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Men’s College Basketball Is in Its Upset Era

From Princeton and Fairleigh Dickinson this year to Florida Gulf Coast a decade ago, Cinderellas come from very different places. But there are common threads that have allowed these smaller, unheralded programs to shine in March.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

They come from the most famous schools in the world and colleges you’ve never heard of. They come from huge universities and tiny colleges, from private institutions and state schools; they come from historically Black colleges and extremely white colleges; they come from schools with 90 percent acceptance rates and 5 percent acceptance rates; they come from the East Coast and the West Coast and Hawaii; they are Anteaters and Lumberjacks and Peacocks. Yet they are all Cinderellas. It’s amazing that the same glass slipper can fit these wildly different feet.

We are in college basketball’s Upset Era. In the first 27 years after the NCAA introduced the 64-team format for the men’s NCAA tournament, zero 16-seeds beat 1-seeds, and just four 15-seeds knocked off 2-seeds. But in the past 11 tournaments, we’ve seen two 16-over-1 upsets and seven 15-over-2 victories. Lower seeds are also going on deeper tourney runs than ever: 11 of the 16 Final Four appearances by teams seeded seventh or lower have happened since 2010.

I spent an afternoon in New Jersey this week interviewing this year’s last Cinderella standing: the Princeton Tigers, a 15-seed who upset Arizona and Missouri in back-to-back games last weekend and will play no. 6 Creighton in the Sweet 16 on Friday night. Just 10 years ago, no 15-seed had ever advanced this far. Princeton is the third to do it in the past three years.

In press gaggles, nearly all of Princeton’s players were asked about their classes, because they’re Princeton. Senior guard Ryan Langborg laughed about how his LinkedIn went viral after the win over Arizona (“There was a TikTok like, ‘Oh, you guys just lost to an acquisitions analyst!’” he said) and explained that he was granted a week’s extension on his senior thesis because of the Tigers’ tourney run. (He’s writing an economics paper about whether sportsbooks are properly weighting the effects of travel when setting point spreads—unclear whether he’s factoring Princeton’s success after flying to Sacramento into his analysis.)

This same week last year, I visited Saint Peter’s significantly smaller campus in the Garden State as the 15-seed Peacocks prepared to head to their Sweet 16 game, in which they beat Purdue to become the lowest-seeded team ever to reach the Elite Eight. Passing all the centuries-old stone buildings on Princeton’s campus this week, I couldn’t help but think back on the one city block in Jersey City that holds all of Saint Peter’s academic facilities. Even though the two schools are 50 miles apart in the same state, they exist in different worlds. Princeton’s endowment is literally 1,000 times larger than Saint Peter’s—$36 billion to $37 million. Saint Peter’s caters heavily to first-generation Americans, and more than two-thirds of its student population are minorities. Princeton admits more legacy students than Black students. A few years ago, the Peacocks had a game canceled because of a leaky roof at their shoddy gym; Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium is an architectural marvel resembling a gigantic concrete turtle shell, and it also holds track and squash facilities and has a Heisman Trophy in the lobby. I don’t recall anyone asking the Saint Peter’s players about their classes.

Virtually nothing links the ever-growing list of Cinderella schools besides the double-digit seeds next to their names. Oral Roberts, a 2021 15-seed Cinderella, is named after the televangelist, has a 60-foot-tall sculpture of praying hands at the entrance to campus, and has come under fire for subjecting LGBTQ students to conversion therapy; Stephen F. Austin, a 14-seed in the 2016 tourney, is not named after the wrestler, and it adopted the Lumberjack nickname because it’s located in a timber-producing region. You can find the historic Vanderbilt-Twombly mansion on the Madison, New Jersey, campus of this year’s biggest surprise, 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson (although the Knights’ athletic programs are housed in the school’s Metropolitan Campus in Teaneck); Florida Gulf Coast, who in 2013 became the first 15-seed to advance to a Sweet 16, was founded in the 1990s and has beachfront dorms. You might know UMBC as the first 16-seed to ever beat a 1-seed in the men’s tourney—but its most successful club is its 10-time national champion chess team; Hawaii, whose only tournament win came as a 13-seed in 2016, is, well, the flagship university of the state of Hawaii.

