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NCAA Tournament Upsets: Top 5 March Madness Cinderella Candidates for the NCAA Tournament

Which teams are set to pull off big upsets this March Madness? Henry John gives us five teams capable of being the Cinderella story of the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
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NCAA Tournament Upsets: Top 5 March Madness Cinderella Candidates for the NCAA Tournament

Buckle up, folks! If it didn’t feel like March already, it sure does now! On Sunday, the full 68-team bracket was officially unveiled for the 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Affectionately known as “March Madness”, the NCAA Tournament delivers year in and year out in terms of excitement, nail-biting finishes and, of course, upsets! The unpredictability of 68 teams playing in a single-elimination format never fails to deliver some shocking results.

Over the years, there have been a number of mid-major teams to go on unforgettable runs in the Big Dance. In 1983, Coach Jim Valvano and North Carolina State really set the bar for all future Cinderella teams by winning the national championship as the 6-seed. Since then, some of the greatest March Madness runs have included 11-seed George Mason reaching the Final Four, Stephen Curry leading 10-seed Davidson to the Elite Eight, and 11-seed VCU going all the way from being one of the “Last Four Teams In” and playing in the First Four to the Final Four. Heck, it was just last year, 15-seed Oral Roberts stunned college basketball fans by reaching the Sweet 16 and nearly the Elite Eight! 

Given the high level of competition and parity across the country, there is bound to be some more March magic in the 2022 NCAA Tournament. The following looks at five teams who are capable of an unforgettable Cinderella run in March Madness this year.

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2022 March Madness Top 5 Cinderella Candidates

1. Saint Mary’s Gaels

These days, considering a 5-seed to be a Cinderella is a marginal claim, at best. Of course, most 5-seeds hail from the Power 6 group of conferences, but such is not the case in the East Region this year. As of 2016, the total student population at Saint Mary’s was less than 4,000. Despite this, Randy Bennett continues to churn out winning results on the court and regular NCAA Tournament appearances. Much like the entire West Coast Conference, this year’s Gaels might be the best team in school history.

As of Selection Sunday, Saint Mary’s was ranked No. 16 overall in the KenPom rankings. Where the Gaels really shine is on the defensive end of the floor. An average of just 90.0 points allowed per 100 possessions results in a top-10 adjusted defensive efficiency ranking. Experience is everything in March Madness, and Saint Mary’s certainly has plenty of that. Each of the Gaels’ top three scorers are seniors. 

Matthias Tass is a massive presence in the post while Tommy Kuhse is a spectacular playmaker who can also probe for his own shot. Joining Kuhse in the backcourt are upperclassmen Logan Johnson and Alex Ducas. A matchup against a First Four winner will ensure the Gaels have a rest advantage. Playing in Portland also allows the Gaels to stay in the Pacific Time Zone for the first two rounds.

2. Colorado State Rams

One of four Mountain West teams in the 68-team field, Colorado State drew the highest seed of the bunch. As the 6-seed in the South Region, the Rams certainly will have no shortage of competition in their quest to be a March Madness Cinderella. After only losing four games during the regular season, the Rams were bested by San Diego State in a low-scoring Mountain West Tournament semifinal game. Nonetheless, CSU still finished the year ranked No. 31 overall according to KenPom.

The greatest strength for Colorado State is their high level of efficiency on the offensive end. The Rams averaged 114.2 points per 100 possessions, good for a top-20 offensive efficiency ranking. They led the MWC in scoring offense on the season with junior guard David Roddy leading that output with 19.7 points per game. The Rams’ best player and emotional leader, Roddy also averaged 7.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks. 

CSU also has a terrific backcourt player in Isaiah Stevens. In addition to averaging nearly five assists per game, Steven has a knack for delivering clutch buckets when the Rams need them most. Colorado State’s lack of size will be a concern, especially in a First Round matchup against a power conference team in Michigan. However, a highly-efficient offense combined with veteran players is a recipe for success. Should they advance to the Second Round, the Rams would truly be right at home in a slow-paced, low-scoring matchup against 3-seed Tennessee.

