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A Foolproof, Extremely Unscientific Guide to Choosing a March Madness Cinderella

It’s time to get overly invested in an underdog

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Ah, March: a time for glory and athleticism and winsome smiles of righteously uncompensated young people and dog piles on the court. Just kidding! It’s a time for (a) gambling, (b) getting overly invested in the talent and/or luck of 18- to 22-year-olds, (c) getting overly invested in the talent and/or luck of the right 18- to 22-year-olds, and (d) reaping the rewards as the other members of your office pool sputter about the impossibility of you knowing that Western Maine Wesleyan College of Miami would be the team to off X Obvious Favorite. Predicting the correct national champion is great and all, but the key to humiliating your coworker Jake — who went to Duke, don’t know if he’s ever mentioned that he went to Duke, he really loved it at Duke, a school that he attended as a Duke student — is finding the one team that’s going to screw up everybody else’s bracket. You need your Cinderella.

But you don’t just want an underdog; you want an underdog that’s actually good and capable of furnishing you with at least one round of drinks at the bar as Jake slaps himself on the forehead and swears that Grayson Allen totally didn’t intend to trip that guy. Is hanging your hat on a Cinderella team an act of petty contrarianism? Sure. Can it also win you bragging rights and a place in office-pool lore? Absolutely.

So how do you find one? Here are seven simple, not-at-all-basketball-related tips to identify a tournament sleeper.

Pick a School in Virginia That No One Outside Virginia Could Place on a Map

It worked for George Mason in 2006. Then it worked for VCU in 2011, and this year’s no. 10 seed in the West region — a team with a tendency toward creating blood-pressure-raising theatrics — has all the makings of another deep, devastating run. The Rams are also the best team in the nation at winning games they’ve already lost, which feels important.

Embrace the Team With a Weird Mascot

A cannibalistic wheat demon. A spider accompanied by a real live tarantula. A lumpy aviator. A blue … thing. All have known March glory.

An eagle is not that weird, on the surface of things. But as with Florida Men (and Women), there is something a little … off about Florida Gulf Coast’s Azul the Eagle. Will he tear up a nest in protest of a court design? Will he fly off with a cheerleader? Kaw-kaw, Dunk City, kaw-kaw!

Choose a Star With a Name Built for Destiny

Mickey McConnell, Saint Mary’s, 2010. Casey Calvary, Gonzaga, 1999. Ken “Mouse” McFadden, Cleveland State, 1986.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Giddy Potts. The Middle Tennessee State junior guard led the nation in 3-point field goal percentage last season and just topped 1,000 career points with the Blue Raiders. He is also named Giddy Potts, which will be a great deep cut for you to anoint a future car/goldfish with after he is personally responsible for humiliating the favorite that your boss had winning it all.

Have Steph Curry on Your Team

I would recommend this highly successful strategy to any aspiring NCAA tournament sleeper.

Prepare a Damn Carnival Trick (Just in Case)

Look, you never know when a botched 3-point attempt is going to yield two missed free throws followed by a 70-foot heave from a baseball player, a mid-air pass, and a desperate, closing-seconds shot to seal destiny forever. Northwestern already has a 70-foot-pass-to-closing-seconds-shot to its name this season — although given the total dearth of coverage and the fact that zero Northwestern grads work in sports media, you probably won’t end up hearing about any Wildcats heroics.

Play Against Kansas

Some results from the Jayhawks’ recent tournament history:

  • Lost to no. 7 seed Wichita State as a no. 2 seed in 2015
  • Lost to no. 10 seed Stanford as a no. 2 seed in 2014
  • Lost to no. 11 seed VCU as a no. 1 seed in 2011
  • Lost to no. 9 seed Northern Iowa as a no. 1 seed in 2010
  • Lost to no. 13 seed Bradley as a no. 4 seed in 2006
  • Lost to no. 14 seed Bucknell as a no. 3 seed in 2005

Sure, Kansas has also managed to win a national championship (2008), and has fallen to the unsleepiest team of all — but the program has a knack for falling to tournament sweethearts.

Have a Future Pro Bowl Tight End on Your Roster

Antonio Gates was on the Kent State squad that advanced to the Elite Eight in 2002. Jimmy Graham was on the Miami roster that nearly upset no. 2 seed Texas in the second round of the 2008 tourney. VCU has Mo Alie-Cox, whom various members of the NFL have been trying to woo into service as a tight end since his first tournament appearance two years ago. For now, the senior is still playing basketball — so seriously, just pick VCU already.