Early 2023 NCAA Tournament Cinderella Watch: Which mid-major team will win the most games in March Madness?

At this point a year ago, Saint Peter’s sported a 5-6 record and ranked No. 228 in the NET. Little did we know that the Peacocks were about to begin one of the most remarkable runs in college basketball history. There were other far more accomplished mid-major teams who made the NCAA Tournament field last season, but it was Saint Peter’s that advanced the furthest.

The Peacocks made it all the way to the Elite Eight as a No. 15 seeds and were the only mid-major team to even reach the Sweet 16 (no, Gonzaga does not count). Though the Peacocks’ season came to an end with a 69-49 loss to North Carolina in the East Regional final, the Saint Peter’s run showcased what we love about the Big Dance.

If you were looking for a mid-major team to make a run, the safer bet would have been No. 5 seeds Saint Mary’s, No. 7 seed Murray State, No. 8 seed San Diego State or any number of programs with more curb appeal than Saint Peter’s. But ultimately, the Peacocks strutted past Kentucky, Murray State and Purdue on their way into the history books as the longest lasting No. 15 in tournament history.

While we may not see such a remarkable run again for many years, there are several mid-major quality teams in college basketball again this season. For this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff, our writers are picking the mid-major program they believe is most capable of winning multiple games in the 2023 NCAA Tournament.

Saint Mary’s (16-4)

The Gaels lost leading scorers Tommy Kuhse and Matthias Tass from last season’s squad, which earned a No. 5 seeds in the NCAA Tournament and reached the second round. It’s not surprising that storied coach Randy Bennett quickly reorganized to field another excellent team. But it’s surprising that Saint Mary’s may have actually improved after such consequential personnel losses, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see this team reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Saint Mary’s was No. 8 in the NET and No. 8 at KenPom.com as of Tuesday and is on track for a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, according to CBS Sports Bracketology Expert Jerry Palm. Arguably the biggest factor in the Gaels’ resilience is the play of freshman guard Aidan Mahaney. Ranked a top-150 prospect in the country by 247 Sports, Mahaney is playing out of his mind. In wins over Loyola Marymount and San Francisco last week, he scored 21 and 25 while making 18 of 35 shots from the field. Since entering the starting lineup in early December, he’s scoring 16.9 points per game on 52.5% shooting, including a 46.4% mark from 3-point range.

This team is 10-1 since Mahaney entered the starting lineup, and its four losses this season are by a combined 15 points. When Saint Mary’s lost to UCLA in the second round of the Big Dance last season, the Bruins simply couldn’t miss. But the Gaels have a stout defense again this season, and with some better luck, they will make the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2010. –David Cobb

FAU (17-1)

Entering the 2022-23 season, FAU coach Dusty May had a 66-56 record in four (mostly) forgettable seasons. Three of those four seasons finished with winning records, but not by much, and it was rarely even in the conversation to be a contender in the Conference USA race. May and FAU have caught lightning in a bottle this season, though, in one of the best and most underdiscussed stories in the sport. The Owls are hooting their way to relevance behind a 17-1 start that landed them in the AP Top 25 on Monday for the first time in program history.

No other team has an unblemished record in C-USA play — in fact, no team has lost fewer than two games — which makes FAU the clear favorite right now to win the league as things stand right now. That’d be the first C-USA title and second regular-season conference championship in program history for the Owls

The 17-1 record is no mirage, either. The metrics love FAU. It is No. 13 (!) in the NCAA’s Net rankings, No. 35 at KenPom and No. 34 at BartTorvik.com. This team has the goods to make the tourney and make noise while in it. — Kyle Boone

Based on Tuesday morning’s CBS Sports Top 25 And 1, my first answer to this question would be Florida Atlantic, which I had in the daily rankings a full seven days before the Owls entered the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time ever on Monday . My second answer would be Saint Mary’s. But Cobb understandably took the Gaels, and Boone understandably took the Owls. So I’ll just move on to my third option — Boise State.

Leon Rice’s Broncos are good again despite losing four of the top six scorers from last season’s team — among them leading scorer Abu Kigab and third-leading scorer Emmanuel Akot, the latter of whom transferred to Western Kentucky, where he’s unlikely to make the 2023 NCAA Tournament considering the Hilltoppers are 3-4 in C-USA and ranked 160th in the NET. Akot’s former teammates are doing just fine, though. After stumbling out of the gates and losing two of the first three games, Boise State has won 13 of its past 15 and shot all the way up to 20th in the NET and 27th at KenPom.com. The Broncos have beaten the Colorado team that beat Tennessee, the Texas A&M team that’s 4-0 in the SEC, the Saint Louis team that’s beaten Providence and Memphis, and the Utah State team that’s also in the top-50 at KenPom.

Is it the best resume in the world?

Of course not.

But it is a resume good enough that CBS Sports Bracketology Expert Jerry Palm is currently projecting the Broncos as a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If they avoid additional bad losses, add some Quadrant 1 victories and win a second straight Mountain West title, that projected seed will obviously improve — perhaps to something like a No. 1 victories. 5 seeds or No. 6 seeds. If so, the Broncos would have a realistic path to the Sweet 16, which would be amazing considering the program is still pursuing its first win in the NCAA Tournament despite making the Big Dance eight previous times between 1976 and last season. — Gary Parrish

A flashback from earlier this season. Gonzaga had just beaten Xavier at the PK85 and I was talking to Mark Few about his relief over going 2-1 in that event. Few was laying out why this was the toughest nonconference schedule he’d ever put together, and after listing off all the high-major programs on the slate, he threw in something to the effect of, “And by the way, we’ve also got to play Kent State in a week and that’ll be a nightmare.”

Few knew of what he spoke. The Golden Flashes led Gonzaga for a good portion of that game, eventually falling 73-66. In fact, Kent State’s only three losses this season have come against teams that are a combined 52-5: Gonzaga, Charleston and Houston. Against Charleston, on the road, Kent State fell by two. At Houston, arguably the best team in college basketball, Rob Senderoff’s team lost by just five. And then it nearly stole the game against Gonzaga.

The Golden Flashes are the best team in the MAC, and the reason why they’re my pick for this week’s question: point guard play and defense. Kent State ranks top-20 nationally in defensive efficiency. That’s going to be there come March. It also has Sincere Carry, who averages 17 points and five assists per night and is arguably a top-10 lead guard in college hoops. Senderoff’s quietly been getting it done at Kent State ever since he got there in 2011. He’s never had a team this well-rounded. A viable Cinderella candidate here, which isn’t new to this school. Remember 2002? — Matt Norlander

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