In recent years, Cinderella has been under siege.
Surrounded by mice, rats, lizards and a stationary pumpkin, the hidden beauty has failed to enchant wealthy aristocrats, and the bracket masses. The Fairy Godmother really needs to invest in a functional wand.
Two of the past three NCAA men's tournaments have yielded the blandest brackets hardwood fans have ever witnessed. Due to a lack of upsets (teams seeded at least four spots lower than its opponent), sanity has replaced madness. Take a look:
Including 2008, 9.3 favorite-slashing upsets have occurred. Unforgettable teams like George Mason (2006), Davidson (2008) and Kent St. (2002) forged indelible memories, repeatedly toppling Goliath over multiple rounds. But in a diluted age where elite talent routinely bolts early for the NBA, parity, shockingly, hasn't reigned supreme. Dominant teams are few and far between but the influx of fresh talent at high-major schools (i.e. Kentucky) has exceeded that of the generally deprived "little guys." Unsurprisingly, recruit leftovers haven't tasted as good. As a result, single-digit seeds have consistently survived and advanced, leaving upset seekers terribly unsatisfied.
Randy Culpepper is hoping the Miners' collective shout will be heard against Butler
But this year, UTEP is just one reason why Cinderella will strike back.
The last time the Miners were tourney relevant was nearly 20 years ago. Since legendary Bear Don Haskins led UTEP to the Sweet 16 in 1992, the once basketball-rich school has "Footloosed" just twice, in 2004 and 2005. Coaching turnover, marginal talent and the rise of other Texas schools (i.e. Texas, Texas A&M and Baylor) have sapped the program.
However, this year's Gold Diggers enter the Dance with pickaxe sharpened.
Tony Barbee has done a masterful job preparing his team for a heart-pounding postseason run. Spelunking in the often overlooked Conference USA, the Miners rolled through league play by winning 15 of 16 games, and 17 of their past 19. Though stopped short in its quest for an automatic berth by a red-hot shooting Houston team, UTEP possesses several key characteristics needed to emerge from the early-round fray.
For starters, Barbee's bunch digs in defensively, limiting foes to just 0.88 points per possession, the 14th-stiffest mark in the country. Ranking in the top 30 nationally in several other critical defensive categories, including effective field-goal, three-point and steals percentages, the Miners flat out contest shots. Combine that tenacity with their desired up-tempo pace, and, suffice it to say, their opponents are reaching for oxygen midway through the second half.
Offensively, UTEP is equally potent. Conference USA Player of the Year, guard Randy Culpepper, is an explosive, highlight-creating scorer who always plays with a sense of urgency. In 32 games, he's failed to reach double-figures in scoring just five times. As witnessed in his 45-point outburst against East Carolina, he is single-handedly capable of destroying an adversary. A Stephen Curry-like string of performances is possible.
Meanwhile, Louisville transfer Derrick Caracter, who checks in at a beefy 6-foot-9, 275-pounds, is an interior punisher. The Ground Round of Rebound has snagged at least eight boards and scored 10 points in 12 contests this season. Keeping him out of foul trouble is imperative, but if he nets 30-plus minutes, the Miners will be formidable. Throw in the additional bulk of 6-foot-11 Arnett Moultrie and 6-foot-7 Jeremy Williams along with the distributing abilities of Julyan Stone (5.4 apg), and they have the frontline depth and guard play needed to wear down opponents.
UTEP's first round foe, Butler, is a terrific basketball team. But, outside of foul-prone Matt Howard, it lacks the trench girth needed to body up with the Miners. Considering Culpepper and company have held opponents to just 30.7 percent from the arc, Shelvin Mack and Gordon Hayward may struggle from distance. Ultimately, UTEP's defense and depth will cage the Bulldogs in a classic 12-over-5 upset. Keep in mind that since 1985, 34 percent of 12 seeds have escaped the first round. A similar story could unfold in Round 2 if Vanderbilt, which will be challenged relentlessly by a dangerous Murray State team, squeaks by. Of the 12 seeds who've advanced to Round 2, 50 percent have marched onto the Sweet 16. History is certainly on UTEP's side.
