Sports Take: What makes a March Madness Cinderella?

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - MARCH 19: Oral Roberts University players celebrate upsetting Ohio State University in overtime of the first round of the 2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament held at Mackey Arena on March 19, 2021 in West Lafayette, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Hancock/NCAA Photos/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

By Harper Mayfield | Sports Writer

Everybody loves an underdog. We love to root for the little guy. The school you’re pretty sure you’ve never heard of, but you also think your roommate’s brother’s girlfriend’s mom might have gone to.

March Madness is full of those schools, this year especially. The NCAA tournament is designed for Cinderella runs. But what makes those happen? What got Oral Roberts over the hump? Florida Gulf Coast? George Mason? Virginia Commonwealth?

Just about every team that outplays their seed is really good at putting the ball in the hole. Oral Roberts clocks in at No. 12 in the scoring department, well ahead of perceived powerhouses like Illinois, Alabama, Ohio State and Houston. Loyola Chicago, who seems to be a perpetual Cinderella, is one of the most efficient offenses in the nation. There are only three teams that convert their field goals at a higher rate than the Ramblers, and two of them aren’t in the tournament.

When FGCU made their Sweet 16 run in 2013, each of their wins came in games in which they scored 78 or more points. This season, a 78 point average would place them as high as 31st in the country, within a point of tournament schools like Alabama, BYU and Winthrop. Often, Cinderella teams don’t have the athletes to go blow-for-blow on defense with powerhouse teams, so they’ve got to rely on their offensive prowess to knock off the top seeds.

Another key component of the successful underdog team is age. Older teams often have the experience necessary to close late games against higher seeded teams. This year’s Loyola Chicago team rosters 12 players in at least their third year or later. That veteran leadership has shown up multiple times in the tournament, most notably in their matchup with No. 1 seed Illinois. In the closing seconds of that game, senior Cameron Krutwig made a number of heady defensive plays to help give the Ramblers the edge.

Perhaps the most important thing in the building of a miracle run is the transformation into a national phenomenon. Oregon State is a 12 seed in the Sweet 16, and nobody really seems to care. Maybe it’s because OSU is from a Power Five conference. Maybe it’s because they’ve been in the tournament in recent years.

Whatever the reason may be, Oral Roberts and Loyola have a stranglehold on the media attention. Being a Cinderella team is all about personality. FGCU’s high-flying style of play made them beloved across every form of media. In 2018 as well as 2021, Loyola had the charismatic Sister Jean cheering them on from the sidelines. When Butler made their run to challenge Duke in the championship game, Gordon Hayward played his way into the hearts of Americans everywhere. Ever since Hayward’s three-quarter court shot rolled off, Butler has been a strong national brand.

People love a good story, and they’re always going to find one they love more than the other. Whichever team gets the social media masses behind them always seems to have just enough extra steam to keep the wins coming.

This tournament has been a strong one for upset runs. There are currently three double digit seeds in the Sweet 16, joined by an eight seed. March is all about madness, and there’s a few things that can keep the little guy going. Offense, age and social media support can get anybody going, and we’ll see which teams continue to capitalize on that.