It’s time once again to look into potential NCAA Tournament sleepers before we even get the bracket!
Just a quick recap: I am looking for this year’s Cinderella candidates statistically compared to teams of the past like 2006 George Mason, 2011 VCU, 2011 Butler, and 2013 Wichita State.
In a week, we’ll have the bracket in front of us, and we’ll be able to look at matchups and identify teams with the ability to make deep runs based on the eye test – but for now, I am using the quantitative data presented at Ken Pomeroy’s wondrous site (kenpom.com) to select teams that compare favorably to recent history’s most recognizable Cinderellas.
Here is a chart showing the adjusted Offensive and Defensive Efficiencies of our favorite Cinderellas:
Just over a week ago, I presented this chart of teams with “deep run potential”:
Florida State has slipped defensively – and it looks like it will cost them a bid. They were most similarly compared to 2011 VCU, a team that barely made the tournament before shooting uncharacteristically amazing on its way to a regional championship. For now, the Seminoles have work to do at the ACC Tournament in Greensboro – and I will reexamine their hopes of wearing the glass slipper again in a few days.
George Washington has improved its stock since we last discussed them. Comparable in efficiencies to 2011 Butler, the Colonials are currently projected as an 8-seed. With victories already this season against Creighton, VCU, and Saint Joseph’s, George Washington remains a strong candidate to pull off a string of upsets in the Big Dance.
Harvard has secured an NCAA Tournament bid since the time of my last post by winning the Ivy League for the third straight season. Since then, however, the Crimson have played better offensively and worse defensively. Today, their efficiency numbers look like a hybrid of 2011 Butler and 2011 VCU. Harvard is currently selected on the 12-seed line, so look for them to be a trendy first round upset pick this year.
SMU has dropped to the 10-seed line since the last post, but the Mustangs can move up by doing some damage this week in the AAC Tournament. Larry Brown’s team has dropped slightly offensively while holding steady defensively. I still like this team for its ability to shoot effectively and efficiently (37th best effective Field Goal Percentage, 65th best 3P%, 31st best 2P%), but turnovers are a killer (314th highest team turnover percentage). With the 12th best defensive efficiency in the country and the 6th best defensive effective Field Goal Percentage, SMU is a well-balanced team that will bring a scare to any 1- or 2-seed it faces in the Round of 32. I think SMU is a very likely candidate for Cinderella this season.
Stanford is also a 10-seed, according to the consensus at Bracket Matrix. Losing 3 of their last 4 regular season games hurts the Cardinal, but a win against Washington State on Wednesday will shred any doubt the committee might have about them. Stanford has dropped offensively and defensively in the past week, but they still rank in the top 60 in the nation in both categories. They do not guard the 3-ball well, force a low amount of turnovers, and do not get offensive rebounds at a high rate – but they defend the paint and rebound on the defensive end extremely well. This is another team that could find itself wearing the glass slipper in a week.
VCU is a team we are familiar categorizing as a “sleeper” – but I think the label might not fit this season. Since we last discussed Shaka Smart’s team, they won four straight to finish the A-10 schedule and put themselves in line for a 6-seed. With a sizeable shot to win the conference tournament at the Barclays Center this week, VCU could move up as high as the 4-seed line. The Rams focus first on defense and the HAVOC, and then they move to the offensive side, which explains why they have the nation’s 3rd best defensive efficiency but only the 117th best offense. No one in the country forces turnovers at a higher percentage. No one in the country with shaky ball handlers wants to see VCU pop up in their bracket on Selection Sunday. Look out for the Rams.
Now, in the time since my last post, some new teams have emerged in the “potential Cinderella” category. Let’s take a look:
Arizona State has lost two straight heading into the Pac-12 Tournament – but they have wins over Arizona, Oregon, and Colorado and two wins over California. Last Saturday’s loss at Oregon State was their first to a team outside of the top 100 at KenPom this season. The Sun Devils are currently slotted as a 9-seed in the NCAA Tournament due to their 25th best defensive efficiency and 27th best 3P% in the country. Arizona State relies heavily on the 3-ball and they are one of the worst Offensive Rebounding teams in the nation, but a high effective Field Goal %, a low team turnover %, and a solid Free Throw Rate keeps them in games. Herb Sendek’s squad is the type that can get hot from distance and make a run to the tournament’s second weekend.
Gonzaga won the WCC Tournament on Tuesday night, ending any conversation about the strength of their resume. The Zags have the thirteenth best defensive efficiency in the country, made up by the 15th best defensive effective Field Goal %, 13th best 2P%, and 57th best defensive 3P%. Offensively, they are ranked 49th with the 9th best effective Field Goal %, 13th best 2P%, and 29th best 3P%. They don’t turn the ball over, but they also don’t force many turnovers. Currently, Gonzaga is on the 9-seed line – and they are another team that could scare one of the top seeds.
New Mexico is seeded on the No. 7 line at Bracket Matrix. The Lobos are in the top 45 in both Offense and Defense on KenPom. Strengths include the 27th lowest team turnover percentage, 62nd best 2P%, 28th best defensive effective Field Goal %, and 4th best defensive 2P%. Craig Neal’s team has won 12 of 13, including a 14 point win over San Diego State, and heads into the Mountain West tournament as the conference’s No. 2 seed. New Mexico will be dangerous in the coming weeks as yet another balanced team with senior talent (Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams).
I will put out another Cinderella watch following Selection Sunday, highlighting lower seeded teams I think could make deep runs based on historic statistical comparisons and potential favorable matchups.
In the meantime, let us know what you think in the comments below or on Twitter @BEandBeyond!