One Team in Each Major NCAA Basketball Conference Not to Sleep On
Every college basketball season there is a team or two in each major conference that the preseason favorites overlook or don’t see as a serious threat that pulls off a handful of major upsets and stays in the league race until March.
Even though some of the conferences will look a bit unfamiliar in the 2013-14 campaign, that reality won’t change. Read on to see one team in each major league that the favorites would be wise to not sleep on.
Virginia had its heart broken when it wasn’t granted a spot in the NCAA tournament field last year, but that likely won’t be the case in the 2013-14 season.
The Cavs only major loss was the graduation of Jontel Evans, but calling the loss of someone who averaged four points and two rebounds a game major is a bit of a stretch, even if he was a good assist man.
Joe Harris may be the best player nobody talks about in the ACC, and could improve on the 16 points a night he scored last year. If he does, he will be a contender for conference player of the year, alongside the major contributors at Duke and North Carolina.
Malcolm Brogdon and South Carolina transfer Anthony Gill also gives the Cavs more depth and scoring options than they had last year. That will undoubtedly help them close out some tightly-fought games that they should have won last season.
Duke and North Carolina may battle it out on top of the ACC standings, but Virginia will on the right side of the bubble come Selection Sunday.
American Athletic Conference: Connecticut
Nobody really paid attention to Connecticut last year because of the postseason ban, but teams such as Louisville and Memphis in the new-look American Athletic Conference would be well served to keep the Huskies in mind this season.
There are few backcourts in the entire country that can matchup with Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright when it comes to scoring prowess or the ability to set up teammates for open looks. Plenty of those assists will be dished out to DeAndre Daniels and Omar Calhoun again in 2013-14.
Connecticut’s biggest issue last year was its rebounding, but the mere fact that it will be playing in the American Athletic Conference should help with that. Yes, there are some good teams in this league, but it is not the Big East by any stretch. The Huskies won’t be quite as outmatched down low on a nightly basis this year.
Look for the Huskies to challenge Louisville in this new conference.
Big East: Xavier
It was strange to watch the NCAA tournament last year and not see Xavier giving a power conference team all it could handle in the Sweet 16.
The Musketeers will undoubtedly be looking for redemption in 2013-14 and will have the pieces in place to do so in the brand new Big East. The trio of Semaj Christon, Justin Martin and Dee Davis gives Xavier a solid and young nucleus, and glue guy Isaiah Philmore will provide energy and rebounding.
Christon was the best freshman in the country last season that didn't get any recognition. He averaged better than 15 points a game and chipped in 4.6 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals a night. His biggest issue was his turnovers (3.6 a game), but that is to be expected when a freshman handles the ball as much as Christon did.
The loss of Travis Taylor will be difficult to overcome, but Xavier will use one of the most underrated home court advantages in the sport to climb back into the NCAA tournament and scare some of the Big East favorites next year.
Big Ten: Iowa
Most of the offseason talk regarding the Big Ten has revolved around the two Michigan schools, Ohio State and Indiana’s quest to remain in the top half of the standings without its key contributors from a year ago.
Those teams really shouldn’t sleep on Iowa.
The Hawkeyes would have made the NCAA tournament last season if they weren’t faced with a daunting Big Ten schedule or had played a more challenging nonconference slate. A 9-9 league finish and an appearance in the NIT championship game was nothing to sneeze at though.
Every important player from that squad returns, including Aaron White and leading scorer Roy Devyn Marble. Look for White carry more of the scoring load this year and to lead the way on the glass.
With so many Big Ten stars departing (Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Deshaun Thomas, Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller come to mind), the top of the league won’t be quite as intimidating for Iowa. A key win here or there against those squads and consistent performances against the league’s bottom half would result in a tourney appearance and a formidable season.
Big 12: Baylor
Baylor missed the NCAA tournament last year, which had to be considered a major disappointment and surprise, and will lose superstar point guard Pierre Jackson going forward. Plenty of opposing fans, and perhaps even teams, will be dismissive of this Bears squad because of that combination.
However, for as valuable as Jackson was, the decisions by Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson to return to school were critical for Baylor’s chances. Jefferson had a coming out party during the NIT, and he (as well as his team) will look to carry that postseason momentum into the 2013-14 campaign.
Austin, Jefferson, Ricardo Gathers and incoming freshman Ishmail Wainright gives the Bears a formidable frontcourt that will clean up on the glass. The key to returning to the NCAA tournament and sneaking up on Kansas and Oklahoma State will be the backcourt.
If Brady Heslip finds his shooting stroke, and Kenny-Fred Cherry can fill in for Jackson, then Baylor will be scary for the Big 12’s top teams.
Mountain West: Boise State
There aren’t many two-man combinations in the Mountain West that can stack up with Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks, which is the primary reason that Boise State could surprise some people and contend for a league title.
Drmic and Marks combined for nearly 35 points a night last year and should be even better with another year of experience under their collective belt. Marks also runs the show from an assist standpoint for the Broncos and is a tenacious defender.
Both players need to cut down on their turnovers, and the supporting cast will have to contribute a bit more in 2013-14. Jeff Elorriaga will likely be called upon to serve as a third scorer most nights.
It was a historically successful year for the Mountain West in 2012-13, but a disappointing showing in the NCAA tournament left a bad taste in the collective mouth of the league. Boise State will look to change that next year and challenge traditional favorites UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico for a conference title.
Colorado’s status as a challenger to Arizona in the Pac-12 took a fall when star Andre Roberson elected to go to the NBA in what had to be considered somewhat of a surprise. The Buffaloes immediately took a major hit in the rebounding department and will need a group effort to replace Roberson.
Despite that loss, there is plenty of talent remaining for Colorado to be seen as a West Coast sleeper. Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker give this squad an underrated backcourt that can score and set up teammates.
Perhaps the most important factor in the Buffaloes 2013-14 campaign will be the strides that Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson make in the offseason. Both had productive freshmen seasons but will need to develop their consistency with a year under their belt.
If Colorado can take care of business against the teams it should, which wasn’t always the case last year, it will scare Arizona and the rest of the Pac-12.
Alabama is also a candidate for SEC sleeper team, but the Crimson Tide get all their fun during football season so let’s give the nod to Tennessee.
By the time the Vols figured out what they were doing last year it was too late. Losing five of the first six games in a mediocre at best SEC was not the way to get into the NCAA tournament, and a late-season winning streak just wasn’t enough.
The talented combination of Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes returns, and both players should find themselves scoring double-digit points per night again. Stokes will also dominate on the glass thanks to his length and athleticism.
Forward Jeronne Maymon missed last season with an injury but will also be back in 2013-14. He is a double-double waiting to happen when healthy, and will give the Vols yet another scoring option.
Replacing point guard Trae Golden is the biggest issue, but Tennessee should find a way to make the NCAA tournament this season. It won’t challenge Kentucky or likely Florida in the standings, but the rest of the league is officially on warning.