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The 2023 March Madness Cinderella Guide

From hot shooters to adorable mascots to small programs experiencing a glow-up, here’s everything you need to know to pick upsets in the 2023 men’s NCAA tournament

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Looking for help filling out your bracket? You’ve come to the right place. Since 2018, I have written a guide to picking upsets in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. My “Best Upset Pick” hit every year from 2018 to 2021, from Loyola-Chicago to UC-Irvine to Ohio.

We all want to predict upset picks—but you can’t pick every single 13-, 14-, 15-, and 16-seed to win. (That bracket would be pretty bad!) So I found the best (or most fun) teams that wouldn’t have received an NCAA tournament bid without winning their conference tourney. It’s up to you to choose whether on-court success or funny mascots is the most important factor when filling out your bracket. (All stats are from KenPom unless otherwise noted.)

Best Upset Pick: Furman

Picking Cinderellas is somewhere between an art and a science. A Cinderella exists at the intersection of on-court production and unrealized potential, and to find it we must look past statistics and into the very souls of the players; a Cinderella is a burrito of basketball skills and playing styles wrapped within a tortilla of vibes, March Madness meets metaphys—ah, screw it, I’m just BS-ing. Basically I’m just looking for the team playing Virginia.

Two years ago it was Ohio. Nailed it! This year it’s 13-seed Furman, a team with a stunningly similar playing style to that 2021 Bobcats team led by a pair of superb senior stars and a brilliant offensive head coach. And most importantly, Furman’s got a weird mascot (the Paladins), a rowdy rallying cry (let’s just say they embrace the fact that the schools’ initials are “F-U”) and a great backstory (43 years without an NCAA tournament appearance), so let’s roll our 20-sided die and learn why the Dins are our new heroes of March.

Furman has been one of the most fun mid-majors for years now. Under Bob Richey, who was promoted to head coach in 2017, Furman always ranks highly in three things I call Pretty Offense Indicators: percentage of field goals that are assisted, percentage of field goals that are 3-point attempts, and 2-point field goal percentage. Basically, the Lads are always taking a ton of 3s or passing to players for open layups. (The jerseys say “Dins”, but I’m gonna call them the “Lads” and see if it sticks.) Their shot chart looks like an NBA team’s—all 3s and layups. It’s not just pretty, but also efficient and effective: They’ve finished top three in the Southern Conference regular season every year under Richey, but kept falling short of a conference tourney championship and an automatic NCAA tourney bid in excruciating fashion. Last year was the heartbreaking-est miss of all: The Pals took a two-point lead on Chattanooga with five seconds left in OT, only to lose on a buzzer-beating 3. (I’m calling them the Pals now.) During their raucous celebration, Chattanooga players barely avoided stepping on all the Furman players splayed out on the court in disbelieving grief.

Furman redeemed that pain this year. Led by seniors Jalen Slawson and Mike Bothwell—the SoCon’s Player of the Year and leading scorer, respectively—Furman won the conference regular-season title and finished 11th in Division I in points per game. In a title game rematch with Chattanooga, the Dins went up 19 points early and never looked back. (We’re back to Dins now.)

Now they’re matched up against a Virginia team that has suffered a few first-round upsets in recent years—I haven’t even mentioned the whole UMBC thing—and is overseeded. Virginia is ranked 34th on KenPom; you’d expect a 4-seed to be somewhere in the 13-to-16 range. The Hoos play at a plodding pace (360th of 363 D-I teams in tempo), which leaves them fewer possessions to maximize their talent advantages. They had just 61 possessions in their loss to Ohio in 2021, 62 in the UMBC loss, and 60 in their February loss to Boston College, a team that ranks 83 spots below Furman on KenPom. If Furman can hit a few of those 3s they love taking, Virginia might wind up in a hole they can’t dig out of. Virginia also suffered a critical injury to starting big Ben Vander Plas (incidentally, he was the leading scorer for Ohio in the 2021 upset before transferring to UVA) and will turn to less versatile centers who might struggle against a Furman offense designed to keep them on their back foot.

Furman has all the key ingredients of a team that could pull an NCAA tournament upset—but the most important thing for any would-be Cinderella is the dancer they’re paired up with, and the Pals have the perfect partner. Pick Furman, or you might end up yelling “F-U!” when the Paladins bust your bracket.

Best Mascot: The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns

Normally this nod goes to an adorable (or unusual) animal, an excellent indicator of NCAA tourney upset potential. Don’t believe me? Tell it to the Saint Peter’s Peacocks or the UMBC Retrievers, who earned this honor in past Cinderella guides, and went on to outperform actual basketball predictions. (I was holding out hope the Campbell Fighting Camels would win the Big South, but alas.)

But this year, we’re turning to humans—specifically the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns, a no. 13 seed that will face 4-seed Tennessee. Their name is a perfect blend of rhyming, regional relevance, and RAGE. It’s like if the Notre Dame Fighting Irish nickname were directly tied to Indiana and didn’t make people say, “Hey, isn’t that kinda racist?” I also enjoy that “Ragin’” now additionally refers to “partying” instead of just “being mad.” The Ragin’ Cajuns are the perfect team to root for with your BORG in hand.

