5 NCAA tournament Cinderellas that could pull off upsets in 2019

If decades of March Madness have proven a single, universal hoops truth, it’s that the colloquial nickname given to the month-long hoops extravaganza is apt. The NCAA tournament is mad. Insane. Dramatic. And darn near impossible to predict.

Millions try – in particular to pick upsets and identify Cinderellas. They build statistical models and study hours of film. But there is very little consistent rhyme or reason to underdog runs. Very few formulas that offer any help.

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With all that being said, however ... previously on Yahoo Sports’ Potential Cinderellas:

“1. Loyola-Chicago | Seed: 11 | Matchup: Miami

... If there’s a double-digit-seeded mid-major in the Elite Eight, it’s going to be the Ramblers.”

The Ramblers, unfortunately, aren’t back in 2019. But our Cinderella picks – double-digit-seeded mid-majors who our experts think could make noise – are back. And hopefully with as much accuracy (and luck) as last March.

1. Yale | Seed: 14 | Matchup: LSU

Let’s start by swinging for the fences. Not with a No. 11 seed, nor with a classic 12-over-5, but with a dangerous 14 that drew the most vulnerable of the 3s.

Yale, unlike most mid-majors, has the size to neutralize LSU’s ferocious glass-crashing frontcourt. More importantly, it can flat-out score. And not because it has one shot-making magician or a bevy of long-range marksmen. The Bulldogs do knock down 37.4 percent of their 3s, but don’t shoot many; instead, in a fashion similar to last year’s Loyola, they carve out quality looks inside the arc with a well-oiled offense and upperclassmen who have been running it for years. They have a possible NBA draft pick in Miye Oni, and a coach who engineered an upset of Baylor in his last NCAA tournament appearance.

Oh, and that coach’s counterpart on Thursday? He’s suspended indefinitely. He has been since a Yahoo Sports report last week revealed that FBI wiretaps caught him discussing a “strong-ass offer” for a recruit. LSU, in its first game without Wade against an opponent that wasn’t winless in conference play, was upset in the SEC quarters.

All of these are reasons Yale is only a 7.5-point underdog on a seed line whose other occupants are at least 12-point dogs. Oh, and there’s nothing special about Maryland, Belmont or Temple next door. Don’t be surprised if we’re still talking about the Ivy League champs at this time next week. Henry Bushnell

Yale knocked off Harvard for the Ivy League title, and now has more March success on its mind. (AP)
Yale knocked off Harvard for the Ivy League title, and now has more March success on its mind. (AP)

2. Belmont | Seed: 11 | Matchup: Temple (First Four), Maryland

Belmont could also emerge from Jacksonville. First, of course, it has to emerge from Dayton. But every year since the First Four debuted in 2011, one of its participants has gone on to win a second game. And Belmont is clearly this season’s best bet.

One big caveat is that Rick Byrd, who has won 804 college games as a head coach, has won zero in the NCAA tournament. But never has he had a better opportunity for a first. This Bruins team has a potent, sharpshooting offense led by potential NBAer Dylan Windler. It also has a pod of beatable teams around it. As with Yale, those factors conspire to make the Sweet 16 a realistic possibility. Henry Bushnell

3. New Mexico State | Seed: 12 | Matchup: Auburn

The Aggies, who haven’t lost since Jan. 3, and who had Kansas on the ropes in Kansas City a month earlier, would have been a popular upset pick in any other matchup. The moment their name flashed alongside Auburn’s, the buzz died down.

But here’s the thing about those scorching-hot, SEC tournament champion Tigers: They’re streaky as hell. They force a ton of turnovers and shoot a ton of 3s, two high-variance strategies that make them a Final Four darkhorse … but also susceptible to the downside of that variance. Just because they were hot one weekend doesn’t mean they’ll be hot the next. If they’re not, New Mexico State is absolutely capable of taking advantage. Henry Bushnell

4. UC Irvine | Seed: 13 | Matchup: Kansas State

This can't be the reward Kansas State coach Bruce Weber envisioned for winning a share of the Big 12 title. The Wildcats drew an opening-round opponent that hasn't lost since mid-January and ranks higher in Ken Pomeroy's efficiency ratings than No. 11 seeds Temple and St. John's.

UC Irvine (30-5) is an experienced, defensive-oriented team that potentially matches up well against Kansas State. The Anteaters are among the best in the nation at giving up nothing easy at the rim and the Wildcats are a poor perimeter shooting team that could be especially limited from behind the arc if sharpshooting forward Dean Wade isn't healthy enough to play.

The last time UC Irvine made the NCAA tournament, Russell Turner's team pushed Louisville to the buzzer in 2015 before falling 57-55. There's reason to believe this year's Anteaters may be an even tougher out after watching them topple Texas A&M and Saint Mary's in non-league play before rolling to their fourth Big West title in six years. — Jeff Eisenberg

5. Murray State | Seed: 12 | Matchup: Marquette

It’s not often that a No. 12 seed has a potential top-two pick in the NBA draft on its roster. But that’s where Murray State sits heading into the NCAA tournament, led by the electric Ja Morant.

Morant makes Murray an obvious pick as a potential Cinderella, especially sitting in the storied 12-5 matchup that’s produced more than its fair share of NCAA upsets.

A Cinderella run won’t come easy for the Racers, who face a Marquette team with a guy who can fill up the box score as well as Morant. Marquette’s Markus Howard (25 points per game) and Morant (24.6 points per game) are the two leading scorers in the tournament, making Thursday’s matchup one of the marquee events of the opening round.

But easy runs are not what Cinderellas are made of. The Racers enter the tournament red-hot, having won 11 straight, including an OVC tournament championship victory over Belmont. And they’re not a one-man team. Shaq Buchanan is another scoring threat and the OVC Defensive Player of the Year. Tevin Brown can light it up from deep as a 37-percent 3-point shooter.

A team with strong guard play, a defensive stopper and multiple players who can get hot from distance pretty much defines Cinderella. An opening-round matchup against a struggling Marquette team that lost five of its last six games is the kind of path that gets Cinderellas started. — Jason Owens

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