By-the-book brackets have been commonplace over the past few seasons, but the desert leviathan from El Paso is one of what could be several reasons why Cinderella could morph into Steven Segal – the non-doughnut cop version.
Here are five teams poised to don a glass slipper:
13 – South
Starting Five: G – Edwin Ubiles (15.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg), G – Ronald Moore (6.8 ppg, 7.8 apg), G – Clarence Jackson (13.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg), F – Alex Franklin (16.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg), F – Ryan Rossiter (13.9 ppg, 11.1 rpg)
Key Wins: None
Key Losses: at Temple (loss by 4), at Georgia Tech (13), at Northern Iowa (17), at Butler (17)
Why they surprise: Seasoned, talented and pesky, the Saints, like the Super Bowl champions, have excellent odds of marchin' into the next round. The Mighty Dogs of the Metro have reached Round 2 in consecutive seasons, undercutting Vanderbilt (2008) and Ohio State (2009) as a No. 13 and No. 9 seed respectively. A well-rounded team, Siena boasts the nation's most unheralded floor general, national assist leader Ronald Moore, double-double machine Ryan Rossiter and slashing guard Edwin Ubiles. Meanwhile, MAAC Player of the Year Alex Franklin has averaged 18.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game over his past five. All five starters net at least 13.6 points per game. Fran McCaffery's kids don't splash efficiently from distance, swishing just 32.3 percent of their attempts, but their cup-driving tenacity has wrecked havoc on opponents. Though average defensively – the Saints rank 59th nationally in D efficiency – they could cause the Robbie Hummel-less Boilermakers problems due to their supreme ball-handling and paint-penetrating skills. Based on its experience, all-around play and minimal self-inflicted wounds, Sienna is more than capable of stringing together a magical tourney run.
Murray St. Racers
13 – West
Starting Five: G – Isacc Miles (9.5 ppg, 3.8 apg), G – B.J. Jenkins (10.5 ppg, 3.2 apg), F – Ivan Aska (10.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg), F – Danero Thomas (10.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg), C – Tony Easley (10.4 ppg, 2.7 bpg)
Key Wins: None
Key Losses: at California (loss by 5), at Western Kentucky (11)
Why they shock: The thoroughbreds of the OVC are optimistic the finish line is still in the distance. Incredibly unselfish and balanced – amazingly all five starters average between 9.5 and 10.6 points per game – the Racers racked a school-best 30 wins. Their plus athleticism and efficient well-roundedness on both ends of the floor could prove problematic for a Commodores team notorious for stumbling early. Offensively, Murray St. ranks in the top 12 nationally in effective field-goal, two-point and offensive rebound percentages. Against a large opponent, attacking the cylinder by feeding interior stalwarts Tony Easely and Ivan Aska will be critical to its success. Defensively, the Racers must continue to coax turnovers (11th in defensive TO%) and defend the three (167th in 3PT% defense), a problem they've had throughout most of the season. Vandy dandy Jermaine Beal could be a real bugaboo. Though they've faced only one opponent ranked inside the RPI top 50, California, who they lost to by five back in early November, Billy Kennedy's club is defensively disruptive, offensively effective and generally talented enough to cash in.
San Diego St. Aztecs
11 – Midwest
Starting Five: G – D.J. Gay (10.3 ppg, 3.2 apg), G – Chase Tapley (7.8 ppg, 2.2 apg), F – Billy White (11.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg), F – Malcolm Thomas (11.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg), F – Kawhi Leonard (12.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg)
Key Wins: New Mexico (won by 10), UNLV (10), New Mexico (N) (3), at UNLV (10)
Key Losses:at St. Mary's (loss by 22), at Arizona St. (3), at UNLV (10), BYU (2), at New Mexico (2), at BYU (14)
Why they shock: The Mountain West Montezumas may sacrifice Volunteers in the opening round. San Diego St. leaned on its toughness by playing its way into the field with an attention-commanding run through the MWC tournament, defeating favorites New Mexico and UNLV. Well-roundedness is the backbone of Aztec basketball. San Diego St. ranks 43rd in offensive and 42nd in defensive efficiency. Despite their balanced performance, a few shortcomings cannot be overlooked. Defending and converting three-pointers are major flaws. Due to its numerous cutters and drivers, this is a team which lives, on both ends, inside the arc. The Aztecs have shot 53.6 percent from two while limiting opponents to just 43.4 percent from the same distance. Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White are active and very physical around the basket. Limiting turnovers against Tennessee's pressure defense will be vital for Steve Fisher's youngsters to survive. However, because of the Vols' mediocre interior muscle, the Aztecs will be presented with numerous second chance opportunities, which will be the difference.
