March Madness Sleepers to Watch
Gentlemen, start your brackets.
Or at least your bracket preparation.
Sure, the NCAA tournament is still more than a month away, but it's never too early to get a jump on which teams will send your bracket to the recycling bin.
Check out our roundtable of sleeper teams for the Final Four/national championship, Sweet 16, and the opening round upsets in the 68-team field.
Final Four Sleeper
Criteria: We didn't push the envelope too much here. The only rule was to select a team outside of what seems to be the consensus group of national championship contenders frequently penciled in for Houston.
Evan Hilbert: Missouri. Truthfully, Missouri will have trouble getting to the final four of its own conference tournament. With Kansas, Texas, and Texas A&M all playing well, Missouri is on the outside looking in at a Big 12 Championship. And while that may hurt the Tigers a bit in terms of seeding, they are certainly a team capable of at least mirroring the Elite Eight run made by the '09 Tigers. Their up-tempo style leads to long games and a lot of points, something many teams have trouble handling.
Matt Snyder: BYU. A single player is capable of carrying a good team to the Final Four in a season like this one where there aren't many dominant teams. If Jimmer Fredette puts the Cougars on his back, it's a good bet they can turn a three seed into the first trip past the Sweet 16 in school history. At the very least, BYU's second trip to the Sweet 16 is a great bet.
Ray Holloman: Villanova. Picking the Wildcats to the Final Four is hardly betting double zeroes on a roulette wheel or, say, Charlie Sheen's blood alcohol level, but losers of three of the last four, 'Nova is on something of a down swing. However, Final Four teams tend to be in the top 25 range, Villanova (18th most efficient offense, 25th defense) may be the most surprising. Villanova has three elite scorers on the perimeter and a solid frontcourt. The Wildcats are 49th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and 17th in defensive rebounding percentage, a good mix of athleticism and discipline. 'Nova could stand a little more banging from Antonio Pena (just 2.6 fouls drawn per game versus 4.5 for Mouphta Yarou), but otherwise the Wildcats may be the second-favorite Final Four team out of the Big East, behind only Pitt.
Sweet 16 Sleeper
Criteria: Teams expected to be seeded eighth or lower, likely requiring two upsets to qualify for the Sweet 16
EH: Tennessee. Because, really, why not? The Vols certainly won't be intimidated by a one or two seed in the second round, as they've unseated two probable top seeds already this year. In fact, their main concern will be keeping focus enough to remain eligible for the tournament. If they do get in, it's impossible to predict what they will do. They reached the Elite Eight a year ago with basically the same team, and they've proven this season that they can beat anyone in the country. The scary thing is, however, they've also proven they can lose to anyone as well.
MS: If St. John's ends up as an 11-seed, the Red Storm are a perfect fit for a run like Washington's last year. If the Red Storm get an eight or nine, I'm still thinking a No. 1 seed could have its hands full in Round 2. Sure, they could get blown away in the first round and it wouldn't be a shock. After all, we've seen this team lose to St. Bonaventure and Fordham. Since then, though, they've only lost to Notre Dame, Syracuse, Louisville and Cincinnati. They've also beaten Notre Dame, Georgetown and West Virginia -- read: similar talent-levels to teams that will be in the six-seed and three-seed slots. Oh, and Duke, a possible one seed. It shouldn't be as big a surprise as it sounds. Steve Lavin went to the Sweet 16 in five of his first six seasons at UCLA. He's 10-1 in the first two rounds of the Big Dance.
RH: Oakland. The shine may be off the Golden Grizzlies upset of Jekyl-and-Pearl Tennessee, but the suburban Detroit school has added quite a few wins since then. Oakland is 11-0 in Summitt League play and have now won 19 straight against league rivals, a record for a conference which has boasted previous Sweet 16 darlings Valparaiso in 1998 and Mouse McFadden's Cleveland State squad in 1986. It's not just the wins (though odds are you've set -- and broken -- several New Year's resolutions since their last loss Dec. 28), it's the team's makeup. Oakland has the nation's 22nd most efficient offense, and, unless you're Ohio State, there's a decent chance their frontcourt is better than yours. Meanwhile, point guard Reggie Hamilton is one of the best playmakers in the nation, if a bit turnover prone. The team's lack of elite talent and defensive shortcomings will make their stay on the second weekend short, but any team with a good point guard, that can shoot 3-pointers and rebound as well as Oakland can, will not be an easy out.
Opening Weekend Shocker
Criteria: Teams must be a probable double-digit seed
EH: College of Charleston. The Cougars will have to win the SoCon to get in, but they have a pretty impressive body of work against some stiff competition. They lost to Clemson, Maryland, and North Carolina by a total of 14 points, and they won by 13 at Tennessee. They also feature one of the nation's top scorers in Andrew Goudelock, a guy that is certainly capable of carrying them beyond the first round and perhaps into the second weekend.
MS: Old Dominion. Shouldn't be a huge shocker as ODU beat Notre Dame in the first round last season. Neutral-court wins over Clemson and Xavier -- plus taking Georgetown to the absolute limit -- show the Monarchs aren't intimidated by bigger-conference foes. Plus, the Colonial Athletic Association is an incredibly underrated conference, at least at the top. Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason, Drexel, ODU and James Madison all appear in the KenPom.com top 100. It even looks like a multiple bid league. It would be folly to underestimate any team from it.
RH: Wofford. The defending Southern Conference Champions have to repeat as league champions (and I fully expect and "We told you so, Evan Hilbert" sign in the crowd somewhere.), but when they return to the Big Dance this season, they'll be handful for the team on the opposite of the bracket. The Terriers are experienced -- only one senior graduated from last year's tournament team, which lost to Wisconsin by just four points and their eight-man rotation is five seniors and three juniors -- and they have an elite scorer. Like conference rival Goudelock, Noah Dahlman is one of the NCAA's leading scorers at 20.6 points per game, except Dahlman, eying his second straight league player of the year award, is much more efficient and is filling up the basket on a much slower paced team. The Terriers will have to survive what should be a tough final four for the SoCon title, but if a team this experienced with a big-time scorer returns to the field as a 13 or 14 seed, please adjust your brackets accordingly.