Runnin' Bulldogs have almost zero chance of winning anything other than a play-in game. Virtually any of the 12 teams in the Big South could win the conference tournament—just like Liberty did last season.

    Even if Gardner-Webb was a lock for the tournament, it wouldn't be going anywhere.

9. Vermont Catamounts

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Storybook Beginning

    Since opening the season 4-8 with that memorable near-win against Duke, the Catamounts have won 13 out of 14 to sit in first place in the America East conference. They don't have a single RPI Top 100 win in six chances, but you should never underestimate the power of a team on a hot streak.

     

    Major Characters

    Of Vermont's six leading scorers, five are seniors. So as far as desperation to get it done this year is concerned, there might not be a more qualified team in the country.

    The Catamounts don't really have one primary scorer or three-point shooter, but they do have three players (Sandro Carissimo, Candon Rusin and Kurt Steidl) who have combined to average 4.5 made three-pointers per game while shooting 43.9 percent from behind the arc on the season.

    They also have Brian Voelkel leading the team with 5.9 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game.

     

    Chances of a Fairy-Tale Ending

    I'm not totally convinced that Vermont can pull off an upset—probably because it hasn't done so yet this season—but Ken Pomeroy's formula seems to indicate the Catamounts will at least have a puncher's chance. Based on his pythagorean rating system, Vermont is the 71st best team in the country—one spot behind the same LSU team that just upset Kentucky a few weeks ago.

    We'll see how things shake out in the conference tournaments, but with an RPI north of 100, Vermont would likely be headed for a No. 16 seed. This year marks the 30th NCAA tournament with No. 16 seeds.

    Could this be the team to finally send a No. 1 seed home without a single tournament win?

8. Denver Pioneers

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    Chris Schneider/Associated Press

    Storybook Beginning

    At 12-12, Denver is the only .500 team against Division I competition on this list.

    However, the Pioneers have played pretty well since getting blown out by California in their first game of the season. In their eight other games against the RPI Top 100, they have three wins—including a 90-62 blowout of Belmont—and all five of the losses were by less than 10 points.

    Of course, you can probably do the math to determine that means Denver has also lost six games to teams outside the RPI Top 100. That includes last week's 10-point loss at IUPUI (RPI: 310), so it's not much of a stretch to say that this is a wildly inconsistent team.

     

    Major Characters

    Brett Olson is Denver's primary three-point threat, having made 42.5 percent of his 127 attempts on the season. Olson is also second on the team in assists per game with 3.5 on average, and is the fourth-most accurate free-throw shooter in the country, making 93.4 percent of his freebies.

    Marcus Byrd and Jalen Love are also prolific three-point shooters, and Chris Udofia leads the team in assists (3.9 APG) and blocks (2.5 BPG)—a pretty rare combination, if you think about it.

     

    Chances of a Fairy-Tale Ending

    Denver's biggest hurdle might be actually making the tournament. The Pioneers will almost certainly be the No. 4 seed in the Summit conference tournament after having already suffered four losses in conference play. They would need to get past a very good North Dakota State team just to make it to the conference championship game.

    Should they pull it off, though, this could be an extremely dangerous No. 15 seed. Denver plays at a very slow tempo and creates a good number of turnovers. This team struggles to play interior defense, but against a poor interior offense like that of San Diego State, Denver could bust a lot of brackets.

7. Robert Morris Colonials

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    Stew Milne/Associated Press

    Storybook Beginning

    Robert Morris lost 10 of its first 15 games, going 0-9 against teams that are currently in the RPI Top 200. Most of the losses were absolute blowouts, including a 19-point loss at Delaware, a 26-point loss at Oklahoma State and a 38-point loss at Kentucky.

    Since then, however, the Colonials have evolved into the class of the Northeast Conference, and enter play on Tuesday with a 2.5-game lead over the next-closest team in the standings.

     

    Major Characters

    There's a very real possibility that Karvel Anderson is the deadliest three-point shooter in the country—and the crazy thing is that he didn't make a single field goal in Robert Morris' win over Kentucky in the 2013 NIT.

    Anderson is shooting 47.0 percent from long range and averaging 3.2 made three-pointers per game this season. Creighton's Ethan Wragge, Baylor's Brady Heslip and Eastern Washington's Tyler Harvey are the only other players in the country averaging better than 2.8 made three-pointers per game while making at least 44.0 percent of their attempts.

    In conference play, Anderson is shooting 49.4 percent from three-point range and averaging 20.6 points per game. The Colonials' leading scorer is the primary reason the team has won 11 out of its last 12 games.

     

    Chances of a Fairy-Tale Ending

    Robert Morris is much better than your average minor-conference team, but it will probably be doomed by the curse of the Northeast Conference. Not only has the conference failed to win anything other than a play-in game at any point in conference history, but its representative has received either a No. 15 or No. 16 seed in each of the past 11 NCAA tournaments.

