A Guide to 2021 March Madness Cinderella Teams

Ahh yes, one of the greatest excitements when filling out your bracket: What team will be that special Cinderella. While it doesn’t happen all too often, teams that go on Cinderella runs are impossible to forget, and every year offers a new opportunity for one to be born.

The term “Cinderella” is thrown around and doesn’t have a solidified meaning. In this case, I am simply referring to any team seeded 13 or lower as a Cinderella candidate. I will be going in order of the official tournament seed list.

Here’s a look at the 16 lowest-seeded teams in the tournament, along with their chances of a first-round upset (out of five 💥).

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No. 13 Seeds

Ohio Bobcats (16-7 SU, 14-7 ATS, 12-9 O/U)

The Bobcats of Ohio earned their auto-bid after storming through the Mid American Conference tournament. Not only have they shown their ability to hang with elite teams, as exemplified in their two-point defeat vs. Illinois, but they are on a roll right now with a talented roster. In that Illinois game, Ohio guard Jason Preston went shot-for-shot with Ayo Dosunmo, leading to nearly the biggest upset all season. 

The Bobcats offense is dynamic, and they score from inside-the-arc at a 56.4% clip, good for 11th in the nation. What I really like about Ohio is that they get to face Virginia. The Cavaliers are notorious for their upset vs. UMBC, and not only that, but they have to stay quarantined until Thursday and aren’t expected to even reach Indianapolis until Friday. Ohio is a tough squad to prepare for on their own, but with little to no prep time, it makes it that much harder.

Ohio is one of my favorite 13-seeds to win in the first round. I give them a five out of five because I honestly think that this game is a toss-up and a 50/50 coin flip is way more likely than a 13-seeds usual 21% first-round win rate. 

Upset Potential: 💥💥💥💥💥

North Texas Mean Green (17-9 SU, 15-9-1 ATS, 10-15 O/U)

North Texas not only wins the mascot bracket but is a pretty well-rounded basketball team as well. The Mean Green took down the Conference USA tournament to earn their auto-bid defeating Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky, two top-100 teams, en route. 17-9 may not seem all too impressive, but only one of those losses came to a sub-100 ranked KenPom team, and it was on the road. 

This team is quite experienced and boasts solid interior defense. Purdue allows most of their scoring from beyond-the-arc, and North Texas shoots at a 37.3% clip from deep. I really like this team, but they got a tough draw in the Boilermakers and their size. A path to an upset includes this young Purdue team crumbling under pressure and North Texas going off from deep, but Purdue is playing in their own backyard and has barely had to travel for a while now. I see them as a cool, calm, and collected team to avoid an upset. 

Upset Potential: 💥💥

Liberty Flames (23-5 SU, 16-8 ATS, 12-11-1 O/U)

Despite a lot of turnover from their 30-4 team a year ago, Ritchie McKay’s Liberty is back in the tournament and just as dangerous as ever. The Flames can hang with any team due to their plodding pace. Liberty is essentially a Virginia-lite with a better offense. They rarely turn the ball over and are incredibly efficient.

This is a tough game for me to quantify Liberty’s chances of an upset because Oklahoma State is such a talented team with one of, if not the, best players in the nation, while playing with a chip on their shoulder. I can’t imagine Oklahoma State allows anyone to beat them right now, but I still see Liberty keeping it close, forcing Cade Cunningham and Co. to play at their pace. This Flames team really is solid and wanted to play more Power 5 teams to boost their schedule. If any team is capable of a first-round upset, it’s them. If I had to quantify it, I’d say they have about a 25% chance of upsetting Oklahoma State in the first round.  

Upset Potential: 💥💥

UNC Greensboro (21-8 SU, 17-12 ATS, 13-15-1 O/U)

I know I have been hyping up the 13-seeds, but they really are a good batch this year. The only problem is, besides Virginia, the 4-seeds are also quite strong this tournament. The Spartans of UNC Greensboro come out of the Southern Conference as one of the few one-seeds to take down their respective conference tournament. 

The Spartans are elite at ball control and do a lot of their scoring inside-the-arc, with over 50% of their points coming from there. They have an above-average defense and force a solid percentage of turnovers. However, Florida State is probably the worst team UNCG could have drawn. The Seminoles are the biggest team in the nation and aggressively limit interior scoring. For the Spartans to upset Florida State, they need to shoot well from beyond-the-arc (they rank 312th in the nation in 3pt% shooting) and force turnover after turnover. I really don’t see many scenarios where UNCG upset FSU, and I am most confident in FSU advancing out of any four-seed. 

Upset Potential: 💥

No. 14 Seeds

Abilene Christian Wildcats (23-4 SU, 17-6 ATS, 14-9 O/U)

You may see Texas as a 3-seed, understanding that Shaka Smart and Co. just marched through the Big 12 tournament and advance Texas into the Round of 32 with no thought. I advise you to think twice. Abilene Christian boasts an elite defense and one of the nation’s best ATS records, meaning they have consistently outperformed themselves. One of the Wildcats’ early losses came to Texas Tech, where they limited the Red Raiders to 51 points, only losing by seven.

