Yes, it’s easy (and probably smart) to forecast an extended NCAA Tournament run for the No. 1-ranked and undefeated South Carolina Gamecocks. However, the joy of March comes not from making the easy calls, but from correctly prognosticating the upsets that bust others’ brackets.
Below, we outline three traits of Cinderella candidates, identifying six mid-majors who might have the ingredients needed to knock off a first-round favorite and even dance into the second weekend of tourney action.
Streaking into March
We all know about the Gamecocks’ 38-game winning streak. While no other squad approaches such dominance, a number of intriguing underdogs enter the tournament on fire, riding double-digit win streaks.
The Mountain West champion UNLV Lady Rebels, seeded 11th in the Greenville 2 Region, have won 22 games in a row behind a sharpshooting offensive attack. The Lady Rebels are in the Top 20 nationally in field goal percentage and points per game, with junior center, and Mountain West tournament MVP, Desi-Rae Young grabbing tons of boards and cashing in her 2-point attempts at Top 10 levels.
The MAC champion Toledo Rockets, the No. 12 seed in the Seattle 3 Region, claim a 16-game winning streak. The Ivy champion Princeton Tigers, the No. 10 seed in the Greenville 2 Region, have won 15 in a row. With a 14-game streak, there’s the FGCU Eagles, ASUN champions and the No. 12 seed in the Greenville 2 Region.
UNLV, Toledo and Princeton all will be facing Power 5 teams that have had uneven seasons, meeting the No. 6 seed Michigan Wolverines, No. 5 seed, and Big 12 tournament champion, Iowa State Cyclones and No. 7 seed NC State Wolfpack, respectively.
FGCU will have to overcome the spirit of Shania to advance, facing a No. 5 seed Washington State Cougars team that likewise is riding the momentum of unexpectedly winning the Pac-12 tournament. However, along with their extended winning streak, the Eagles have other strengths that suggest they will not be “impressed much” by the Cougars.
Living (or dying?) by the 3
FGCU leads the nation in 3-point attempts, the only squad to unleash more than 1,000 shots from behind the arc this season. That impressive volume is matched by a similarly impressive percentage of 37.6. The 3-ball propels an Eagle offense that ranks in the Top 20 in points per game.
Big Dance debutantes in the Sacramento State Hornets also possess a desirable 3-point profile, taking a high volume (748) and converting them at a high percentage (38.6). Sophomore guard Katie Peneuta is the third-most accurate 3-point shooter in the nation, drilling 46.4 percent of her 5.5 attempts per game. If the gods of 3-point variance smile on the Big Sky tournament champs, who are the No. 13 seed in the Greenville 1 Region, they could pull off a major in-state upset by beating the No. 4 seed UCLA Bruins in Pauley Pavillon. While the Bruins also take a lot of threes, they only have cashed in on 30.6 percent of them.
The Hornets also can call on the offensive star power of Kahlaijah Dean, the Big Sky Player of the Year and tournament MVP. A transfer from Oakland University who scored 21.1 points per game, she finished the season fifth in offensive win shares, sitting just behind well-known phenoms in Maddy Siegrist, Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese.
Of course, as the saying goes, “Defense wins championships.” Which intriguing underdogs have prevented opponents from putting up points?
Again, FGCU earns potential Cinderella points. The Eagles own a Top 20 defense that, combined with their scoring prowess, gives them the nation’s third-best scoring margin, trailing only SEC, and national, powers South Carolina and LSU.
The Eagles (32-3) renewed what is almost a yearly habit once again Saturday night, cutting down the Alico Arena nets in front of a raucous home crowd to celebrate defeating Liberty 84-60 and capturing the ASUN Women’s Basketball Tournament… https://t.co/nOAq4zwnFg pic.twitter.com/08Svna5rg0
— #22 FGCU Women’s Basketball (@FGCU_WBB) March 13, 2023
The Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders, the regular-season C-USA champions, likewise claim a Top 10 scoring margin due solid efforts on both ends of the floor, permitting only 56.7 points per game while scoring 73.9. The No. 11 seed in the Seattle 4 Region, the Blue Raiders will meet the No. 6 seed Colorado Buffaloes.
The aforementioned streaking Tigers of Princeton also have a proven ability to lock things down, allowing only 52.8 points per game, the fifth-best mark nationally.
Rather than Cinderellas, these six squads — UNLV, Toledo, Princeton, FGCU, Sac State and MTSU — might turn out to be pumpkins. However, FGCU, in particular, appears to have the dance moves necessary to turn heads in the 2023 NCAA Tournament.