Last year, Loyola Chicago and UMBC captured America’s hearts with inspiring, unlikely NCAA tournament performances.
Who will the 2019 Cinderella(s) be? Here are five prime candidates.
UC Irvine (13)
Perhaps the trendiest double-digit seed upset pick, and for good reason. The Anteaters are 30-5 and are on a 15-game winning streak. Russell Turner is a phenomenal coach. UC Irvine leads the country in 2-point percentage defense, does a great job of limiting 3-point attempts, and is loaded with juniors and seniors.
And Kansas State feels ripe for an upset. The Wildcats may be without Dean Wade, one of their two best players. And even if Wade plays, we don’t know if he’ll be 100 percent healthy. Wade is the rare stretch big man who can score from all three levels and guard a multitude of players. He’s immensely valuable.
And while the Anteaters’ road isn’t easy, it’s not impossible. It would get the winner of Oregon-Wisconsin if it won. Those teams are good, but not unbeatable.
You may get to know UC Irvine very, very well this March.
We have to talk about Miye Oni. Oni, a 6-6 wing, might be the most sneaky-versatile player in college basketball.
KenPom ranks the top 500 individual players in various advanced metrics. And while placing in the top 500 of a given category may not seem like much, think about how many teams and players there are. It’s impressive.
Oni ranks in the top 500 in effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, defensive rebounding rate, assist rate, block rate, free-throw rate, free-throw percentage and 3-point percentage. That’s absurd, as shot blockers and playmakers rarely exist in the same body. But that’s Oni. He does everything.
Yale ranks 44th in offense, which is really good for an Ivy League team. And LSU feels beatable right now, especially without Will Wade. Maryland isn’t a terribly threatening 6 seed.
Watch out for the Bulldogs.
It’s hard not to like Belmont, though their path is difficult since they have to play in Dayton.
But the Bruins profile as a team that can go deep in March. It says a lot when you’re an at-large squad out of the OVC. Belmont makes 59.5 percent of its 2s, which ranks second in the nation. It makes a solid 37.1 percent of its 3s, which opens up a ton of driving lanes. And the Bruins play an unselfish style with constant motion; almost 62 percent of their makes are assisted, which ranks seventh. These guys play the right way.
They also have a stud player in Dylan Windler, who is averaging 21.4 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists. If Belmont moves on to face Buffalo, he might be the best guy on the court.
C.J. Massinburg might argue that point, but both guys are awesome. The Bulls would be a tough matchup for the Bruins, and Belmont would likely face Texas Tech if it were to advance. The Red Raiders, while scary, just threw up a clunker in the Big 12 tournament.
It all goes back to Belmont’s ball movement. It’s Loyola Chicago-esque. This is an incredibly fun team to watch.
Murray State (12)
We included Belmont, so we also have to highlight the team that beat Belmont to win the OVC tournament title, right?
Murray State has one of the best players in the field in Ja Morant. You’ve probably heard of him, but in case you haven’t: Morant is a Russell Westbrook-like point guard who is averaging 24.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 10.0 assists per game. He does stuff like this on a regular basis:
It’s a huge advantage for Murray State that a player as talented as Morant uses so many of their possessions. But he also has some help. Darnell Cowart, almost 300 pounds, is an absolute load inside. Shaq Buchanan is a nice running mate in the backcourt who can create offense in a pinch.
And Murray State probably has the best opening round draw of any 12 seed. It plays Marquette, which has lost five of six. Things would theoretically get more difficult in the next round against Florida State, but Morant would easily be the best player on the floor in that game, too.
Admittedly, Murray State feels like a team that has a great shot to beat Marquette but would face an uphill climb in the following rounds. We’ll see. If nothing else, Morant is must-see TV.
Nobody is really talking about Northeastern. When the bracket came out, a popular talking point was that Kansas will get to play in Kansas City if it reaches the second weekend.
But the Jayhawks have to get there first, and that’s far from a sure thing. Auburn would likely be expected to beat Kansas in that potential 4-5 matchup, but Northeastern could prevent that from happening. Bill Coen’s squad is outstanding offensively; the Huskies rank in the top 15 in 3-point and 2-point percentage. That type of inside-out versatility is rare.
Kansas, meanwhile, is more vulnerable than ever. It finally failed to win the Big 12 title and is without Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick. The Jayhawks’ guards are good, but inexperienced. Dedric Lawson is the only guy who’s ultra-reliable.
Auburn and North Carolina would be difficult opponents in the next two rounds, but that’s the point of being a Cinderella: to do the unthinkable. Northeastern shares the ball, and most importantly, can shoot the lights out. These guys are sneaky good.