There is nothing more fun to watch in the NCAA tournament than a Cinderella team – a squad that far exceeds the expectations based on their background and their seeding. For bettors these teams can be fun for another reason – they can be extremely profitable. Teams that make surprising tournament runs tend to share some characteristics. Not all Cinderella teams have to have all seven of these characteristics, but if a team doesn’t have any of these characteristics – or just one or two – then it will be very tough for that team to shock the world:
Depth – A basketball team that is going to make a surprising run in the tournament needs to have a lot of depth, They are going to play two games in just three days, and they will be playing at a very high intensity against very good opponents. If they are not deep enough to handle that challenge then their opponents could run them off their feet and make it hard for them to compete at a high level. There is a good chance that a lower seeded hoop team will have less talent overall, so if they also have less depth then they could really have issues.
Experience – It’s hard for a young college team to shine in the tournament at the best of times unless they are exceptionally talented. If a team is operating at a talent deficit – as lower seed teams typically are – then it is probably too much for them to overcome if they also have limited experience. Only with experience does a basketball team learn how to handle pressure and how to play their best when things are the toughest. Ideally a team would have a core of players who have played in the NCAA Tournament before. If that’s not possible then you’d like to see a core of players who have played together and who are upperclassmen with years of starting experience. If a team lacks that then they may be more likely to be building a foundation for future success than being on the road to success this year.
An exceptional player – When a team makes an unexpected NCAA tournament run there is almost always a basketball player who rises up to lead the team with exceptional play. Often times that is a guy who is a future NBA player – like Stephen Curry at Davidson or Gordon Hayward at Butler. It isn’t always a player of that caliber, though. It can also be a guy who is just a talented guy who plays extremely well at just the right time. Either way, if there isn’t a guy who can lead the way for a team with his play – and elevate those around him as a result – then the team isn’t likely to have a deep run in them. If you think back to every deep run by a surprising team there is almost always a single player that stands out as the catalyst.
Difficult characteristic to adapt to – In order for a college team to surprise they have to do something that their opponents haven’t seen, and which isn’t easy to adjust to. It could be a style of offense, a defensive structure, a regular full court press, or something else. It just has to be something that they do very well, and commit to fully, that is going to be unfamiliar, and which can knock the opponent off of their game. That’s one of the few ways that a team that is outmatched physically and in talent can hope to come out on top.
Strong coaching – A team that surprises has to have very good coaching. That doesn’t mean that they have to be big name coaches, or guys with a lot of experience – many young coaches have led their teams deep. They need to be coaches who have shown that they are tactically sound, aggressive, and that they have the confidence of their team.
Vulnerable opponent – It doesn’t matter how good an upstart team is playing if they face a more talented, deeper team that is playing just as well. College basketball handicappers who make wnning bets know that in order for a team to mount a run they need to have some luck in the bracket. They don’t need to face bad teams – there are very few of those in the NCAA Tournament. They just need to have an opponent that has exhibited a weakness that has been exploited in their losses. When you look at the top half of the seeds in the tournament there are some that seem extremely strong, and some that seem less so. It’s those latter ones that you are looking for here.
Strong recent form – A team that goes on a tournament run has often shown strong form in the weeks leading up to the tournament. That means that they likely performed well in their conference tournament, and that they had shown improvement and strong play leading into that tournament. This isn’t an absolute requirement, but strong form certainly makes it easier to trust a team.