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Monday, February 24, 2020

Five teams that could become Cinderella stories in March Madness

The four days between Selection Sunday and the round of 64 games of the NCAA Tournament is one of the most fun periods for sports fans. Brackets are distributed, analyzed and agonized over. Everyone has a common goal: find the Cinderella team.

There are few joys as sweet as predicting an upset, especially when the team you stood up for makes a run past the first weekend.

Finding the teams capable of an upset is certainly easier once the field is set, yet there is some real value to checking in on possible Cinderellas earlier on in the schedule. Let’s take a look at teams with a chance to make waves in March, limiting our search to mid-major teams currently rated no higher than a 11 seed in ESPN’s most recent bracket projection.

5. Duquesne

Before this season, the Dukes would not have figured into a list like this one. The program has been in a nearly permanent downturn, winning more than 20 games in a season just twice in the last 40 years. It came as a surprise then when the Dukes started 10-0, with just three teams left unbeaten when they suffered their first loss on December 22. Duquesne’s early schedule helped. The Dukes played no true road games and didn’t face a KenPom top-100 team in their first 10 games.

Even after losing two games, Duquesne looks like a team to fear in the Atlantic 10. Wins over Davidson and Saint Louis has the Dukes tied atop the conference standings. Defense has been a strong point, as Duquesne leads the nation in block rate. Junior big man Michael Hughes swats 5.2 shots per 40 minutes, and Duquesne only allows a conference-low 60.0 points per game in A-10 play.

The case against Duquesne comes from their competition atop the conference standings. Dayton is a true top-10 team and Final Four contender, meaning Duquesne likely needs to beat the Flyers (or pick up crucial quality wins over Richmond or VCU) or win the A-10 Tournament to reach the Big Dance.

4. Stephen F. Austin

While Duquesne might have a prayer at an at-large bid, Stephen F. Austin does not. The Lumberjacks are the only KenPom top-150 team in the Southland and only played three power conference teams in their nonconference schedule. The Lumberjacks’ play against top competition was positive, though. Stephen F. Austin played Rutgers and Alabama tough, and most memorably, topped Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium at the buzzer in overtime.

Stephen F. Austin has a history of NCAA Tournament success, appearing in four of the last six tourneys. The Lumberjacks won first-round games in 2014 and 2016, with a last second tip-in from Notre Dame stealing a spot in the Sweet Sixteen away from SFA.

All of those Lumberjack teams shared one common trait: fierce pressure defense. The Jacks have led the nation in forcing turnovers in three of the last five seasons and haven’t ranked outside of the top 30 in that stat since 2013. Division I teams are averaging about 13 turnovers per game this year. Just one of Stephen F. Austin’s opponents was able to stay south of 15 turnovers, while 12 teams have coughed it up more than 20 times against the Jacks. In the pressure of the Big Dance, that makes for a terrifying opponent.

3. Akron

The only thing as scary as meeting a high-octane defense in the NCAA Tournament? Facing a team that can score from all over the court.

The Zips shoot the 9th-best 3-point percentage in Division I and lead the Mid-American Conference in points and 3-pointers made. Junior guard Loren Cristian Jackson is sinking 45 percent from long range against DI opponents and scoring 17.5 points per game. Three other Zips hoist more than four threes per game and make better than 36 percent from outside the arc. Akron can space and attack a defense as well as any team in college basketball.

The Zips gave Louisville and West Virginia tough tests on the road, but Akron had two of its worst shooting performances in those games. If they catch fire in March, they can upend their portion of the bracket.

2. Yale

You’d be hard-pressed to find a low-major team have as good a month as Yale had in December. The Bulldogs started by beating a strong Vermont team that should be in the NCAA Tournament. Yale then won road games at Albany, Lehigh, and UMass. The road success continued against tougher competition, with a win at Clemson. The Bulldogs held the Tigers to just 45 points in that game. Finally, Yale lost by just 3 points at North Carolina, missing a shot that would have sent the game to overtime at the buzzer. The Tar Heels have been ravaged by injury and are struggling, yet it’s still notable for an Ivy League team to compete for 40 minutes in the Dean Dome.

The Bulldogs’ three best players (Paul Atkinson, Azar Swain, and Jordan Bruner) would fit right in on any power conference roster. If they win the Ivy League and advance to the NCAA Tournament, they’ll be ready to go toe-to-toe with any opponent.

1. Northern Iowa

The Missouri Valley Conference has a history of sending dangerous teams into the Big Dance, and this year’s Northern Iowa club would be no exception. The Panthers have ridden their offensive efficiency to some huge wins this season, beating South Carolina and Colorado. A questionable call in the final moments of a close game kept the Panthers from adding a win over highly ranked West Virginia as well.

Northern Iowa is led by talented sophomore AJ Green (no relation to the star NFL wide receiver). He’s doing everything for the Panthers, averaging 20 points, 3 assists, and 3 rebounds. Green has no fear of taking big shots in big moments, giving him the look of the type of player who becomes a household name in March.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.



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