This team forces the highest percentage of turnovers in the nation, with over a quarter of opponents’ possessions resulting in a turnover. Texas turns the ball over at a 20% clip, ranking 236th in the country, so there is absolutely a line where the Wildcats disrupt the Longhorns enough to throw them off their game. There is a perfect opportunity for a trap game here because I see Texas as a popular pick to make the Elite 8. Now don’t go all-in on ABCU. I am just saying to be wary because the Wildcats defense can absolutely keep them in this game.

Upset Potential: 💥💥💥

Morehead State Eagles (23-7 SU, 19-9 ATS, 10-18 O/U)

One of the least talked about teams in the bracket, Morehead State has only lost once in 2021, and that was to 26-4 Belmont, who they crushed in the Ohio Valley Conference championship game to solidify their auto-bid. However, keep in mind that none of their teams played in 2021 were ranked higher than 100 in KenPom, and the Eagles were embarrassed by Power 5 teams earlier this season. 

The Eagles’ biggest path to an upset is West Virginia shooting themselves in the foot, which they have been known to do in past tournaments. Morehead State is sloppy with the ball with nearly the highest turnover percentage in the nation. West Virginia is elite at reaching the free-throw line and tallying up points from the charity stripe. The Eagles only allowed 14.3% of opponent points to come from the free-throw line, which ranks 331st. The path to an upset for Morehead State includes taking care of the ball, staying out of foul trouble, and West Virginia coming out slow. It’s a perfect storm potential, and while I don’t see it as that likely of an outcome, I can’t say I would be shocked if it happened. 

Upset Potential: 💥💥

Colgate Raiders (14-1 SU, 10-5 ATS, 8-7 O/U)

The Raiders of Colgate are one of the most interesting teams in the bracket after going 14-1 and running the table in the Patriot League. They are the ninth-ranked team in the NET but 84th in KenPom. Matt Langel has coached the Raiders well – but they live and die by the 3-ball offensively and defensively. Not only do they boast the 3rd best 3pt% in the nation at 40.0%, but they also have the best 3pt% defense, limiting teams to 26.1% shooting from beyond-the-arc. 

Both teams are aggressively up-tempo, so make sure you watch this game because Arkansas and Colgate will be gunning from the start. While the Raiders are advanced in some of the metrics, they have one of the worst strengths of schedules in the nation, and they really have played no one. This matchup has one of the widest ranges of outcomes out of any of the first-round games. Arkansas can destroy them 100-73, but Colgate can also go punch for punch with their own elite shooting from deep. Eric Musselman is an experienced coach, and I simply see Arkansas’ size and speed to be too much for Colgate to handle. 

Upset Potential: 💥💥

Eastern Washington Eagles (16-7 SU, 15-7 ATS, 12-10 O/U)

After struggling early on this season, the Eagles of Eastern Washington really pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and finished off conference play strong to take down the Big Sky crown. EWU takes care of the ball and has offensive diversity. This team is one of the more inconsistent teams in the nation, but they are also playing their best basketball right now. 

The most promising part of Eastern Washington is Kansas’ Covid-19 issues. Three different players aren’t traveling with Kansas, including Jalen Wilson and David McCormack’s status is up in the air after testing positive before the Big 12 tournament. The Jayhawks might be playing with their B-team in this matchup, so they are especially vulnerable to an upset. At the very least, I like EWU against the spread in this game.

Upset Potential: 💥💥💥

No. 15 Seeds

Grand Canyon Antelopes (17-6 SU, 15-5 ATS, 6-14 O/U)

Another team that would win the “best mascot” battle, the Antelopes of Grand Canyon come out of the Western Athletic Conference as the highest-ranked 15-seed. GCU has faced off against some formidable opponents and almost pulled off upsets against Arizona State and San Francisco earlier this year, losing to both teams by a single possession. 

The biggest question for the Antelopes is how are they going to stop Luka Garza. Well, surprisingly, they have somewhat of an answer for that. Asbjorn Midtgaard is 7-0 feet 270 pounds and Alessandro Lever is 6-10. These two bigs for GCU have the chance to limit Garza down low, and their defense has done well at limiting outside shooting, with teams failing to reach a 30% clip from beyond-the-arc. Grand Canyon’s path to a shocking upset is Iowa going cold from deep and the Hawkeyes non-defense showing up. Most of the Antelopes scoring comes from down low, and they need to do a lot of it if they expect to take down Iowa. I really don’t see Iowa falling this early, though, but I do like Grand Canyon against the spread. 

Upset Potential: 💥

Cleveland State Vikings (19-7 SU, 17-8 ATS, 13-12 O/U)

If someone came from the future to tell me a 15-seed upset a 2-seed this year, I would expect it to be Cleveland State. After being handed the Horizon tournament championship with Wright State being upset early on, Cleveland State gets a solid matchup in Houston. The Cougars’ metrics are advanced, but they also really haven’t played anyone, with Texas Tech and Wichita State as their only wins over a tournament team.

