5 Sleeper Teams Destined for Deep NCAA Tournament Runs
Few things are as fun as falling in love with a sleeper team, then irrationally tying your bracket's hopes to a number of potential upsets.
I whittled down the field, factoring in style of play, location and potential matchups in order to determine the sleepers who could dance the longest.
In my opinion, finding those undervalued teams is about recognizing talented, deep, experienced squads whose results don't generate headlines and high rankings. For whatever reason, the following teams have flown beneath the scope of the national radar.
Maybe they were overshadowed in their conference by bigger teams, or maybe they dominated a smaller conference and thus will be overlooked due to a weak schedule. Maybe they bowed out of their conference tournaments early, losing a chance to build perceived and real momentum into the tournament.
None of those qualifiers are grounds for blindly choosing the higher seeds, though. All of these teams are exceptional in some regard, and with the right matchup, can snooze their way into the second weekend. It’s just about recognizing their strengths.
Here are the most likely sleeper picks heading into the 2013 NCAA tournament.
1. Pittsburgh Panthers
The No. 8-seeded Panthers are a team that very few are talking about, mostly because they were bounced from the Big East tournament last Thursday after a 62-59 loss to Syracuse.
If not for a bad matchup against the surging Orange, Pittsburgh could’ve been the one making headlines in New York.
Jamie Dixon’s team ranks in the top 20 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. But the Panthers aren’t just paper warriors.
Pittsburgh has a huge frontcourt (which thrives on the offensive glass) with Lamar Patterson, Talib Zanna and center Steven Adams, and its point guard, Tray Woodall, is excellent at finding the open man. The Panthers don’t have a go-to scorer, just an extremely deep rotation that collectively averages 70 points a game.
Pitt’s biggest weakness is from the free-throw line, where it shot just 66 percent this year. If it solves that riddle, the Panthers’ inside advantage becomes even more intriguing.
A potential third-round matchup is looming with No. 1 Gonzaga, the lowest of the one seeds. Should the Panthers get by Wichita State, Pitt would meet a frontcourt equally as imposing as its own.
The Panthers were fourth in the Big East with wins over Syracuse (by 10) and road victories over Georgetown (28), Cincinnati (10) and Villanova (15). Just because they didn’t go far in New York shouldn’t disqualify this No. 8 seed from advancing.
2. Colorado State Rams
The Rams start five seniors, run the seventh-most efficient offense in college basketball and are the top rebounding team in the country.
That sounds like a nightmare for any team, let alone the No. 9 seed Missouri Tigers, who'll meet the No. 8 Rams in Lexington.
Colorado State finished second in the Mountain West Conference to New Mexico, ahead of another potential sleeper pick, UNLV.
Led by 6’10’’ Colton Iverson (who was an animal on the glass in the Rams’ semifinals loss to UNLV in the Mountain West tournament), Colorado State averages 40.4 rebounds per game and boasts the second-best offensive rebounding percentage in the country at nearly 42 percent. Aside from Iverson, the Rams aren’t particularly big and aren’t adept at shooting from long range, but they pound you inside and have a knack for getting the caroms.
Due to their lack of height, coach Larry Eustachy had ingrained a relentless attitude on second-chance opportunities. In short, forwards Greg Smith and Pierce Hornung are tenacious on the glass. Neither is above 6’6’’, yet both are nationally ranked in terms of their offensive rebounding rate, collecting a combined 14 rebounds per game. For a more in-depth look at the Rams, check out B/R's sleeper series featuring Colorado State.
Assist man Dorian Green turned his ankle in the regular-season finale against Nevada, missed the Rams’ game against Fresno State and then played hurt against UNLV. He reaggravated the injury but said after the game that he didn’t do any further damage. Green leads the Rams with 3.8 assists per game and is second to Iverson with 12.8 points.
A third-round matchup against the No. 1 overall seed obviously isn't enticing, but one silver lining is that the Rams don't turn the ball over often, which typically plays right into Louisville's transition style. Colorado State's experience could help them in that regard.
The Rams went to the tournament as an 11 seed last year and ran into a hot Murray State team. Their conference has them conditioned for the rigors of the NCAA tournament, and their experience has them confident. Louisville will have its hands full, assuming both teams advance.
