College Basketball

Sleepers to Watch in Every Major College Basketball Conference

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2014

Sleepers to Watch in Every Major College Basketball Conference

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    Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    With more than 350 teams playing at the Division I level, college basketball probably has the highest percentage of schools that could garner the label of a "sleeper," an under-the-radar team that has the skills and ability to knock off more well-known foes.

    However, we find most of those unknown entities at the mid- and low-major level, in conferences to which most of us don't start paying attention until it's time to think about filling out a bracket.

    But what about in the major conferences? Can a team from a power league, the ones that get the majority of the NCAA tournament berths, be considered a sleeper?

    To quote Sarah Palin, you betcha.

    Here's our list of the sleepers to watch (one apiece) for each of Division I's seven major college basketball conferences.

California Golden Bears

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    Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 12-4, 3-0 Pac-12

    Why they can win the Pac-12: The Golden Bears are coming off an impressive road sweep of the Oregon schools, which included a massive comeback in the Jan. 11 win at Oregon State. Cal trailed by 10 points at halftime, but senior guard Justin Cobbs scored 20 second-half points to pace the win.

    The Bears are off to their first 3-0 start in the league since 2008-09 despite not having the use of talented freshman Jabari Bird, who's missed the last four games with an ankle injury. Once he's back, this team that has five players averaging double-figures in scoring will be even tougher to beat.

    Key games remaining: Jan. 26 at UCLA, Feb. 1 vs. Arizona, Feb. 26 at Arizona, March 8 vs. Colorado

Kansas State Wildcats

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    Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 13-4, 3-1 Big 12

    Why they can win the Big 12: The Wildcats might have been blown out at Kansas on Saturday, but that's not an uncommon thing in a league that the Jayhawks have dominated for the past decade. What's more telling is what K-State did prior to that loss, winning 10 straight (including victories over Gonzaga and Oklahoma State).

    Freshman Marcus Foster (13.9 points per game, 36.6 percent three-point shooting) is leading the team in scoring, part of a young lineup that's showing no fear and should be a tough out all year. That's doubly true at Bramlage Coliseum, also known as the Octagon of Doom. The Wildcats were 8-1 against conference opponents there last season, losing only to Kansas by four points.

    Key games remaining: Jan. 25 at Iowa State, Feb. 10 vs. Kansas, March 1 vs. Iowa State, March 8 vs. Baylor

Minnesota Golden Gophers

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    Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 13-4, 2-2 Big Ten

    Why they can win the Big Ten: The Jan. 11 overtime loss at Michigan State shows the Golden Gophers aren't going to be an easy win. They might have caught the Spartans on a post-win-over-Ohio-State lull, but that still doesn't take away from the Gophers' tenacity and spirit under first-year coach Richard Pitino.

    The early league results aren't great, but Minnesota has plenty of chances to make up for the slow start. It has the distinction (good or bad, depending on your outlook) of still getting Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin twice. And that includes one right after the other over the next 10 days.

    Key games remaining: Jan. 16 vs. Ohio State, Jan. 19 at Iowa, Jan. 22 vs. Wisconsin, Feb. 25 vs. Iowa

Southern Methodist Mustangs

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    Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 11-4, 1-2 American

    Why they can win the American: The Mustangs are kind of an unknown entity in major college basketball, as this is their first season in one of the upper-tier leagues after moving up from Conference USA. However, they have a Hall of Fame coach in Larry Brown and a roster of solid shooters who can also play some tough defense.

    SMU ranks 24th in Division I in scoring defense, allowing 62.3 points per game, while the .365 shooting percentage to which it's holding teams is No. 4 nationally, per NCAA.com. Throw in the fact that the trip to Dallas is quite a distance for most of the league's teams, and you've got a home-court advantage that's tough to combat. Just ask Connecticut.

    Key games remaining: Jan. 26 at Houston, Feb. 1 vs. Memphis, Feb. 8 vs. Cincinnati, March 5 vs. Louisville, March 8 at Memphis

Texas A&M Aggies

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    Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 11-4, 2-0 SEC

    Why they can win the SEC: The Aggies were a bit of an enigma heading into league play, having not played a true road game during the nonconference season. They'd also lost three neutral-site games and at home to North Texas, so no one knew what to expect from Billy Kennedy's team.

    Then A&M beat a good Tennessee team on the road on Jan. 11, showing off a defense that's 12th nationally in opponent scoring (59.8 points per game) and 11th in opponents' field-goal percentage (37.9 percent), per NCAA.com. Oddly, A&M only plays the SEC's best teams on the road this season, so that early result at Tennessee looms large.

    Key games remaining: Jan. 21 at Kentucky, Feb. 1 at Florida, March 5 at Missouri

Virginia Cavaliers

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 12-5, 3-1 ACC 

    Why they can win the ACC: The Cavaliers came as close as anyone to pulling out a rare road win over Duke, rallying late to actually lead in the final 20 seconds before falling 69-65 on Jan. 13.

    That result notwithstanding, this team is going to be a challenge for every league opponent because of its methodical (read: really slow) pace that has held foes to 55 points and 37 percent shooting entering the week. Those rank second- and seventh-best in the nation, respectively, per NCAA.com.

    Tony Bennett learned this lull-your-opponent-to-sleep style from his dad, Dick Bennett. Following the close loss to the Blue Devils, Bennett said, via Richmond Times-Dispatch's Paul Woody“We're a work in progress. As long as our guys stay hungry and talking about the formula of playing the way we need to, hopefully we’ll keep taking the right steps.”

    After a few years of getting the right players installed, it's finally starting to fire on all cylinders.

    Key games remaining: Jan. 18 vs. Florida State, Jan. 20 vs. North Carolina, Feb. 2 at Pittsburgh, March 1 vs. Syracuse

Xavier Musketeers

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    Dave Weaver-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 13-4, 3-1 Big East

    Why they can win the Big East: The Musketeers gave Creighton all it could handle on Jan. 12, falling 95-89 in a game that showed they're willing to run and gun just as much as they like to grind it out.

    Sophomore guard Semaj Christon has taken his game to another level since league play began, averaging 25 points and shooting 61 percent over the last three games. Add in the fact that Xavier is 11-0 at home and hosts both Creighton and Villanova in the final week of the regular season, and it looks like the new-look Big East will be decided in Cincinnati.

    Key games remaining: Jan. 15 vs. Georgetown, Feb. 3 at Villanova, Feb. 15 at Marquette, March 1 vs. Creighton, March 6 vs. Villanova

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