    Anything's possible if Anderson catches fire, but it's highly unlikely that the Colonials would be able to beat the No. 1 or No. 2 seed they would face in the second round.

6. Iona Gaels

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    John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

    Storybook Beginning

    For 25 minutes on Nov. 19, Iona gave Kansas a run for its money. Iona led the Jayhawks late in the first half and kept it close early in the second, but Kansas was ultimately more than the Gaels could handle.

    That's the only game that Iona has played against a team that is likely to make the tournament. Despite losing seven other games this season, it at least gives us hope for a team that has won 11 of its last 12 games.

     

    Major Characters

    Because Iona plays at one of the fastest tempos and has one of the most efficient offenses in the country, the Gaels have several key contributors.

    A.J. English and Sean Armand meet the criteria for both assists and three-point shooting. Iona's starting backcourt has combined for 35.2 points, 8.4 assists and 2.3 steals per game while shooting 41.0 percent from downtown.

    Tre Bowman and Isaiah Williams have also each averaged more than two made three-pointers per game.

    As a team, Iona leads the nation with 10.7 made three-pointers per game and is ninth in the nation in three-point percentage.

     

    Chances of a Fairy-Tale Ending

    Iona's offense is a blast to watch, but its defense and rebounding leaves more than a little to be desired.

    Even if the Gaels get hot from long range, there's no guarantee they'll be able to stop their opponent from scoring. If anything, there's a guarantee that they won't stop them from scoring. In three games against RPI Top 90 opponents (Dayton, Kansas and St. Bonaventure), Iona's opponents averaged 1.28 points per possession and 94.7 points per game.

    A single win might be possible, but the Gaels would have to shoot at least 60 percent from long range to make it happen.

5. Green Bay Phoenix

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    Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

    Storybook Beginning

    Now we're getting serious.

    Those first five teams might briefly intimidate a highly ranked team or even accidentally mess around and win a tournament game, but the these next five teams on the list are serious contenders to reach the Sweet 16 and beyond.

    Green Bay already has a win over Virginia and came within three points of beating Wisconsin as well.

    After the loss to Wisconsin, guard Keifer Sykes told reporters, "We fully expected to win this game, so we weren't happy about it. We played a close game and a really good team, but 100 percent, we expect to win. I told the guys I just have to make more plays down the stretch."

    The Phoenix certainly aren't lacking confidence.

    Even with the recent home loss to Milwaukee, they might be a threat for an at-large bid should they fail to win the Horizon conference tournament.

     

    Major Characters

    Green Bay would be higher on the list, but it technically doesn't meet the three-point shooting criteria.

    However, I'm making an exception for the Phoenix because they have 7'1" Alec Brown who shoots 41.8 percent from long range. He doesn't shoot it enough to make two triples per game, but that simply isn't this team's game. It thrives on winning the battle in the paint on both ends of the court.

    Sykes leads the team in scoring (20.3 PPG) and assists (5.0 APG). Even though he's just 5'11", he isn't afraid to do his damage among the trees. Sykes averages 5.7 made two-point field goals and 7.7 free-throw attempts per game.

     

    Chances of a Fairy-Tale Ending

    If the defense is clicking, Green Bay will be tough to beat. Only St. John's averages more blocks per game than Green Bay, and the team is 20-2 this season when Brown blocks two or more shots.

    A hot three-point shooting team should be able to send the Phoenix packing, but it wouldn't take an exorbitant amount of luck for this team to win two games in the tournament.

4. Southern Miss Golden Eagles

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Storybook Beginning

    Southern Miss was the top-rated Cinderella team back in early January, but it has really turned into a train wreck over its last two games. The Golden Eagles were shellacked by 24 points against UAB on Thursday before losing by 17 points to Middle Tennessee on Saturday.

    It's one thing to lose a game here and there, but to get blown out like that in back-to-back games is quite disconcerting.

     

    Major Characters

    Southern Miss just barely meets the criteria for this list, and it's all because of Neil Watson.

    The masked man is leading the team in assists (3.5 APG), steals (1.6 SPG) and three-point shooting (40.8 percent). Watson is also virtually the only player on the team capable of shooting free throws. He has made 94.0 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe while the rest of the team has shot a combined 65.4 percent.

     

    Chances of a Fairy-Tale Ending

    Prior to this past week, Southern Miss was a quality team that rebounded well and excelled at getting to the free-throw line—the Golden Eagles are third in the nation in free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt, according to KenPom.com (subscription required).

    Short of catching fire from long range, consistently getting to loose balls and drawing fouls is about as close as it gets to a formula for success in the NCAA tournament. If they can rediscover that mojo over the next three weeks, the Golden Eagles could be this year's No. 10 seed that pushes a No. 2 seed to its breaking point.

3. Harvard Crimson

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    Storybook Beginning

    Regardless of how difficult it must be to convince good teams to play Harvard, the fact remains that the Crimson have only played four games this season against the RPI Top 100.

