Finding sleepers is always the Holy Grail in NCAA tournament prognostication. Upsets happen on a yearly basis, oftentimes seemingly coming from nowhere—especially in the first round.
But with the gap between top-ranked teams and mid-majors has seemingly reached an all-time low during the 2012-13 season. Supposedly shocking upsets have become the norm, with every week passing with a more awe-inspiring defeat than the last. When accounting for the usual madness seen on the first two days of the tournament and this regular season's unpredictability, it seems preordained that upsets will be boundless this March.
As always, though, knowing the difference between a good sleeper and an uneducated pick will be the key in filling out your bracket. Luckily, there are a few teams that stand out as possible upset bait thanks to some key underlying statistics.
Just some quick criteria notes before we begin. We’ll be using the latest projections by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi to give us our list of 68 teams. We do this simply to keep things from going completely off the rails and (obviously) because the field isn’t set. Additionally, since we’re focusing particularly on the first round, only teams that get 11 seeds or higher count as “sleepers.” We do that because, well, seriously—who cares about a No. 10 seed defeating a No. 7 seed?
So with that out of the way, let’s take a look at a few high seeds that could do some real damage once the Madness starts in a couple weeks.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (27-4, No. 12 Seed)
In a season where superstar players are few and far between, teams like Middle Tennessee exemplify the growing norm in college hoops. The Blue Raiders are filled with a bunch of players mainstream fans have never heard of—and very possibly won’t hear from again after this March.
Guard Marcos Knight is the closest thing Middle Tennessee has to a “best” player. He’s averaging 12.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per contest, leading the team in both categories despite being generally listed as a 6'2" guard.
What the Blue Raiders lack in star power, though, they make up for with effort and depth. Coach Kermit Davis uses a rotation that has 10 players who receive double-digit minutes per game and eight guys who average more than five points a night. Ken Pomeroy’s advanced metrics rate Middle Tennessee as one of the best offensive rebounding and three-point shooting teams in the nation.
But as the entire Sun Belt Conference found out this season, the Blue Raiders are first and foremost a defensive juggernaut. Running a constant full-court pressure defense, Davis preaches to his players to stay relentlessly attacking when the opposing team has possession. The result is a team that ranks 13th in the nation in defensive efficiency, 22nd in effective field goal percentage and 18th in turnover rate.
To draw a comparison, Middle Tennessee could be easily be called a slightly lesser version of Virginia Commonwealth. Shaka Smart’s “havoc” defense and Davis’ pressure sets share many commonalities, and the Rams have built their program up not on the backs of stars but on the collective effort of players who actually care.
Winning the conference tournament looms large for the Blue Raiders. Even if Middle Tennessee ranks 25th in the RPI, the tournament committee isn’t taking two teams from the Sun Belt. It just isn’t. So while the Blue Raiders are probably the likeliest lower-tier conference team that could make noise, their Big Dance is already ongoing.
Belmont Bruins (25-6, No. 11 Seed)
The Bruins are one game away from making the tournament after Friday night’s victory over Tennessee State, which should probably scare any team in line for a No. 6 seed half to death. Belmont’s win over its Ohio Valley Conference foe was its sixth straight and 16th in the team’s past 18 contests.
While the calling card of Middle Tennessee was its lack of stars, that’s not the case for Belmont. Guard Ian Clark is one of the nation’s most underrated and underappreciated players. The Bruins' leading scorer is averaging 18.1 points per game while shooting an astounding 54.3 percent from the field, including a 46.2 percent rate from beyond the arc.
Clark is joined by fellow dead-eye shooters Trevor Noack and J.J. Mann to create one of the nation’s most prolific offenses. Despite playing at a relatively controlled pace, the Bruins score 77.0 points per game and have the fourth-best field goal percentage in the nation. It’s an offense that runs more efficiently than a brand new Lamborghini Gallardo—Pomeroy ranks them second behind only Indiana in offensive efficiency.
The Bruins also have one massive thing to always look for in bracket busters: experience. They have made the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons, losing by double digits to Georgetown last season and Wisconsin in 2011.
With an RPI of 23 and a 6-3 record against teams inside those rankings’ Top 100, Belmont can compete with anyone. Though a victory in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament final is still necessary to lock up a berth, the mediocrity filled major conference teams better be on notice for the Bruins.
Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (25-3, No. 14 Seed)
Those looking for a deep, deep sleeper when filling out their brackets should be hoping that Stephen F. Austin is able to take care of its Southland Conference foes. Playing in one of the weakest conferences in the nation, that’s just about the only way the Lumberjacks have an igloo’s chance in Arizona to make the Big Dance.
That said, if they do, you’ll be hard pressed to find another projected No. 14 seed with a better shot at pulling a massive upset. Lead by head coach Danny Kaspar, in his 13th year at the Texas-based school, the Lumberjacks exemplify the evolution (or de-evolution) of college basketball.
Running an offensive pace that resembles a snail stuck in molasses covered in honey, Stephen F. Austin has an adjusted pace of just 61.4. While that’s difficult to quantify in lay terms, it ranks 322nd of 347 Division I teams and even slower than noted offensive eyesore Wisconsin.
When they do decide to put up the ball, it’s by far most effective coming out of forward Taylor Smith’s hands. Essentially an undersized center, the 6'6" forward is averaging 15.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per game while leading the nation with a 69.3 percent field goal rate. He almost single-handedly props up the remainder of the Lumberjacks' rotation, as their effective field goal percentage ranks 97th in the nation.
Defensively, though, Stephen F. Austin is one of the nation’s best. The Lumberjacks rank fifth in the nation in defensive efficiency, second in effective field goal percentage and 21st in opposing turnover percentage. Teams shoot just 26.7 percent from distance against Stephen F. Austin—the best rate in the country.
Defense (or, rather, the lack of offense) has ruled this season, so it's only right that the Lumberjacks get mentioned here.