Cornell Big Red
12 – East
Starting Five: G – Louis Dale (11.9 ppg, 4.8 apg), G – Chris Wroblewski (8.9 ppg, 3.3 apg), F – Jon Jaques (6.9 ppg, 48.8 3PT%), F – Ryan Wittman (17.5 ppg, 42.0 3PT%), C – Jeff Foote (12.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg)
Key Wins: at Alabama (won by 4)
Key Losses: Seton Hall (loss by 10), at Syracuse (15), at Kansas (5), at Penn (15)
Why they shock: Buzz around the Big Red has reached epidemic proportions. Picked by many to be this year's Davidson, the pundit darling definitely has the offensive make-up to piece together multiple victories. Cornell averages 1.13 points per possession, the 28th-best mark in the nation. Largely due to the accurate stroke of forward Ryan Wittman, one of college basketball's finest arc assassins, it ranks No. 1 nationally in three-point percentage offense, netting 43.8 percent from long range. Rare Ivy League commodity, 7-footer Jeff Foote, is an ideal interior complement. On the season, the senior skyscraper has totaled a quality 12-8 line on average. His ability to draw defensive attention is pivotal to Cornell's success. Due to its defensive inadequacies – the Big Red ranks 139th nationally in D efficiency – especially from beyond the arc, a Sweet 16 berth seems improbable. But based on their highly-competitive efforts against Seton Hall and at Kansas, this is a team Temple shouldn't take lightly. How the Owls, who've held teams to just 28.1 percent from distance, defend the three will determine how formidable a Cinderella Cornell can be.
Utah St. Aggies
12 – South
Starting Five: G – Jared Quayle (12.5 ppg, 43.9 3PT%), G – Pooh Williams (8.8 ppg, 2.3 apg), G – Tyler Newbold (8.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg), F – Nate Bendall (10.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg), F – Tai Wesley (13.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg)
Key Wins: BYU (won by 10), New Mexico St. (18)
Key Losses: St. Mary's (loss by 5), at Long Beach St. (13), at Louisiana Tech (22)
Why they shock: Similar to UTEP, the selection committee awarded the Aggies an at-large bid because of their standalone regular season. The (wiggity-wiggity) WAC representative was plenty deserving. Second only to Cornell in three-point percentage offense, Utah St. splashes often from distance. Stat-sheet stuffers Jared Quayle, Tyler Newbold and Brian Green shoot a combined 44.7 percent from rainmaker territory. Equally efficient inside, it's no wonder why the Aggies average 1.16 points per possession, the 14th-highest mark in the country. Defensively sound, they also protect the glass well, ranking in the top 10 nationally in defensive rebound percentage. Throw in the strategic brilliance of Stew Morrill, and Utah St. has the necessary characteristics to slay Goliath. In the battle of Aggie superiority, how Texas A&M defends the three, an area in which its struggled (162nd in 3PT% D), will ultimately decide who prevails. Methodical and systematic in a half-court setting, the WAC wonder will likely frustrate its Big 12 nemesis.
Below are a handful of fast facts to help you construct the ultimate bracket.
• No. 12 seeds have upended No. 5 seeds in 40 percent of games since 2000. In the second round No. 12s are 17-17 all-time (50%).
• No 16 seed has ever defeated a No. 1 – although Alonzo Mourning still fears all Tigers from Princeton
• Since 2000, No. 13 seeds have advanced to Round 2 just 22.5 percent of the time; No. 14 seeds five percent
• No. 11 seeds have a lower win percentage than No. 12s since 2000, winning only 32.5 percent if its contests
• Notable mid-major conference overall win percentages since 2000: Atlantic 10 (45.7%), West Coast (44.8%), WAC (37.0%), Missouri Valley (35.5%), Mountain West (26.7%)