Searching for Cinderella: What to look for in NCAA upsets

Feb 26, 2013 |
Searching for Cinderella: What to look for in NCAA upsets
South Dakota State has the schedule, experience and talent to make waves this March.
Photo By - USA Today Sports
South Dakota State has the schedule, experience and talent to make waves this March.
Photo By - USA Today Sports
In less than a week, college basketball bettors will be enthralled by a handful of Cinderella teams making improbable runs in the NCAA tournament. By that time though, it will be too late to cash in on those surprise squads.

Bettors will look back to the start of the tournament for signs of those teams turning the corner as contenders and wonder, “Why didn’t I see that coming?”

If you would rather be the guy saying “I told you so” and making money on those underdog runs, now is the time to start sizing up possible Cinderella teams. They can come from small mid-major leagues, like VCU in 2011 or Butler in 2010-11, or could be under our nose the entire year in a major conference, like UConn in 2011.

We asked some of sports betting's sharpest minds what they look for when trying the glass slipper on a potential Cinderella team as the NCAA tournament kicks off:

Non-conference success

Probable Cinderella teams can show their true colors as early as November by putting together a strong effort against non-conference foes. Many programs load up on major-conference competition in order to jack their RPI and strength of schedule, giving bettors an idea of how they’ll react against tougher and unknown opponents.

“Teams playing in poor conferences that played a meaningless non-conference schedule likely will not come close to getting out of the first round,” says Covers Expert Matt Fargo, who instead points to a team like South Dakota State as a potential Cinderella thanks to its stout non-conference calendar.

Experience and chemistry

Whether it be a roster packed with upperclassmen or past tournament success, experience is worth its weight in gold come March – especially when taking on some of the younger major-conference squads.

Pro handicapper Teddy Covers is keeping a close eye on Middle Tennessee State, who received an at-large bid out of the Sun Belt Conference. The Blue Raiders returned eight key players from a team that went deep into the NIT last season, missing out on the NCAA due to an upset loss in the conference tournament. They are 3-point underdogs in the Midwest play-in game Tuesday.

“You want to make some money in the tournament, bet on that team,” Teddy says of MTSU. “They are really, really good and completely off the radar. They’re smart, know how to win on the road, and rebound very well.”

Robert Ferringo of Doc’s Sports looks for mismatches in cohesion come March. While some of the top teams may be loaded in pro-groomed freshman talent, they haven’t played together long. Some smaller programs have had the same core for three or four years, owning the edge in chemistry and experience.

“Put them up against an overrated or over-seeded team or just a team that isn't motivated or isn't taking the mid-major seriously, and you get that first upset,” say Ferringo. “Once that happens, the momentum gets going and anything can happen.”


When talking to experts about what stands out most for potential Cinderellas, defense is the one attribute that comes up over and over again. All of them would take a lockdown defense over a potent offense any day of the week during March Madness.

“I like teams that are battle tested and can play a stingy brand of defense,” says Covers Expert Sean Murphy. “For an underdog to go deep it has to be able to frustrate its superior opponents. Explosive, high-scoring teams are great, but what happens when they go cold? Scrappy teams that can win games played in the 50s and 60s are the ones I look to back in an underdog role throughout the tournament.”

One of the names being brought up is Bucknell out of the Patriot League. The Bison rank 14th in the nation, allowing just 57.5 points per game, and have wins over tournament teams New Mexico State and La Salle as well as a two-point loss to Missouri this season.


As Connecticut proved a couple years ago, the most dangerous team in the tournament is the hottest team. The Huskies shocked the Big East for the 2011 conference crown and parlayed that into an improbable NCAA run, which ended in a national championship.

Plenty of teams are rolling toward the postseason, namely Saint Louis which rolled through its conference tournament and has just one loss in the last 16 games - that coming in overtime. The Billikens are also 15-1 ATS in that span.

“Saint Louis is hot,” says Covers Expert Jesse Schule. “Nobody wants to play these guys right now.”

The pointspread is great way to gauge just how well a team is playing heading into and during its conference tournament. The oddsmakers’ numbers give you an idea of the expectations on a team, and whether or not they are playing above or below that bar.

“You want a team that covered the spread in all two or three of their conference tournament games,” says Ferringo. “Even if they were the overwhelming favorite to win their tournament, you still want to see them go out and lay the wood to opponents.”

Silent superstars

The NCAA tournament has made household names out of unknown ballers. There are more and more pros coming out of smaller conferences each year.

Past Cinderellas like Butler with Gordon Hayward, Davidson with Stephen Curry and Western Kentucky with Courtney Lee, have put their teams on their back come tourney time and given the favorites fits.

Nate Wolters, a 6-foot-4 guard out of South Dakota State, could be the next unknown talent to shine on the national stage. It's an 11-point underdog versus No. 4 Michigan in the second round.

He’s averaging 22.7 points per game – fourth in the country – and has the Jackrabbits in line as the next Cinderella out of the Summit League. Wolters, who scored 19 points in a near upset of Baylor in the Round of 64 last season, dropped 53 points in a win over IUPU in February.

Desktop View: Switch to Mobile View