4 Potential Cinderella Teams That Could Destroy March Madness Brackets
In 2019, the last Big Dance, things weren't too crazy. The 1 through 4 seeds made the Sweet 16 in two different regions, and the 1 through 3 seeds did in the other two regions. Auburn, a 5 seed, was the lowest-seeded team in the Elite Eight.
But it wouldn't be called March Madness if the chalk always prevailed.
The year before, in 2018, it was pretty wild. The South Region lost its mind as a 5 seed was the best seed left in the region after the first weekend, leading to a 9-versus-11 matchup in the Elite Eight between Loyola and Kansas State. Florida State, a 9 seed, made a run to the Elite 8, and 11 seed Syracuse busted brackets by reaching the Sweet 16.
Which Cinderella teams could make a run this season? Using our numbers -- including nERD, which indicates expected point differential over an average opponent on a neutral floor -- as well as data from KenPom and odds from NCAAB odds, let's take a look.
Wisconsin (9 Seed, South Region)
The committee kinda butchered this one.
Wisconsin, playing in a loaded Big Ten -- a league that has four of the top-six teams in the nation, per our rankings -- went 17-12 this year and is the 11th-best team by our numbers and the 10th-best for KenPom. Wisconsin's nERD of 13.47 is better than the average nERD for 5 seeds since 2001.
They're a 9 seed.
KenPom rates the Badgers with the 13th-best adjusted defense and the 32nd-best adjusted offense. They play slowly, sitting 326th in pace, and they've played the 9th-toughest schedule, according to KenPom. The slow pace should come in handy in their bids for upsets: low-possession games up the chances for randomness.
But actually, Wisconsin could get to the Final Four and not have to pull off that many upsets.
In the first round, the Badgers play North Carolina. We have UNC ranked 34th while KenPom slots them 28th. If Wisconsin wins that game, they'll likely see 1 seed Baylor in the second round. Baylor is very good, obviously, but they are the worst 1 seed by our metrics. Baylor's nERD of 15.96 is slightly worse than the average nERD for 2 seeds since '01.
With all that said, FanDuel Sportsbook has the Badgers as 2.0-point underdogs against UNC, and Wisconsin is coming in with just a 1-4 record over their past five.
Our algorithm has Wisconsin winning that 66.2% of the time, and we give the Badgers a 35.7% chance to beat Baylor. We do, however, think Baylor makes the Sweet 16 just 64.0% of the time, the lowest clip for any 1 or 2 seed.
Connecticut (7 Seed, East Region)
Connecticut is 15th overall by our numbers and 16th for KenPom. Their nERD of 12.56 is better than the nERD of the average 6 seed since 2001. They're a well-rounded bunch, sitting 24th in offense and 25th in defense by KenPom's adjusted metrics.
Something that helps UConn's cause is that their region -- the East -- is just the third-toughest region by our metrics.
In the first round, the Huskies will play Maryland. We have the Terps 28th. KenPom has them 31st. Our model projects UConn to beat Maryland 56.6% of the time. Connecticut has opened as a 2.5-point favorite in what should be a fun game.
If they can get past Maryland, UConn will likely run into 2 seed Alabama in the second round. While that will be a tall task, the Crimson Tide are the second-worst 2 seed in the field by our rankings. KenPom has 'Bama as this year's worst 2 seed.
We give the Huskies a 32.3% chance to spring the upset over Alabama.
Loyola (8 Seed, Midwest Region)
It's them again.
The same Loyola program that made a historic Final Four run in 2018 could destroy brackets once again -- only this time it won't be quite as unexpected.
Loyola is legit good this season. KenPom has them as the ninth-best team in the nation and rates them as the top adjusted defense in the country. By our numbers, the Ramblers are 19th overall with a 12.32 nERD. That nERD is better than the nERD for the average 6 seed since 2001. Loyola is an 8 seed.
Of course, strength of schedule is a reason to worry about Loyola as their schedule ranks only 134th, per KenPom. But the Missouri Valley isn't a pushover, and the Ramblers played five combined games against Missouri State (87th) and Drake (56th), going 4-1 versus those two and beating Drake by 10 in the MVC title game last time out. Drake made the Big Dance as an at-large team, getting an 11 seed. Loyola also played the aforementioned Wisconsin early in the year, losing by 14 in Madison.
Overall, the Midwest Region rates out as the softest region in the tournament. Loyola is a 2.0-point favorite for their first-round clash with Georgia Tech, a team we have ranked 39th. We think Loyola beats the Yellow Jackets 64.0% of the time.
Unfortunately for Loyola, one of the few places the Midwest Region is not soft is on the 1 line as Illinois is the second-best team in the nation by nERD. If Loyola is going to make a run, they'll have to find a way to get past Illinois, which we give them only a 19.1% chance of doing.
Rutgers (10 Seed, Midwest Region)
Rutgers is dancing for the first time since 1991, and they absolutely earned it, grinding their way to 10 conference victories in the brutally difficult Big Ten.
The Scarlet Knights sport a nERD of 11.52, which checks in 26th in the nation. Their nERD is roughly right in line with the average nERD for 7 seeds since 2001. The strength of their squad is their defense: Rutgers ranks 18th in adjusted D, per KenPom.
Like Loyola, they are in the welcoming Midwest Region, and they are likely better positioned to take advantage of it than the Ramblers are.
In the first round, Rutgers gets a date with 7 seed Clemson. The Tigers rank below Rutgers for both us and KenPom, coming in 42nd. We project the Scarlet Knights to topple Clemson 61.3% of the time.
With a win, Rutgers would likely face off with Houston. Though the Cougars are very good (eighth in the country), they are the worst 2 seed by nERD. Rutgers will undoubtedly be an underdog -- we think they knock off Houston just 30.6% of the time -- but it's the best second-round matchup they could've gotten as a 10 seed.