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Cinderella, Cinderella: Most likely surprises in this year’s Big Dance

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It’s the time of year where everybody and their mother are looking for upset picks in the NCAA bracket. Here’s my list, in two categories: (1) Those underdogs I think are the most likely to make surprisingly deep runs, and (2) those dogs most likely to surprisingly win a couple of games but then fizzle out.

The list is informed by the GRT Statsy Preview Machine, which, as you know if you’ve been following along with us this season, is a toddler prodigy that looks brilliant one moment and then reminds your olfactory system that there’s a reason it’s still in diapers. For that reason, I’m not calling the thing the “SPM” or even the “Machine” in this post. “Toddler” seems to best get at the heart of the matter.

Underdogs most likely to make surprisingly deep runs

8 Loyola Chicago

So it wouldn’t technically be an upset if 8-seed Loyola Chicago beats 9-seed Georgia Tech. Or would it? Oddly, 9 seeds win 51.4% of the time while 8 seeds win only 48.6% of the time, according to this compilation by Boyds Bets. But really, that just means those 8-9 matchups are essentially coin flips, which is what you’d expect, right?

What would be a legit upset is Loyola Chicago beating Illinois in the second round, which they actually have a shot at doing, assuming they get past the Yellow Jackets. And if they do beat Illinois, why wouldn’t they also beat Tennessee or whoever is next? They might not turn into a pumpkin until the Elite 8, when they hit 2-seed Houston without a mask.

You might be surprised to learn that the Ramblers are 9th in KenPom. Not lying and not even wrong. They are first (in the nation!) in defensive efficiency, ninth in effective field goal percentage, third in defensive rebounding, eighth in allowing opponents to get to the free throw line, and inside the Top 50 in two more of the all-important Four Factors. For what it’s worth, our precocious little Toddler has them as 5-point favorites over the Illini and getting past the Sweet 16 before losing to Houston in the Elite Eight.

14 Abilene Christian

Teams sporting a 14-seed win only 15% of the time in the first round, but Abilene Christian is the Toddler’s pick for the Cinderella with the most staying power this year. Ranked No. 86 in KenPom, the Wildcats rank first in the nation in forcing turnovers and 12th in defensive effective field goal percentage, so these dudes have shields and moats and ramparts and turrets and other defensive metaphors. And with the exception of ushering opponents directly to the foul line, they’re not bad in the other Four Factors.

Abilene Christian has lost only four games, and two of those were to Texas Tech and Arkansas. Yes, the others were to other Who’s That teams Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas, and KenPom gives the Wildcats only a 25% chance of beating 3-seed Texas.

But the Toddler is gaga over the Wildcats. It not only has them beating the Longhorns in the first round, but beating them comfortably. And then they get past BYU.

And that’s when the Toddler begins to smell like the Diaper Genie, as it has the Wildcats distancing themselves from the other Cinderella wannabes by beating both Alabama and Michigan. The Toddler says that if he’s right, you have to take out the trash.

I, on the other hand, am currently continent of both bowel and bladder (at least for another couple of years), so no, I’m not going along with the little misfit. After all, according to this data from Boyd’s Bets, 14 seeds have a 0% chance of getting to the Elite Eight, much less the Final Four. Somebody needs to explain to the Toddler that 0% is pretty low. Imagine trying to limbo under a bar lying on the ground. Or, as Brad Paisley might say, there’s two feet of topsoil, a little bit of bedrock, limestone in between, a fossilized dinosaur, a little patch of crude oil, a thousand feet of granite underneath . . . and then there’s Abilene Christian making it to the Final Four.

Seriously, though, this post isn’t an exercise in making accurate predictions. It’s an attempt to identify which team is most likely to blow your mind. And I’m with the Toddler on the idea that that team is Abilene Christian.

This post will self-destruct when the Wildcats lose to Texas in the first round.

14 Colgate

I will not make a toothpaste joke. I will not make a toothpaste joke. I will not make a toothpaste joke.

KenPom has Colgate ranked No. 84. They’ve played only 15 games, but lost only once, and then by only 2 points — to Army, who they’d just beaten by 44 the day before. Among the 15 games, their opponent roster consists of only five different teams. Those teams generally rank in the bottom 200s, but when the Raiders have won, they’ve won by a lot.

Still, KenPom thinks they lose to Arkansas by 8 points and gives them only a 22% chance of winning. The Toddler likes them quite a bit more than that and has them sneaking by Arkansas, Utah State, and Virginia Tech to get to the Elite Eight, where they lose to Baylor. That’s a pretty good run if it happens.

