Saint Mary’s and the Glass Slipper — The Secret to Their Success


Virginia Commonwealth shocks #1 Kansas in 2011

The NCAA tournament bracket has been unveiled and we’re a few days from the first games tipping off. Casual observers and fervent basketball fans alike will be watching the tournament early on to catch what could be the next Cinderella team that makes a run and knocks off one of the big programs. Rooting for the underdog, the little guy, the unknown – it’s intrinsic in all of us. A large part of the March Madness draw is the exuberant joy you see that comes from the players, coaches and fans when they win a big game. Feeling like a part of the excitement is what sports fandom is all about and the NCAA tournament gives you a level of real emotion and key moments that is unmatched anywhere else.

The first thing fans will do when the bracket comes out is look for their team. What seed? Against who? Where? Then after those questions are out of the way its “OK, now where do I go to fill out my bracket?” and “Who is going to be this year’s George Mason? This year’s VCU.” Taking a look at every team you could classify as a Cinderella team makes one realize there might be no formula. It’s like trying to guess who fits into the glass slipper by just looking at everyone’s feet. You have to play the games (have everyone try the slipper on) before you see who your emotions will go with.

I tried to figure it out anyway. Over the last 10 years, there have been 22 teams that were seeded #9 or lower that reached the Sweet Sixteen and it has fluctuated greatly. In each of the 2010 and 2011 tournaments, four lower seeds made it. In 2007, none did.

First, what lower seed produced the most Sweet Sixteen teams?

#9: 2 teams (UAB, Northern Iowa)

#10: 7 teams (Auburn, Nevada, NC State, Davidson, Saint Mary’s, Florida State, Xavier)

#11: 4 teams (George Mason, Washington, Marquette, VCU)

#12: 7 teams (Butler, UW-Milwaukee, Western Kentucky, Villanova, Arizona, Cornell, Richmond)

#13: 2 teams (Bradley, Ohio)

#14-16: None

So 10 and 12 seeds have had more luck reaching the Sweet Sixteen then a #9 seed has. Might seem strange, but #9 seeds have to play #1 seeds in the second round, so that becomes a bit more difficult. Of all those teams, only three won their Sweet Sixteen games (Davidson, George Mason and VCU). Of those, two made it to the Final Four and not a single lower seed advanced to the National Championship game. So 10-11-12 seeds make up most Cinderella teams with the median being an 11 seed (which both Final Four teams were).

Where did all these successful lower-seeded teams come from? Is there one conference that continues to deliver when it comes to underdogs? The short answer is no. The 22 teams came from 15 different conferences and no conference had more than two.

What about the type of school? Of the 22, the split is pretty even with 12 teams being public while 10 were private. Not too telling. However, what about the general idea of the underdog and Cinderella? It seems as the ones most classified like that aren’t from a big public school with other large sports programs. While Arizona might be classified as a Cinderella school for this purpose, we certainly can’t call them that even with the low seed. Let’s restrict it to schools you’d actually consider for that type of title.

When you take all the components of these lower-seeded teams that made it to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond over the last decade, there’s only one school in 2013 that matches the description when it comes to seed, conference, and that Cinderella feel: Saint Mary’s.

The Gaels are a #11 seed, the same as Final Four participants George Mason and VCU. Saint Mary’s comes from a conference that has seen a lower seed reach the Sweet Sixteen (the Gaels did it themselves in 2010) and it’s a small private school with less than 3,000 undergrads. While it has the right formula, Saint Mary’s will also be playing in a First Four game against Middle Tennessee. A win over the Blue Raiders and then #6 Memphis would likely set up a match up with #3 Michigan State. Yikes.

You might have the right components to be Cinderella in 2013, Saint Mary’s, but good luck.

Post script: After writing this I started wondering where the usage of the “Cinderella” term came from. After a little research I found a Pat Forde excerpt in the ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia on the subject. While it seems to have been used as early as the late 1930s, it gained popularity when City College of New York became the first and only school to win both the NIT and NCAA tournament in 1950. Disney’s “Cinderella” premiered that same year.

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