One of America’s favorite things about the NCAA Tournament is the Cinderella Story. From George Mason in 2006 to Florida Gulf Coast in 2013, there’s always a story that the fans easily get behind.
This year there’s no clear favorite to win the National Championship. Villanova, Virginia and Purdue are all putting together great resumes for title picks, but none of those teams are by far the safe pick. Because of this, the door opens for an unusual suspect to steal the spotlight.
Obviously, it’s impossible to pinpoint a 15-seed that’ll take down a 2-seed as we don’t know the bracket yet, but there are teams that are quietly gaining steam heading into the most pivotal part of the season.
Potential Cinderella Teams
New Mexico State (22-3, 9-0 WAC): The Aggies have quickly become the lone first-place team in the WAC and have no signs of stopping. They’re on an eight-game winning streak, as well as winning 13 out of their last 14 games. NMSU boasts the nation’s fourth-best defense in terms of points allowed while pulling in an average of 41.2 rebounds per game, which is 8th in the country.
Their biggest competitors in the WAC are Utah Valley and Grand Canyon. The Aggies handled UVU 86-59 and swept GCU in the regular season. Their best win came against Miami, who was ranked sixth in the country at the time. My biggest concern with them is they’ve two losses to potential tournament teams (St. Mary’s and USC) which shows they can be handled, but they’ve gotten significantly better over the course of the year.
Nevada (21-5, 10-2 MWC): The Wolf Pack are a lot of people’s sleeper pick, but they could have the best resume before conference tournament time. Of their four losses, two came against TCU and Texas Tech by four and six respectively. Nevada has started off strong in the Mountain West and is lead by junior forward Caleb Martin, who’s averaging 19.4 points per game. They’ve four players who average at least 13.1 points per game but struggle on the defensive side of the ball.
Nevada doesn’t have a significant top-25 win, but they’ve beaten solid teams throughout the year. Out of the remainder of their season, the biggest test for the Wolf Pack is on February 14th when they travel to Boise State. Should they take care of the Broncos and at least make the Mountain West championship game, they’ll be a safe Cinderella pick for your bracket.
Western Kentucky (18-7, 10-2 C-USA): WKU will have to fight for their spot in the tournament. As of now, Joe Lunardi has them in the “First Four Out” category. With wins over Purdue and SMU, they’ve shown they can hang with the nation’s best teams. On the flip-side, they’ve losses to Missouri State and Belmont, which won’t help them come Selection Sunday.
No loss is great, but the Hilltoppers fell to Villanova by 8 and were on the wrong side of a controversial finish at Wisconsin. Darius Thompson, a senior guard transfer from Virginia, leads the team with 14.4 points per game. Five players (including Thompson) average double-digit scoring and have capable players off the bench, such as freshman guard Jake Ohmer. If Western finds themselves in the tournament, they’ll have potential to make a run.
March is the best time of the year for college basketball fans, and the Cinderella story makes it even sweeter. The beauty of the Cinderella story, though, is that nobody really sees it coming.