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Which Cinderella Teams Are Analytics Nerds Backing to Destroy Your NCAA Tournament Bracket?

Last Updated: July 1, 2023

This article originally appeared at numberFire, powered by FanDuel.

Using formulas from numberFire, KenPom, and BartTorvik, let’s identify four March Madness Cinderella teams for the algorithmically inclined.

Part of what makes the NCAA Tournament so special is just how unpredictable it is.

We saw that play out last year when we got an Elite 8 matchup between 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s and eighth-seeded North Carolina — anyone can beat anyone on a given day.

Last year, five teams seeded eighth or worse made it to the Sweet 16, with three getting to the Elite 8 and one — UNC — going all the way to the title game. Two seasons ago, four double-digit seeds made it to the Elite 8, with one — UCLA — advancing to the Final Four.

So, which Cinderella teams could make some noise this season?

Using our nERD metric and numbers from both KenPom and BartTorvik — as well as college basketball odds from FanDuel Sportsbook — let’s take a look at four potential March Madness Cinderella teams who could wreak havoc on this year’s tournament.

(NOTE: nERD indicates expected point differential over an average opponent on a neutral floor.)

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Analytics-powered March Madness Cinderella Teams for 2023

Florida Atlantic (9 Seed, East Region)

  • +112 underdog vs. Memphis in Round of 64 at FanDuel Sportsbook

Florida Atlantic is used to winning — they went 31-3 this year — and they have the tools to make some noise in this season’s big dance.

Our model is really high on the 9th-seeded Owls, ranking them 20th in the country. KenPom and BartTorvik aren’t quite as bullish but still view FAU pretty favorably, slotting the Owls 26th and 30th, respectively.

The problem for FAU is that they got a rough draw. In the first round, they’ll see Memphis and are a 2.5-point underdog. If the Owls get past the Tigers, they’ll almost surely come up against Purdue in the second round. That’s a brutal opening two games.

What FAU has going for it — other than being flat-out good and ranking in the top four in both adjusted offense (32nd) and adjusted defense (36th), per KenPom — is that they jack up a lot of threes, which makes them dangerous. Florida Atlantic’s three-point attempt rate is 43.9%, the 39th-highest clip in the nation. And they don’t just take a lot of threes, they make a high percentage of them — 37.2% (35th-best).

Florida Atlantic will need to bring their A-game to survive the first weekend, but if the Owls are hitting from deep, they can be one of the surprise teams of the tournament.

Boise State (10 Seed, West Region)

  • +108 underdog vs. Northwestern in Round of 64

Purely from their team-based statistical profile, Boise State checks some boxes — the most notable of which is that the Broncos boast a top-shelf defense, ranking 14th by KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency.

Defense has been the driving force for Boise State en route to a 23-9 season. Things could’ve been even better for them as they lost two overtime games as well as a pair of other games by two points apiece. They rank 31st on KenPom, 30th by nERD, and 31st on BartTorvik.

In addition to their ability to guard, Boise State plays at a slow pace (219th by adjusted tempo), and fewer possessions means an increased chance for variance — something that should come in handy if they’re a sizable ‘dog in a game.

They’re barely an underdog in the first round, with their clash against seventh-seeded Northwestern priced as basically a pick’em (as of Sunday night). The Wildcats had a great year en route to a second-place finish in the Big Ten but rank just 42nd on KenPom, 35th on BartTorvik, and 38th by nERD — behind Boise State in all three.

UCLA would be a very difficult foe in the second round, but if we’re looking for a reason to believe in a possible Boise State upset over the Bruins, we can cling to UCLA’s slow pace (230th). The Broncos may be able to hang around in a low-possession affair. Plus, UCLA will be without Jaylen Clark, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.

West Virginia (9 Seed, South Region)

  • -130 favorite vs. Maryland in Round of 64

When I think of March Madness Cinderella teams, my mind doesn’t go to an established program like West Virginia, but going by seeding, they are a Cinderella for 2023.

By our numbers, the Mountaineers are one of the more under-seeded teams in the field. We rank ninth-seeded West Virginia as the 19th-best team in the country. KenPom has them 17th while BartTorvik is right in line with our model, putting WVU 19th.

The reason for the discrepancy in how the advanced metrics see WVU and how the committee saw them comes down to close losses — results that can be heavily dependent on luck. And by KenPom’s Luck rating, the Mountaineers check in 299th, making them one of the nation’s unluckiest teams (fifth-unluckiest squad in the tourney).

While West Virginia is fully capable of making a run, the committee put them in a tough spot. In the first round, the Mountaineers will play a Maryland squad that ranks 22nd on KenPom and 28th by nERD. It’s a very strong 8/9 game. If they win that, WVU will likely run into Alabama, the big dance’s overall top seed.

But West Virginia has shown it can play with the country’s best, and it did just that at the tail end of the campaign. Prior to being thumped by Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament, the Mountaineers closed the regular season with a two-point loss at Kansas followed by wins over Iowa State and Kansas State.

The Mountaineers are 2.5-point favorites over Maryland and can give Bama a game in the second round.

Utah State (10 Seed, South Region)

  • -110 pick ’em vs. Misssouri in Round of 64

Much like West Virginia, Utah State is just better than its seed implies.

We rank the Aggies 16th overall. KenPom (18th) and BartTorvik (25th) also have them as a top-25 team.

While Utah State is no slouch on D (64th by KenPom), they really shine on offense, coming in 14th in adjusted offensive efficiency. They get up plenty of threes, ranking 57th nationally in 3-point attempt rate (42.6%), and they do a nice job getting to the line, finishing the regular season 69th in free throw attempt rate. (35.0%). That’s a good recipe for success, and they had a lot of it this season.

The Aggies went 23-8, and three of their losses were to a really good San Diego State team, with two of those defeats coming by two and five points. Utah State had three other losses by five or fewer points.

The 10th-seeded Aggies are 2.5-point favorites in the first round versus Missouri, a side Utah State ranks ahead of by all of nERD, KenPom, and BartTorvik. They’d probably tangle with Arizona in the second round, and although the Wildcats are an elite bunch on offense (No. 4 by KenPom), they aren’t quite as tough on D (41st). Overall, ‘Zona ranks just seven spots in front of Utah State by nERD.

Austan Kas

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