Cinderella Casting 2018: America East, Atlantic Sun, Big Sky, Big South, Big West, Colonial, Conference USA, Horizon, Ivy, Mid-Atlantic, Mid-American, Mid-Eastern, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Northeast, Ohio Valley, Patriot, Southern, Southland, Summit, Southwestern Athletic, Western Athletic and West Coast Auto Bids

March 11, 2018

Late is better than not at all, right?

I’ve been contemplating (ahem, procrastinating) all week about when I should begin publishing my annual review of the small and mid-major conference automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament. Here we are, just hours away from Selection Sunday, and nothing has been done yet.

But below, you’ll find everything you need to help prepare you for three and a half days of overthinking matchups in the Big Dance. This is, of course, with the exception of the few mid-major conferences that are playing title games on Sunday afternoon.

Let’s take a look at the potential bracket busters for the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

America East

Automatic Bid: UMCB

Projected Seed: 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

The Retrievers are making just their second ever appearance in the Big Dance, knocking off perennial America East contender Vermont in the conference title game with a late three pointer to sink the top-seeded Catamounts. UMBC was the two seed in the tournament, but just based on historical results, it feels like a much bigger upset than seeding would suggest.

Jarius Lyles is a terrific scorer and will be fun to watch, but the Retrievers are likely headed for a No. 16 seed and thus a short tournament stint. It’ll be hard to forget the ‘Shot Heard Round the Nation‘, though and this team will enjoy being in the Tournament, however brief their stay may be.

Atlantic Sun

Automatic Bid: Lipscomb

Projected Seed: 15

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

The Bisons are making their first ever tourney appearance and are riding a lot of confidence after knocking off top-seeded Florida Gulf Coast on the road to capture the Atlantic Sun’s automatic bid. Although Lipscomb amassed an impressive 108 points, putting the pedal to the metal all game was needed as the Bisons nearly collapsed in the second half after holding a 29 point advantage after the first half.

Like several Atlantic Sun representatives in recent years, Lipscomb loves to push the pace and won’t have trouble scoring against anyone. However, the downside of this approach is that defensively the Bisons will struggle against teams from the bigger conferences that can score as well. Unless Lipscomb draws a defensive minded top seed, it is unlikely this team will survive its first game.

Big Sky

Automatic Bid: Montana

Projected Seed: 15

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

The Grizzlies had a terrific season in the Big Sky Conference and will now have a chance to prove to the rest of the country that they aren’t just a regional feel good story. Leading scorer Ahmaad Rorie brings swagger to this squad and has already gone on record, telling fans to “expect a lot of points” when Montana plays its next game. The Grizzlies don’t share the ball as much as you’d often like to see from a potential Cinderella, but Rorie does have the killer instinct that will be needed if Montana is indeed in position to take down one of the big boys.

If the Grizzlies are shooting well, they could be dangerous. However, lack of senior leadership (only one on the squad) and height issues will likely spell a quick end to Montana’s Tournament stay.

Big South

Automatic Bid: Radford

Projected Seed: 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

The Highlanders truly kicked off the madness of March last weekend when Carlik Jones hit this buzzer beater that clinched the Big South Championship. It is unlikely that we’ll be seeing Radford advance beyond its first game in the Big Dance, however.

Radford tested itself during the non-conference slate, so it won’t be intimidated by what will likely be it’s top seeded opponent, but there just isn’t enough scoring prowess on this team to hang with the big boys. Expect a valiant effort from the Highlanders, but it won’t be enough.

Big West

Automatic Bid: Cal State Fullerton

Projected Seed: 15

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

The Titans had an up-and-down regular season, but found magic in the Big West tournament and took down two of the top three teams in the conference en route to its first Big Dance berth in ten years. There is nothing particularly special about this Cal State Fullerton team, but they are relatively young and could become a good example of kids that don’t know about pressure playing well down the stretch.

This isn’t a team that I’d bet on knocking off a top seed, but the Big West as a whole has produced some competitive Tournament teams in recent years and so the Titans should not be taken lightly by their opponent.


Automatic Bid: Charleston

Projected Seed: 13 or 14

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

The Cougars were the best team in the Colonial Athletic Conference all season and did just enough to clip second seeded Northeastern in the conference tournament final in overtime to book their trip to the Big Dance. Charleston has three players that can carry the scoring load in guards Grant Riller and Joe Chealey and forward Jarrell Brantley, and all three of them are able to pull up from deep. This will be a difficult team to guard because of the three-headed scoring monster, and the Cougars also defend well.

A lot will depend on the draw that Charleston gets, but this is definitely a team that has the ability to play multiple games in the Tournament. As long as Riller, Chealey and Brantley are playing well, the Cougars have enough talent to keep it close against anyone they play.

Conference USA

Automatic Bid: Marshall

Projected Seed: 12 or 13

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

Other teams that could receive an at-large bid: Middle Tennessee State

The best Cinderella option out of Conference USA would be the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State, but after the top seeded team in the conference tournament lost in its first game, things got a little crazy for this league. Out of the fire emerged Marshall, a school better known for football making its first tournament appearance since 1987. The Thundering Herd love to push the pace and share the ball very well, averaging over 17 assists per game which is 11th best in the nation.

