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by Leigh Klein

During a three-year span, I was part of a team that lived the role of Cinderella, a team that entered the NCAA Tournament as a double-digit seed and found a way to advance.

Today’s college basketball presents more parity than ever before due to a high transfer rate, the one-and-done rule and the number of high quality players who are under-recruited. The challenges are unique to college hoops; but there is also an opportunity for Cinderella to be the belle of the ball.

Last year, three double-digit darlings went to the Sweet 16: Florida Gulf Coast, Oregon and LaSalle. It wouldn’t be shocking to see three (or more) similar storylines this year.

Let’s examine the blueprint to underdog success through five keys components every team must have.

GUARD PLAY

The heroes of March have been guards who will their teams to victory.

A team’s guards are vital to its success because guards control the tempo, guards control the basketball, and it’s the guards who must execute the coach’s plan. The two greatest factors in today’s game are the three-point shot and the pick-n-roll offense. A dynamic guard is a game changer because he can break down the defense and get to the basket or make the key decision to find the open man. Last year, Ramon Galloway pumped in 64 points in LaSalle’s three victories to lead the explorers. This year, another guard will emerge to lead his team’s charge to the Sweet 16. Remember that when filling out your bracket.

Top Candidate: Harvard

Harvard has one of the best backcourts in the nation behind Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers. Off the bench, they have three-point specialist Laurent Rivard and steady senior Brandyn Curry. Saunders is a rock, strong consistent attacker of the basket, but Chambers has the quickness factor and ability to change the game in stretches. Harvard is in the top 60 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, currently ranked No. 33 in the Pomeroy Index. The Crimson lost close games at UConn and Colorado in the non-conference, showing that they can hang with the best. Cincinnati is on upset alert; in fact Statfox forecaster picks Harvard to win 62-59.

BALL CONTROL

In the Tournament, every possession has increased value. If a team is careless with the basketball, they will go home. The last 25 champions had a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. Last year Florida Gulf Coast managed 36 assists to 26 turnovers in its victories over defensive-minded Georgetown and San Diego State. Entering last year’s Dance, LaSalle was No. 28 in the nation in turnover percentage in the Tourney with 42 assists to 30 turnovers in their three victories.

Top Candidate: North Dakota State

The Summit League champs are No. 26 in the nation in turnover percentage. Fueled by a trio of seniors in the frontcourt who scorch the nets. The Bison are fifth best in the land in field-goal percentage at 56 percent. In the Summit League Championship game, a narrow three-point victory, North Dakota committed a total of 4 turnovers. The Bison won at Notre Dame in the non-conference and beat tournament entries Delaware and Western Michigan relatively easily. Statfox forecaster picks the Bison by 5, 79-74.

BALANCE

Every team and every player is broken down into in-depth scouting reports for today’s Tournament. The opponent’s gameplan is to take away what a team does best. Open looks for a team’s best player will be hard to find. Who will rise to the occasion? Last year, when Louisville was down 12 to Wichita State, a walk-on, Tim Henderson, hit two three-pointers within 42 seconds. Suddenly, the Cardinals had a pulse and rallied to victory. Last season for FGCU, in their two victories, Brett Comer had 22 points and 26 assists. Eddie Murray who came off the bench and contributed 9 points for the Eagles against Georgetown, Murray was averaging less than 4 points per game. Against San Diego State, Christophe Varidel and Eric McKnight combined for 20 points.

Top Candidate: Delaware

The trio that the Blue Hens put on the floor with, Devon Saddler, Davon Usher and Jarvis Threatt is as potent as any in the country. In fact, all five Delaware starters average in double figures. Monte Ross’s squad was narrowly defeated in the non-conference schedule by Villanova and Ohio State. Sparty better come to play, currently the Statfox forecaster has State as a single-digit victor.

THE THREE-POINT LINE

A team’s success on defending the arc and converting three-point shots is critical to Tournament success. When, our Rhode Island team took out heavily thought of Syracuse, it was the first half differential of the three-point line; 7-8 for the Rams and 0-2 for the Orange. The result was a 56-49 halftime lead and the Rams never looked back. LaSalle converted on 27 three-point opportunities to lead them to three tournament victories a year ago. Harvard, Mercer and Weber State are all among the top 25 in three-point success. Defending the line, North Carolina Central is No. 15 in the nation and Mercer is just six places back. Before everyone breaks out their Mercer Bears selection, note that Duke bests them in both categories.

Top Candidate: North Carolina Central

The Eagles battled Cincinnati, Maryland, Wichita State mightily in the non-conference and beat NC State in overtime in Raleigh. A roster made up primarily of junior and seniors, Coach Moten’s squad is led by Jeremy Ingram, whose individual offensive rating is above Jabari Parker and Marcus Smart.

THE FOUL LINE

In tournament play, often the aggressor gets rewarded. This statement will be compounded if the officials call the impediment rules that have been a point of emphasis all season. Teams who can cash in on more free throw attempts will have an advantage. Our Rhode Island team enjoyed a 39-14 free throw advantage over Syracuse, a big difference in a close game. In last year’s FGCU victory over Georgetown the difference on the foul line was 44-20 in favor of the upstart Eagles.

The Candidate: New Mexico State

New Mexico State is the only double-digit darling in the top 50 on both sides taking advantage of free attempts and limiting opponent’s opportunities.

Only five tournament teams are in the Top 20 in free-throw rate (per field-goal attempt), four double digit darlings—Manhattan, New Mexico State, Western Michigan and NC Central. Eight tournament teams are in the top 20 defensively of preventing free opportunities, including five of the top seven. Of that prior group, New Mexico State is the only one that is in the top 50.

***

Shocking the world as a double-digit seed, outside of a power conference, is incredibly rare. The significance of it cannot be undersold. It is a program maker. For Florida Gulf Coast, making the Sweet 16, meant a 35 percent increase in admission’s applications.

The educated pick is the Crimson of Harvard who now have made the Dance in three consecutive years and were at one point in the AP Top 25. No. 12 seeds have won 17 of 40 opportunities since 2004. Harvard is a legitimate threat.

If you want a true Cinderella, look toward the MEAC Conference, where schools do not have near the budget that the other schools do. They can’t afford shoes for the season, not to mention ‘The Dance.’ NC Central, by the latest posted athletic expense figures, spends less than a million dollars on their basketball program. If you compare them to their opponent, Iowa State, a program that spends over $4 million, you’ll truly see what Cinderella looks like. Only two No. 14 seeds have won since 2007.

Last season, it was the Eagles of Florida Gulf Coast, who knows, perhaps the Eagles of NC Central will soar?

Leigh Klein was formerly on staff at Texas and Rhode Island and now owns Five-Star Basketball Camps, the nation’s top basketball camp. He contributes to SLAM’s coverage of college basketball and the NBA Draft and is a frequent national radio guest. Klein can be followed @LeighAlanKlein.