The last time we had an NCAA Tournament back in 2019, there was only team seeded lower than No. 5 that advanced to the Sweet 16. That honor belonged to No. 12 seed Oregon, which bowed out of the Big Dance in the Sweet 16 after a close loss to eventual national champion Virginia.
But the 2018 NCAA Tournament featured six double-digit seeds advancing past the first round and two No. 11 seeds in the Sweet 16. One of those teams was a Loyola Chicago squad that advanced all the way to the Final Four. No matter who ends up winning it all, those Cinderella stories among the best parts of March Madness.
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Trying to predict who will take on that role is a challenge, though, and the definition of "Cinderella" can vary. But each region has some compelling upset contenders, including a couple of No. 14 seeds to watch. If you win a single game in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 14 seed, you've earned the title of "Cinderella."
So as you fill out your bracket and decide which squad with long shot odds is worth a look, here is one team from each region to consider.
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No. 12 seed Winthrop (23-1)
Winthrop over Villanova is the trendiest No. 12 vs. No 5 upset pick for good reason. The Wildcats are struggling after the loss of star point guard Collin Gillespie and now must face a squad full of veterans that has lost only once. The Eagles played some of their best basketball of the season in the Big South Tournament by ticking off three straight dominant victories, and if they get past Villanova, there is reason to think they could hang with No. 4 seed Purdue in a potential second-round meeting as well.
That's because Winthrop has a former four-star big man, D.J. Burns, on the interior to battle with Trevion Williams. Burns is a Tennessee transfer with the size to hold his own against the Boilermakers' massive front line of Williams and 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey. Purdue also relies heavily on freshmen guards Jaden Ivey and Brandon Newman. The duo has been great this season, but Winthrop's senior guards Charles Falden and Adonis Arms would have a maturity edge in that matchup.
No. 10 seed Rutgers (15-11)
First up: No. 7 Clemson. Then possibly: No. 2 Houston
Considering a No. 10 seed from the Big Ten to be a "Cinderella" may seem like a stretch, but after a 30-year NCAA Tournament drought, this Rutgers squad fits the bill. Beyond that, the Scarlet Knights have a favorable draw in the Midwest Region. Their first-round opponent, Clemson, lost to a bad Miami team in its first ACC Tournament game, and Rutgers' potential second round opponent is a Houston team with a grand total of two victories over NCAA Tournament teams this season.
Rutgers has five victories over NCAA Tournament teams and won't be remotely intimidated by facing a middling ACC foe in Clemson or the best team from a weak AAC. The Scarlet Knights were among the worst 3-point shooting teams in the Big Ten this season, but they managed to reach the Big Dance anyway. So what happens if they get hot? They could reach their first Sweet 16 since 1979.
No. 14 seed Eastern Washington (16-7)
Ohio is the trendy underdog pick in the West Region, but Eastern Washington may also be worth a look as both are facing opponents who were forced to withdraw from their conference tournaments due to COVID-19 issues. If you're trying to take a big swing at a potential upset, the Eagles offer value for other reasons, too. For one thing, they hung tough in three straight losses against Pac-12 teams to begin the season. In fact, Eastern Washington led Washington State and Arizona at halftime and only trailed Oregon by four.
This team has only improved since those respectable losses, too, as the Eagles enter the NCAA Tournament with 13 wins in their last 14 games. Kansas rallied to win eight of its last nine games entering the NCAA Tournament, but the Jayhawks needed late-game heroics in a win over an incredibly mediocre UTEP team on March 4. If Kanas ends up shorthanded for this game and treats Eastern Washington like it treated UTEP, then EWU will become the Cinderella story of the West Region entering a manageable second-round game against the winner of USC and Wichita State.
No. 14 seed Abilene Christian (23-4)
Abilene Christian wasn't even eligible for the NCAA Tournament the last time Texas won a game in the Big Dance, and since completing their transition to Division I in the 2017-18 season, the Wildcats actually have a more recent NCAA Tournament appearance than the Longhorns.
History aside, though, Abilene Christian is a tough opponent to scout. The Wildcats have a 7-footer in Kolton Kohl who leads the team in scoring. But he plays just 18.9 minutes a game, and when he is out, the floor is usually filled with 3-point shooters. This team lost just 51-44 at Texas Tech in December and might have won that game if not for 20 turnovers and 31 fouls that helped give the Red Raiders 37 free-throw attempts. That game proved Abilene Christian can muck it up with an athletically superior squad.