Marshall also has a go-to scorer in guard Jon Elmore, who is eighth in the country averaging 22.6 points per game. Elmore will need to get his points in order for the Thundering Herd to feel good about their chances of advancing, but he also leads the team in assists per game so he won’t force things. This is the type of team that one could get behind as a solid Cinderella pick, but Marshall has been inconsistent this season so it really depends on which team shows up in the Tournament.


Automatic Bid: Wright State

Projected Seed: 14 or 15

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

As the self-proclaimed former King of Fairborn, I could not be more happy that the Raiders finally pulled through and punched their bid to the NCAA Tournament after being so close so many times in recent years. This experienced squad is dangerous if senior guard Grant Benzinger gets hot from behind the arc, as he did during the Horizon League tournament. The Raiders don’t score particularly quickly, but they play lockdown defense which allows them to keep most games close.

I would love to see this team upset one of the top seeds and will be rooting for them to do so while rocking my Raiders gear, but it would be a major feat if it happens. The Horizon League hasn’t had much NCAA Tournament success since Butler left in 2012, which isn’t surprising considering the relatively small league size and overall conference rating.


Automatic Bid: Pennsylvania

Projected Seed: 14 or 15

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

The Ivy League’s decision to go to a four team conference tournament to determine its automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament two seasons ago could have been disastrous, but so far things have worked out pretty well. Penn is the lowest seed to have won the tournament since its inaugural event last season, and the Quakers were the No. 2 seed. Besting Harvard in the title game earlier on Sunday showed a grittiness that will serve the Quakers well in the Big Dance.

Like almost all Ivy League teams that make the Tournament, Penn is defensively sound and takes good shots on offense. But another thing working in Penn’s favor is that they are the 23rd luckiest team in the country according to KenPom metrics. If the Quakers are in position to win late in the game, at least they have that statistic on their side.


Automatic Bid: Iona

Projected Seed: 15 or 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

Tim Cluess has built a powerhouse in the MAAC, as the Gaels are making their fifth NCAA Tournament appearance since 2012. However, the last time Iona won a game in the Big Dance was 1980. Unfortunately for Cluess, that probably will not change this year.

The Gaels know how to handle the pressure of a “win or go home” situation, which is likely a major factor in the team’s return to the Tournament in 2018. This is not the best squad Cluess has had since taking over the program in 2010 and in previous seasons the Gaels have had a much better shot at being a Cinderella. Iona will play hard and perhaps even surprise a top seed with its ability to run the court, but it will be a one and done performance once again for the MAAC champs.


Automatic Bid: Buffalo

Projected Seed: 12

Probability of being a Cinderella: Good

The Bulls blew through the MAC this season and have a squad very capable of winning multiple games in this year’s Tournament. Buffalo is seventh in the country in PPG average, posting more than 84 per game. Four players average double digits in scoring and there is plenty of depth on the roster. The Bulls won’t be afraid of going toe to toe with the major conference teams, as they took Cincinnati and Texas A&M to the wire earlier in the year.

In 2016 Buffalo was very close to becoming one of the many No. 12 seeds to take down a No. 5 when the Bulls nearly bested West Virginia. That team was dominant in the post, which is different than what this year’s squad brings to the table. But the Bulls are just as talented as that team and will potentially be a more difficult out with additional scoring options on the wing.


Automatic Bid: North Carolina Central

Projected Seed: 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

The Eagles are likely to end up in Dayton for one of the two 16 seed play-in games, which is no shame for a team that was barely above .500 entering its conference tournament.

Even if NC Central makes it past the opening round game, they won’t take down a No. 1 need in the Big Dance.

Missouri Valley

Automatic Bid: Loyola-Chicago

Projected Seed: 12

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

The Ramblers are the archetype Cinderella squad, which should make the fans that have been waiting for this moment since 1985 very happy. This team is led by eight juniors or seniors and five players that average double digits in points. This balanced offensive attack doesn’t score a ton of points, but it doesn’t need to because the Ramblers allow the fifth fewest points per game in the country.

The special thing about this team is that no one player needs to stand out for Loyola-Chicago to have success. The experience on this squad will play a big role, so will the experience that the Ramblers have gained along the way this season. Loyola-Chicago is no stranger to upsets – earlier in the season this team beat then No. 5 ranked Florida in Gainesville. This is not a team that any higher seed wants to see opposite its name.

Mountain West

Automatic Bid: San Diego State

Projected Seed: 11 or 12

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

Other teams that could receive an at-large bid: Nevada

The Aztecs are no stranger to NCAA Tournament success, having made the Sweet 16 twice since 2011. However, this season is a bit of surprise not only because the Aztecs were middle of the pack in the Mountain West all season, but also because legendary coach Steve Fisher retired after last season. Brian Dutcher was the associate head coach for 18 seasons under Fisher and clearly picked up some things along the way.