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3. Murray State Racers

After completing a 30-win season featuring an unbeaten mark in conference play and an Ohio Valey Tournament title, Murray State is a 7-seed heading into March Madness. This seeding is a true testament to one of the best seasons in the school’s history. When it comes to the NCAA Tournament, the Racers have already experienced their fair share of success in the past. With arguably more talent than ever before, the OVC champs are not a team to dismiss in this year’s bracket.

Three players averaged in double figures scoring for the Racers this season, led by junior K.J. Williams at 18.2 points per game. Meanwhile, the backcourt duo of Tevin Brown and Justice Hill combined to average over 29 points and eight assists on the season. Despite their status as a mid-major, Murray State has a seed line and statistical ranking that befit a power conference team. The Racers will enter the Big Dance ranked 27th overall in the KenPom rankings.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty the Racers will face in becoming the Cinderella story of the 2022 NCAA Tournament is their competition. A First Round clash against 10-seed San Francisco will be a real test. With an experienced backcourt of their own, the Dons could make some noise of their own in the tournament. If Murray State survives that game, their reward will likely be a date with Kentucky in the Second Round. Then again, the Racers found a way to win all but two games this season. 

4. New Mexico State Aggies

Alright, now we get to the double-digit seeds who have Cinderella potential! First up: perennial Western Athletic Conference powerhouse, New Mexico State. After a down year a season ago, Chris Jans and the Aggies are back in the NCAA Tournament after routing Abilene Christian in the conference tournament final. The old 12-5 upset is the most common in March Madness. When filling out 2022 March Madness brackets, NMSU is worth a long, hard look. 

Compared to previous New Mexico State teams, this year’s squad may not be the deepest. However, thanks to the advent of the transfer portal, it is no doubt the most talented. Teddy Allen was a scoring machine with Nebraska in the Big Ten Conference. He continued that this year with the Aggies on his way to earning WAC Player of the Year honors. Allen led NMSU with 19.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The Aggies identify as a mid-major, but in Allen, they have a veteran player with a professional future who can take over a game at any time.

New Mexico State surrounds Allen with plenty of experience and talent, both inside and out. Point guard Si’Jabari Rice is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, big man Johnny McCants has an endless motor to impact games with his hustle plays. The Aggies' length and athleticism defensively overwhelmed numerous WAC opponents this season. A First Round matchup with UConn is a juicy one, to say the least.

5. South Dakota State Jackrabbits

Murray State wasn’t the only team to go unbeaten in its conference this season. South Dakota State became the first to do so in the Summit League with a perfect regular season and a conference tournament championship. SDSU rolls into March Madness with an overall record of 30-4. Not only that, but the Jackrabbits proved capable of matching up against Power 6 opponents when they upset Washington State early in the season. 

The key to South Dakota State’s success all season long has been an electrifying offense. While they may only rank 71st overall in the KenPom ratings, the Jackrabbits boast the 12th-most efficient offense in the entire country. An average of 116.8 points per 100 possessions saw SDSU overwhelm every one of their Summit League opponents this season. Douglas Wilson leads the team with 16.5 points per contest. Meanwhile, Baylor Scheierman can do it all. Along with scoring 16.2 points per game, the sophomore guard also averages 7.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.4 steals.

As a 13-seed in the NCAA Tournament bracket, South Dakota State will open up against Big East regular-season champion Providence. While the Friars only lost five games this season, many felt that they overachieved. According to KenPom, they are only 49th overall. If the Jacks can overcome a sub-200 defensive efficiency ranking, they could be well on their way to pulling off at least one March Madness upset.


Henry has had a passion for sports that few can match for as long as he can remember. What started out as a five-year-old taking interest in the New York Jets and their green jerseys has since become a full-fledged career as a writer and sports betting analyst. His coverage primarily includes the NFL, MLB, NBA, NASCAR, college football, and college basketball. In 2020, he ranked among the top-10 most accurate experts ATS in the BettingPros NFL season contest. You can follow Henry’s sports work on Twitter and other social media platforms @HankTimeSports.


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