Cinderella Corner: One Team from Each Region Primed for a March Madness Run

Betsided's Wade Snow takes a look at the most-likely Cinderella candidates for this year's March Madness Tournament.

North Carolina v Kansas
North Carolina v Kansas / Tom Pennington/GettyImages

Looking to find this year's Cinderella?

There are plenty of teams to consider to make a run to the Final Four, but I've narrowed down one in each Region.

Let's break them down:

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Drake Bulldogs (28-6, 2nd in the Missouri Valley Conference)*

Seed and How They Qualified: No. 10 in the East Region, received automatic bid after winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.

All-Time Tournament Record and Best Finish: 6-6 All-Time NCAA Tournament, Final Four (1969)

Odds for Sweet 16, Final Four, and to win it all: +650, +5000, +18000

First Round Matchup: No. 7 Washington State, Thursday 3/21 at 10:10 EST

Head Coach: Darian DeVries (150-54 in six seasons at Drake)

After 17 seasons on the staff at Creighton, Darian DeVries finally departed to start his head coaching career at Drake before the 2018-19 season. While I am unsure why DeVries waited so long before pursuing a lead role, I am certain his patience was rewarded with a perfect landing spot in Des Moines.

Not only has DeVries led Drake to the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons, but his three appearances in six seasons account for all but one of the Bulldogs' tournament appearances since 1970. In each season since he took over, the Bulldogs have won 20+ games.

Coaching is not the only blueprint that DeVries took from his extensive time on Greg McDermott's Creighton staff; you'll remember that Greg's son Doug (2x MVC Player of the Year) led Creighton to three consecutive Round of 32 appearances in his time at the school. Now, Darian and his superstar son Tucker are leading Drake to new heights.

Key Player: Tucker DeVries, No. 12 G/F (Junior)

2023-24 Stats: 21.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 3.6 APG

I mentioned the "superstar" Tucker DeVries above, but I may not have given you the whole picture. After all, I had to leave a little skin on the bone.

In his three seasons at Drake, Tucker DeVries has won MVC Freshman of the Year once and MVC Player of the Year twice. I referenced Doug McDermott above, but I didn't tell you how DeVries was the first player since "Dougie McBuckets" to win consecutive MVC PotYs. The similarities don't stop there, either.

DeVries is a pure volume scorer who makes his living from behind the 3-point line. But at 6'7", he also has the size and athleticism to give opposing defenses significant difficulties when attacking the rim. His size also allows him to contribute to the glass on both ends of the floor. Sound familiar?

While the similarities between the younger DeVries and McDermott are numerous, Tucker will be looking to do something this postseason that Doug was never able to achieve: put together multiple tournament wins. I think he is more than capable of doing so.

Why They Can Make a Run

One thing jumps off the page when looking at the advanced metrics for this Drake team: offense.

While they are no slouches defensively, ranking 74th in Adj. Efficiency (solidly above average), there is no question that the Bulldogs have been carried to this point by their high volume, efficient offense. But even though the offense's ranking of 41 in Adj. Efficiency is impressive, it doesn't exactly jump off the page at first glance.

What does, however, is the more detailed breakdown of just how good this offense has been. Drake ranks in the top 40 of nearly every advanced metric, only faltering in offensive rebound percentage and free throw rate.

The Cowboys are a team that takes good shots and holds on to the basketball, ranking 27th in Effective FG% and 14th in turnover percentage. Playing strong, fundamental basketball is the most straightforward path forward in March for teams that may be outmatched from a personnel standpoint. How does that happen? You guessed it: good shot selection and eliminating mistakes and second-chance opportunities.

We've already discussed efficiency, but Drake eliminates second-chance opportunities for opponents at the highest rate in the country. It doesn't make much sense that a team ranked 315 in offensive rebounding would rank first in eliminating opponents' offensive boards, but Drake has managed to do it.

The combination of fundamental basketball, a roster with tournament-experienced guys, and the presence of a legitimate superstar in Tucker DeVries is something that Bulldog fans have been yearning for for decades. And you already know I can't turn down some good, old-fashioned longing.

