The Making Of A Cinderella Team

March Madness is upon us! The greatest 2 and ½ week, single elimination, tournament begins today with 64 hopeful men’s college basketball programs. While teams are seeded 1 through 16 in four quadrants, each squad posses unique challenges and optimism on their road to the Final Four in San Antonio, TX.

What kind of DNA is composed to make a Cinderella team? First, they must be a lower seed. If the university is ranked 8th through 16th the odds are mightily stacked against them. Since 2000, only 50 men’s basketball teams seeded No. 8 or lower have made the Sweet 16.

In 2013 for example, the 15th seed Eagles from Florida Golf Coast University entered the tournament for the first time. They knocked off the No. 2 ranked Georgetown Hoyas, following that up besting the 7 seed, San Diego State Aztecs.

This was the first time a 15 seed had reached the Sweet 16. While “Dunk City” was an aberration, each year highly respected teams falter in the early rounds.

Another outlier comes from the Duke Blue Devils. One of the most decorated programs in all of college basketball, Coach K and his teams have been stung by Cinderella’s in recent years in between title runs. Look no further then 2012 and 2014 when Lehigh and Mercer won (as 15 and 14 seeds) respectively.

Each year a trend continues as well, with the infamous 12 defeating a 5 matchup. This time around, pundits are eyeing New Mexico State to top Clemson in a similar fashion.

No school outside of the power 5 conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC) has won the national title, but who is to say it won’t happen eventually?

Dave Holcomb of Cox Media Group believes a few schools will be susceptible this year.

“There isn’t one singular thing an underdog team must have to become a Cinderella, but I think one advantage the mid-major teams have when they do meet the blue blood programs is experience.”

Not necessarily NCAA Tournament experience, but teams (Butler and Wichita State) that went to the Final Four and other mid-major programs that advanced to the Sweet 16 usually have upperclassmen. Veteran leadership doesn’t necessarily trump talented one-and-dones, but it can give teams from smaller conferences an edge.

“To that point, Loyola Chicago is my Cinderella pick to make the Sweet 16. They create mismatches across the floor and could take advantage of the youth from both Miami and Tennessee (a potential second-round matchup). Miami will also be without arguably its best player in freshman guard Bruce Brown,” said Holcomb.

Covering the Big West Tournament last week in Anaheim, CA, it’s hard not to believe in a team like the 15th seeded Cal State Fullerton Titans. The experienced team won three games in successive nights; ousting rivals Long Beach State, No. 1 seeded UC Davis, and highly touted UC Irvine, who made the big dance two years prior.

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Kyle Allman Jr. and Khalil Ahmad excelled, catapulting Cal State Fullerton into the NCAA Tournament. The guards, both juniors, combined to hit 12 of 18 shots in the second half and gave the Titans the Big West Tournament title in a wild 71-55 win over UC Irvine’s Anteaters at the Honda Center.

This was Fullerton’s first conference title since 2008, a decade since their last NCAA Tournament appearance.

“I knew I had to play well,’’ said Allman. They gave me the jumper and I took it.”

Allman, the tournament MVP, scored 26 points on 8-of-16 shooting with four 3-pointers and Ahmad notched 23 points on 21 shots.

“They picked the right time to play their best game,” Fullerton coach Dedrique Taylor said after cutting down the nets. “They were completely unselfish. It’s a sense of validation and accomplishment, for the coaches, the kids, the administration and anyone else in the program.”

The Titans became the eighth different school in as many years to win the conference tournament. Two new schools, UC San Diego and CSU Bakersfield join the Big West next season.

The 20 wins are the most for Fullerton since the 2011-12 team won 21. It’s been a significant turnaround for a program that was hit with NCAA penalties after the 2012 season and went into rebuild mode under Taylor. The Titans lost 20 or more games his first three seasons, and then went 17-15 in 2017.

“This is so surreal,” said Taylor. “There have been times this season when we’ve been inconsistent, but I think everything we went through added up to what we did tonight. I tell the guys if you play as hard as you can, this is the result.”

CSU Fullerton now travels to Detroit as a heavy underdog to face the No. 2 seed Purdue Boilermakers. Can they shock the world and slide on Cinderella’s slipper? This is what March Madness is all about.

Watch the tournament unfold starting today with games airing nationally on TBS, CBS, TNT, and truTV.