Cleveland State’s path to an upset includes Houston having a let-down game. The Cougars have had two losses to two sub-100 ranked, so the Vikings need to have their defense show up to keep this game close and allow themselves to pull off a ridiculous upset. 

Upset Potential: 💥💥

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Oral Roberts Golden Eagles (16-10 SU, 14-9 ATS, 16-7 O/U)

After a surprising performance in the Summit League tournament, upsetting South Dakota State and North Dakota State, the Golden Eagles find themselves in an exciting matchup vs. Ohio State. Max Abmas was the Summit League player of the year after averaging 27.2 PPG. If he gets going, this team is dangerous.

Obviously, it is quite rare for 15-seeds to upset 2-seeds in the first round, but if there is any team ready for a letdown, it’s Ohio State. They finished the regular season with four straight losses, and they are known to have stretches of rough games. Oral Roberts’s size does not match up well with the Buckeyes, but if the Golden Eagles expect to win, it’ll be through Max Abmas and their elite three-point shooting. Oral Roberts posted 90 points in their conference tournament win over South Dakota State and will need a similar outing if they expect to defeat Ohio State.

Upset Potential: 💥💥

Iona Gaels (12-5 SU, 11-5-1 ATS, 9-8 O/U)

I am not sure if you are aware of this, but Rick Pitino coaches Iona. Sarcasm aside, it is awe-inspiring what Pitino has done in his first year with the Gaels, leading them through the MAAC tournament to earn the auto-bid. While it is an impressive feat, this team is not great. They boast a solid defense but also foul a ton and sometimes struggle to find scoring. 

Iona’s path to an upset includes Pitino having one of the best coaching performances of his lifetime and a lot falling the Gaels way. Alabama does depend a lot on the three-ball, so if they are cold, Iona has a shot at slowing down the game and shocking the Crimson Tide.

Upset Potential: 💥:

No. 16 Seeds

Drexel Dragons (12 -7 SU, ATS, 11-8 12-5 O/U)

The Dragon of Drexel come out of the Colonial Athletic Association and earned their auto-bid after defeating Elon back on March 9th. Their offense is dynamic, and Camren Wynter is capable of posting 20+ point games.

I’m not going to spend much time here because I really don’t see a way for Drexel to pull off an upset. The Illini are playing their best basketball right now, and I see them as the nation’s second-best team. The Dragons get brownie points for a cool mascot name, but nothing more.  

Upset Potential: 💥

Hartford Hawks (15-8 SU, 14-8-1 ATS, 8-15 O/U)

Hartford has one of the better stories out of any team in the tournament after reaching their first-ever tournament. Their biggest strengths include 3pt defense and staying out of foul trouble, making opponents earn their points elsewhere than the charity stripe. 

The Hawks matchup surprisingly well vs. Baylor, and while I by no means expect an upset here, I would sprinkle some money on a Hartford cover. The Bears have not been playing their best basketball of late, and a lot of their scoring comes from beyond-the-arc. I mentioned how the Hawks’ strength was limiting the three-ball, and they rank 9th defensively in the nation for doing just that. The Bears might have to get a bit creative on offense, a challenge I expect them to be up for. 

Upset Potential: 💥

Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers (15-8 SU, 11-10 ATS, 8-13 O/U) vs. Texas Southern Tigers (16-8 SU, 12-10-1 ATS, 13-9 O/U)

While the winner of this game faces off against the weakest one-seed in Michigan, there’s still almost no chance of either team advancing past the first round. So instead, let me preview the play-in game for you so you can feed your itch to bet on some tournament games. 

The Mountaineers are absolutely the better team in the matchup. They have three starters 6-9 or taller and play differently than most mid-majors, slowing down the pace and forcing opponents to play at their speed. Mount St. Mary’s defense is legitimate, especially inside-the-arc, where Texas Southern does most of their scoring. I don’t see the Tigers being able to adjust to a slow-paced game where they will have to find different ways of scoring. Feel free to take Mount St. Mary’s ML or ATS. 

Upset Potential: 💥

Norfolk State Spartans (16-7 SU, 12-8-1 ATS, 12-9 O/U) vs. Appalachian St. Mountaineers

Again, I can promise you that Gonzaga is not going to beat by either of these teams. It shouldn’t even be a thought that forms in your head because it’s not going to happen. So let’s preview the play-in game. 

Norfolk State has some redeeming qualities, as they shoot well from beyond-the-arc and reach the free-throw line consistently. They have won eight of their last nine games and are riding a six-game win streak. Appalachian State, on the other hand, is kind of awful. I mean, what else would you expect from the worst team in the bracket. They lost six of their seven games before the Sun Belt Conference tournament and had two overtime victories in that tournament just to be here. I’m taking Norfolk State to win, simply to be pummelled by Gonzaga in round one.  

Upset Potential: 💥

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