I am taking the Drake University Bulldogs to beat Washington State in round one at -122 and will ride the train to the Sweet 16 at +650.

McNeese Cowboys (30-3, 1st in the Southland Conference)*

Seed and How They Qualified: No. 12 in the Midwest Region, received automatic bid after winning the Southland Conference Tournament

All-Time Tournament Record and Best Finish: 0-2 All-Time NCAA Tournament, Round of 64 (1989, 2002, 2024)

Odds for Sweet 16, Final Four, and to win it all: +700, +8000, +30000

First Round Matchup: No. 5 Gonzaga, Thursday 3/21 @ 7:25 EST

Head Coach: Will Wade (30-3 in his lone season at McNeese)

College basketball fans around the country will certainly be familiar with McNeese coach Will Wade. Don't remember him? As the head coach at LSU, he was one of the main fall guys for the NCAA after an extensive investigation into corruption in the college game centered around impermissible payments to players.

After leading LSU to back-to-back tournaments for the first time since 2005 and 2006, Wade was fired on the eve of the Tiger's 2022 first-round game. The university received notice of allegations from the NCAA centered around numerous Level 1 violations involving its head coach and swiftly removed Wade from his post.

Many expected Wade to receive the coach equivalent of the "Death Penalty." Instead, he is back in the NCAA Tournament with McNeese, a school 130 miles from Baton Rouge. Following his hire, the NCAA levied a 10-game suspension and two years of recruiting restrictions against Wade and McNeese. However, it concluded its investigation into Wade's alleged violations, failing to prove most of the Level 1 claims.

McNeese went 8-2 during Wade's suspension and 22-1 when he returned. The Cowboys rode 11 straight wins to become the Southland Conference champions, returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004. Are people happy that Wade has seemingly escaped with a slap on the wrist? Absolutely not. However, none of that will matter to Wade if he can lead his new team to its first-ever tournament victory and beyond.

Key Player: Shahada Wells, G, No.13 (Senior)

2023-24 Stats: 17.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4.8 APG, 3.0 SPG, 47.5 FG%

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about the great underdog runs in March Madness is an undersized, fill-it-up guard who can score at any level, much like we saw last year with Kansas State and Markquis Nowell.

No player better fits that bill this season than McNeese Senior Shahada Wells. The undersized guard is the heartbeat of this Cowboys' team and has taken control in the most significant moments all year for Wade and company. In McNeese's two Southland tournament games, the TCU transfer scored 27 points on both occasions.

Wells scores with both efficiency and volume and leads his team in assists. But what sticks out to me most is how much havoc he causes on the defensive end, averaging three steals per game. If McNeese pulls off the run it is primed for, Wells will undoubtedly be a mainstay on televisions all over the country.

Why They Can Make a Run

A common theme that will quickly be apparent between the teams mentioned in this article is well-roundedness in advanced metrics. After all, since the inception of KenPom in 2002, only one team has won a championship without being ranked in the top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

While McNeese does not fall within those confines, its offensive and defensive effective field goal percentages immediately catch my eye, with both ranking in the top 50. Simply put, the Cowboys are shooting the ball efficiently and preventing opposing teams from doing so—certainly a recipe for success in March.

However, where McNeese differentiates itself from the other teams on this list, and most of the teams in the country, is how they shoot the deep ball. At 38.8%, the Cowboys are the eighth-best 3-point shooting team in the nation.

Another essential factor of their success is ball security, which the Cowboys do at an equally elite level. Heading into their matchup with Gonzaga, the Cowboys rank seventh in the country in offensive steal percentage.

The issue facing McNeese in its first round matchup is that Gonzaga has one of the most efficient offenses in the country, ranking in the top 10 in both effective field goal percentage and 2-point field goal percentage. However, the Bulldogs are susceptible to the 3 defensively, creating an opening if the Cowboys can get hot.

I am not confident enough to take McNeese outright in this game, despite the juice at +215; I'm not even sure they will cover +6.5. But if they can get past Mark Few and 'Zaga, they are faced with a matchup of either 13-seed Samford or a banged-up Kansas on a downward trajectory.