The recent Cinderellas have also won in many different ways: 15-seed Middle Tennessee went 11-of-19 on 3s to take down 2-seed Michigan State in 2016; Princeton shot 4-for-25 on 3s against Arizona last week. Abilene Christian, a 14-seed, outrebounded Texas, who had a 7-footer in the paint, in a 2021 first-round upset; FDU has entered college hoops lore for winning a game last week with the shortest team in Division I.

But there are common threads between these teams—some are perhaps more philosophical than practical—that are making these sorts of upsets commonplace. As the talent pool at the very top of college basketball shrinks, there’s room for well-built and well-coached smaller conference teams to make tournament runs and thrive in the Upset Era.

Here are five guidelines that the teams we fall in love with every March generally seem to follow. While not every school follows every rule—and certainly not every school that follows these rules wins a tourney game—it’s the closest thing we have to a road map for anybody trying to pull an NCAA tournament upset.

1. Know One Another

Technically, Fairleigh Dickinson’s team, which knocked off no. 1 Purdue last week, was filled with newcomers—head coach Tobin Anderson was in his first year at FDU, and three of his starters were transfers. But Anderson and those transfers all came from the same place: St. Thomas Aquinas College, a Division II school about 45 minutes up the Hudson from New York City. Life at St. Thomas Aquinas wasn’t glamorous: Over four years, Anderson and his future NCAA tourney heroes probably spent more time in vans driving to away games than Purdue’s team spent together on the court.

Anderson’s starting backcourt at both St. Thomas Aquinas and FDU featured two 5-foot-something guards, Grant Singleton and Demetre Roberts, who ground Purdue to dust. They’ve been teammates and roommates since 2018. “Me and Grant have been close for five years,” Roberts said after the loss to Florida Atlantic, which ended their careers. “That’s my brother. We bond well on and off the court. It makes everything special. I’ll love him forever.”

But they weren’t even the only five-year roommates in the men’s NCAA tournament to pull a big upset. Furman’s Jalen Slawson and Mike Bothwell were randomly paired as roomies back in 2018 and have since moved off campus together and promised to be each other’s best men at their future weddings. Both opted to stay at Furman for their entire college careers and used their COVID waivers to take a fifth year of eligibility with the Paladins—and then last week, as a 13-seed, they beat Virginia in Furman’s first NCAA tournament game since 1980.

There aren’t a lot of five-year college roommates in general—but especially in hoops. At the blue-blood basketball programs, top recruits will leave for the NBA draft as soon as they can. And pretty much every program is trying to bring in transfers—and deal with their own players who leave for greener pastures. Baylor won the national title in 2021 with two transfers in the starting lineup; Villanova had four starters (including a sophomore and a freshman) leave for the NBA draft after its 2018 title.

But the programs with less talented rosters need to find an edge to win games against the big boys. And in upset after upset, continuity appears to be that advantage. Just about every team to pull a major shocker in the Upset Era has been heavily reliant on upperclassmen with multiple years of experience together, while only a handful of Cinderellas featured freshmen in significant roles or got significant minutes from transfers.

When no. 14 Mercer beat Duke in 2014, all five of its starters were seniors; 66 of the 70 points scored by Stephen F. Austin in its 14-over-3 upset in 2016 were scored by juniors and seniors; Abilene Christian had 52 of its 53 points scored by juniors and seniors; upperclassmen scored all 77 of the points for Hawaii in the Rainbow Warriors’ upset of Cal.