I didn’t make a toothpaste joke. You’re welcome.

15 Grand Canyon

Somebody please tell me that Grand Canyon’s arena features signage that says, “THIS IS WHERE THE ANTELOPES PLAY!”

This one looks like stupid in all caps and two Os, because teams sitting on the 15 line advance to the next round only 5.7% of the time. But if any 15-seed can advance this year, the Toddler thinks it’s Grand Canyon.

Ranked 108th in the KenPom overall, the Antelopes rank 6th in defensive effective field goal percentage and 15th in defensive rebounding. They’re bad at turnovers on both ends of the floor — it must be terribly difficult to hold on to the ball with hooves — but they’re pretty solid most everywhere else. They’ve lost six games against a pretty weak schedule, but we are talking about a 15-seed here after all.

KenPom thinks Iowa wins big over the Antelopes, but does give them a 9% chance of winning, which according to my mathy friends is higher than the usual 5.7% given to most 15 seeds.

The Toddler has Grand Canyon (which has a 7-footer to throw at Garza) barely squeaking by Iowa and then going on a roll against a relatively weak bottom half of the West pod. But again, the Toddler has zero idea what zero means.

Underdogs most likely to surprisingly win a couple of games

13 Liberty

Boyds Bets says that 13 seeds win 20.7% of the time, and Liberty may be the best-suited among this year’s crop of 13s to do it. The Flames are only No. 97 in KenPom, but they’re 23-5 with a pretty decent schedule, having only lost to Purdue, TCU, Missouri, Lipscomb, and Stetson. They beat Mississippi State and South Carolina out of conference and got revenge on Lipscomb (once) and Stetson (twice).

They rank well in a couple of Four Factors stats: fourth in effective field goal percentage, 14th in defensive rebounding, and 19th in not turning the ball over. KenPom predicts a 73-66 loss (26% chance of winning) to Oklahoma State in the first round despite the Cowboys’ Four Factors numbers looking worse than the Flames’. That’s likely due to Liberty’s schedule being filled mostly with teams ranked in the 300s and Oklahoma State being on a tear recently, including beating Baylor (and West Virginia, twice).

The Toddler, though, likes Liberty a lot against Oklahoma State and then again against the Vols before losing to Loyola Chicago. This being a Vols blog and all, we considered spanking, grounding, and sending the Toddler to bed without supper, but we were concerned about teaching a young American to hate liberty. So we compromised with a stern look and a raised eyebrow.

12 Winthrop

Winthrop is a trendy upset pick, probably because of the hype around the danger of 5-12 matchups and because Clark Kellogg put the nation on alert only seconds after announcing the matchup against 5-seed Villanova. Boyds Bets says that 12-seeds win 35.7% of the time.

Sure, the Eagles are 23-1 on the season, but they’re only 91st in KenPom, and although they’re a good rebounding team and can force a lot of turnovers, the rest of their advanced stats are not all that impressive.

The Toddler does give them a 55% chance of beating Villanova, but that’s not much better than winning a coin flip. If they do get past ‘Nova, they might actually have a slightly better chance of winning the next one, but they’re not making it past Baylor.

12 UC Santa Barbara

The 12-seed Gauchos are in a similar situation to Winthrop. Despite losing only a single game since January 1, UC Santa Barbara is ranked only 69th in KenPom, and all of their Four Factors numbers range from 47 to 72. They’ve done fine in the state of California, and the Toddler does have them sneaking past both Creighton in the first round and Virginia in the next, but that’s only barely, and it all comes crashing down if they make it to Gonzaga.

First Four/11 Drake

Among the First Four, UCLA ranks highest in KenPom (No. 44). Drake is next at No. 53, and Michigan State follows at No. 56. Michigan State is crazy: Wins over Michigan, Ohio State, and Illinois (two 1-seeds and a 2-seed) in the past month, but a record of 15-12 and barely earned an invite to the First Four. Plus, even the crazy Toddler doesn’t have them getting past UCLA in the first game. The Toddler then has the chalk holding with 11-seed UCLA falling to 6-seed BYU.

Drake, though, could make a bit of a run, according to the runt still eating pureed vegetables. The Bulldogs are 25-4 with two of their four losses coming to Loyola Chicago. But they could sneak by 6-seed USC in the first round and maybe even string a couple of sneaky games together and crash the party.


Shoot. I should have used this opportunity to write the whole post like Archie Campbell. Abilene Christian, don’t forget to slop your dripper.

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