The school is located in Lafayette, which is more or less the capital of Acadiana (and was home to the world’s last Popeyes buffet), and the athletic teams reflect that. Enjoy a scroll through the football team’s roster, which is stocked with -eauxs. The Cajuns play in the Cajundome and the apostrophe in the school’s logo is a cayenne pepper.

Unfortunately, the folks in Lafayette are having a bit of a crisis about what the school’s costumed mascot should be. In 2000, the school introduced an anthropomorphic pepper named Cayenne, but for some reason later decided to retire Cayenne and has not come up with a replacement.

You fools! Bring back the pepper! I guess hypothetically the mascot should just be a gigantic Guy From Louisiana (I imagine it’d look like a fuzzy Ed Orgeron).

Best Newcomers: Kennesaw State

I always root for teams making their NCAA tourney debut, but nobody has had a come-up story quite like the Owls. They’re not a long-suffering never-made-the-tourney squad like William & Mary or Army, who we discussed above, but their 18 years in Division I have been bleak. This was KSU’s first season with a winning record. In 2019-20, KSU won one game.


One win. In a whole season. (Oddly, they won that game by 24 points. Should’ve saved some of those made shots for all the other games.) Of 353 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, KSU ranked 352nd that season. Outside of the COVID-altered 2020-21 season, no team has had a season with one win or less since Grambling went winless in 2013. This year, every D-I team this year won at least three games. It’s pretty rare for any team to be as bad as Kennesaw State was three years ago—let alone for a team that bad to turn everything around and make the tournament just a few years later.

The credit goes to head coach Amir Abdur-Rahim. (Yes, Shareef’s brother.) The 1-28 season was his first as a head coach. How do you keep going after all that failure? How do you get your players to believe that you know what you’re doing? How do you believe that you know what you’re doing? Abdur-Rahim did it. The Owls won five games in 2021, 13 in 2022, and 26 this year. At this rate, they’ll win 347 games in 2030.

One of his first recruits was Terrell Burden; he didn’t even get to play in their one win in the 1-28 season due to injury, instead suiting up for 14 straight losses. He stuck around and this year won MVP of the Atlantic Sun tournament after hitting the go-ahead free throw to beat Liberty and clinch the NCAA tourney bid. Beating Xavier as a 14-seed will be tough—but KSU has climbed bigger mountains.

Best Upset Style: Colgate

This is year three of me firmly believing that Colgate can pull off an NCAA tournament upset. They’re 0-for-2, with two losses as a 14-seed and presumably thousands of people mad at me for selling them a busted bracket. This year, they’re a 15-seed and playing no. 2 Texas in the first round, but their on-court profile—and quite frankly, their impressive performance in their two recent tournament losses!—has me feeling this is the Raiders’ year. Again.

A key stat I like to look for when seeking out upset picks is 3-point percentage. No, your Cinderella isn’t going to have better recruits than the blue-blood program they’re trying to take down, but a hot shooting night can make up for that talent gap. In 2021, Colgate was third in Division I in 3-point percentage. Last year, they were second in Division I in 3-point percentage. This year? No. 1! The Raiders shot 40.8 percent from beyond the arc, and also finished second behind only Gonzaga in effective field goal percentage. Three of their players shot over 42 percent from deep, with Oliver Lynch-Daniels becoming the first player since 2017 to take at least 150 3s and hit at least half. (Another player on that relatively short list, Giddy Potts, engineered a 15-over-2 upset with Middle Tennessee in 2016.)

The Patriot League has been child’s play for the ’Gate, as they’ve gone 44-4 in conference play in the past three seasons. But can they hold up to a bigger, faster, stronger opponent in the tourney on shooting alone? In past years, the answer has been yes—but not for 40 minutes. Two years ago, Colgate went up 14 points on Arkansas in the first half, and last year, they led Wisconsin with 10 minutes remaining. But the wheels fell off both times in the second half. (I still blame the NCAA for giving Colgate a de facto road game against Wisconsin in Milwaukee last year.) Unfortunately, they blew both leads and took two L’s.

This year, I believe Colgate can finish the job against Texas. If not, enjoy another entry in this column in 2024 after Colgate goes 18-0 in the Pat League and shoots 50 percent from 3 for a whole season.

Best By-the-Numbers Pick: Drake

Let’s ditch all the mascot talk for a second—OK, let’s look at Drake’s English bulldog, Griff, and then let’s ditch all the mascot talk—and focus on cold, hard, numbers. Most advanced stats sites see the 5-12 game between Miami and Drake as something close to a toss-up. KenPom gives the Bulldogs a 44 percent chance of beating the Hurricanes; Bart Torvik has it at 48 percent; Evan Miyakawa actually has Drake rated higher than Miami. Sportsbooks agree: Drake is just a two-point underdog, while all the other 5-seeds are favored by at least 4.5 points. The advanced stats were right in 2018 when KenPom said Miami had a really high chance of losing to Loyola-Chicago, and Drake has a lot of similarities to that Loyola squad—they both won the Missouri Valley Conference, and Griff is just as adorable as Sister Jean.

