This Year’s Cinderella Teams: How Did They Do It?

How is Dayton in the Sweet 16?

Defining what a Cinderella team in the NCAA Tournament is can be a difficult thing to do. After all, there are no set parameters or metrics screaming, “This is a Cinderella team!” Do you look at the conference the team played in? Their seed? The types of players that make up the squad? The teams that they’ve faced and won against?

To me, a “Cinderella team” in the Big Dance is one that, quite simply, has a double-digit seed and has made noise in the tournament. And like every year, this season has brought us its fair share of teams fitting into Cinderella’s glass slipper.

It’s the tournament’s Sweet 16, and we’ve got three teams left that started the tournament as a seed lower than 9: Tennessee (11), Dayton (11) and Stanford (10). The question every casual college basketball fan wants to know now is: “How did this happen?”

Want to know who will surprise, who will bust out, and who will take the tournament? Check out our bracket picks, our game simulator, and more!

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Tennessee Volunteers

Seed: 11
nERD Rank Prior to the Tournament: 22nd
Current nERD Rank: 17th

Tennessee’s had the longest road in the tournament so far, thanks to a “first round” game against the Iowa Hawkeyes. But while their 11 seed was deserved based on their resume, don’t let the number next to the team on your bracket fool you – Tennessee, entering the tournament, was the 22nd-best team in the country according to our metrics. They were more like a 5 or a 6 seed.

How have they gotten past Iowa, UMass and Mercer? Defense.

The Volunteers limited the Hawkeyes to just 65 points in an overtime game during their first contest, when the Hawkeyes offense was a top-10 one efficiency-wise this season, averaging 82 points per game.

In their second matchup, Tennessee took care of an over-seeded UMass team, slowing down the pace with their tough defense. While UMass isn’t all that efficient offensively (125th), they played at the 15th-fastest pace in college hoops this year, and as a result, averaged 76.1 points per game. The Vols held them to 67.

Tennessee was then able to stop Mercer’s 25th-ranked scoring offense, forcing them to put up just 63 points when they averaged 79.3 points per game throughout the regular season. Keep in mind, Duke allowed Mercer to score 78 the game prior.

The Vols are no fluke – they’re analytically a very good team. And the fact that their defense is clicking, albeit against two struggling teams and a 14 seed, could be a scary sign for Michigan, their Sweet 16 opponent. While the defense ranked 28th this year, the offense was 14th. The Vols can win in a lot of different ways.

Dayton Flyers

Seed: 11
nERD Rank Prior to the Tournament: 56th
Current nERD Rank: 53rd

Dayton’s been fortunate to play against two defensive-oriented teams in Ohio State and Syracuse, allowing for close, low-scoring contests. In truth, of the three Cinderella teams, they’re the squad that make the least sense from a numbers perspective – they played a moderate schedule this year (57th), and their offense (55th) is better than their defense (98th). But it’s not as though any aspect of their game is overly special.

What beat the Buckeyes in the Round of 64 was good free throw shooting. The Flyers were 13 for 17 from the charity stripe, and it was the one main advantage they had over Ohio State (8 for 12) in that game. What kept the team in it was their slow pace matching up with Ohio State’s slow pace, and Buckeyes’s mediocre offensive ability.

What’s interesting is that the strong free-throw percentage was gone in their game against Syracuse (55.6%), but their three-point game was on. After going just 3 for 13 from long distance against the Buckeyes, Dayton sank 7 of 16 against the Orange – for reference, they shot 37.6% from three-point land during the regular season, 52nd-best in the country.

Things have worked nicely for Dayton over their first two games, and they’ve been able to play at a slow pace, taking advantage of struggling offenses while playing an improved defensive brand. They’ll need to continue to do that and dictate the game speed into the next round against Stanford.

Stanford Cardinal

Seed: 10
nERD Rank Prior to the Tournament: 38th
Current nERD Rank: 32nd

We know a Cinderella team is going to advance into the Elite Eight thanks to Stanford playing Dayton, and analytically, it would make sense for the numbers to favor Stanford.

The Cardinal entered the tournament as a slightly underrated team according to our metrics, and have now put together the most impressive wins compared to the other two Cinderella teams, beating a big New Mexico squad and a talented Kansas Jayhawks team.

It’s becoming a common theme, but Stanford’s won because of their – you guessed it – defense. They were able to hold a 35th-ranked New Mexico offense to just 53 points in the Round of 64, which was New Mexico's second-lowest output all season. The only time the Lobos saw fewer than 53 tallies was against San Diego State, one of the best defenses in the entire country. Stanford held New Mexico to a 36.5% field goal percentage, as the Lobos made just 4 of 21 shots from long distance.

Against Kansas, the story was the same. The Jayhawks shot 32.8% from the floor, when they were entering the tournament as a top-five shooting team. Kansas had scored 57 points just once earlier in the season, and it was against the same team who held New Mexico earlier in the season too – San Diego State. But unlike San Diego State, Stanford’s defensive efficiency ranked closer to 100 than it did number one entering the tournament.

Stanford plays a faster style than Dayton's been accustomed to over their first two games, so it will be interesting to see who can dictate the game's tempo. The better defense, like most of these matchups, will most likely prevail.