3. Virginia Commonwealth Rams
It’s not hard to see what the Rams do, but at that same token, it’s extremely hard to prepare for. Everything that VCU does—harass, trap, swarm and run—is predicated on energy and movement.
Shaka Smart’s team hassles its opponent with various full-court traps, forcing an NCAA-high 19.9 turnovers per game. Of those nearly 20 turnovers, the Rams average 11.9 steals per game, which often leads to fast breaks and open layups.
But if the opponent manages to break the trap, the Rams aren’t particularly big inside and can often get caught recovering. It’s high risk, high reward at a breakneck pace.
Led by guards Treveon Graham (15.4 points) and Darius Theus (five assists), the Rams also run a highly efficient offense that feasts off the perimeter. Five different players have at least 15 made threes on the season, including 6'4'' guard Troy Daniels, who's fourth in the NCAA with 117 threes on the season.
VCU got a favorable 5-12 matchup against Akron, which is missing its point guard Alex Abreu. Good luck to the Zips, who'll have to deal with Smart's havoc defense minus their floor general. After that, the Rams would potentially face Michigan, which is one of the youngest teams in the field and could understandably become flustered under so much pressure.
The Rams have been groomed on A-10 competition, one of the most underrated leagues in the country. VCU’s style will thrive against teams who are careless with the ball or aren’t used to relentless pressure. It’s not crazy to think that the Rams could make a repeat run deep into the tournament.
4. Iowa State Cyclones
No tournament team relies on the deep ball more than the Iowa State Cyclones, but what makes them so dangerous is their efficiency from beyond the arc.
The Cyclones hit 39 percent of their three-pointers in Big 12 play this year, the best rate in the conference. They also hit 51 percent of their shots from inside the arc (also tops in the conference). Any tournament team that runs into that kind of offensive buzz saw had better be prepared for its onslaught.
While the Cyclones had a memorable regular season, finishing 22-11 overall and 11-7 in conference play, no game stung as much as the overtime loss to Kansas in late February. An awful blocking call gave Kansas two late free throws to send the game to overtime and ultimately gave the Jayhawks the win. Fred Hoiberg’s squad hung in with a 17-of-41 three-point shooting display. Those types of nights aren’t uncommon for Tyrus McGee (90 three-pointers this season), Chris Babb (62) and Korie Luscious (61).
All three shot at least 35 percent from deep, but their long-range depth doesn’t end there. Three more Cyclones—Georges Niang, Melvin Ejim and Will Clyburn—all hit at least 20 from deep as well.
Iowa State's first two potential matchups present an interesting dilemma given that both No. 7 seed Notre Dame and potential third-round matchup Ohio State like to dictate the pace of the game. The hallmark of both of those teams is their defense, which will undoubtedly be tested by the Cyclones.
This team can bury opponents under three-pointers by the dozen, as Big 12 foes Oklahoma State and Kansas State can well attest. Behind their long-range prowess, don’t be shocked if the Cyclones storm out of the West regional.
5. Davidson Wildcats
Good luck finding a hotter, more veteran team in the country than the Davidson Wildcats, who've won 17 games in a row out of the Southern Conference.
The No. 14 seed Wildcats drew a good matchup with No. 3 Marquette, which always seems to over-perform in the regular season.
Senior forward Jake Cohen is physical inside and averages 14.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. He’s also the defending two-time Southern Conference Player of the Year—the first to garner the award in consecutive years since Stephen Curry.
Second-leading scorer De’Mon Brooks (13.8 points, 6.8 rebounds) has a good post game and the junior gets to the line 4.5 times per game, knocking down 77 percent of his free throws.
The Wildcats lost their major non-conference matchups against Duke and New Mexico, but won the Southern Conference by three games and stormed through the league’s conference tournament to earn the automatic bid.
No. 3 seed Marquette, which lacks interior defense, could struggle at containing the Wildcats’ two-headed monster. And that's not to mention the game will take place in Lexington, which will undoubtedly be a pro-Davidson crowd. A repeat of the Elite Eight appearance in 2008 is likely a stretch, but don’t hesitate to pull a first-round upset. From there, who knows?
Make your picks for the 2013 NCAA Tournament here with the Bracket Challenge Game