How to choose a Big Dance Cinderella

During the 2018-19 NCAA basketball season, I spent the month of February designing a mid-major Cinderella model from the ground up.

Using an Exploratory Factor Analysis (EFA) approach, I have analyzed every NCAA tournament team since the 2001-02 season based on all available KenPom metrics. Through statistical treatment, I have determined which metrics are important and which are not.

Then I built a model that predicts which types of mid-majors will win in the first round—and which will tend to lose. Finally, I used this model to rank this season’s mid-major rosters based on each team’s likelihood of hitting a first-round upset.

Chattanooga guard David Jean-Baptiste (right) is congratulated by teammates as he holds the championship trophy after his team defeated Furman in an NCAA college basketball championship game for the Southern Conference tournament Monday, March 7, 2022, in Asheville, NC
Chattanooga guard David Jean-Baptiste, right, is congratulated by his teammates while holding the Southern Conference championship trophy.

Definition of a Cinderella team

Is being a Cinderella about the colossal excitement of the first round…or the impossibly deep tournament run through to the Final Four?

Maybe it’s both. But those deep Final Four runs aren’t exactly predictable — and I want to bring you something that has significant predictive value. So when I say “Cinderella teams,” I’m focusing on teams that can make a splash in the first round this year.

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By focusing on obscure middle and low majors with the chance of a big upset, I also implicitly highlight high profile, lower seeds that have a real chance of losing on Day 1.

These are the types of teams you should avoid going deep into the tournament lest your group get blown up on the first weekend of play.

The UAB men's basketball team poses for a photo after practice at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Thursday, March 17, 2022.
UAB men’s basketball team.

I’m not trying to find every single possible surprise in the first round. I’m not trying to identify every team that could pull off a Sweet 16 run.

Instead, I’m trying to identify the teams that nobody thinks about that have a strong chance of getting upset in the first round – and thereby blowing everyone else’s brackets… except yours (if you take my advice).

Cinderella status rules

  • 16 seeds are excluded. As of 2001-02, 16 seeds are 1-76 in the NCAA tournament. If I included them in my statistical analysis, their poor readings would throw our sample out.
  • The team must not be from a Power 6 conference (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC).
  • The team cannot be ranked when entering the NCAA tournament. This condition eliminates previous Gonzaga and Wichita State teams that were criminally shorthanded despite their stellar performances throughout the season.
  • The team cannot be ranked in the AP Top 15 in January, February or March of the respective season. This requirement ensures that the team is largely unknown to the general public.

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Important metrics

After analyzing every single KenPom metric, my tests found only seven (out of 86) that meaningfully separate winners from losers:

AdjO: Adjusted Offensive Efficiency – an estimate of the offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) a team would have against the average DI defense.

Loyola Chicago's Braden Norris (4) goes for a shot in a practice session during practice for the first round of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Thursday, March 17, 2022 in Pittsburgh.
Braden Norris of Loyola Chicago

AdjD: Adjusted Defense Efficiency – an estimate of the defense efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) a team would have against the average DI offense.

Adjustment: The difference between a team’s offensive and defensive effectiveness.

Defensive eFG%: Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%) conceded to opposing offense.

Offensive Revenue %: Offensive turnovers per ball possession.

Defensive Turnover %: Opposing turnovers are enforced per possession.

3P% Defense: 3 point percentage allowed for opposing teams.

These seven metrics combine to create a logical and intuitive portrait of a potential Cinderella team. In general, teams that upset the top-ranked players in the first round boast well-rounded offensive and defensive efficiency, don’t turn the ball around often on offense, force turnovers on defense, and defend well on the periphery.

Friday’s dance card

The teams that best fit the Cinderella criteria and play on Friday are 12 UAB (vs. 5 Houston), 10 Loyola Chicago (vs. 7 Ohio State), and 13 Chattanooga (vs. 4 Illinois). How to choose a Big Dance Cinderella


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