2021 NCAA Tournament ‘Cinderella’ Model: The Formula for an Upset and 2021’s Matches

2021 NCAA Tournament ‘Cinderella’ Model: The Formula for an Upset and 2021’s Matches article feature image
Credit:

John McCoy/Getty Images. Pictured: Amadou Sow (12) of the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos men’s basketball team.

Two years ago — when last we crowned a NCAA men’s basketball champion — I spent the entire month of February building a mid-major Cinderella Model. I started from the ground-up, throwing aside my preconceptions and biases as best I could, and I approached the task the most painstaking way I knew how: Exploratory Factor-Analysis (EFA).

Hold on. Don’t click away, yet. Stick with me here. I promise not to bore you with statistical jargon like “EFA.”

Well … ‘promise’ is a strong word.

I … vow? Nope; that’s worse.

I’m going to … try my best. (Nailed it.)

I analyzed every NCAA Tournament team since the 2001-02 season based on every single KenPom metric available. Through statistical treatment, I determined which metrics matter and which ones don’t. And, you might be surprised to learn that one important factor (cough team experience cough) doesn’t matter at all.

I then built a model that predicts the types of mid-majors that win in the first round — and which ones tend to lose. Finally, I used that model to rank this season’s mid-major squads based on each team’s probability of scoring a first-round upset.

For you TL;DR folks out there who want to get to my Cinderella Rankings as fast as possible, feel free to skim to the bottom of this article. Or, use the highlighted text throughout as a summary. The Action Network editorial team did go through the effort of adding all these highlights, so you might as well use ’em, right?.


Defining a Cinderella Team

Is being a Cinderella about the colossal upset, or the deep tournament run?

Maybe it’s both.

But those deep Final Four runs aren’t exactly predictable — and I want to provide you with something that has meaningful predictive value as you fill out your brackets this season. So, when I say “Cinderella Teams,” I’m focusing on squads that can pull a first-round upset this year.

By focusing on obscure mid- and low-major schools with a chance to pull a big upset, I’m also implicitly highlighting high-profile, lower seeds with a real chance of losing on Day 1. These are the kinds of teams you want to avoid taking deep into the tournament, lest your bracket be busted in the first weekend of play.

I am not trying to find every single possible upset in the first round. I am not trying to identify every team that could make a Sweet 16 run. Instead, I’m trying to identify the teams that no one is thinking about that have a strong chance of being upset in the first round — thereby busting everyone else’s brackets … expect yours (if you take my advice).


Rules & Requirements for “Cinderella” Status

Let’s define what constitutes a Cinderella team as specifically and operationally as possible:

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