The current Princeton squad starts three seniors and one junior—but none of them played in the 2020-21 season, when the Ivy League canceled all intercollegiate sports because of COVID. All the Tigers could do that year was practice while under stringent COVID mitigation rules. “Running around with a mask on sucks,” senior Keeshawn Kellman recalled this week. But maybe a season of hooping with nobody but one another means they know each other’s games better than anybody in the country. “I know these four guys like the back of my hand,” Kellman said.

Cinderellas might become famous overnight, but building the chemistry that gives them an advantage in the tournament takes years. (And perhaps some lucky roommate assignments.)

2. Do Something Different—and Do It Well

When Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson played for the Tigers in the 1990s, he was part of one of the most memorable upsets in NCAA history, when, as a 13-seed, Princeton beat defending national champion UCLA in the first round. (Henderson really can’t forget it—the walls of Princeton’s big, concrete, turtle shell–shaped arena, where he now coaches, are covered with pictures of his 19-year-old self celebrating.) Princeton won that game 27 years ago not because it had better players, but because of its unique style of play. Princeton’s legendary coach Pete Carril’s basketball brainchild is aptly named the Princeton Offense—a brutally slow system built around constant cutting and screening, in hopes that defenses will fall asleep for one of the 35 seconds on the old shot clock and give up a wide-open layup or three. To prevent breakaways against more athletic teams like UCLA, Carril’s Tigers refused to contest offensive rebounds. “They threw the ball up in the air, and all five of us got back on defense—we didn’t even go for the tip,” Henderson chuckles now, recalling the game he’s surely been asked to relive thousands of times. It worked: Princeton won 43-41.

Basketball is a surprisingly malleable sport. If a team commits to attacking or defending in a specific way, it can massively alter the game and change the way its opponent has to play. If one team is a shark in a March Madness talent pool, a minnow’s best hope can be to make its bigger and stronger opponent play an unusual style it isn’t used to.

FDU’s upset of Purdue last week is a perfect modern-day version of what Princeton did to UCLA in 1996. With their limited size, the Knights knew they simply would not be able to compete with a hulking Purdue squad by engaging them straight-up. FDU might not beat most opponents by engaging them straight-up. But dating back to his D-II days, Tobin Anderson’s teams have run an aggressive full-court press defense. “Definitely a thought process of being different,” Anderson wrote in a Google Doc during a CoachTube lecture on his press. “Most teams are fairly cookie-cutter. … We weren’t more talented and didn’t know if we could ever be; so be different!” Anderson argued that while most games are decided by shooting and the performance of the top few players on each team, a game in which one team presses relentlessly would be decided by conditioning and depth.

Against Purdue, he was right. The press put the onus on Purdue’s guards rather than on 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey, the best player in the country, who had an obvious advantage over FDU’s short squad. Those Purdue guards seemed to lose their legs after nearly 40 minutes of facing the press, and they bricked easy shots in the game’s critical closing minutes.

Style has been a factor in a number of massive upsets: Stephen F. Austin also ran a press and forced 22 turnovers. Unusual defenses—like Ron Hunter’s matchup zone and Joe Golding’s half-court pressure defense—forced more than 20 turnovers for 14-seeds Georgia State and Abilene Christian in 2015 and 2018, respectively. When Marshall and Buffalo each won as 13-seeds in 2018, they had the no. 3 and no. 5 fastest offenses in the country. (Marshall was coached by Dan D’Antoni, whose brother is kinda famous for coaching fast offenses.) And the 13-seed Furman team that just beat Virginia last week is 11th in Division I in 3-pointers attempted per game.

Henderson stressed that his current squad bears little stylistic resemblance to the Princeton one that he played on. But he knows he’s a branch off Carril’s coaching tree, and playing well, and with identity, is a direct reflection of what he learned from Carril, who died in August. “You can see a lot of stuff about Princeton that would look familiar, and so much of what comes out of my mouth is an honoring of what I’ve learned from coach Carill.”

