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The 2021 March Madness Cinderella Guide

Which double-digit seeds could make a run through this year’s NCAA tournament bracket? Here’s everything you need to know.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s time to fill out your brackets for the men’s NCAA basketball tournament! You’re looking for an upset pick, but you didn’t watch … well … any of the schools with double-digit seeds affixed to their names. In fact, you probably haven’t heard of most of those schools.

That’s where we come in. In 2019, our March Madness Cinderella Guide told you to pick UC-Irvine—and sure enough, it won a game. The year before that, we told you to pick Loyola-Chicago—and sure enough, it won a game too. (It won quite a few!) With the 2021 tournament just days from tipping off, here are our favorite teams from the bottom of the bracket—and a few fun mascots and stories, in case you’re looking to make your picks for non-basketball reasons.

Best Upset Pick: Ohio Bobcats

It’s time for some MACtion. The double-digit seed I’m most confident in this year is a team that (almost) beat an even better opponent than the one it faces in its first-round NCAA tournament matchup.

Back in November, Ohio went on the road to play Illinois. The Illini probably weren’t expecting much from a team that had gone just 8-10 in MAC play the season prior. Yet Ohio pushed Illinois to within an inch of its life, leading 75-74 with seven seconds to go before falling 77-75.

The Bobcats’ performance was sparked by one of the great stories in all of college basketball: Jason Preston, a player who was completely unknown coming out of high school but has emerged as a legitimate NBA prospect. Preston was a bench player at Boone High School in Orlando who averaged 2.2 points per game as a senior. Division I teams rarely offer scholarships to guys who score 2.2 points per game in high school, so Preston prepared for the life of an NBA blogger. He applied to UCF’s journalism school and began posting about his favorite team, the Detroit Pistons. You know that someone really loves basketball when they write detailed breakdowns of the Pistons’ listless losses. (I like to think Preston assigned Kentavious Caldwell-Pope a “D” grade after throwing up bricks in a February loss to the Bucks and thought … you know what? Maybe I can make the NBA.)

Preston didn’t give up on his hoop dreams. He hit a late growth spurt and went to postgrad prep school for a year. While playing for the C team at Believe Sports Academy in Athens, Tennessee, he cut his own highlight tape, which was impressive enough to land him two scholarship offers. He committed to Ohio.

This season, Preston ranks sixth in Division I in assists (7.2 per game) while averaging 16.6 points and 6.8 rebounds. In last week’s MAC tournament, he averaged 22.7 points while shooting 55.6 percent from beyond the arc. That’s about 10 times more points than he averaged in high school. In the near-upset at Illinois, Preston went 13-of-23 from the field and finished with 31 points, eight assists, and six rebounds. He also made the go-ahead shot with under 10 seconds remaining in regulation.

Preston nearly led Ohio past Illinois, which is now a no. 1 seed. To advance to the second round of the tournament, all the Bobcats have to do is beat no. 4 seed Virginia—a program that famously has been involved in some big first-round upsets. And now we’re blogging about Jason Preston instead of reading his breakdown of the latest Pistons loss.

Mystery Team: Colgate Raiders

Looking to gamble? Of course you are—it’s March Madness. If so, there’s no bigger gamble than Colgate, whose résumé to this point tells us almost nothing. The Raiders might be good. They might be great. They might be better than the Dream Team. Or maybe not.

Given how the pandemic impacted scheduling, we know less about the relative strength of college basketball teams this season than in any other year. In normal seasons, teams play about 12 nonconference games and 18 conference games. Those numbers vary by school and by league, but not by much. This year, however, scheduling was all over the map. Some good teams played only other good teams. Some good teams played only bad teams. Some teams played a lot of games; others played a few. Some teams played a handful of games and then decided to call it a wrap. (As a mid-major hoops aficionado, my favorite story this offseason was five-star prospect Makur Maker signing with Howard; he played just two games before Howard canceled the rest of its season.)

But no NCAA tournament team played a weirder schedule than Colgate. The Raiders went 14-1, with all 15 of their games coming against just five opponents. They went 5-0 against Boston University and 4-0 against Holy Cross, and added three wins against Army. Last week, they swept through the Patriot League tournament by beating Bucknell and Loyola-Maryland. Compounding the confusion? Of these five teams, only Army played any nonconference competition.

Colgate didn’t just beat these five teams, mind you. It dominated them. The Raiders notched four 30-point wins in those 15 games. They rolled BU and Army by 44 points each. Their average margin of victory was 17.7 points. They finished ninth in the country in the NET rankings, an efficiency-based ratings system the NCAA developed with help from Google that’s supposed to inform how the selection committee seeds the bracket. The committee apparently didn’t use this, slotting Colgate as the no. 14 seed in the South.

The Raiders’ stats are incredible. They shoot 40.2 percent on 3-pointers, the third-best rate in college basketball. (Reserve guard Jack Ferguson would lead the nation in 3-point percentage at 51.5 if he took enough shots to qualify.) They also hold their opponents to 26.1 percent shooting on 3s, the lowest rate in college basketball. What the hell? Does Colgate shoot 40 percent from deep because none of its opponents know how to defend the 3-point line? Or because every guy on its roster is Reggie Miller 2.0?

Looking at the numbers, you’d assume these are the Monstars with 3-point range. But they’re just a bunch of guys who go to Colgate. Are these men, or gods, or lax bros? I have no clue, but I’m picking them to beat Arkansas.

Best Vibes: Winthrop Eagles

Imagine your last name is “Arms.” If you have a son, giving him a normal first name probably isn’t going to work. Can you imagine someone named Steve Arms or Greg Arms? No, you’ve got to take a risk. Enter Winthrop guard Adonis Arms, who not only overcame the intense pressure of his incredible name to have spectacular arms, but who also uses those spectacular arms to throw down alley-oop passes from Big South player of the year Chandler Vaudrin.

Winthrop went 23-1 during the regular season. More importantly, it has exceptional vibes. Here are my favorite things about the Eagles:

  • They are led by Vaudrin, a 6-foot-7 point guard who had three triple-doubles in 2020-21. He seems to have dedicated his life to inventing unusual ways to pass a basketball.
  • They have a big man named D.J. Burns, who was once a top-100 recruit. The 6-foot-9 Burns was 307 pounds when he showed up to Tennessee as a freshman (according to this article from his hometown paper), but has since transferred to Winthrop, which lists him at a slim 275. Small schools rarely have a big point guard and a very big center.
  • They play the 11th-fastest tempo in college basketball. It’s tough to maintain that pace as an underdog, but Winthrop could pull it off.
  • They have ADONIS ARMS, who can flex on everybody.

Adonis Arms proved that you can live up to your name, and, well, Winthrop isn’t named Losethrop. The Eagles are basically a lock to pull off an upset against no. 5 seed Villanova.

Best (and Most Hated) Coach: Iona Gaels

Rick Pitino is an absolutely incredible basketball coach. Virtually everyone agrees on this. He coached Providence to the 1987 Final Four, and won national championships at both Kentucky and Louisville, despite what the NCAA may say. The thing is … virtually everyone also hates Rick Pitino. Do you realize how scummy you have to be in order to be universally considered the scummiest coach in college basketball? In a field full of suit-wearing men with slicked-back hair who are paid exorbitant salaries because their players don’t get paid, pretty much everyone wonders where the hell Pitino gets off. (Perhaps compounding the issue: We do know where Pitino gets off.) Being the scummiest coach in college basketball is sort of like having the smelliest poops at a chili festival—if everyone has a consensus opinion on this, the reason must be deeply upsetting.

How did Pitino end up at Iona? Well, he was fired from Louisville in 2017 after details emerged about his involvement in approximately his 337th career scandal. At the time, Pitino said he would never coach in college again. A team in Greece offered him a job. He took it within 24 hours.

Then in 2020, Iona head coach Tim Cluess retired. The Gaels have a consistently strong program—before this season, they had qualified for the past four NCAA tournaments. I like to imagine that a tense meeting took place in the Iona athletic department where executives were debating who could replace Cluess and someone yelled out, “Rick Pitino’s not walking through that door!” Eight seconds later, I imagine Pitino did walk through that door, because he really wanted another college coaching job.

Although Iona was already solid before Pitino showed up, he’s done an impressive coaching job at the school. The Gaels’ season was paused for 51 days, from December to February, because of COVID-19 issues. After that, it was paused again, ending the team’s regular season prematurely. Iona won its conference tournament anyway.

So if you believe in the power of coaching, Pitino has a good team and a few days to cook up a strategy to knock off no. 2 seed Alabama. He’s done well in March before! As long as Pitino doesn’t get embroiled in another scandal in the next three days, you can focus on his hoops acumen.

Most Clutch Team: Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers

OK, you probably shouldn’t pick a no. 16 seed to advance deep into your bracket—much less a no. 16 seed that has to take part in a play-in game. But it’s impossible not to love Mount St. Mary’s guard Damian Chong Qui, who was 4-foot-9 as a high school freshman, sprouted to 5-foot-8, and megamorphs to 7-foot-9 in crunch time. Let’s run through his heroics:

  • In one January game against Central Connecticut State, Chong Qui scored the final seven points to turn a 60-57 contest into a 67-57 win.
  • With the Mountaineers trailing 60-59 against Long Island University in February, Chong Qui scored the final seven points in a 66-60 win.
  • He hit this absolutely ridiculous shot to force overtime against Fairleigh Dickinson a little over a week later:
  • A week after that, he hit this equally ridiculous shot to force overtime against St. Francis. The Mountaineers won the game, securing a spot in the Northeast Conference tournament.
  • Chong Qui scored the Mountaineers’ final eight points in another game against Central Connecticut State, only for the team to lose on a last-second 3. He also erased a five-point deficit against Wagner by scoring his team’s final 12 points in a February game, only for the Mountaineers to lose on a pair of late free throws.

Mount St. Mary’s clinched a spot in the NCAA tournament by beating Bryant in the NEC championship. In that game, Chong Qui scored 17 of his 21 points during the second half. If things get tight, we know who will get the ball late for the Mountaineers—but maybe top-seeded Michigan will be too lazy to read the scouting report.

Best Stylistic Matchup: Abilene Christian Wildcats

Two years ago, I suggested that Abilene Christian was a burgeoning dynasty that would soon take over the sport. I wasn’t entirely wrong. The Wildcats have become the team to beat in the Southland Conference, as they’re unafraid to play a unique style that could present challenges to opponents who have to study up on short notice.

Abilene Christian leads Division I in two categories: alphabetical order—it has a seven-letter edge over Air Force—and turnovers forced. The Wildcats force 20.3 turnovers per game, with their opponents coughing up the ball on a remarkable 26.7 percent of their offensive possessions. This makes sense considering that the Wildcats’ head coach is Joe Golding, a former assistant to Chris Beard, whose aggressive and unusual defense carried Texas Tech to the national championship game two years ago.

The Wildcats also have a rare offense: A stunning 66.9 percent of their field goals come off of assists, the second-highest rate in college hoops. They don’t try to beat more talented players off the dribble; they simply run their offense until they get an open look. They’re great at getting open layups for 7-footer Kolton Kohl and creating open 3s for senior guard Reggie Miller.

Remember when I mentioned all the guys on Colgate potentially being Reggie Miller 2.0? I forgot to consider that Abilene Christian actually has a player named Reggie Miller. Having the last name “Miller” and naming your kid “Reggie” might be an even bigger heat check than “Adonis Arms.”

Best Mascot: UC-Santa Barbara Gauchos

UC-Santa Barbara has a top-10 mascot in Division I sports. It hits on every front. Let’s break it down:

  • The actual thing that it is: Gauchos are Argentine cowboys. They have all of the great cowboy traits—bravery, outlaw vibes, a rugged sense of individualism—while getting rid of all the crappy parts of the American cowboy myth—gunfights, bank robberies, indiscriminate murder of indigenous peoples. Instead, Gauchos are known for their nifty horse tricks and skill at herding cattle. Mainly, it’s nice to have a mascot celebrating a culture besides the Spartans, who sucked.
  • The logo: It’s INCREDIBLE. Evil eyes lurking under a cool hat.
  • The word: It’s just fun to say “Gauchos.” Try it.

So, there you go. Gauchos rule. The UC Santa-Barbara Gauchos also rule: They’re a no. 12 seed, they have the highest KenPom rating of any team from a one-bid conference, and they have the Big West player of the year in star point guard Jaquori McLaughlin, a transfer from Oregon State.

Most Unkillable Mascot: Drexel Dragons

Why aren’t more teams called the DRAGONS? There are 14 Division I teams called the Bulldogs—14 schools that voluntarily named their sports programs after animals that aren’t fearsome nor athletic, and yet are highly flammable. (Please, I’m begging you, do not test this.) But Drexel is the only school that named itself the DRAGONS?!?!?!? (To be fair to UAB, Blazers are technically dragons.)

If you’re filling out your bracket solely based on which mascots would win in a fight, there’s no other choice. Say what you will about the end of Game of Thrones, but the show firmly established that skyscraper-sized burners are tough to kill and incredibly destructive. Nobody else stands a chance. Sure, Drexel is a no. 16 seed, but do you think that Illinois has a giant crossbow?

Best Newcomer: Grand Canyon Antelopes

Grand Canyon moved up to the Division I ranks in 2013 with a simple mission: create a famous basketball program. (It would rather you pay attention to Sports! than its ongoing feud with the department of education over whether the school is a for-profit business.) It hired a former NBA star in Dan Majerle as its head coach, and built the rowdiest student section in college basketball. Techno and tifos!

Unfortunately for Grand Canyon, NCAA rules about schools that transition up to Division I made the program ineligible to make the NCAA tournament for most of Majerle’s tenure, although it was a consistent participant in the CBI and CIT. When Majerle experienced his first losing season last year, the school instantly fired him and replaced him with a March Madness legend: Valparaiso hero Bryce Drew, fresh off of his depressing stint as Vanderbilt’s head coach. Drew quickly landed 7-foot Wichita State transfer Asbjørn Midtgaard—“Asbjørn” is Norse for GOD-BEAR—and Midjgaard went ahead and led all of college basketball by shooting 70.6 percent from the field in 2020-21. Led by Drew and Midtgaard, the Antelopes went 17-6 and nearly beat Arizona State in December, falling short on a last-second 3-pointer by Remy Martin. (Good booze > God-Bear.)

This is Grand Canyon’s first NCAA tournament appearance. It won’t be its last. Because as soon as Bryce Drew has a losing season, the Antelopes are going to replace him with, like, Jimmer Fredette.