Early March Madness Cinderellas, Busts, and Value Bets

Early March Madness Cinderellas, Busts, and Value Bets article feature image

D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

The calendar has flipped to March and the NCAA Tournament is weeks away. Wait, we are still in January and they haven’t played the Super Bowl yet? Super Sunday is great, but nothing beats the opening weekend of the Big Dance.

With that in mind, here is an early March Madness primer with the Cinderellas, sleepers, busts, and value bets you need to know.

Using Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology, we simulated the NCAA tournament 10,000 times to determine the most likely champion as well as the teams that can make or break your bracket.


When you think of a Cinderella run through the tournament, Gonzaga’s 1999 Elite Eight appearance comes to mind. Which team will wear the glass slipper this year? These are Cinderella teams (double-digit seeds) with the best chance to reach the Sweet 16:

Texas A&M (13-7, 2-6 SEC): 18.1% chance

The knock on the Aggies is consistency, the same team that beat No. 11 West Virginia and No. 10 USC to start the season has dropped six of eight in conference play. To be fair, two of those losses were by one point each. A&M ranks in the top 10 in defensive efficiency and come tourney time, being elite on one end of the court can be enough to reach the second weekend.

New Mexico State (17-3, 5-0 WAC): 17.4% chance

The Aggies of New Mexico State haven’t made it past the first round since 1993 but this year’s team is different. Chris Jans’ club is leading the WAC, is the favorite to earn the conference’s automatic bid and has proven it can beat the nation’s best – upset No. 6 Miami in the Diamond Head Classic in December.

Notre Dame (13-7, 3-4 ACC): 15.9% chance

Injuries have been an issue for the Irish this season, the biggest loss being Bonzie Colson. The senior had averaged 21.4 points and 10.4 rebounds in 14 games before breaking his foot. Mike Brey is hopeful the Irish star returns for the conference tournament.


If you are going to win your bracket pool you need to pick teams others are avoiding. Here are teams seeded fifth or worse with the best chance to reach the Final Four:

Gonzaga (18-4, 8-1 WCC): 14.0% chance

The Zags are No. 15 in the AP Poll but KenPom (7th) and ESPN’s BPI (8th) see Mark Few’s squad as a top 10 unit. Gonzaga has a 14.0% chance of reaching the Final Four, the 8th best odds according to the simulations.

Saint Mary’s (20-2, 9-0 WCC): 4.5% chance

The Gaels have won 15 straight (!) including a road win at Gonzaga. Saint Mary’s is top 5 in offensive efficiency led by Austrian Jock Landale (22.9 PPG).

Tennessee (14-5, 5-3 SEC): 4.5% chance

Rick Barnes took Texas to a Final Four in 2003 and if he could guide Tennessee to the final weekend, he would become the 16th coach to lead multiple teams to the national semifinal. The Vols are one of four teams to rank in the top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency according to KenPom.


Watch out for these teams seeded fourth or better. They could bust your bracket as they have the worst odds to reach the Final Four.

Clemson (16-4, 5-3 ACC): 4.3% chance

Clemson has quality wins over No. 22 Florida and No. 18 Miami but do you really trust a team that scored 13 second half points in a 61-36 loss to Virginia? Another knock on the Tigers is the loss of the team’s second leading scorer and rebounder Donte Grantham to a torn ACL.

Oklahoma (15-4, 5-3 Big 12): 5.2% chance

If you like scoring, Trae Young (30.3 PPG, 9.6 APG) and Oklahoma (91.2 points) is your team. Defense isn’t really the Sooners strong suit as the team concedes 81.5 points/game (334th in the nation). If Young isn’t hitting this team will fall early.

Arizona (17-4, 7-1 Pac-12): 5.4% chance

Since a three-game debacle in the Bahamas, Arizona has won 14 of 15. Behind strong play from Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Dusan Ristic, Zona is looking like the team everyone expected before the season began. The model is down on the Wildcats but that has to do with seeding. Arizona is currently the 4-seed in the West, which includes three top 10 teams (per KenPom) plus Oklahoma and Kentucky.

1-seed to Avoid

No team has lost more games than they were expected to win in the Big Dance than Duke. The Blue Devils have a 30.3% chance to reach the Final Four, worst among the 1-seeds. Coach K’s team is a +500 favorite, 16.7% implied chance of winning it all. According to the simulations, there is only a 7.5% chance the most hated team in college basketball cuts down the nets.

Best Bets

If you’ve come this far you deserve a reward. Here are the three most mispriced teams according to the simulations: Villanova (+600), Purdue (+1200) and Virginia (+2000), each is offering value to win the tournament.

Photo via D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports