Yes, there are differences between Cinderellas, sleepers, and even dark horses (don't get me started). It bugs us when the terms are haphazardly thrown about as if they all have the same meaning. Before we get into which teams have good shots at causing a ruckus in the brackets, let's just lay the base ground rules for differentiating between Cinderella and sleeper; we'll be posting are sleeper picks later Monday afternoon.
Cinderella: MUST be seeded 13 or lower and come from a non-major conference. A Cinderella can get by on one huge upset victory in the first two days; that's all they need. Any time a 13 or lower wins a Tournament game, they've done their job. With a Cinderella, it doesn't take a Sweet 16 appearance to legitimize the name. Beating up on a 4 seed or higher is justice enough.
Sleeper: A Sleeper need not come from any specific conference. They can come in many forms and change shape from year to year. That's why Butler is a sleeper for the Final Four this year, although it doesn't crack our list. There are three different levels for different sleepers. If you're seeded 3 or better, you lose any and all Sleeper status. If you want to qualify any 4-, 5- or 6-seeds as a sleeper, it must make the Final Four. (A 6-seed defeating a 2 to get to the Elite 8 isn't so crazy that you'd consider it "sleep-worthy.") A 7-, 8-, 9- or 10-seed needs to win at least two games (or more, of course) in order to qualify. As for 11-12s, while picking them to reach the Sweet 16 or further is certainly sleeper territory, picking them to win in just one game does not qualify. We good? These rules are important, you know.
Vermont Catamounts (16). Cinderella history: Won 2005 game against Syracuse as a 13-seed. Yeah, yeah, we know: No 16-seed has ever beaten a 1. It will happen one day. We hope it's not this year, because the sooner that happens the sooner we'll hear the chorus grow louder that the tournament deserves expansion. But we're high on the Catamounts because they have athleticism (Marqus Blakely), a transfer who can be a solid secondary option (Maurice Joseph) and a hell of a lot of motivation. Syracuse fans are already plenty nervous their school will be the first 1-seed to fall in the first round; the Orange became the first 2-seed to lose to a 15 when they were upset by Richmond 20 years ago. Also, consider Arinze Onuaku's quad injury. He won't be in the game, and SU is short on the bench as it is. Rarely is a 1/16 game appointment television, but this one has juice.
Murray State Racers (13). Cinderella history: Won 1988 game against N.C. State as a 14-seed. Hard to even qualify Murray State as Cinderella, given its 30 wins and dominance in the Ohio Valley. The Racers went 17-1, and winning is contagious. This team has lost one game since three days before Christmas. That's rather incredible, and since the Racers are going up against an over-seeded Vanderbilt squad, we see this as a distinct possibility. In fact, this appears to be more of a 12/5 matchup, and we know how those go. Also, this is a group that shares, which makes them a group you can root for because there is no superstar. Every starter averages between 10 and 11 points per game. Some will argue that means no one will want to take the big shot if the game comes down to it. Perhaps. But Murray State has won five games by seven points or less in the last month.
Montana Grizzlies (14). Cinderella history: Won 2006 game against Nevada as a 12-seed. The Grizzlies have Anthony Johnson, who scored 42 points to lift his team to a win in the Big Sky finals. Johnson has a smooth stroke, and we hope he can continue to have a complete lack of a conscious in the first round against New Mexico. Speaking of the Lobos, we pick Montana as a Cinderella more because of its opponent. While UNM has been so steady for a majority of the season, it's not the best defensive team. The Lobos have feasted on a lot of slow-moving, shot-clock expiring offenses in the Mountain West, and they could get jolted by Montana's shooting ability. The Grizzlies are the 16th-most efficient field-goal shooting team in the country. All of those shots will have to fall for an upset to occur, but with the way Montana's feeling right now, why not?
Oakland Grizzlies (14). Cinderella history: none. We're high on bears, it appears. Oakland, like Montana, is worth considering because of the opponent. Pittsburgh has been an overachieving team all season, and while Jamie Dixon's Panthers won't take any opponent lightly, they will try to win and keep the game in the 50s. Any power conference team that chooses to nurse the shot clock like that is always flirting with fire. The Grizzlies, like Murray State, have only lost once since Dec. 22. Do long winning streaks mean something? Absolutely! Tracing back to many Cinderellas of years past, you'll see just how many games all those teams won. Pittsburgh has only lost to Notre Dame recently, but the Panthers had some other escapes as well. We think Pitt has peaked, and even if it wins in the first round, a rough-and-tough Xavier team will be waiting in round two.