For the most part, Championship Week and the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament are all about the underdogs. For teams like Kentucky and Arizona and Wisconsin, the first few weeks of March Madness are about survive and advance. They won’t face teams with their type of individual talent until the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 and their season won’t be considered a success unless they make it all the way to the Final Four. For a team from a low-major or mid-major conference, winning two games in the NCAA Tournament is their equivalent of winning a national title.
There’s no set formula for determining who can be a Cinderella. After all, part of the appeal of a one-and-done tournament is that anything can happen. In comparison to the NBA, just about everything in the NCAA is set up for the advantage of the underdog. The game is shorter, the shot clock is longer and the three-point line is closer to the basket. It takes fewer fouls to disqualify a star player and the refs are more likely to call the type of offensive fouls that negate an advantage in size and athleticism. That said, the NCAA Tournament isn’t a random number generator either. There are a few things you can look for when trying to find a bracketbuster.
Of all the low-major teams who have punched their ticket over the last week, Valparaiso is the one that has intrigued me the most. They are coming off a 54-44 win over UW-Green Bay, one of the best low-major programs in the country, in the Horizon League Championship Game. They aren’t a perfect team by any means, but they hit most of the checkpoints on my Cinderella list.
1) The size to protect the paint
Valpo has the size of a high-major team. Vashil Fernandez, their starting C, is a 6’10 245 senior from Jamaica. While he doesn’t have a lot of offensive game, he is long and athletic and can finish above the rim on the pick-and-roll. On the defensive side of the floor, he has the bulk to man-up in the post, the length to block shots and the quickness to recover on the helpside. He averages 7 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks a game on 56% shooting. What’s even more remarkable is they have a backup C with a decent amount of size and athleticism as well - Jubril Adekoya, a 6’7 230 sophomore.
2) Big men who can open up the floor
When you are playing a high-major team with superior athletes, it can become very difficult to generate consistent offense in the half-court. Having a stretch big man who can spread out the defense and open up driving lanes for your guards makes your life a lot easier. Valpo has two guys like that - sophomore Alec Peters (6’9 225) and freshman David Skara (6’8 215) - and both have the ability to shoot 3’s, put the ball on the floor and make plays for their teammates. The combination of Fernandez/Adekoya rolling to the rim and Peters/Skara spacing the floor gives Valpo the ability to run NBA offense at any point in the game.
3) Guards who can control tempo
This is the area where Valpo comes up a little short, as they don’t have the type of senior floor general who isn’t fazed by ball pressure and can create shots off the dribble at the end of the shot clock. Their guards are a little banged up coming into the Tourney - Tevonn Walker, their starting SG, was hurt in the semifinals and only played 4 minutes against Green Bay and Derian Walker, their starting PG, suffered a concussion in the championship game and played only 20 minutes. Keith Carter, their 6th man, is their leading passer at 3.7 assists a game.
Green Bay was able to stay in the game in Valpo’s gym by turning up the pressure. The key for Valpo may be avoiding a team like Arkansas or Louisville that likes to pressure for 94 feet and speed up the tempo. They do have a counter, though, in the form of a 2-3 zone with a prodigious amount of length that forces the other team to slow the game down. They can go 6’9, 6’9, 6’10 across the backline with a 6’8 guard (E. Victor Nickerson) bothering ball-handlers at the top of the key. If Bryce Drew’s team is able to pull off an upset next week, the final score will probably be in the 50’s or the 60’s.
4) Guards who can shoot the ball
This is fairly self-explanatory, as a team with less talent has to be able to win games from the three-point line. Valpo shoots 37.8% from 3 and everyone in the rotation with the exception of their C’s has the green light to hoist shots from deep.
5) Perimeter length and athleticism to match up on D
Having a rim protector like Fernandez is nice, but he can only do so much if your guards are constantly getting beat off the dribble, forcing him to rotate over. Not only does that leave his man open for the easy dump-off but it increases the chances of getting him in foul trouble. For that matter, if your guards are letting the other team dribble into open jumpers, there’s nothing your big man can do.
In that respect, Nickerson might be the key to Valpo’s chances. At 6’8 180, he has the type of perimeter length and athleticism you would expect to see at the NBA level, not in the Horizon League. In the championship game, Nickerson was able to hound Keifer Sykes, a senior PG with a legit shot at being drafted and the Horizon League Player of the Year, into shooting 5-15 from the field.
A high-major team can win in the NCAA Tournament with a bunch of freshman and sophomores, but that’s because those guys are some of the most talented players in the country. A low-major team that wants to shock someone really can’t afford to give up any marginal advantage in experience. A bunch of 21 and 22-year olds aren’t going to be intimidated by a bunch of 18 and 19-year olds, no matter how much publicity they have. Of Valpo’s top 7 players, they have 1 senior and 3 juniors and all of them are starters.
Valpo has a 28-5 record this season, but they haven’t really played anyone and their only game against a high-major opponent was an ugly 56-41 loss at Missouri in November. It’s hard to say how they will do against an elite team with a week to prepare for them, but they aren’t the type of lower seed anyone wants to face. Valpo has almost all of the pieces necessary to make a run in March. If you are looking for teams who can pull upsets, you want to focus on the personnel.