Best Pick If You Are Drake: Texas Southern

The rapper and onetime University of Kentucky practice participant hasn’t released his March Madness picks yet, but he hasn’t historically embraced the school that bears his name. He did, however, name a song after 16-seed Texas Southern on 2021’s Certified Lover Boy. The Tigers, who will face Fairleigh Dickinson in the First Four for the chance to play 1-seed Purdue, needed to pull a miracle to win the SWAC tournament just to get into the tourney, so they’ve got about as good a chance of winning as Drake’s other sports betting picks.

Best Coach: Rick Pitino

With the extremely awkward retirement of Jim Boeheim (he retired, right?) there are now only six active coaches with NCAA tournament championships. Five are coaching at schools you’d expect—Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, Baylor, and Virginia. The sixth is at Iona, a small Catholic school just outside New York with a 1-15 record in NCAA tournament games and no NBA draft picks in the last 30 years. That coach is Rick Pitino, who has almost reached the end of his questionable exile from the big leagues of college basketball after winning national titles at Kentucky and Louisville. This Cinderella wears an expensive suit and a lot of hair gel.

After the sex thing and the other sex thing, Louisville got rid of Pitino in 2017 because the school was named in the FBI investigation into college basketball—which, in retrospect, was a huge waste of time and effort investigating stuff that doesn’t seem particularly scandalous. (The actual scandal might be that an FBI agent got super-hammered and gambled away thousands of dollars of taxpayer money while “investigating.”) The gist was that Adidas paid the family of a Louisville recruit (who ended up not going to Louisville). Cool! That’s essentially OK now! Louisville tried to fire Pitino with cause but eventually reached a settlement because it was never clear that Pitino was even involved in the not-that-illegal stuff the FBI was investigating. He initially went to coach in Greece, and in 2020 was hired by Iona.

It was an incredible landing spot. The Gaels were already a consistent NCAA participant under previous coach Tim Cluess, winning the MAAC’s auto-bid five times in nine years. They’ve now done it twice in three years under Pitino. At first, Pitino insisted that Iona would be his last coaching job, but that was before he started winning at Iona and it became clear that other schools don’t consider him toxic. He’s been linked to the openings at St. John’s, Georgetown, and Texas Tech. His closing argument to those schools has been strong—the Gaels have won their last 14 games, 11 of them by double digits. Win a game in the NCAA tournament, as a 13-seed against no. 4 UConn, and his game-day suits will get even more expensive.

Best Near Upsets: Kent State

None of the dozens of potential Cinderellas in this field had any regular-season wins over top-five seeds in this year’s NCAA tourney. But the Golden Flashes nearly pulled it off—twice. Thanksgiving weekend, Kent State had a last-minute lead on the road against eventual 1-seed Houston, but gave up six straight points to close the game and lost, 49-44. The following week, they had a four-point lead with three minutes to go on the road against eventual 3-seed Gonzaga, but gave up 11 straight points to close the game and lost, 73-66.

Perhaps the late losses are a sign that the Golden Flashes simply do not Have That Dog in Them, and should be avoided in a clutch scenario. But we need to consider the context: When Kent State lost those games, the Golden Flashes were in the middle of a ridiculous non-conference stretch that saw them go from South Carolina to Texas to Ohio to Washington in 13 days. They had to play road games against top-10 teams; in the NCAA tournament they’ll be playing a neutral site game against the AP’s no. 21-ranked team. If they came close then, they’re good enough to win now.

And they might have beaten Houston or Gonzaga if not for an unusually bad pair of performances from 2022 MAC Player of the Year Sincere Carry, who shot a combined 6-for-37 in the two losses. I sincerely believe that he can carry Kent State to a win against 4-seed Indiana.

Best Uniforms: College of Charleston

The College of Charleston went 31-3 this year with an exciting up-tempo, 3-jacking style of play—and when you’re that good in your small pond, it can feel like no other colleges exist. You’re THE COLLEGE:

Even Ohio State is impressed by the boldness.

Best One-Man Show: UNC-Asheville’s Drew Pember

When the 6-foot-11 Pember played for Tennessee, he was clean-shaven and had a boyish mop of hair. Then he moved to Asheville, and like so many Guys Who Moved to Asheville before him, he grew a beard and a ponytail and looks like he has a favorite craft brewery. He also transformed from a little-used reserve to a college superstar: After scoring just 31 total points in two years with the Vols, he had three 31-point games this year, including a 48-point performance against Presbyterian that stands as the season high by any Division I player.

Pember’s greatest skill is getting to the line. He led Division I in free throws, free throw attempts, and fouls drawn per 40 minutes. Part of that is the nature of being a 6-foot-11 athlete in a smaller league— and leads to stuff like a 22-for-24 performance from the line in a game against a Charleston Southern team whose tallest starter was 6-foot-7. But it feels relevant heading into the first-round matchup against UCLA, which might be without starting center Adem Bona. In the Pac-12 title game against Arizona, both of Bona’s replacements fouled out, leaving UCLA without any bigs at all. If Bona can’t go, Pember might be able to feast against UCA’s foul-prone backups.

And if it comes down to it, Pember can absolutely drill a buzzer-beating 3: