Need a team? 5 Cinderellas you might claim for the NCAA Tournament
By Joe Cox
If you’re a fan of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, LSU, Tennessee or Missouri, it might be the most wonderful time of the year. But if not … well, don’t give up hope. Just because good old State U didn’t make the NCAA field, it’s not time to throw in the towel. You want to share that misery. You want all the powerhouses of the Big Dance to feel your pain? Then here are 5 potential bandwagons you might want to jump on. All double-digit seeds, all capable of some big mojo in March. Here are 5 Cinderellas in the making:
1. UC Santa Barbara
Why this team? Why not this team?
Start out with a light matchup. Creighton is the 5-seed that is supposed to be scary. How scary were they when Georgetown thumped them by 25 to win the Big East? Then add the best-player-in-the-game factor. UCSB guard JaQuori McLaughlin, who was an Oregon State commit long ago and far away, is the Gauchos’ best hope. He’s a 16-point per game scorer who can be deadly from 3 (40%), or tough on the pick-and-roll. Then add the best-big-guy factor, because Creighton doesn’t have a post guy over 6-7 who actually plays … and UCSB has traditional post-up player Amadou Sow (6-9) and athletic big Miles Norris (6-10).
Meanwhile if UCSB wins, they’d get either 13 seed Ohio or a COVID-damaged Virginia squad for a spot in the Sweet 16. Embrace the Gauchos. It’s their time.
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2. Abilene Christian
Texas is talented but inconsistent. No. 14 seed Abilene Christian is a group of ballhawks. The Wildcats lead the nation in turnover margin. ACU has an outstanding defensive backcourt with 5-7 standout Damien Daniels and fellow guard Reggie Miller (who you have to like for a late-game 3 … in Indiana … just based on his name). Each guy has over 50 steals this season. Meanwhile, forward Joe Pleasant is 12-for-16 from 3-point range in the last six games. And 7-foot center Kolton Kohl is the team’s leading scorer.
Should the Wildcats pull the big upset, they’d get an iffy BYU squad that really hasn’t played much better competition than ACU … or a team that’ll be playing its third game in five days, should the play-in winner pull the upset. This pick is a bit of a reach, but if you’re looking for the UMBC of this year’s bracket, look no further.
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What kind of a world is it when Patrick Ewing and Georgetown are underdogs? Well, the Hoyas certainly aren’t the intimidating force that they were when their old coach was an All-American center. But they are hot, and they have Jahvon Blair, who is one of those do-everything guards who get things done in March (15.8 points per game, 35% from trey, team leader in assists). They also have a bevy of 3-point options. As a team, the Hoyas shot almost 37% from 3.
Meanwhile, Colorado had a fine season, but all 3 of its conference tournament games were one-score outcomes. While Georgetown’s program has struggled lately, bear in mind that Colorado last won an NCAA Tournament game in 2012 … and last won more than one in 1955. The Buffs are a solid team but lack the sort of extra gear to jump on Georgetown in a hurry. The Hoyas will hang around and may well pull it out late.
If they do, Florida State would be a potentially tall order in the second round, but the Seminoles can be sloppy and had poor 3-point defense (opponents knocked down 40% of treys). Could Ewing lead a Georgetown renaissance? Conditions could be perfect.
4. North Texas
The Mean Green aren’t exactly a juggernaut. They barely broke 60 in an overtime conference title win over Western Kentucky, but notice that they did indeed win. North Texas is a bunch of grinders. They’re long and physical and they were 41st nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings.
Meanwhile, Purdue is talented and soft and prone to folding like a cheap taco in March. The Boilermakers are one of those teams that just can’t be trusted in the Big Dance. And while they have some talented size, including standout Trevion Williams, North Texas just beat WKU big man Charles Bassey in their conference tournament finals. This North Texas team was up 8 at halftime against West Virginia early this season. And guard Javion Hamlet’s last 7 scoring games went like this: 28, 16, 19, 21, 15, 18 and 20.
The Mean Green are legitimate, and would potentially face Villanova in the second round (should the Wildcats stave off Winthrop). Not unlike Purdue, Nova has legitimate talent, but there’s nothing scary about this bunch. North Texas could well crash the Sweet 16 party.
Yeah, Jim Boeheim’s team feels a little odd as a Little Engine that Could. But they are a No. 11 seed, and worse seeds have treated them well in the past. Syracuse is kind of the anti-Purdue. Get them in and watch opponents fall. Conference teams eventually solve the riddle, but their zone defense is difficult to prepare for. As a 10-seed, the Cuse went to the 2016 Final Four and they made the Sweet 16 back in 2018 as a No. 11 seed. The x-factor might be Buddy Boeheim. March Madness tends to love kids playing for their dads, and the gritty Syracuse guard could get hot from trey. He averages over 17 points per game.
Speaking of which, another significant issues is that Syracuse is tough from 3 (34% as a team, with three legitimate shooters), and opponents shoot a ton of 3s against No. 6 seed San Diego State. The Aztecs haven’t won a Tournament game since 2015, and have only won six NCAA games ever. Roll with the Orange, and see if they can sneak past West Virginia if they stay hot from long range.
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Joe Cox covers college basketball for Saturday Down South.