NCAA Tournament 2012: This Year's 5 Biggest Tournament Sleepers

Ralph LongoAnalyst IIIMarch 13, 2012

NCAA Tournament 2012: This Year's 5 Biggest Tournament Sleepers

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    Every year, there seems to be one team that comes out of nowhere to make a run to the Final Four. Last year, we had three teams in the Final Four who nobody saw coming in UConn, VCU and Butler. 

    While I don't see three Cinderellas in this year's tournament field, someone is bound to make a push for the finals. Here are five teams that have a shot to make that run and a chance to surprise people. 

5. UConn

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    It would be really hard not to include the Connecticut Huskies on this list. For starters, they showed last year what a team can do when it hits its stride at the right time with one of the more memorable runs through the Big East and NCAA tournaments in recent memory. 

    As for this year, UConn has seriously underperformed in my mind. They have two future lottery picks in the starting five—Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond—as well as stars Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. 

    UConn has the talent and athleticism to compete with any other team in the tournament field, and it really can beat anyone on any given night. One thing working against the Huskies is that they have a very difficult road ahead. If they can get by a tough Iowa State team, a showdown looms against Kentucky on Saturday. 

    Don't count the Huskies out. They've shown what they can do in the past, and with Jim Calhoun finally healthy, they'll have a shot to repeat as national champs. 

4. Cincinnati

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    I have to admit, Cincinnati is one of my favorite teams to watch. The Bearcats made a run in the Big East tournament and despite a tough, hard-fought loss to Louisville in the tournament finale, they showed that they are capable of playing with anyone. They are riding a big wave of confidence coming into the tournament. 

    Cincinnati is a tough out on any given night. This year, it boasts wins over Pitt, Notre Dame, UConn, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette and Syracuse, all of whom were ranked at the time or are currently ranked. That sure is an impressive list. 

    I like Cincinnati because if Yancy Gates plays to his potential, he's an absolute beast to deal with under the basket. Sean Kilpatrick and Dion Dixon both played well in the Big East tourney and should continue that solid play in the NCAA tournament. If I was a high seed, I absolutely would not want to play Cincy.

    Look for the Bearcats to make a deep run in the tournament. 

3. UNLV

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    UNLV hasn't won an NCAA tournament game in four years and has flown under the radar all year. However, they are a quality squad that is second in the nation in assists per game. This type of efficient, selfless play is what could possibly carry UNLV through the tough moments they're bound to encounter. 

    Mike Moser and Chace Stanback have been consistent all year; if they continue to play well, UNLV will be a tough out for anyone. However, I am worried about a tough matchup looming against Baylor.

    UNLV struggles at the free-throw line—shooting only 67 percent—which could cost the Runnin' Rebels if a game comes down to the end. However, they rank 20th in the country in three-point shooting, so this could offset their other deficiencies.

    Keep a close eye on UNLV. 

2. Belmont

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    This list wouldn't be complete if I failed to include a super sleeper. Belmont is one of those teams that you always seem to hear about when it comes to college basketball but you couldn't even name what state the school is located in.

    Belmont is a No. 14 seed and faces off against Georgetown in the opening round. Georgetown has shown vulnerabilities throughout the season, and I think it's a pretty weak No. 3 seed. Belmont is currently on a 14-game winning streak—exactly the kind of hot streak you need going into the tournament. 

    The Bruins rank third in the nation in scoring, so they aren't afraid to get into a shootout and can outscore a team if they have to. They're a great three-point shooting team and have a lot of depth. If they can ride their current wave of momentum and find a way to beat Georgetown, watch out for this team; they can score at will and are a difficult team to match up with. 

    They'll need Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark to continue their stellar play, but watch out for the Bruins—they're a tough team to beat. 

1. Murray State

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    For a team that went 30-1 this season, the Murray State Racers get almost no love from basketball experts whatsoever. No, they didn't play in a big conference, but winning 30 games is no small feat. Out of all the teams on this list, I believe that they present the biggest threat to make a big run in this year's tournament. 

    Isaiah Canaan has been an absolute stud this season, averaging almost 20 points a game and shooting an incredible 47.3 percent from three-point range. Any time you have a player like that on your team, you have a chance against anyone. The Racers shoot 48 percent from the field, so they can certainly outscore you if they need to. 

    Another thing Murray State has going for it is the lack of respect it's receiving. It lost one game the entire season by a mere four points, and it's a No. 6 seed? The Racers probably feel slighted, and that is just the motivation they'll need to prove themselves in this tournament.

    This is a team that hardly knows what it's like to lose and will fight to the last second to keep that feeling alive. I think everything is aligned for Murray State to make a deep run in this year's tournament.