3. Get Your Kind of Guys

Last year, Saint Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway had a simple answer when asked how he built an Elite Eight squad out of players who hadn’t been recruited by other Division I schools. “You’ve gotta get guys that fit your personality,” Holloway said. “It’s not always the best guys, it’s the right guy.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by virtually every other coach in his position. At bigger programs, a coach is good at recruiting because they can beat out other schools for top prospects. But at smaller ones, the game isn’t winning recruits—it’s finding them. Pulling an upset requires playing differently than everybody else, but you need players capable of fitting that unique style, physically and philosophically.

FDU’s pressing strategy plays into its recruiting strategy. Anderson’s CoachTube seminar features a slide that notes “we will recruit guys who can really press + aren’t great shooters.” Not a lot of coaches would openly express interest in players that “aren’t great shooters,” but it explains how Anderson found his backcourt duo of Roberts and Singleton. Roberts’s Twitter handle in high school was @D1_Meech ... but he had to change it after no Division I colleges offered him a scholarship. “We didn’t really beat out anybody for [Roberts]. And Grant Singleton, Division II schools told him no. So these guys have a chip on their shoulder,” Anderson said at a press conference after FDU won its First Four game.

But surely there are tens of thousands of high school players that would play with a chip on their shoulder due to a lack of scholarship offers if only given a chance. (Like me!) Why not recruit them? Because while Roberts was short, Anderson recognized that Roberts had other valuable physical traits that other coaches overlooked. “His legs, they’re all muscle.” Anderson said when Roberts was a sophomore. “He’s so strong. His body fat is probably 4 percent. He can probably run a mile in 4:50.” Roberts’s speed, strength, and tenacity are perfect to hound opposing guards for 40 minutes. “I couldn’t find two better guards than those two guys for our system, for how we play, for press and run,” Anderson said in Dayton. And that’s how Roberts ended up being D1_Meech after all.

At Princeton, the equation is different. Henderson can’t offer scholarships because of Ivy League restrictions, and his players have to be able to pass classes at Princeton. The result is a team of dudes with interesting talents. “Jacob [O’Connell] has got a nuclear thermodynamics class today,” Henderson said. “Blake [Peters] speaks Chinese. Zach [Martini] can tell you any flag in the world and where that country is.” (I tried testing Martini on the flags of the world but I screwed it up—I showed him a picture of the flag of Nepal with the words “FLAG OF NEPAL” above it. But he did confirm he’s a Sporcle enthusiast.) Henderson feels his team’s off-court passions give them a common set of values: “It’s what makes us good … they like each other and learn from each other all the time,” he said. Their star is Tosan Evbuomwan, a big man from England with nifty passing skills whose coaches at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle emailed Princeton rather than the other way around. There are so many high schoolers who specifically want to go to Princeton—like Langborg, a child of an Ivy Leaguer, or Peters, whose stated career goal is to be Secretary of State—and Henderson has to figure out which ones are good at his style of basketball.

There are a few genuine slipped-through-the-cracks stories that led to NCAA tournament upsets—my personal faves are Jason Preston, who was part of Ohio’s upset of Virginia in 2021, going from an NBA blogger to an NBA player, and Jon Elmore, who dropped out of VMI for family reasons, enrolled at Marshall, and after scoring 101 points in an intramural game, walked into the coach’s office to ask for a walk-on roster spot. But even those are tales of a player’s work ethic overcoming a strange situation.

But the truth is, a coach at the lower levels of the sport probably isn’t going to find a player who secretly happens to be significantly more talented than anybody realizes. If they do happen to find CJ McCollum pre-growth spurt, good for them! But mostly, they’ll need to find guys who are just a bit different—both between the lines and between their ears.

4. Be Elite at Something

Carril told his players specifically not to pursue offensive boards to beat UCLA. Now his protégé’s team defines itself by performance on the boards. “We’re playing a brand of basketball that I think is conducive to winning at the highest levels,” Henderson said on Monday, “and that’s rebounding.”

