There is no one tried and trusted formula for predicting NCAA tournament upsets. No single characteristic that allows us to identify Cinderellas. March Madness, after all, is about unpredictability. That’s why we love it.
That, however, doesn’t mean we can’t try to pick out the mid-major schools who’ll make some noise in 2018.
This year’s bracket seems light on obvious upset picks, with many strong candidates drawing sturdy major-conference foes in the first round. But we’ve identified five teams seeded 11th or worse that could make some noise – on Thursday and Friday, but also perhaps beyond.
5 potential Cinderella teams
5 potential Cinderella teams
5. Penn | Seed: 16 | Matchup: Kansas
You read that right: The University of Pennsylvania, pride of the Ivy League. Of this year’s No. 16 seeds, Penn is the best by a wide, wide margin. Penn’s KenPom ranking (127) is the highest of any 16-seed over the last six years.
The Quakers have incredible balance: 12 players have scored at least 10 points in a game this year, and eight have scored 20 or more in a single contest. There may not be a deeper offensive team (relatively speaking) in the nation. Leading scorer Ryan Betley is a good outside shooter, and fellow guard Darnell Foreman exploded for 19 points in the first half of Penn’s Ivy League final win over Harvard. The Quakers are coached by Steve Donahue, who led No. 12 seed Cornell to the Sweet 16 in 2010.
I’m not telling you to pick Penn. I’m not telling you I believe in Penn. But if there’s a team to do it, it’s Penn. It has to happen at some point, right? — Zach Pereles
(Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images)
4. New Mexico State | Seed: 12 | Matchup: Clemson
The Aggies defend at a very high level: KenPom rates them the 14th-most efficient defense in the nation. Opponents only shoot 30.8 percent from outside the arc and 45.0 percent from inside it. Jemerrio Jones might be the nation’s best rebounder, and on offense, Chris Jans’ squad turns to Zach Lofton, who averaged 24.3 points per game in the WAC tournament en route to an automatic bid.
The tough-nosed Aggies also got a reasonable draw. Clemson did a remarkable job of holding things together after losing second-leading scorer Donte Grantham to an ACL tear, but went just 2-6 against tournament teams following the injury. The Tigers haven’t made it out of the first round since 1997. A potential matchup with Auburn – which lost defensive anchor Anfernee McLemore to a leg injury last month – could await in the Round of 32. — Zach Pereles
(Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)
3. Davidson | Seed: 12 | Matchup: Kentucky
Over Kentucky? Is this a joke?!? Nope. Anything but a joke. Because Kentucky’s aren’t the only Wildcats on fire. Davidson’s only loss over the past month was in triple overtime at St. Bonaventure, and that’s a loss it avenged at the A-10 tournament. It has also beaten Rhode Island twice, and is a much different team now than it was in December.
Oh, and both Peyton Aldridge and Kellan Grady are studs. Grady, a freshman, is arguably a more polished scorer than any of Kentucky’s McDonald’s All-Americans. Aldridge, a senior, almost certainly is – at least at the college level.
There is every chance John Calipari’s team simply has too much length and athleticism for Bob McKillop’s. It’s admittedly tough to pick against Kentucky after what it did at the SEC tournament. But if Davidson had gotten another 5-seed – looking at you, Clemson and Ohio State – it would be by far the best bet for an upset. It isn’t just going to back down because it drew the most talented of the four. — Henry Bushnell
In the first year the NCAA tournament expanded to 68 teams, Virginia Commonwealth went from First Four to first-ever Final Four. St. Bonaventure, also coming out of the Atlantic 10, is a strong contender to do something similar.
Mark Schmidt’s squad checks all the boxes that you could want in a team made for March. Want guard play? Jaylen Adams took home co-Atlantic 10 player of the year honors after averaging 21.8 points per game in conference. Backcourt mate Matt Mobley wasn’t far behind at 18.7. They’re both seniors, and both shoot over 85 percent from the line and over 38 percent from deep. Courtney Stockard is a very solid third option.
The Bonnies shoot 38.1 percent from behind the arc as a team – 19th in the nation – while holding opponents to 32.1 percent – 23rd in the nation. They rarely turn it over, and have plenty of big-game experience: Non-conference play brought victories at Syracuse and Buffalo, and a neutral-court win over Maryland. — Zach Pereles
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
1. Loyola-Chicago | Seed: 11 | Matchup: Miami
The Ramblers are full of great stories. Their coach, Porter Moser, likes to say he’s just “a Catholic kid from Chicago.” And in many ways he is, which is one reason he took the job, then endured a 32-61 start to his tenure. Senior small-ball four Donte Ingram is the Chicago kid who watched local peers leave for the Dukes of the hoops world, but decided to stay home himself. The starting backcourt, meanwhile, grew up on the same Kansas street, won a state title together, then reunited in Rogers Park. These are the protagonists on Loyola’s first journey to the tourney in 33 years.
Great stories, of course, don’t win basketball games. Teams do. But there’s a lot to like about Loyola in that sense as well. It might not be favored against any potential opponent, including a strong Miami team on Thursday. It won’t, however, be outclassed by any either. It could be overpowered, with freshman Cameron Krutwig the only rotation player above 6-foot-6. But it has four 38-percent-or-better 3-point shooters around Krutwig at all times, and plays consistently sound defense. If there’s a double-digit-seeded mid-major in the Elite Eight, it’s going to be the Ramblers. — Henry Bushnell
(Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)