March Madness: Middle Tennessee Is the Best Cinderella Team to Target
In a nutshell, a Cinderella team in sports is one that achieves success beyond that which would have reasonably been expected. We see Cinderellas in all sports, but the term is no more popular than in college basketball and during March Madness, in particular.
There are many ways to define a Cinderella because it's not an entirely finite classification. Some will try to argue that Cinderellas can only be double-digit seeds, while others will suggest an even stricter qualifier, like they must be a 12 seed or higher.
There is a sort of subjectivity to it all, but as it pertains to this year's most qualified Cinderella, though, it doesn't matter much. No matter where your personal cutoff is -- 10 seed or higher, 12 seed or above, only mid-majors -- the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders fit the bill.
The 12-seeded Blue Raiders' roots lie in Conference USA, where they finished first in both the regular season and conference tournament. You might also remember them from last year's improbable win over the Michigan State Spartans in the first round. If that doesn't yell prototypical Cinderella candidate, there's much more.
We already touched on last year's NCAA Tournament win, but you can't undersell how much that can do for a team's confidence. You have to think it means even more for a mid-major looking to live up to the previous year's success.
Despite graduating two of their four double-digit scorers from a year ago, the Blue Raiders have the ability to measure up to last year's team, which is helped by the returns of junior guard Giddy Potts and senior forward Reggie Upshaw, who put up 30.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game between them. But, over the offseason, they also brought in Arkansas transfer and senior forward JaCorey Williams.
Williams has done nothing but lead the team in scoring (17.3 points per game) and rebounding (7.3 board per game) en route to posting a team-best player efficiency rating (PER) of 26.5. He isn't a threat from outside, but is a force on the interior. While taking an average of 13 field goal attempts from inside the arc, Williams has converted at a rate of 54.1%.
If you weren't keeping track, that's a junior and two seniors who make up 47.6 of their team's 75.0 points per game. Their contributions will be the foundation of a successful first-round appearance, but their experience will be even more critical if the Blue Raiders hope to make a deeper run than they managed a year ago.
Part of what makes up that oh-so-valuable experience is the ability to compete and win against tough opponents, which the team proved to us earlier in the year when they defeated Ole Miss, along with fellow tourney teams North Carolina-Wilmington and Vanderbilt. It was their dominance of the Commodores that was most impactful.
In Middle Tennessee's 71-48 drubbing of now 9-seeded Vanderbilt, the Blue Raiders held their opponent to an effective field goal percentage of 36.8%. Their defense harassed the Commodore ball-handlers, forcing them into a turnover on 18.1% of their possessions. As for the trio of Potts, Upshaw and Williams, they poured in 54 points on a combined 60.5% shooting. They made up over 76% of their team's 71 points as the home team tallied an offensive rating of 104.4 in their biggest win of the season.
On the season, Middle Tennessee totaled 30 wins and a 17-1 record within Conference USA. They then capped off the regular season with a commanding sprint through the conference tournament, which included a 17-point average margin of victory and 83.7 points per game in their three wins.
You might be putting the two previous items together, thinking that it only proves the Blue Raiders won last year, beat a good team at home and played in a weak conference. But, by the numbers, Middle Tennessee is better in 2017 than they were in 2016. Their nERD of 9.41 is nearly triple that of their 3.29 mark from a year ago and makes them the second-best 12 seed in the bracket.
Even further, it is .97 above the historical average nERD for the 12 line.
Contrary to other mid-majors and false Cinderellas, their good numbers traveled in their mere three-point loss at VCU back in December. Against a Rams team that allowed just 66.4 points per game on the year, the Blue Raiders produced 77 points and shot to an effective field goal percentage of 56.4%. JaCorey Williams picked up four fouls and shot just 7 of 18 in 31 minutes, but he still contributed 17 points, behind only Potts' 25. Upshaw added 15, but it just wasn't enough to overcome the 10-seeded Rams.
It was a loss, and that same outcome would spell the end of the Blue Raiders' season, however, our most meaningful takeaway should be that Middle Tennessee belongs among the big boys. They are a well-balanced team, boasting the nation's 60th-ranked offense and 65th-ranked defense, per Sports Reference's adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency metrics. We know the offense runs on their three big engines, but the defense is a team effort.
In allowing only 63.3 points per game, the Blue Raiders possess only one player who's played at least 200 minutes along with posting a defensive rating worse than 99.7 points allowed per 100 possessions. As a matter of fact, four of their top five players in minutes have a defensive rating of 95.5 or better.
What makes them a frightening matchup for the 5-seeded Minnesota Golden Gophers and pretty much anyone else in their immediate path? They play at a consistently slow pace that will always be in their favor, even against more gifted teams.
By averaging just 66.4 possessions per 40 minutes, the Blue Raiders increase the chance of variance. Over more possessions, the team deeper in talent is more likely to win out. So, they're a threat to everyone if they just play their game, especially a Gophers team that averages four more possessions per 40 minutes on the year.
Even history is on their side. As a 12 seed in a 5-12 matchup, the Blue Raiders historically have a 35.9% probability of winning. But, in the past, our nERD metric -- which basically tells us which team is better in a vacuum -- has been proven less predictive of a winner. In other words, the best team has won just 58.8% of the time.
The Gophers' nERD of 12.03 implies they are the better team. To be particular, they're 2.62 points better on a neutral court against a league-average team. That's a disadvantage in only a few situations, but it just so happens that this is one of them.