    More importantly than the number of games is that they nearly won all four of them.

    They beat Boston University and Green Bay and had a second-half lead over both Colorado and Connecticut before eventually coming up short.

     

    Major Characters

    Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers each average about four assists per game, and Laurent Rivard is a 40.6 percent three-point shooter.

    Harvard's most crucial character, though, is its team defense.

    The Crimson have held four of their last seven opponents to 50 points or fewer. Granted, these Ivy League teams are nothing compared to what they'll face in the tournament, but in their aforementioned four games against the RPI Top 100, they held their opponents to 0.98 points per possession and 65.8 points per game.

     

    Chances of a Fairy-Tale Ending

    Harvard was one of last year's Cinderella teams, upsetting New Mexico as a No. 14 seed, but the Crimson are back and ready for more.

    They haven't been playing their best basketball as of late—losing to Florida Atlantic and Yale in the past month while also struggling with Brown, Columbia and Princeton—but Tommy Amaker will have his team up to the challenge of knocking off the No. 4 or No. 5 seed that they face in their first tournament game.

2. Belmont Bruins

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Storybook Beginning

    Everyone remembers the shocking road win over North Carolina, but Belmont did more than just that during the first two months of the season. The Bruins nearly won a road game against Richmond and went toe-for-toe with Kentucky in Rupp Arena for about 30 minutes. They also won games against Indiana State and Middle Tennessee.

    There aren't many non-major conference teams who played as many quality nonconference opponents as Belmont did, and that experience could pay dividends in the NCAA tournament.

     

    Major Characters

    If you like three-point shooters, Belmont might be the sleeper team for you. Led by Drew Windler (61-of-130), J.J. Mann (67-of-174) and Craig Bradshaw (48-of-116), the Bruins have made 39.3 percent of their three-point attempts on the year. On Jan. 9, they hit 17 of their 26 shots from long range against SE Missouri State.

    Get hot like that in the tournament, and anything's possible.

    Benefiting from all of those triples, point guard Reece Chamberlain is averaging 5.0 assists per game. Chamberlain has at least four assists in 10 straight games, including a recent win over Austin Peay in which he had 13 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds.

     

    Chances of a Fairy-Tale Ending

    Much like Iona, Belmont has a very potent offense but a frightening inability to play defense or rebound.

    In the past five games, Belmont's Ohio Valley opposition has averaged 14 offensive rebounds per game. Should the Bruins run into a team with an efficient offense and an offensive rebounding prowess—think Iowa, Kansas, Louisville or Syracuse—they'll get blown out of the water.

    Perhaps they'll get lucky, though, and draw a team like Ohio State or Saint Louis that isn't anywhere near the best in the country in scoring or rebounding.

    More so than any other team on this list, Belmont's tournament fate will be in the hands of the selection committee.

1. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Storybook Beginning

    If people are going to keep making statements like "When Michigan State is fully healthy, it will be the best team in the country," then I feel justified in saying that Louisiana Tech will be a force to be reckoned with if Raheem Appleby makes it back to full strength in time for March Madness.

    The junior guard hasn't been a major character as of late, but he was leading the team in scoring before missing the past 10 games with a sprained ankle. Alex Hamilton has stepped up his game in Appleby's absence, but it would certainly be a welcome shot in the arm to get him back soon.

    In other news, the Bulldogs have the third-highest rate of steals per game in the country, averaging 9.58 swipes per contest. In their biggest win of the season, they had 12 steals at Oklahoma in the 102-98 overtime victory.

     

    Major Characters

    You probably won't find him on any "best in the country" lists, but Kenneth Smith is arguably the most valuable point guard in the nation. His numbers are undoubtedly inflated by Louisiana Tech's lightning-fast pace, but Smith is second in the nation in assists per game (7.8 APG) and eighth in steals per game (2.52 SPG).

    Northwestern State's Jalen West is the only other player in the country that ranks in the top 15 of each category. In their head-to-head battle on Dec. 11, Smith finished the game with 12 assists, four steals and three turnovers while West had just four assists, one steal and seven turnovers in the Demons' 22-point loss.

    The Bulldogs also have Kenyon McNeail shooting 39.0 percent from long range. McNeail is heating up as of late with 12 made threes over his last four games.

     

    Chances of a Fairy-Tale Ending

    Based on their RPI (78) and SOS (247), they are unlikely to make the tournament as an at-large team. But KenPom.com rates Louisiana Tech as the 49th-best team in the country—one spot behind Harvard and a few spots ahead of trendy bubble teams like West Virginia, BYU and Providence.

    Should they finish the regular season with five straight wins and a 25-5 record, I like the Bulldogs' chances of making the NCAA tournament, regardless of what they do in the Conference USA tournament.

    Provided they get to the Big Dance, there might not be a better candidate in the country for the double-digit seed that is most likely to make the Elite Eight.

     

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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