5 Cinderella Teams Poised to Shake Up the NCAA Tournament 

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If last season’s NCAA Tournament taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. The 2023 Final Four was a showcase of underdog ingenuity and unexpected triumphs, featuring a lineup that read more like a misprint than a predictably planned outcome: a four seed, two five seeds, and a nine seed defied the odds while not a single one seed came close to the Elite Eight. More strikingly, a 15 seed danced its way into the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive year, and a 16 seed beat a No. 1 for only the second time in history, underlining the unpredictable nature of college basketball. 

With the recent conclusion of conference tournaments, where bid thieves and unheralded teams shook the very foundations of the brackets, this year’s tournament is shaping up to be as chaotic, if not more. Allow us to introduce the five Cinderella teams that are well-prepared to create havoc and potentially upend the NCAA Tournament once again. 

New Mexico (11 Seed, West Region) 

The New Mexico Lobos, despite a commendable season finishing with a 26-11 record, found themselves pegged as an 11 seed in the West Region, sparking debates across the college basketball community. 

Opening their tournament stint as 1.5-point favorites against the 6-seed Clemson Tigers, the Lobos’ placement as a lower seed belies their impressive run to the Mountain West Tournament title and a resilient performance throughout the season. Lacking in notable non-conference victories, they nonetheless secured a 22nd place in the NET, bolstered by a solid 7-7 record in the first two quadrants. 

With a roster deep in talent, including Jaelen House, Donovan Dent, and JT Toppin—who each earned spots on All-Mountain West teams—the Lobos showcase a well-rounded game. Their strengths lie in their adjusted offense and defense rankings at 41st and 23rd, respectively, a frenetic pace that ranked them 14th in fastbreak points per game, and impressive stats in turnover rate, offensive rebound rate, and forced turnover rate. 

Considering their potential face-off with the 3-seed Baylor Bears in the subsequent round, New Mexico’s combination of speed, discipline, and talent makes them a team poised for a deep tournament run, embodying the Cinderella story many eagerly anticipate with each NCAA Tournament. 

Michigan State (9 Seed, West Region) 

The Michigan State Spartans, finding themselves with a nine seed in the West after finalizing the season at 19-14, are stirring the waters of the NCAA Tournament from the get-go. Their opening round against the Mississippi State Bulldogs, where they’re predicted to have a slight edge as 1.5-point favorites, sets the stage for what could be one of the more intriguing narratives of this year’s event. 

Despite kicking off the season with high hopes, reflected in their No. 4 ranking in the Week 1 AP Poll, the Spartans’ later positioning as a nine-seed fell short of preseason projections. The glaring discrepancy between their strong numerical ratings and their actual performance record—a modest 3-9 in Quad 1 and 6-5 in Quad 2 games, culminating in a 24th place in the NET—spotlights the unpredictable nature of their journey. 

Michigan State’s robust paint presence contrasts sharply with its vulnerability to teams that excel from the perimeter, as evidenced by its rank outside the top 100 in three-point field goal defense. Indeed, more than 41% of shots taken against them have come from beyond the arc. Yet, the seasoned guidance of Coach Tom Izzo, renowned for his March magic, along with the Spartans’ balanced attack led by Tyson Walker (who averaged 18.2 points per game) and the assisting prowess of point guard A.J. Hoggard (with an average of 5.2 assists per game), ignites speculation about a possible deep run. 

With a roster featuring four players averaging double digits in scoring, Michigan State’s mix of experience and talent might just align for an upset or two, especially if they progress past Mississippi State to a likely encounter with the 1-seed North Carolina Tar Heels. 

McNeese State (12 Seed, Midwest Region) 

The McNeese State Cowboys, sporting a splendid 30-3 record for the regular season, find themselves in a David vs. Goliath scenario as the 12 seed in the Midwest, facing off against the 6.5-point favorite Gonzaga Bulldogs in the first round. Despite the challenging draw, McNeese State’s impressive win count is a testament to their resilience and capability, signaling they won’t be easily dismissed. 

Under the tutelage of Coach Will Wade, in his inaugural season, the Cowboys have morphed into a formidable mid-major force. Wade, with previous NCAA Tournament experiences from his tenure at LSU, holds a 4-5 record in the tournament, demonstrating a knack for competition at the highest levels. 

