Editor’s Note: Antony Dinero finished the college basketball regular season as the No. 1 handicapper (+6,301). Don’t miss out on all of his postseason picks, which include expert analysis. Click to win!
Over the past few years, Butler and VCU have changed the game.
Consider it a product of the one-and-done era, where top teams are forced to reload by incorporating new talent each season, but mid-majors have not so quietly closed the gap by developing chemistry and cohesion, seeing it translate into unprecedented results this time of year.
It's because of this that a 9-year-old can win your bracket pool. My 3-year-old daughter had Richmond making a run last year due to her fascination with spooky spiders. The unheralded A-10 school reached the Sweet 16.
Neighboring VCU had a longer run, shocking the world by getting all the way to the Final Four, which of course begs the question, who's going to do it this year?
As a rule, there's no way a Top-8 seed should ever qualify as a Cinderella, especially if they don't suffer the same disadvantages of typical mid-majors. That means Wichita State is out, as is MVC roommate Creighton, led by a national Player of the Year candidate in Doug McDermott. If you're the defending champion, underachieving all season and winding up a No. 9 seed doesn't qualify you for a slipper fitting, either. Sorry, UConn.
Here are the eight teams who do meet the admittedly stringent criteria:
Slipper favorite: #10 Xavier - This team absolutely performed below expectations, since the Musketeers were being trumpeted as Final Four candidates prior to their brawl with Cincinnati. Once that adversity hit, the Musketeers wound up fractured. Too many individuals attempted to do their own thing, disrupting the chemistry that keyed the strong start. Xavier looked to be working its way back late in the season, reaching the A-10 Tournament final and allowing Mark Lyons to spark a comeback against Dayton in the quarterfinals as opposed to letting it all ride on Tu Holloway's shoulders. Star freshman Dezmine Wells rose to the challenge and senior center Kenny Frease asserted himself more and started knocking down free throws. Beating Notre Dame won't be easy, but is certainly doable. Taking down Duke in Greensboro would be a chore, but Ryan Kelly might have to sit out the weekend, improving Xavier's chances of reaching the Sweet 16.
Slipper candidate: #12 VCU - No rule against back-to-back Cinderella status, right, Butler? Shaka Smart's Rams can dream about consecutive Final Four appearances given their draw. If they can get past the Shockers, playing Indiana way out in Portland guarantees a fair shot at the Sweet 16. Bradford Burgess, one of the stars of last year's run, will have to lead them. VCU throws off teams with its constant pressure and has enough 3-point shooters capable of getting hot and significantly altering a bracket.
Slipper favorite: #12 Long Beach State - There aren't many point guards better than Casper Ware in these NCAAs, so when you have a head of the snake as proficient as that senior, you always have a chance. The 49ers went 15-1 in Big West play and rolled through the conference tournament without top forward Larry Anderson, who was resting a knee injury. He's expecting to play against New Mexico, boosting the chances of a team that played seven NCAA Tournament participants during the regular season. Head coach Dan Monson has had success this time of year and is one of the most unheralded talents in his profession, while the region also helps, since an upset of the Lobos means a likely date with Indiana, which is roughly 2,000 miles from home.
Slipper candidate: #9 Saint Louis - Rick Majerus has put together a veteran team that prides itself on defense and being tougher than you are. Forward Brian Conklin might as well be playing with a hard hat on, while Australian Cody Ellis is one of the more versatile athletes in this tournament. If guards Kwamain Mitchell and Mike McCall can hit enough shots, the Billikens will be a tough out.
Slipper favorite: #13 Ohio - D.J. Cooper is another point guard whose game you have to see to appreciate, so expect him to surprise those who haven't. He's small, generously listed at 5-foot-11 but a few inches shorter, but has a fearless game and typically gets himself and teammates going. He'll give freshman Trey Burke all he can handle in the Bobcats opener, especially if his supporting cast is knocking down shots. Nick Kellogg, the son of CBS analyst and former NBA player, Clark, is one of the deadliest shooters in the country. The sophomore guard knocked down 77 3-pointers and shot 42 percent from beyond the arc, never shying away from a big moment. If Ohio can shock Michigan, beating the Temple-Cal/USF winner is manageable.
Slipper candidate: #14 Belmont - Speaking of 3-pointers, the Bruins utilize the game's great equalizer as well as anyone in the country and have already established themselves as one of the teams you don't want to see pop up in your pairing. The A-Sun champs become Georgetown's nightmare, so it's no surprise shrewd oddsmakers have made the Hoyas a four-point favorite in what screams, trap line. Belmont opened the season losing to Duke, 77-76, and feature three players who have hit at least 40 3-pointers. One of them, Ian Clark, is a guard who can stand out in any conference in the country.
Slipper favorite: #12 Harvard - Ending a drought of 66 years between Ivy League titles, Harvard isn't just happy to be in the NCAA Tournament. Not only does Tommy Amaker know what he's doing, he brings in a veteran team that packs size, solid guards and obviously, intelligence. The Crimson are 26-4 and held Florida State to 41 points when the teams met in the Bahamas way back in November. As nice as a tropical getaway might sound, Harvard can actually head home to the Boston regional if it can slip past Vanderbilt and the Wisconsin/Montana winner, supplying more Cinderella ammunition.
Slipper candidate: #11 Texas - The Longhorns aren't your typical longshot, especially since guards J'Covan Brown and Myck Kabongo are likely to play at the next level. Still, Texas was overshadowed by a handful of Big 12 teams and needed a late push just to earn an at-large bid. With Cincinnati up first and a date against the FSU/St. Bonaventure winner promised after that, Rick Barnes' squad has a path they can navigate if they play to their potential.