NCAA Tournament 2019: The Biggest Potential Cinderella Teams in the Field of 68

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    Max Hazzard (right) of UC Irvine

    Max Hazzard (right) of UC IrvineChristian Petersen/Getty Images

    This is the best part of March Madness.

    The blue-blood squads pick themselves. When the top seeds win, everybody joylessly checks off the box on their brackets and moves on.

    Zion Williamson talks about loving the game of basketball, then we all switch over to Netflix. Great.

    Maybe that’s what you like, but that’s not what I like. I like the Cinderellas. 

    I don’t mean 9-8 upsets either. Even 5-12 picks, while potentially juicy, don’t necessarily light the world on fire. The best parts of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament are the deep cuts, the lower-profile schools that are just as surprised to see themselves there as you are.

    Those are the kinds of schools we’re searching for as we carry around this weird slipper on this velvety cushion. Who are we going to find? Let us commence the search.

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    Anthony Lamb

    Anthony LambMitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Record: 27-6

    Conference: America East

    Best wins: St. Bonaventure, UMBC

    NCAA tournament seeding: 13

    Opening-round opponent: Florida State

    The America East conference is awful from a strength-of-schedule standpoint, but the Catamounts ran the table, more or less, with a mark of 14-2.

    Vermont shouldn’t be too rattled by the Seminoles’ smothering D. Their adjusted tempo is 285th nationally, per KenPom. That could be a good thing against FSU, as it indicates they will take their time lining up shots.

    The Catamounts won’t hesitate to get themselves to the line, either, where they hit a rock-solid 75.2 percent of their tries, per NCAA data. That’s good for 29th in the country.

    None of this will be pretty, but it just might get the job done.

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Record: 30-5

    Conference: Big West

    Best wins: Texas A&M

    NCAA tournament seeding: 13

    Opening-round opponent: Kansas State

    The Anteaters of UC Irvine are a spicy upset pick here at the outset. The injury to top forward Dean Wade, which at the very least will limit him here if he even plays at all, has Kansas State in an uncomfortable position, and that makes this pick a fun one to make. The fact that they are called the Anteaters? Well, that only enhances all of this.

    There is the small drawback that UC Irvine ranks 250th nationally in strength of schedule, according to KenPom. And yet, they sit 58th in adjusted defense. On seven occasions they held a team below 50. 

    That bodes well against a Kansas State team suddenly missing its second-leading scorer (12.9) and top rebounder (6.2).

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    Ja Morant

    Ja MorantMichael Hickey/Getty Images

    Record: 27-4

    Conference: Ohio Valley

    Best wins: Belmont, Jacksonville State

    NCAA tournament seeding: 12

    Opening-round opponent: Marquette

    There’s been plenty of media attention surrounding Ja Morant—including from Bleacher Report‘s very own Mirin Fader. But it’s all deserved when you lead the nation in assists, as Morant does with a perfect 10 per contest, according to NCAA data. He also sits at No. 8 in the nation in points per game with 24.8.

    The Racers’ strength of schedule, which KenPom rated as the ninth-easiest of all the NCAA tournament entrants, is not what you want to see. The Ohio Valley conference as a whole is only the 20th-strongest nationally, per RealTime RPI

    But the Marquette Golden Eagles are not exactly flying high right now. They’ve had some great stretches this season but enter the dance having dropped five of their last six. 

    This is a trendy pick because of Morant, who is a magician with the basketball. But if Marquette continues with its sloppy play, that will play right into the Morant and Murray State’s hands.

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    Fred Thatch (left) and Javon Bess

    Fred Thatch (left) and Javon BessMitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Record: 23-12

    Conference: Atlantic 10

    Best wins: Davidson, St. Bonaventure

    NCAA tournament seeding: 13

    Opening-round opponent: Virginia Tech

    The Billikens don’t have much to crow about when it comes to strength of schedule. They clock in at No. 199 nationally in the KenPom rankings for that category.

    But here’s the thing: Virginia Tech finished at No. 326, third-worst in this tournament field.

    For Saint Louis, the talent was always there. Before the season started, coaches and media members picked them to win the Atlantic 10. That was thanks in part to a roster containing four senior transfers—Javon Bess, Tramaine Isabell, DJ Foreman and Dion Wiley. 

    Reality didn’t match expectations, though, and after finishing sixth in the conference after the regular season, it was clear the Billikens needed to capture the conference tourney title to reach the dance. 

    That’s exactly what they did, propelled by a run that ended with them toppling Davidson and Saint Bonaventure to conclude an unlikely tourney run. They did it with a defense that finished No. 46 in the KenPom rankings despite inconsistency throughout the season. 

    That may spell trouble for a Virginia Tech team that can score but is also prone to cold streaks. If they freeze up at the wrong time, the Hokies could be in trouble.

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    Dylan Windler

    Dylan WindlerMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Record: 26-5

    Conference: Ohio Valley

    Best wins: UCLA, Murray State, Austin Peay (x2)

    NCAA tournament seeding: 11

    Opening-round opponent: Maryland

    This admittedly requires an extra leap of faith, as one must assume Belmont will take care of business in its play-in game with Temple. But if that happens, Maryland could be ripe for the plucking.

    Bruno Fernando is a terror for the Terrapins, but Belmont has the firepower to outgun an inconsistent Maryland team. The Bruins are a surprising (at least to me) 20th in KenPom’s offensive rankings.

    Meanwhile, the Terps have struggled to find consistency. They’re coming off a horrendous loss to 18-16 Nebraska in the Big 10 tournament. That doesn’t inspire confidence.

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