2019 March Madness picks: Four Cinderellas you should strongly consider in the NCAA Tournament
The unpredictability of the bracket is what makes it so beautiful, tempting and terrifying! And you love every minute of it.
Trying to nail down the upset picks and Cinderella stories is a big part of the fun in the days leading up to the start of the NCAA Tournament. Below, I’ve picked out the strongest candidates from each of the four regions to win a game or two — or maybe three. Now, the funny part about Cinderella: you almost never see it coming.
No one did with UMBC in 2018. And in regard to Loyola-Chicago making the Final Four last year, almost nobody had that, either. The surprise is the best part. But here’s my best look at the most likely Cinderellas in each of the four corners of the bracket.
No. 11 Belmont (26-5)
The Bruins are an immediately trendy pick, and with good reason. Rick Byrd’s team ranks second in the nation in 2-point percentage (59.5), third in effective field goal percentage (57.8) and seventh in assist rate (61.9). The Bruins are a good matchup for a Temple team that ranks below the Bruins in most metrics.
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Then comes the game against the Maryland Terrapins, who have more talent and size than Belmont, but have issues turning the ball over and not turning other teams over. Belmont could have its way on offense against Maryland; if it gets hot from 3-point range, the spread could be seven or eight points in Belmont’s favor. This is a trendy pick, but trendy for a reason. Bruins have only lost five games.
No. 12 Murray State (27-4)
The first two teams are both from the Ohio Valley Conference. With Murray State, you’ve got Ja Morant, a future top-five draft pick who’s pushed the Racers to one of their best seasons ever. Morant is trying to become the first player in NCAA men’s D-I history to average 20 points and 10 assists. Murray State isn’t all Morant — Shaq Buchanan is a 6-foot-3 senior guard who takes and makes smart shots. They also have a 6-8 hoss in Darnell Coward, who cleans up inside.
The Racers face a slumping Marquette team and then would potentially meet up against a Florida State squad that has athletes but also doesn’t shoot well from 3-point range. Turns out Murray State is a top-five team defending the arc. A real shot here for Murray State to finally beat power-conference programs.
No. 12 New Mexico State (30-4)
The Aggies have a beefy record and went 1-2 vs. NCAA Tournament competition this season. Not a great start, right? Except NMSU ranks as a top-50 KenPom team, is an absolute beast on the boards (whereas Auburn is not) and is the deepest team in college basketball. NMSU ranks No. 1 in bench minutes, giving up 49.8 percent of minutes this season to role players. Chris Jans’ team is strong and patient. It is built to beat Auburn.
And if it faced Kansas in a rematch, well guess what? The Jayhawks only won 63-60 when the teams met earlier this season. This is, in my estimation, the best team on the whole of the four Cinderellas I have listed.
No. 13 UC Irvine (30-5)
Here we have the second-oldest team in the tournament (only Nevada has more experienced players) and a group that won 30 games. This squad has only lost once since the calendar flipped to 2019. The Anteaters hail from the Big West and have nine juniors and seniors that have played prominent roles this season. I like that kind of team when going against tough defensive matchups, which is what Kansas State and potentially Wisconsin offer up.
Russell Turner’s squad is the No. 1 2-point defensive team in America, which is useful against Wisconsin and Ethan Happ, no doubt. Against K-State, hey, maybe Irvine catches a break and Dean Wade can’t go for the Wildcats. You might not have seen this team play, but it’s 75th at KenPom, 73rd at Torvik, 68th in the NET and projects as the strongest 13 seed in the field. Good value on this pick at this point.
One final note: I didn’t include Wofford in this group because, for similar reasons that No. 7 Nevada and No. 6 Buffalo didn’t get listed, a single-digit seed is a hard sell as a Cinderella. Happy bracketing!
Visit SportsLine now to see which No. 3 seed makes the Final Four, and see which region you need to pick the 11, 12, and 13 seeds, all from the model that’s nailed 12 of the 18 double-digit seed upsets in the first round the past three years!