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Seven Cinderella candidates in this year's NCAA tournament field

Ryan Greene
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There's at least one ever year.

In the past, they've provided the NCAA tournament runs that have made people think twice about picking against schools like Butler, George Mason or Gonzaga ever again when filling out their brackets.

They're the Cinderellas.

Who will be this year's team to come out of nowhere and make you head for Yahoo! Search or Wikipedia to find out just who the heck they are? Here are seven candidates to take notice of now.

Oakland — No. 13, West Region

This is Oakland's second consecutive trip to the tournament, and the Golden Grizzlies come in rolling, having won 19 of their last 20 while cleaning up on overwhelmed Summit League competition. What makes them so dangerous is their ability to score big, having posted at least 100 points seven times this season and 80 or more on 23 occasions. They're battle-tested, including a stretch in mid-December when they lost to Michigan State by just a point, then pulled off a huge 89-82 upset at Tennessee a few days later. What makes upsetting No. 4 Texas in the first round a possibility is the presence of 6-foot-11 senior center Keith Benson, who is a legitimate NBA prospect. Aside from averaging 18 points and 10.1 rebounds a game, Benson is more than capable of neutralizing the Longhorns' rugged duo of Tristan Thompson and Gary Johnson.

Old Dominion — No. 9, Southeast Region

Some might remember the Monarchs from a year ago, when as an 11-seed, they knocked off No. 6 Notre Dame in the first round in New Orleans, 51-50. Old Dominion returned several key pieces off of that team this season, compiled a 27-6 record and won the CAA tournament. Their success from a year ago likely helped them in earning a No. 9 seed this time around, and they'll face last year's über-Cinderella Butler on Thursday. That game looks like a bit of a toss-up, but should ODU advance, don't think that it's not capable of taking down No. 1 Pitt on Saturday. Led by the veteran trio of 6-foot-5 senior guard Ben Finney, 6-9 senior forward Frank Hassell and 6-5 junior swingman Kent Bazemore, they defeated Xavier and Richmond earlier this season, and also played Georgetown within three points in a November loss. The Monarchs play at a patient pace and can frustrate any opponent, including the Panthers, who stumbled into the tourney a bit by going 3-3 down the stretch.

Belmont — No. 13, Southeast Region

The Bruins, like Oakland, can score big. As likely the only 30-win team you haven't heard of this season, Belmont has the outside shooting that makes it capable of hanging with No. 4 Wisconsin in the first round, with five of its rotation regulars shooting at least 39.3 percent from 3-point range and several others capable of knocking down the long ball. In 6-foot-9 junior Mick Hedgepeth, the Bruins have a guy capable of playing both inside and out with Wisconsin's Jon Leuer. Plus, it's hard to ignore the fact that Wisconsin comes into the tournament having lost two in a row in ugly fashion. First was a 28-point drubbing at Ohio State to close out the regular season, then a 36-33 — yes, 36-33 — loss to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals. The Badgers look ripe for the plucking here if Belmont is able to push the tempo like it wants to.

Richmond — No. 12, Southwest Region

Richmond is by no means an unknown, and after going 27-7 and winning the A-10 tourney, the Spiders were probably under-seeded by at least a few spots. They had an RPI of 41, three wins over RPI top-50 competition and really nothing that constitutes as a bad loss. Despite a draw that's a bit tougher than it deserves — No. 5 Vanderbilt first, then the Louisville-Morehead State winner if it advances — Richmond is another veteran group that got its first-time-in-the-NCAAs kinks out a year ago and now looks much more dangerous. They have arguably the best inside-outside combo of any team with a double-digit seed, trotting out senior scoring guard Kevin Anderson and 6-foot-10 senior forward Justin Harper, who is on several NBA scouts' radars.

Bucknell — No. 14, West Region

Bucknell simply being in the bracket makes it a Cinderella possibility, regardless of the matchup. In the program's stellar two-year run in 2005 and 2006, the Bison first pulled off one of the greatest upsets in recent NCAA tournament history by knocking off No. 3 Kansas in the first round in '05, then a year later as a nine-seed took down Arkansas. Now, after finishing 13-1 in the Patriot League and blowing through the conference tournament, Bucknell gets as favorable of a matchup as you can hope for as a 14-seed. No. 3 UConn is coming off of a brutal five-games-in-five-days stretch while winning the Big East tournament, and by doing so earned what some consider a much better seed than the Huskies actually deserve. If Kemba Walker has an off night for UConn, Bucknell's balance (seven players average at least 20.4 minutes and seven points per game) could score another shocker.

Morehead State — No. 13, Southwest Region

Kenneth Faried's 14-point, 11-rebound performance as a sophomore against No. 1-seed Louisville helped the Eagles put a serious scare into the Cardinals for a while. In that game, Morehead trailed by only two points at halftime before ultimately bowing out by 20 to a team that ended up in the Elite Eight. Faried is still there, and is now the college basketball modern era's all-time leading rebounder. He averaged 14.5 caroms a game this season, ripped down 30 combined in back-to-back games at Florida and Ohio State earlier this season, and had double-digits boards in all but four of his team's 33 games. Now the Eagles get another first-round crack at the Louisville Cardinals, whose front line is depleted following the loss of Rakeem Buckles to a season-ending knee injury. Faried being on his game alone could not just help spur an upset here, but maybe even another one two days later against the Vanderbilt-Richmond winner.

George Mason — No. 8, East Region

Can you really consider a team that came from nowhere to streak to the 2006 Final Four a Cinderella ever again? You can when that program only made it back once in the next four seasons. But Jim Larranaga once again has a team capable of re-creating the '06 magic. Before losing to VCU in the CAA tournament semifinals, the Patriots won 16 straight. It's an exciting team with only two seniors and plenty of productive youth. The first-round contest with No. 9 Villanova looks like a good spot for Mason, as the Wildcats come in having lost five straight and clearly lacking confidence. Winning that one won't surprise too many people, but taking care of the tournament's No. 1 overall seed — Ohio State — two days later would be monumental. No one will think they can pull it off, but the same was said in '06 when Mason faced No. 1 UConn with a berth in the Final Four on the line.

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for the Las Vegas Sun. Read his Rebels coverage and follow him on Twitter.

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