I absolutely love the thought of that for Will Wade and McNeese, and because of that, I am taking McNeese to reach the Sweet 16 at +700.

James Madison Dukes (31-3, 2nd in the Sun Belt)*

Seed and How They Qualified: No. 12 in the South Region, received automatic bid after winning the Sun Belt Tournament

All-Time Tournament Record and Best Finish: 4-5 All-Time NCAA Tournament, Second Round (1981, 1983, 1984, 2014)

Odds for Sweet 16, Final Four, and to win it all: +750, +7500, +30000

First Round Matchup: No. 5 Wisconsin, Friday 3/22 @ 9:45 EST

Head Coach: Mark Byington (81-35 in four seasons at James Madison)

In his eleventh season as a college head coach, Mark Byington is finally making his first trip to the Big Dance.

Although he was never able to get his former team, Georgia Southern, to the tournament in seven seasons, James Madison was confident that he was the man to revitalize its basketball program. And boy, did JMU make the right call.

Byington's first season is hard to assess because COVID shortened it. But if you look at the last three years, the Dukes have been on a tremendous upward trajectory. JMU won 15 games in Byington's first full season, 22 last year, and shot all the way up to 31 wins this season. The Dukes have made the NCAA Tournament five times but had never surpassed the 30-win mark until this season.

The next milestone for Byington and JMU is crafting the deepest tournament run in program history. All it would take is two wins to do so, and I will certainly not put it past them.

Key Player: Terrence Edwards Jr., No.5, G (Junior)

2023/24 Stats: 17.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 3.5 APG

Junior Terrence Edwards Jr. had a solid year last season, averaging 13.3 points per game in his sophomore campaign, but Mark Byington was confident he could get more out of his swingman.

Byington's confidence in Edwards turned out to be well-founded, but even he was likely surprised at the lengthy guard's season. Edwards exploded this season and raised his scoring average to 17.4, capturing Sun Belt Player of the Year honors along the way.

At 6'6", Edwards excels on the perimeter, using his length to shoot over opposing defenders. It often feels like no defense could force him into a "contested" shot because he creates space at such an elite level. His length pairs perfectly with his athleticism to create a guy who can attack the rim at will.

Player of the Year has a nice ring, but Edwards will be looking to cement himself as JMU's all-time greatest player with a strong tournament performance.

Why They Can Make a Run

Once again, I am going to tell you that the most successful underdogs are able to beat teams by playing well-rounded basketball. This is certainly true for the James Madison Dukes.

Regarding Effective FG%, JMU ranks 34th on the offensive side of the ball and 23rd on defense. Again, another high seed that takes good shots and forces opponents into bad ones.

However, the two standout areas of this JMU team are the sheer rate at which they score the basketball, ranking 13th in the country in points per game, and how well they shut down opponents' outside shooting, ranking fifth in the country in opponent 3-point percentage.

I am enamored with the Dukes' perimeter defense for a couple of reasons. First, they will keep themselves in games by preventing opponents from exploding beyond the 3-point line, and secondly, they force turnovers at an excellent rate, ranking 20th in the country in steal percentage.

I like this JMU team but am in a similar position as I was with McNeese. The Dukes are seemingly America's upset pick, and that always scares me. I think they are in for a long game against Wisconsin and will actually be taking the Badgers -5 in their first-round matchup.

But if (yes, a huge if) JMU can get past Wisconsin, I don't see any reason they wouldn't be able to defeat either Vermont or a Duke team that hasn't seemed to mesh all season. Because of that, I am taking the James Madison Dukes to make the Sweet 16 at +750. 

