College basketball preview: 11 potential Cinderella squads who could surprise in 2019 NCAA Tournament
Sister Jean's Loyola-Chicago Ramblers may very well be back in the mix for a spot in this year's field of 68
They are your quintessential sports underdog story, your underrated and unexpected overachiever. They are your feel-good story, your endless well for the warm fuzzies. They are what movies -- and believe me, plenty of them -- have been based off.
They are your March Cinderellas. The lesser-known, off-the-beaten path programs who don't hail from a major conference yet punch above their weight while simultaneously punching their ticket deeper than expected in the NCAA Tournament. Annually, they're busting expectations -- and, more than likely, your bracket -- en route to a magical March run.
Over the years NC State in 1983, for instance, ran the table as a No. 6 seed and cut down the final nets. VCU in 2011, as a No. 11 seed, stormed to the Final Four; George Mason did the same out of the same slot five years before..
So what do these teams have in common? A little bit of fortune, talent, experience and coaching can get the job done. Emphasis on the fortune with a dash of randomness, which is why predicting such teams can be difficult before the season. Nevertheless, I've never shied away from a challenge, even if I'm left with an egg on my face six months from now. So without further ado, a stab at the 11 teams who could be trying on slippers as a Cinderella squad come March.
You're probably familiar with Mike Daum -- aka the Dauminator, aka -- but if you're not, here's a refresher. Daum is the back-to-back Summit Player of the Year who has averaged 21.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 42.5 percent from the 3-point line during his illustrious three-season college career. He's out to snatch souls in his final college season. The Jackrabbits are going to be favored to win the Summit, and Daum is the perfect player, with a perfect story, to lead them to a surprise NCAA Tournament run as a double-digit seed.
I liked Illinois State last season as a potential sleeper to make postseason noise. Turns out, I might have been a bit premature. But don't lose faith in the Redbirds yet. They have an excellent coach in Dan Muller, an all-conference star in Milik Yarbrough and an experienced roster that could pay dividends in what could be a tight conference race between them and Loyola-Chicago.
Buffalo didn't just upset the Arizona Wildcats in the first round of the NCAA Tournament; it crushed them. And it did so impressively as a No. 13 seed against a roster stocked with No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton. With five of the team's six leading scorers returning, including a star trio in C.J. Massinburg, Nick Perkins and Jeremy Harris, Buffalo could easily be back next March to provide more upset fireworks. But at this point, are they even a Cinderella?
Florida Gulf Coast has reigned supreme in the Atlantic Sun for much of the days that have followed its epic Dunk City run, but Lipscomb stunned everyone last year by throwing a wrench in the order and ousting the Eagles in the A-Sun postseason tournament to punch its NCAA Tournament ticket. With much of its core back, including Garrison Mathews and Rob Marberry, the Bisons could be in line to replicate last season's successes and take a step forward with a win or two or three in the Big Dance. Florida Gulf Coast might again be Lipscomb's biggest roadblock to getting back into the NCAA Tournament.
Loyola-Chicago? A Cinderella? Sounds familiar, huh? An NCAA Tournament run in 2019 would be far less shocking than its Final Four run last March, however. The Ramblers have a, and expectations of being the MVC's best team. There's already a seat with Sister Jean's name on it somewhere at the Final Four site (probably). Don't be surprised if they're back in the mix again come March, though their inclusion into the field of 68 come Selection Sunday is more expected than conference foe Illinois State.
Rick Stansbury's roster has gobs of talent and a batch of talented youngsters incoming led by five-star freshman Charles Bassey. He, Taveion Hollingsworth and Dalano Banton are going to make for a killer trio that could lead the Hilltoppers to their first Conference USA crown -- and a March run custom fit for a young, talented core. They're the favorite to represent the league in the Big Dance.
Harvard is the overwhelming favorite to come out atop the Ivy League with good reason. The Crimson bring back a talented bunch of juniors, namely Seth Towns, Bryce Aiken and Chris Lewis, who all led the team in scoring last season. According to the Harvard Crimson, the junior class alone accounted for more than 76 percent of the team's scoring last season. That number should only increase, as should Harvard's odds of making it to the Big Dance for the first time since 2015.
Jon Elmore is a star -- as he proved in the NCAA Tournament with a 27-point outburst against Wichita State -- and he's going to give Marshall a bonafide shot at winning the C-USA. He'll have help, too. C.J. Burks' presence gives them the most lethal backcourt in the league. Both combined to score 42.8 points per game last season, and they give Marshall a puncher's chance of knocking out Western Kentucky within the league.
I really, really like Murray State and Ja Morant as a sleeper in the Ohio Valley (although sleeper is a relative term, since it won the league last season). But the losses of Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller make it hard to envision them replicating their run. For that reason, Belmont is the most logical pick. The Bruins bring back top scorer Dylan Windler and third-leading scorer Kevin McClain, and coach Rick Byrd has won 20-plus games in each of the last eight seasons. Murray State, Austin Peay and Jacksonville State will have the final word on whether the Bruins can get back to the NCAAs, but I like this squad's core to take a leap forward in 2018-19.
10. UNC Greensboro
The Spartans of UNC Greensboro ended their 17-year NCAA Tournament last season by earning a No. 13 seed via winning the conference tournament in the Southern. Now expectations are high again this season. They nearly knocked off Gonzaga in the first round last year, and with Francis Alonso and Demetrius Troy back, they could get over the first-round hump and make a run. They have seven upperclassmen and a boatload of quality experience to boot.
Northern Kentucky isn't even picked to win its own league this preseason -- that honor goes to Wright State -- but I'm ready to buy stock in the Norse now. With Lavone Holland II and Carson Williams gone, people are going to write this team off. But Drew McDonald is legitimately awesome, and he has weapons around him to lead NKU to a stellar season that bests their 22-win campaign from a season ago.
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