McNeese State boasts a striking offensive toolkit highlighted by their efficiency on both ends of the floor — they rank 23rd in turnover rate and 7th in three-point shooting percentage, underscoring their precision and lethal shooting capabilities. Their prowess is not limited to perimeter shooting, as they also excel in effective field goal percentage and free throw rate, marking them as a team that can score in a variety of ways. The Cowboys’ star, Shada Wells, a TCU transfer and the Southland Conference Player of the Year, averages 17.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game.  

Wells, supported by a deep bench that contributes significantly to the team’s scoring, underlines McNeese State’s balanced offensive attack. With 41st-ranked bench scoring, four players averaging double digits, and eight seeing at least 16 minutes of play per game, the Cowboys’ depth and talent are evident. 

Facing the prospect of a first-round upset against Gonzaga, McNeese State’s blend of solid coaching, disciplined play, and star power makes them a team to watch. A victory would pit them against either the 4-seed Kansas Jayhawks or 13-seed Samford Bulldogs, an exciting prospect for a team clearly demonstrating they are not to be underestimated. 

Oregon (11 Seed, Midwest Region) 

The Oregon Ducks, after clinching the Pac-12 Tournament title, secured an 11 seed and carried a 23-11 record into the NCAA Tournament. Despite their successful run, they find themselves as 1.5-point underdogs in a challenging first-round contest against the South Carolina Gamecocks. 

The Ducks boast a well-balanced team, positioned 50th in adjusted offense and 70th in adjusted defense. Their careful handling of the ball, ranking 47th in turnover rate, complements their battle-hardened resilience. Oregon’s offensive charge is led by star big man N’Faly Dante, who impressively tallied 16.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game during the regular season, culminating in a dominant 25-point performance on perfect shooting in the Pac-12 championship game. Guards Jermaine Couisnard and Jackson Shelstad, each averaging over 13 points, amplify the team’s scoring prowess. An intriguing element of Oregon’s potential for tournament success might rest on the shoulders of Kwame Evans. 

Though a reserve, his status as one of The Ringer’s top 50 NBA prospects infuses an element of unpredictability. A victory over South Carolina could set up a formidable second-round face-off with either the 3-seed Creighton Bluejays or the 14-seed Akron Zips. Potential matchups loom large, with Dante’s exceptional talent and the Ducks’ comprehensive team dynamics promising to stir up the Midwest Region’s competitive landscape. 

Grand Canyon (12 Seed, West Region) 

The Grand Canyon Lopes, triumphing as the Western Athletic Conference champions with an impressive 29-4 record, step into the NCAA Tournament as the 12 seed in the West Region. 

Notwithstanding their underdog status against Saint Mary’s Gaels, the Lopes’ season achievements cannot be understated. Tied for the fifth-most wins nationally, their gameplay reflects proficiency on both ends of the court—ranked 63rd in adjusted offense and 51st in adjusted defense. Their vulnerability lies in handling the ball, ranking outside the top 225 in turnover rate, a facet potentially exploited by stronger defenses. 

Yet, their tenacity shines through in other statistics: 39th in forced turnover rate and 30th in offensive rebound rate, presenting strategies to counterbalance turnover issues. A critical aspect of their strategy is their prowess in drawing fouls and securing a fifth-place national ranking in free throw rate, a testament to their aggressive playstyle. 

Tyon Grant-Foster, the heart of the team, averages 19.8 points per game and is crowned WAC Player of the Year. His recent performance, scoring 20 points in four of his last five games, combined with his stature at 6’7″, positions him as a formidable challenger against elite opponents. His prowess on the court will undoubtedly be central to Grand Canyon’s aspirations to defy expectations and craft a Cinderella story in the tournament, starting with their confrontation against Saint Mary’s and potentially facing either the 4-seed Alabama Crimson Tide or 13-seed Charleston Cougars in subsequent rounds. 

The Bottom Line 

In the crucible of March Madness, McNeese State, Oregon, Michigan State, New Mexico, and Grand Canyon embody the unpredictability and excitement of the NCAA Tournament. With talent, strategy, and a touch of destiny, these teams are poised to challenge expectations, making every game a potential history-making moment in college basketball. 

Make sure to check out the FanDuel Top 25 teams and follow the games to witness these teams’ journey toward greatness. March Madness is in full swing, and anything can happen as the underdogs face off against the top seeds. 

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