March Madness: 5 Cinderella teams who could shake up NCAA men's tournament (and your brackets)

McNeese coach Will Wade has his team in position to make a surprise run in the men's tournament. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinto
McNeese coach Will Wade has his team in position to make a surprise run in the men's tournament. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinto

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It's March. Everyone wants in on the bracket games. It's the biggest priority of the week.

Here's the thing with making these bracket picks. If you pick all favorites, you have no heart. If you pick all underdogs, you're lacking in common sense.

If you want to cut down the nets (metaphorically, by winning your pool), you likely need a mix of the expected and unexpected. Just remember not to play it too extreme in either direction, especially with the Cinderellas. I want you to consider some of the underdogs that I'll present to you here, but it's probably not a good idea to chase every slipper.

Disclaimers stated, let's break it down.

Midwest Region: McNeese and Samford

Two of America's sleepers get the check mark here, and if they come through, they'll play each other in the second round. McNeese is a 6.5-point underdog against Gonzaga (all lines from our partners at BetMGM), while Samford is catching 7.5 points against Kansas.

McNeese wasn't afraid to play major competition out of conference, taking down VCU, Michigan (maybe that didn't age so well) and UAB. The Cowboys offense is a fluid machine, protecting the ball and knocking down 39.4% of its 3-point attempts, seventh in the country, and its defense is all about forcing turnovers and chaos (sixth in turnover percentage). Will Wade was forced out of LSU for recruiting improprieties, but he knows how to recruit, reloading the McNeese roster with a number of transfers from upper-echelon programs.

Maybe the Cowboys won't be able to rattle a Gonzaga team that takes care of the ball, but the Bulldogs struggled to protect the arc all year and could get buried by an avalanche of threes.

Stick with me with the 3-point theme, because it's screaming out Samford's name. These Bulldogs also excel from distance (39.3%, eighth in the country), and almost everyone in their primary rotation is a threat behind the arc. Samford draws Kansas at a perfect time; the Jayhawks are on a 4-5 skid, and stars Kevin McCullar Jr. and Hunter Dickinson are both less than 100%. I can't see Kansas advancing deep in this tournament, and a one-and-done result would not surprise me.

West region: New Mexico

Allow me to cheat a little bit on the definition of a Cinderella. Although the Lobos drew a No. 11 seed, they're favored over Clemson in the first round. New Mexico has a legacy flavor to its success, with Richard Pitino (Rick's son) holding the clipboard and Jamal Mashburn Jr. one of its three primary stars. The Lobos were probably underseeded by the committee; they rank 23rd in overall efficiency by KenPom. New Mexico regularly wins the turnover and offensive rebounding battle, two common paths to success.

Baylor would likely face New Mexico in the second round, a significant challenge — the Bears have NBA-ready talent and shoot the 3 exceptionally well. But Baylor also enters the tournament on a 5-4 slide, and have messy metrics on the defensive end.

South region: James Madison

Picking James Madison also pings at my heart, as I've pulled for Wisconsin (friends went there) and Duke (hey, I grew up on Christian Laettner) for years. Yes, I was conflicted during the 2015 national championship. But JMU checks a lot of boxes as we try to fill the Cinderella slipper.

A name brand won't scare the Dukes — JMU opened the year with an overtime win over Michigan State. All three of the JMU losses came in January, but the ship has been righted — the Dukes enter the dance on a 13-game winning streak. Its offensive efficiency page is a sea of green, and JMU also knows how to defend the 3-point arc (allowing a stingy 28.6 percent on threes). You're also getting experience with the Dukes, as they rank 12th in that key metric.

The KenPom metrics are more impressed with Wisconsin and Duke than I am, and maybe the truth is hidden in the stats. But it was difficult to be impressed by a Badgers squad that found 13 losses during a so-so Big Ten season, and the Blue Devils seemed to be missing something during a 3-3 skid to end the year.

East region: Morehead State

This Cinderella is listed at the bottom for a reason. I expect the East to be chalk-heavy, and I'd be stunned if No. 1 seed Connecticut didn't cruise to the Final Four. But we want every region to be represented in this exercise, and that leads us to an interesting 3-14 matchup.

Picking Morehead State is not for the faint of heart. The Eagles don't have a signature national win on their resume. They had a one-point loss to an ordinary Indiana team, and otherwise were trounced by Alabama, Purdue and Penn State. The Eagles merely making the field is a big win, given that they lost superstar Mark Freeman to a wrist injury in October.

Double-double machine Riley Minix stepped into the void after the Freeman injury, earning Ohio Valley Player of the Year honors. Three-point ace Jordan Lathon also made the first team. The Eagles found their stride at the end of the year, winning their final three games in routs and then cruising to a bump-free ride through the conference tournament.

Illinois isn't the sturdiest No. 3 seed. The Illini's idea of defense is "don't worry, we'll outscore the other guys." Illinois struggles to defend the 3-point arc and is ranked 360th in the country in turnover percentage. There's no stress when attempting to score on Illinois.

I also wonder if Illinois will regret playing a weak non-conference schedule. The Illini faced just five ranked teams all year, and while part of that was related to a mediocre Big Ten, it also makes me wonder how battle-tested they really are. Illinois was able to win the Big Ten tournament without having to beat a ranked opponent. And sometimes I wonder if a deep run in a conference tournament leads to an NCAA hangover, especially if you have to play through Sunday, as Big Ten teams do.

Data from the indispensable site was used in the composition of this article. All point spreads quoted came from partner Bet MGM.