Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

2019 NCAA Tournament Cinderellas

March 20, 2019 - 3:23 pm

If all of the top seeds always won, the NCAA Tournament wouldn’t be any fun. In filling out your bracket, one of the most difficult questions is not whether a double-digit seed is going to win a few games, it’s correctly figuring out which one(s) are going to make a run. Whether it’s a Florida Gulf Coast making it to the second weekend or a George Mason, VCU or Loyola-Chicago going all the way to the Final Four, these Cinderella stories always happen in some capacity.

So in 2019, who is the likeliest team with a 10-or-higher next to its name to advance to the Sweet 16 – or beyond? Here are the five that stick out:

1) Oregon:

Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

This isn’t exactly a true underdog Cinderella. The Ducks were the preseason favorites in the Pac-12, lost NBA lottery pick Bol Bol to a season-ending injury in December and stumbled through most of the regular season. But at the end of February something clicked, as Oregon closed headed to the Pac-12 Tournament on a four-game win streak, and then won four games in four days in Vegas to cut down the nets.

Senior Payton Pritchard scored 16.3 points as the tournament MVP, former five-star recruit Louis King is finally healthy and big man Kenny Wooten is as good of a rim protector as there is in the field. Wisconsin awaits in Round 1 in San Jose, followed by either short-handed Kansas State or UC-Irvine.

2) Murray State:

Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

If you want to watch a high-flying top-five NBA draft pick, you don’t have to wait to see Zion Williamson and Duke on Friday. Ja Morant isn’t exactly Zion-sized, standing at 6-3, 175 lbs., but he’s eighth in the nation in scoring (24.6 PPG) and first in assists (10.0) in leading the Racers to a 27-4 season. Shaq Buchanan and Tevin Brown contribute to the outside scoring, while Darnell Cowart is the presence inside for a team that averages 83 points per game.

A high-flying affair with Marquette in Round 1 should be electric, with either Florida State or Vermont coming up in the Round of 32.

3) Belmont:

Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Bruins already won a game in the tournament with Tuesday’s First Four victory over Temple. One would think flying to Dayton, then turning around to fly to Jacksonville for a game 48 hours later would be a disadvantage, but history suggests otherwise. Since expanding to 68 teams in 2011, one of the play-in game winners has advanced to at least the second-round every year.

So why the Bruins? An at-large out of the OVC, Belmont ripped off 14 straight wins before a conference title game loss to Murray State, and they have a senior who can take over a game. Dylan Windler is a 6-8 stretch-four averaging 21.4 point and 10.7 rebounds per game, shooting 54.8 percent overall and 43 percent from three-point range. A talented, but inconsistent Maryland bunch awaits in Round 1, followed by either head coach-less LSU or Yale in the Round of 32.

4) New Mexico State:

Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Aggies haven’t lost since January 3rd, cruising through the WAC and entering the tournament at 30-4. Picking a team that can shoot the three is a good place to start with a Cinderella, and NMSU fits the bill. Averaging 9.4 makes per game, the Aggies aren’t overly efficient with the three (just 33.5 percent), but they can get hot. In the WAC Tournament they shot 42 percent in the semis and championship, making 28 in total.

Round 1 sees them face an Auburn team that also lives-and-dies by the three, followed by a Kansas team that’s Kansas-like in name only given all of their personnel issues, or 13th-seeded Northeastern.

5) UC Irvine:

Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Another 30-win team, the Anteaters haven’t lost since January 16th and have a KenPom rating of 75, better than a few at-large teams. They get it done on the defensive end, leading the nation in two-point field goal percentage, boasting a lineup of four players standing 6-8 or taller.

Standing in the way in Round 1 is Kansas State, who has one of the five best defenses in the nation. Points will be hard to come by for UC Irvine, but they may not give up many, either. K-State’s leading scorer, Dean Wade, is battling a foot issue and it’s unknown if he’ll be able to play. If he can’t go, the Wildcats offense becomes significantly worse, giving UC Irvine an opportunity if it can make shots.