New Mexico Lobos (26-9, 6th in the Mountain West)*

Seed and How They Qualified: No. 11 in the West Region, received automatic bid after winning the Mountain West Tournament

All-Time Tournament Record and Best Finish: 8-16 All-Time NCAA Tournament, Sweet 16 (1968, 1974)

Odds for Sweet 16, Final Four, and to win it all: +250, +2500, +10000

First Round Matchup: No. 6 Clemson, Friday 3/22 @ 3:15 EST

Head Coach: Richard Pitino (61-40 in three seasons at New Mexico)

As the son of legendary coach Rick, Richard Pitino has always had high expectations placed upon him by the college basketball world. Now, in his 12th season as a head coach, he has his best opportunity to finally live up to the lofty expectations.

The younger Pitino arrived in Albuquerque in 2021, following eight seasons leading the Minnesota Golden Gophers and one season as the head coach for Florida International. This will be his third tournament appearance (1-2), and with one Lobos victory, he could match his best-ever finish of a trip to the Round of 32.

2021 was a rebuilding season for Pitino and the Lobos, as he brought in nine recruits in his first year for the program. 2022 saw a marked improvement for Pitino and the Lobos as they started the season a scorching 14-0. Unfortunately, the Lobos faltered down the stretch, losing seven of their last nine conference games and finishing seventh in the Mountain West before losing in the first round of the NIT.

New Mexico sprinted out the gates again this season, starting 12-1. There were still issues within the conference, especially on the road. Still, critical victories over NCAA Tournament teams San Diego State, Utah State, and Colorado State saw them finish 10-8 in the conference, good for sixth heading into the Mountain West Tournament.

Luckily for New Mexico fans, everything started clicking for their Lobos at the perfect time. A conference tournament run with victories over the aforementioned San Diego State and Colorado State saw them crowned Mountain West Champions for the first time since 2014. In doing so, Pitino also won his first conference championship in his head coaching career.

Key Player: Jaelen House, G #10 (Senior)

2023-24 Stats: 16.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.5 APG

Fifth-year senior Jaelen House can take a ton of credit for the growth of the New Mexico program since the hiring of Pitino. House was one of Pitino's first additions to the Lobos after transferring from Arizona State ahead of the 2021 season.

From the second he arrived in Albuquerque, House has been the unquestioned centerpiece for the Lobos. His first two seasons under Pitino saw him average 16.9 points per game, and although he took a slight step back in his final season, he still averaged 16.1 points per game this season.

When push came to shove in the Mountain West Tournament, he put together the type of performances that Rick Pitino and staff had to have from their veteran leader. In the final three games of the conference tournament, House put together games of 29, 19, and 28 points to clinch New Mexico's spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Make no mistake, if the Lobos have any shot of making a run this March, it all starts with Jaelen House.

Why They Can Make a Run

Although, as an 11-seed, the Lobos are inherently an underdog in this year's tournament, the advanced metrics paint a very different picture of their chances. In fact, New Mexico is the only double-digit seed to be ranked in KenPom's top 25 rankings, currently slotted at 23rd. The next closest 11-seed is Oregon, all the way down at 55.

Why is KenPom so enamored with this team? As is typically the case with Mr. Pomeroy, it all starts with how well-rounded New Mexico is. Regarding Adjusted Efficiency, the Lobos rank 41st offensively and 23rd defensively, meaning they maximize possessions on both sides of the ball.

However, where New Mexico really sets itself apart is how well it handles the basketball on offense and how it forces opponents into difficult situations defensively. In terms of offensive turnover percentage and non-steal turnover percentage, the Lobos rank among the top 15 in the country in both areas.

On the defensive side, they boast the 22nd-best block and 26th-best steal percentages. They play an efficient, well-oiled brand of basketball that you would expect from a team so littered with veterans.

Because of that, they are two-point favorites in their first-round matchup against the six-seed Clemson Tigers, and will be one of my biggest bets of the opening weekend.

The Lobos also have the 24th-best odds to make the Sweet 16 at +250. Vegas is very much aware of the threat the Lobos pose, and you should be too; we saw just last year how dangerous the Mountain West can be, as San Diego State made it to the National Championship before falling to Connecticut.

I am here to tell you one thing: a Mountain West team will once again be in the Final Four, and my pick is the New Mexico Lobos at +2500 

Game odds update periodically and are subject to change.