4 Potential Cinderella Teams That Could Destroy March Madness Brackets
Part of what makes the NCAA Tournament so special is it gives lower-seeded teams a chance to knock off the big dogs and go on a Cinderella run.
In last year's tourney, four double-digit seeds made it to the Elite 8, with one -- UCLA -- advancing to the Final Four.
Which Cinderella teams could make some noise this season?
Using our numbers -- including nERD, which indicates expected point differential over an average opponent on a neutral floor -- as well as data from KenPom, Torvik, and odds from NCAAB odds, let's take a look.
San Francisco (10 Seed, East Region)
According to most metrics, San Francisco is horribly under-seeded, and they're not the only team that can make that claim in what is a loaded East Region, the region that rates out the toughest by our numbers.
The Dons have a nERD of 12.41, which ranks 21st in the nation. Since 2000, the average nERD for 6 seeds is 12.2. San Fran is a 10 seed. Whew.
We're not the only ones high on the Dons. KenPom rates San Francisco 21st while Torvik slots them 19th. They're a really solid squad, and that alone gives them a shot to make a deep run.
While they go into their first-round matchup with seventh-seeded Murray State as a 1.5-point underdog, the Dons should be the favorite, according to our model. We give San Francisco a 63.3% chance to beat the Racers. Murray State is no pushover, but we're just that high on the Dons, who sit 79th in strength of schedule, per KenPom, compared to Murray State's 235th-ranked schedule.
If San Francisco can advance past Murray State, things will get a lot tougher as they'll likely face a stout Kentucky team, the 2 seed in the East. Our algorithm hands the Dons just a 22.6% chance to upset Kentucky, but as we've seen time and time again, anything can happen in March. And it helps that the Dons jack up a ton of three-pointers, ranking third in three-point attempt rate (45.0%) among teams in the field. If the Dons get hot, look out.
San Francisco is one of the top-25 teams in the country and has performed more like a 6 seed than a 10. If you're looking for a sleeper, San Francisco has to be on your radar.
Virginia Tech (11 Seed, East Region)
The committee really did Kentucky and third-seeded Purdue no favors in the bottom half of the East bracket. Not only are Dons this year's best 10 seed, per nERD, Virginia Tech is this dance's top 11 seed.
The Hokies have a nERD of 11.32. That's right around the average nERD for 8 seeds -- 11.20 -- since 2000.
Virginia Tech isn't going to sneak up on anyone after their run to the ACC Tournament title -- a trek which included double-digit wins over Duke and North Carolina -- but their status as a chic sleeper pick is well deserved.
The Hokies are just 1.0-point underdogs to 5 seed Texas in the first round. That game should be played at a snail's pace as Texas (341st in adjusted tempo) and Virginia Tech (344th) are among the slowest-paced teams in the country. The deliberate pace and fewer possessions increase the odds for variance, which plays into the underdog's hands, although the Hokies are barely a 'dog.
If Virginia Tech can advance past Texas, they'll likely run into the Boilermakers. Purdue has Torvik's number-one offense -- and has for most of the season -- but the Boilers are just 100th in D on KenPom. With the country's 18th-best offense, the Hokies are capable of taking advantage of Purdue's weakness and getting to the Sweet 16.
Michigan (11 Seed, South Region)
The Wolverines are plenty capable of bouncing back and going on a run.
Michigan landed an 11 seed and carries a nERD of 10.70. The average nERD for 11 seeds since 2000 is 9.50. Michigan could've been as high as a 9 seed by our metrics.
Playing in the Big Ten, Michigan was able to pick up five Quad-1 wins, showing they are capable of beating top-notch squads. They're plenty tested as they rank sixth in strength of schedule, according to KenPom. Torvik has the Wolverines ranked 26th overall while our model and KenPom have them 32nd and 33rd, respectively.
Talent isn't an issue, either. Michigan's roster boasts eight top-100 recruits, including two freshmen -- Moussa Diabate and Caleb Houstan -- who were in the top 11 of the 2021 class.
Michigan opens with 6 seed Colorado State. The Wolverines are actually 2.5-point favorites.
In the second round, Michigan would likely see Tennessee. Our model has the Vols as the country's eighth-best team, so Michigan would clearly be an underdog, which is what you'd expect from a 3/11 game.
But if you're looking for a spot where the Wolverines have an edge, Michigan would have an advantage in rest. The Wolverines enter the dance having played once since March 6th. Tennessee, meanwhile, won the SEC Tournament and has played four times since March 5th.
Memphis (9 Seed, West Region)
Much like Michigan, Memphis has more talent than the average team on their seed line. The Tigers, seeded ninth, have eight top-10 recruits, including fifth-ranked Emoni Bates, who reclassified to bump up and join the 2021 class.
Our metrics really like the Tigers.
We have them ranked 24th with a nERD of 11.64. That's roughly the average nERD of a 7 seed. KenPom (28th) and Torvik (20th) are also fans of Memphis. The Tigers are top 50 in both offense (50th) and defense (34th) on KenPom and play at the 34th-fastest adjusted tempo.
Memphis' first-round matchup is against Boise State. The Tigers are 2.5-point favorites despite being the underdog by seed. We give Memphis a 55.7% chance to win.
The big hurdle to any Memphis run comes in the second round, and it goes by the name Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are the country's top team by every rating system out there, and Memphis would be a clear underdog.
However, the Tigers have two wins over an elite foe this year as they swept Houston -- the fifth-best team in the land, per nERD -- by 10 and 14 in the regular season. But Houston smacked them by 18 in the American Tournament title bout.
Memphis would need a lot of things to go right to take down Gonzaga, but the Tigers have a super talented roster and have it in them to beat top-class foes if they're clicking.