Over the next few days — and possibly weeks — there will likely be a basketball program (or two or three) that will capture America’s heart.
Last year, Saint Peter’s stole the show with an Elite Eight run as a No. 15 seed. The Peacocks opened with a win over Kentucky and kept winning as Doug Edert became a fan favorite. Coach Shaheen Holloway leveraged the run into the head coaching gig at Seton Hall, his alma mater.
Shaheen Holloway. Doug Edert.
Two former @PeacocksMBB stars who gave us one of the best Cinderella stories ever 👠 pic.twitter.com/nMJTNSyFwt
— CBS Sports College Basketball 🏀 (@CBSSportsCBB) March 7, 2023
Who could be this year’s Cinderella story? US Bets spoke to a few basketball and handicapping experts to gain a better idea of potential candidates for this year’s event. We kept ground rules simple, hoping to look mostly at double-digit seeds and mid-majors with a chance to make the Sweet 16.
Top men’s candidates
Depending on who you talk to, just about every team seeded 10-14 has a decent case to be this year’s Cinderella. There’s impressive depth across the mid-major ranks, and a few double-digit seeds from power conferences hope to make deep runs as well.
Penn State, No. 10 seed, Midwest Region — The Nittany Lions finished the year on a tear, winning eight of their final 10 games and pushing No. 1 seed Purdue to the brink in the Big Ten tournament championship. Penn State’s offense is one of the 20 most efficient in college basketball, per KenPom.com.
Penn State opens NCAA Tournament play against Texas A&M, before possibly facing the winner of Texas-Colgate. VSiN’s Wes Reynolds loves the first-round matchup, as Penn State shoots the 3-point shot incredibly well (38.5%), and the Aggies force opponents into taking nearly 50% of their shots from 3-point range.
“I think that matchup really favors Penn State. … Penn State is a team that I could see making the second weekend,” Reynolds said.
Penn State is a 3-point underdog against Texas A&M at BetRivers, DraftKings, and PointsBet.
Charleston, No. 12 seed, South Region — A regular in the AP Top 25 this season, Charleston boasts an impressive 31-3 record. While the Cougars’ schedule was weak, they picked up notable wins over Virginia Tech and Kent State. Adam Pullen, Caesars Sportsbook’s assistant director of trading, expects the Cougars to have a decent chunk of betting support as a 5.5-point underdog to San Diego State in Round 1.
“[With] 31 wins, they might have a little more of a public backing than some of the other teams,” Pullen said.
Oral Roberts, No. 12 seed, East Region — Max Abmas led Oral Roberts to a Sweet 16 appearance two seasons ago, and he’s back in the NCAA Tournament again in 2023. Abmas is joined by 7’5″ Connor Vanover, an Arkansas transfer with 3-point range and plenty of skill near the rim. Vanover doesn’t draw as many headlines as Abmas, but he’s arguably as entertaining.
“It’s insane to watch,” Nick Lorensen, a college basketball writer for MidMajorMadness.com, said about Vanover’s talent.
Oral Roberts faces Duke in the first round, and the Golden Eagles are 6.5-point underdogs on FanDuel.
Can @ORUMBB do it again? Previewing Max Abmas and Oral Roberts with @GoJacksSDSU's Eric Henderson (@CoachHendoSDSU)! pic.twitter.com/kvoxv6RuB7
— The Field of 68 (@TheFieldOf68) March 11, 2023
Drake, No. 12 seed, Midwest Region — Drake boasts big-time experience, having five seniors who play consistent minutes. The Bulldogs are good on both ends, shooting the ball efficiently and doing well preventing opponents from scoring.
“Drake is the only true mid-major program I have in the Sweet 16,” Lorensen said. “It’s because they have four starters who have been around forever. … They’re actually the 27th-most experienced team in the country.”
Of the double-digit seeds, Drake may be the most complete team. That shows in the sports betting odds, with the Bulldogs only 2.5-point underdogs to No. 5 seed Miami in the opening round on Caesars Sportsbook. FanDuel has the Bulldogs as just 1.5-point underdogs.
“The oddsmakers are telling you that these games are ripe for the underdog to win,” Pullen said.
Kent State, No. 13 seed, Midwest Region — Of the experts we spoke to, all of them were receptive to the idea of Drake and Kent State meeting in the second round. Kent State needs to get by Indiana — the Golden Flashes are 4.5-point underdogs on FanDuel — for that matchup to occur.
“To me, the most vulnerable pocket of the tournament is the Midwest pod that includes No. 5 Miami, No. 12 Drake, No. 4 Indiana, and No. 13 Kent State,” said Chase Kiddy, a sports betting analyst at BetMGM and host of The Lion’s Edge Podcast. “So not only do I like Kent State to pull off a 4-over-13, but I also like Kent State to advance to the Sweet 16.”
Kent State making the Sweet 16 is +700 at BetMGM. It’s worth noting that Kent State played elite teams earlier this year, and the Golden Flashes were highly competitive. They played Gonzaga tight, losing by seven points, and they only lost to Houston by five points.
“Kent State is not afraid of Indiana,” Kiddy said. “And speaking of the Hoosiers, let’s point out that Indiana is a .500 team over the last month of the season. They’ve reached that point of deeply oversaturated pop culture analysis where most people’s sense of the team is just name-checking Trayce Jackson-Davis and assuming they’re awesome. Don’t buy the hype; Indiana peaked in late January.”
Women’s teams with Cinderella potential
For the women’s tournament, US Bets spoke with Calvin Wetzel for insights into possible Cinderella candidates. Wetzel is a women’s college basketball contributor at several publications, including HerHoopsStats.com, CBS SportsLine, and FiveThirtyEight. Wetzel has his eye on a pair of mid-major teams entering this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Middle Tennessee, No. 11 seed — Wetzel likes Middle Tennessee, a team that has appeared in the AP Top 25 this season. The Blue Raiders are 28-4, and they scored an 18-point win over Louisville back in December. Middle Tennessee opens with Colorado in the first round.
“They get to the line at the sixth-best rate in the country, and their 78.4 percent free throw percentage is in the top 15,” Wetzel said. “This is a tough matchup for Colorado, whose foul rate is ranked 300th. If the Blue Raiders can get a couple opponents in early foul trouble, they can absolutely make a run in this bracket.”
Florida Gulf Coast, No. 12 seed — The Eagles are highly efficient, and they’re comfortable in this position. Wetzel likes that the team, led by head coach Karl Smesko, doesn’t take many mid-range jumpers. They lean on close-range 2-pointers and 3-point jumpers, relying on an analytical strategy for shot selection.
“They have attempted 10 total shots from between 15 feet and the arc this entire season,” Wetzel said. “With the volume of good looks they get, especially from 3, they can knock off just about anyone as long as they don’t have a cold shooting night.”
Florida Gulf Coast faces Washington State in the first round. Most mobile sportsbooks have yet to release lines for the women’s opening round games.
Photo: Sam Wasson/Getty Images