The numbers back up Henderson’s statement. Princeton grabs 77.3 percent of defensive rebounding opportunities, the seventh highest percentage of any team in Division I and the best percentage of any team left in the men’s tournament field. You might think this is a product of playing against Ivy League squads with fellow acquisition analysts and kids with nuclear thermodynamics classes—but nope! Princeton actually outperformed its season defensive rebound rate against Arizona (80.4 percent) and Missouri (77.8 percent). Against the Wildcats, Princeton had an 11-2 advantage in second-chance points and won by four; against the (other) Tigers, it had a 19-2 advantage in second-chance points and won by 15. This is not the result of any individual superstar—none of Princeton’s players rank in the top 250 of individual defensive rebound rate. It’s a team of guys dedicated to getting that damn board—a different type of acquisition analyst.

Going through the list of upsets in the last decade, this sort of top-tier production in a specific category is not unusual. Of the 16 teams seeded 13th or lower to pull a first-round upset in the last 10 tournaments, eight ranked in the top 10 of at least one of the categories tracked by KenPom and all 16 ranked in the top 25 of at least one.

Abilene Christian and Stephen F. Austin both ranked first in turnover percentage in their Cinderella seasons. Saint Peter’s forward KC Ndefo finished seventh in Division I in blocks. Hawai’i ranked sixth in 3-point defense and held Cal to 3-for-15 shooting from deep. Middle Tennessee was 16th in 3-point shooting, and sure enough shot 57 percent to beat Michigan State.

A Cinderella isn’t going to be better at everything than its opponents. But it can be better at one thing—and it can turn that into the deciding factor in a 40-minute game.

5. Play the Game of Your Life

These teams had specially selected players with fine-tuned experience at particular skills and strategies. They spent years getting good at a few things that could potentially give them an advantage in one game, and it paid off. But it’s also worth noting that every single one of these Cinderellas was objectively worse than the team they beat in the tournament. The seedings were broadly accurate. The spreads and money lines were too.

Fairleigh Dickinson had a brilliant plan and perfect recruiting—and did not have a win all season against a good opponent, or even a halfway decent one. It was not the best team in one of the worst conferences in college basketball, as Merrimack won the Northeast Conference regular-season title and the conference tourney. “We went to Hartford for our ninth game of the season,” Coach Anderson reminisced ahead of the Purdue game, “all respect to them, probably one of the worst Division I teams in the country. We lost and did not play well.” Hartford is transitioning down to Division III and went 2-23 against Division I opponents—and one of those two wins was against FDU. That same FDU team went on to beat Purdue, which went 29-6, dominated every subpar opponent it played, won the Big Ten, and had the best player in the sport. Strategy aside, that is magic.

In 2018, UMBC lost 83-39 to Albany and dropped a pair of games to Vermont by a combined 53 points—then it went 12-for-24 from 3 against the best team in college basketball and beat it by 20 in the tournament. Saint Peter’s lost both of its games against the 2022 regular-season MAAC champ, Iona, and lucked out when the Gaels were eliminated from the conference tournament before they met again. Then it rolled through three of the best squads in the country and wound up among the last eight teams standing last March. Henderson acknowledges that Princeton hasn’t been perfect this year. It lost to 10-18 Dartmouth, and there were plenty of times this season where it didn’t look like the best team in the Ivy League. “A month ago, we lost to Yale here at home, really crushing loss,” Henderson says. What changed? “We’re starting to make shots.”

The Cinderellas come from all over—schools you’ve heard of and schools you haven’t, rich schools, poor schools, Black schools, white schools, the East Coast and the West Coast and the middle of the Pacific. Their basketball teams seem to share similar tales of years-long camaraderie, unique schemes, shrewd recruiting, and surprising skills—but so do a bunch of teams that have been forgotten to time. The main things that unite these schools from across the country is that for one or two beautiful March games, they played the best basketball they’d ever played against the toughest opponent they ever faced. And all the explanations in the world can’t sort out how and why that happened.