March Madness Cinderellas & Survivors

by Bobby Sylvester | @bobbyfantasypro | Featured Writer
Mar 13, 2018

Michael Porter Jr could lead Mizzou on a cinderella run

An important part of winning bracket pools is not getting too cute in the first few rounds. It is unlikely to help you if your bracket is loaded with double-digit seeds advancing, but could entirely ruin your chances. Now, if you are going for that fleeting perfect bracket or simply competing in a different type of contest than the standard 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 point system, then finding the right cinderellas can be the difference between placing outside the money and winning the entire thing. After I share my favorite potential cinderellas, I’ll take you over to my survivor contest picks. Alright, let’s do it!

The crew at TeamRankings.com stayed up all night crunching the March Madness numbers. Get the best bracket for your pool >>

First-Round Cinderellas

  • (11) Loyola-Chicago > (6) Miami
  • (12) New Mexico St > (5) Clemson
  • (11) UCLA/St. Bonaventure > (6) Florida
  • (13) Charleston > (4) Auburn
  • (14) Montana > (3) Michigan
  • (16) Penn > (1) Kansas

Typically every season, there are one or two 11+ seeds who are actually favored in the opening round. For whatever reason, that isn’t the case this season. Each one of these teams is not only the lower seed, but also the underdog according to predictive models. As a result, I am not expecting any of these teams to win, but we know it happens each year with a handful of them so consider these the most likely of the bunch.

That San Diego sub-region should be pure fire with two tremendous 4-13 and 5-12 matchups. Simulation models give them a little more than a 10% chance of meeting up in Round 2. That may not seem like much, but it is near identical to the odds of Arizona making the Elite Eight, which probably seems extremely feasible to you.

You may laugh at the Penn over Kansas possibility, but the efficiency metrics have Kansas as a fringe top-10 team this season and they happen to be extremely volatile. Penn, meanwhile, may be the best 16-seed in a decade. They grade out similarly to 13-seeds rather than 16-seeds, and while it is unlikely, we all know the equivalent of a 13-seed could beat a 3-seed. As you might expect, simulations have them winning about 1 in 15 contests versus Kansas, which are the same odds as Michigan St. winning the title. In other words, it is definitely possible.

Sweet Sixteen Sleepers

  • (8) Missouri > (1) Xavier
  • (11) Loyola-Chicago > (3) Tennessee
  • (8) Seton Hall > (1) Kansas
  • (10) Texas > (2) Cincinnati
  • (10) Butler > (2) Purdue
  • (7) Texas A&M > (2) UNC

Three of these potential sleepers will be dependent on their star power if they are to knock off the higher seeds this weekend. Missouri has four future NBA players including sure-fire lottery pick, Michael Porter Jr, who just returned from a back injury. They earned an 8-seed without him so you’d have to think the dynamic freshmen could potentially help the Tigers win a couple games including a second-round matchup against the easiest 1-seed, Xavier. Both Texas and Texas A&M carry lottery picks as well. Mo Bamba is another phenom returning from an injury for Texas while Robert Williams will be a nightmare in the post defensively for A&M versus Cincinnati.

Purdue is a strong two-seed with one of the most under-appreciated coaches in basketball, but they have a difficult draw with Butler as a potential second-round opponent. All models show their resume being that of a six-seed, so don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs make another typical Butler cinderella run into the second weekend.

Again, I by no means am advising you to pick all of these as sleepers. There is no chance I’d take even more in my standard bracket. With that said, if you are looking for cinderellas, these seem to be your best options.

Elite Eight and Beyond

  • (6) Houston > (2) North Carolina
  • (8) Missouri > (4) Gonzaga
  • (5) Ohio St. > (1) Xavier
  • (5) Kentucky > (1) Virginia
  • (8) Seton Hall > (4) Auburn
  • (6) TCU > (2) Duke

Kentucky didn’t start their season as well as many expected, but that does not mean they can’t win three or four games in a row this March. In fact, they have already started a run, knocking off five teams ranked as 9-seeds or higher in the past month. The Wildcats came into the season as a top-five team based on sheer talent, and perhaps that talent will peak at the ideal time.

It’s a shame TCU fell into such a rough draw because predictive models have them rated higher than some 4 and 5 seeds. They will have to defeat both Michigan St. and Duke in order to advance this far, so as you might have anticipated, no one is picking them to do so. While both of those teams are tremendous, a solid top 20 team could potentially knock each off in back to back games, and if you pull that off in your 84-point pool, your group of teams will stand out from the pack.

The Big Ten only saw four entries into the Big Dance, but each one of them possessed the metrics to make a deep run. While the Buckeyes appear to be the least talented of the group, they may also have the easiest path. Gonzaga is not a pushover, but Xavier is essentially a 3-seed that just happens to be listed as a 1-seed. If Ohio State can get past the Zags in a coin-flip game, they might find themselves as the Vegas favorites versus Xavier to get into the Elite Eight seeing that KenPom has them just one spot apart in their rankings.

Small Survivor Pool Picks

  • (4) Arizona > (13) Buffalo
  • (3) Tennessee > (14) Wright St
  • (1) Xavier > (16) Play-In
  • (4) Wichita St. > (13) Marshall

In smaller pools, there is not much need to risk in the opening weekend. People often times try to get too cute, grabbing a New Mexico State or risking it with a Florida so that they have stronger options later on. Don’t be that person. Take it easy with the four teams who are heavy favorites in the opening round, but have toss-up games awaiting them in Round 2.

Assuming I survive the first two days, I’ll of course, reassess my options, but I’m looking to do the exact same thing for the second set of games. Michigan St. should be able to handle TCU, but you wouldn’t dare use them versus Duke unless you ran out of other options. It makes more sense to use them and Duke in Round 2. Other teams I’m eyeing include UNC and Gonzaga. With that said, there may just be a 6-seed lined up against a 14-seed, as tends to happen every few years. If that is the case, you can bet on me using the opportunity.

Large Survivor Pool Picks

  • (5) Ohio St. > (12) South Dakota St
  • (8) Seton Hall > (9) NC State
  • (6) TCU > (11) Play-In
  • (7) Texas A&M > (10) Providence

In larger pools, you’ve got to risk a little bit more. It is easy to guarantee a top 20 finish if you play it safe, but that isn’t where the big prizes are. I wouldn’t even consider using any of the four teams above later on in the tournament unless they ran into a cinderella. Each, however, are clear-cut favorites in their first-round matchups, yet few people will pick them in survivor because of the bias associated with teams seeded in that range. Following these picks, I’ll open it up to safer options in Round 2 like Tennessee and Xavier. Neither are locks, of course, but if I can sneak through the first two rounds with mild-favorites, then I’ve actually got a chance to win some serious dough.

My final word of advice in these contests is to not be shy about using any cinderella once you get to the Sweet 16. If they’ve made it that far, they can almost always hang with the big boys. It certainly comes with some risk, but it is a calculated investment. The odds of a Loyola-Chicago knocking off a 2-seeded Cincinnati in the Sweet 16 is nearly 40% if the two were to meet at that stage. Now, if you can pull it off, you’ll be the heavy favorite for the remainder of your survivor competition.

More March Madness Content

Bobby Sylvester is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Bobby, check out his archive and follow him @BobbyFantasyPro

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