San Diego State appears to be peaking at the right time, and that is scary. The Aztecs have won nine straight, including two games against Nevada, which has was ranked in the Top 25 near the end of the season and was generally regarded as the best team in the conference by far. If Trey Kell and Malik Pope continue to have a hot hand for the Aztecs, this is a team that could do some damage in the Big Dance.


Automatic Bid: LIU Brooklyn

Projected Seed: 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

The Blackbirds will almost undoubtedly be heading to Dayton for their first Tournament game, which puts them in a very difficult position as far as having the glass slipper fit. The Northeast Conference representative is typically a punching bag for a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, and if LIU Brooklyn gets the chance to play one, it will probably be business as usual.

Ohio Valley

Automatic Bid: Murray State

Projected Seed: 13 or 14

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

The Racers were one of the first teams to punch its bid to the NCAA Tournament this year, which has both a negative and positive side to it. Rest is great, but Murray State hasn’t lost since mid-January and sometimes the best thing for a team on a hot streak is to just continuing playing.

Jonathan Stark is a terrific scorer and stopping him will be priority number one for Murray State’s next opponent. If Stark finds room to work and the rest of the team is keeping a potentially bigger squad off the boards for second and third chances, the Racers are capable of playing multiple games in the Big Dance.


Automatic Bid: Bucknell

Projected Seed: 12 or 13

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

The Bison are a very solid team and ripped through the Patriot League once again this season, setting up yet another opportunity for Nathan Davis to orchestrate one of the NCAA Tournament’s countless Cinderella stories. The biggest thing that Bucknell has on its side is Tournament experience, which is crucial for mid-major teams and not something that many can hang their hat on.

Bucknell operates at a much quicker pace under Davis than it did under previous leadership, and it was not quite enough against West Virginia’s tenacious defense in last year’s Tournament. But assuming that the Bison don’t draw the Mountaineers or a team with similar tendencies again this year, this team should have a good shot at simply outscoring its opponent en route to a Tournament upset or two.


Automatic Bid: UNC Greensboro

Projected Seed: 13

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

These Spartans may not have Final Four aspirations in mind like the ones from East Lansing, Michigan, but this is still a solid squad that can push a higher seed to the brink of elimination given the right circumstances.

There isn’t a go-to scorer on UNC Greensboro’s roster, which may end up hurting the team if they are matched up against an opponent that can get out to an early lead by hitting quick three pointers. In order for the Spartans to have a shot at winning a game in the Tournament, they will need to minimize the opponent’s runs and keep things close throughout the entire game. It’s how they won the Southern Conference regular season title and it’s how they’ll survive and advance in the Big Dance as well.


Automatic Bid: Stephen F. Austin

Projected Seed: 13 or 14

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

Those who remember Lumberjacks teams from just a couple of years ago are aware that the Southland Conference has made a name for itself in the NCAA Tournament recently. But while Stephen F. Austin is back in the Tournament for the fourth time in five years, a lot has changed in this program since its last appearance in the Big Dance.

Gone is coach Brad Underwood, who led the team to three of its previous four NCAA Tournament appearances. Also gone is a nucleus of players from the same class that included Thomas Walkup, who was instrumental in the three most successful seasons in program history. If the Lumberjacks are to shock the world once again, it will have to stem from a new group of players.

Summit League

Automatic Bid: South Dakota State

Projected Seed: 12 or 13

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

Forward Mike Daum is a tremendous individual player for the Jackrabbits, and would love to extend his stay in the Big Dance beyond the one game that he has been fortunate enough to play in the previous two seasons. Since South Dakota State will surely be given better than a No. 16 seed this season, the chances are decent that Daum will be able to give his team a shot at victory.

The Jackrabbits have never won an NCAA Tournament game, but it feels like this season is the best shot at the elusive victory since Nate Wolters was with the program.

Southwestern Athletic

Automatic Bid: Texas Southern

Projected Seed: 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

Having a losing record hasn’t stopped teams from winning in Dayton, but that doesn’t make a team a Cinderella. The Tigers may win its play-in game, but they won’t be taking down what would end up being the No. 1 overall seed in the Tournament.

Western Athletic

Automatic Bid: New Mexico State

Projected Seed: 12 or 13

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

The WAC has suffered from a visibility standpoint since losing several teams to other conferences in recent years, but New Mexico State has been a beacon of light for the league throughout all the turmoil of conference realignment. The program is making its fifth straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2018, which is impressive regardless of conference affiliation.

The Aggies won’t be intimidated by anyone in the blocks thanks to Jemrrio Jones, who is second in the country averaging 13.2 rebounds per contest. Jones is a double-double machine and also serves as New Mexico State’s second leading scorer. If the Aggies end up winning a game or two in this year’s Tournament, it will be because the scrappy 6’5″ forward played much bigger than his height and kept the opposition from getting too many second chances.

West Coast

Automatic Bid: Gonzaga

Projected Seed: 4

Probability of being a Cinderella: N/A

Other teams that could receive an at-large bid: Saint Mary’s (CA)

Gonzaga is not a Cinderella. Let’s end this.

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