Each season we project out 10 teams in October who could transform into Cinderella's in the Big Dance—potential double-digit seed teams who could bust your bracket come March. It's the equivalent of tossing a blindfold on and chunking darts, but over the past few years mid-major contenders tossing a wrench into the NCAA Tournament has become the norm rather than an anomaly.
While these teams are next-to-impossible to accurately predict, last season our own Matt Norlander landed one on the dart board by pegging Middle Tennessee as a team who could make noise, and they proved him right by winning in the first round over Minnesota. So as a result, I'm starting my list with the Blue Raiders in hopes that they also make me look like a bonafide genius.
Middle Tennessee has grown into a near-automatic on this list under Kermit Davis, having made the Big Dance three times since 2013. The Blue Raiders won a stunner in 2016 as a No. 15 seed over No. 2 seed Michigan State and busted everyone's brackets in what still feels like the biggest first-round upset of my lifetime. They've got that same stunner potential again this season, coming off another first-round win in 2016 over Minnesota.
With Giddy Potts back for his final season, it's safe to presume C-USA is Middle Tennessee's until proven otherwise. Last seasons win over the Golden Gophers didn't even feel like an upset.
The best thing that could've happened to Illinois State and its NCAA Tournament hopes moving forward had nothing to do with Illinois State. It had to do with Wichita State and its decision to jump ship from the MVC to the AAC.
The Shockers are no longer around to steal the Redbirds' shine, which means Dan Muller's squad is now a presumptive favorite to win the Valley and return to the NCAA Tournament, where they've not been since 1998. They probably should have been in the field last season, so don't be surprised when you see the Redbirds whooping up on a single-digit seed in March.
Monmouth won the MAAC regular season by four games last season, but was shockingly ousted in the conference tourney by Siena after surrendering 64 second-half points en route to an 89-85 loss. After back-to-back 27-plus win seasons, the Hawks are finally ready to get over the NCAA Tournament hump for the first time since 2006.
Junior guard Micah Seaborn has the talent to step in and fill the void left by leading scorer Justin Robinson, and with the team boasting both a top-2 offense and defense in terms of adjusted efficiency last season, it's only a matter of time before they put it all together and return as a double-digit mid-major squad in the NCAA Tournament.
The Ivy League was all Princeton's last season, but with two of its top-four leading scorers expiring their eligibility, the league might be up for Yale's taking. Makai Mason, a star in the NCAA Tournament upset over Baylor in 2016, returns for his final undergraduate season as the headliner of the Bulldogs backcourt after missing last season. And with leading scorers Alex Copeland and Miye Oni returning, Yale boasts the fiercest backcourt in the Ivy League and could again play spoiler come tournament time.
Ball State returns its leading scorer in Taylor Persons from a season ago in which the squad finished with 21 wins and a first place finish in the western division of the MAC for a second consecutive year. With all that momentum, it seems only fitting the Cardinals get over the hump -- finally -- ending a 17-year and counting NCAA Tournament drought. With Persons and big man Trey Moses back for more, Ball State has a sturdy roster from top-to-bottom and fits the profile of a sleeping contender primed to make unexpected postseason noise if and when they make it to the dance.
Led by one of the top point guards in the country in Jaylen Adams, the Bonnies bring back a big chunk of their 20-win core from a season ago and appear primed to replicate their success in the A-10. Assuming Adams can play up to his preseason player of the year expectations, this squad could be destined for a March run. They'll need to stave off Rhode Island and potentially VCU to come out atop the league, but their guard play gives them a puncher's chance to win the league and make March noise.
When you've made it to the NCAA Tournament 4 times in the last 6 seasons, it's hard to deem them a Cinderella — but the Gaels fit the profile in part because of their affiliation with the MAAC, a traditional one-bid league.
The Gaels finished 12-8 in MAAC-tion last season and ripped the bid out of Monmouth's clutches after the Hawks were upset early, and while they lose three of their leading scorers including All-MAAC first-team selection Jordan Washington, they've got a wealth of young talent led by junior guard Rickey McGill and senior Sam Cassell Jr. to return to the Big Dance again.
The Big Sky Conference is up for grabs this season, and with three different teams winning the league in the three previous seasons, it could be Montana State's turn to make a leap. The team has a stellar scoring guard in Tyler Hall, a junior who averaged 23.1 points per game last season, and plenty of complementary weapons to boot.
The Bobcats return seven of their top eight scorers from last season, including newcomer of the year Harald Frey who averaged 12.7 points per game. Conjuring up offense won't be a struggle for the Cats, who have the guard play to make a splash in March.
With Valpo star Alec Peters no longer exerting his dominance in the Horizon League, the door is wide open for Oakland and Greg Kampe to storm through as a contender once again in the league, and could win it outright. Kampe brings back a rock star lineup of seniors in Martez Walker, Jalen Hayes and Nick Daniels which all played major roles last season and now have the experience to run the show in the Horizon.
Factor in the presence of Illinois transfer Kendrick Nunn, and you could easily make the case for the Golden Grizzlies as a Horizon League favorite and Cinderella darling in the making. The shoe absolutely fits.
Florida Gulf Coast and its "Dunk City" moniker stole the show in 2013 when they made a magical NCAA Tournament run to the Sweet 16, and they return enough talent to produce a similar run this season.
The Eagles, a favorite to win the A-Sun, return three solid scorers in Zach Johnson, Brandon Goodwin and Christian Terrell -- three of the four leading scorers from last season. With that lethal offensive punch and Michigan transfer Ricky Doyle likely to make a stellar impact as well, the Eagles are likely to be a double-digit seeded team in March you can only hope your favorite team avoids in the bracket.