The 2014 NCAA tournament is still a few weeks away, but Selection Sunday will be here before you know it and soon brackets will be made, upsets will take place and nets will be cut down at the end of the event.
If you’re looking to get in the mindset for this annual frenzy we know best as “March Madness,” you’ve come to the right place. I’ve identified a handful of sleeper teams (this piece showcases two of them) that are ready to break out and make some noise during the NCAA tournament.
Keep reading to find out which squads are on the verge of wearing the glass slipper and becoming a Cinderella this spring.
Green Bay Phoenix
The Phoenix are the class of the Horizon League and should not be taken lightly if (and more likely, when) this group makes the 68-team field come tournament time.
Green Bay is sitting at 22-5 with just two games of the regular season left on tap and has racked up a number of notable wins during the 2013-14 campaign. The most impressive was when it handled business against a Virginia Cavaliers squad that is now ranked No. 12 in the nation.
Even an early defeat to Wisconsin showed that the Phoenix had some fire in them, as they lost by a mere three points to a team ranked No. 20 at the time and is now sitting at No. 14.
It all would not be possible without diminutive point guard Keifer Sykes, a 5’11” star that is averaging 20.3 points, 5.0 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game. The junior from Chicago is a natural scorer and this team can beat anyone when he’s on his game.
Despite his stature, Sykes isn’t afraid to rise up and rattle the rim to inspire his teammates to keep pushing. He told Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated:
It has a huge effect on the team. They always tell me to stay aggressive. A dunk always ignites us and ignites me. We know with this team, all we need is a little bit of momentum to open a game up and get going.
This is exactly the kind of team that can catch fire in March and upset some higher seeds in the tournament. Favorites who are on Green Bay’s side of the bracket had better be careful.
George Washington Colonials
The Colonials are an intriguing team that emphasize defense over scoring, a strategy that may not win them many supporters during the regular season but could pay dividends come March Madness.
At 20-7, the team still has work left to do in order to impress the committee and secure a spot in the field. While a victory over Creighton is impressive, the Colonials just missed an opportunity to pick up a signature win against St. Louis.
Running the table down the stretch and making a splash in the Atlantic 10 tournament should be enough to get George Washington into the tournament and they will be very dangerous if that happens.
This group concedes a mere 66.4 points per game, a great number considering it pushes the pace enough to put an average of 74.0 points on the board per contest.
The Colonials also have a handful of players that can step up and contribute on a nightly basis, not relying on one streaky star to get the job done.
Five players average in the double-digits, including Isaiah Armwood—a 6’9” senior forward who leads the team in rebounding with 8.5 per game. He’s also a great defender, which Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports noted after his performance in a win against VCU:
Maurice Creek is the closest thing to a “star” this team has, as the Indiana transfer is the Colonials top scorer with an average of 13.7 points per game. Head coach Mike Lonergan spoke with ESPN’s Myron Medcalf about Creek’s impact on the program:
You look at a game like Maryland this year. We’re up 14 [points] with five minutes left. Fouled out Dez Wells. Coach [Mark] Turgeon got a technical, started pressing and we started falling apart. It kind of reminded me of last year. And Maryland came all the way back and tied it. So we call timeout, probably like 10 seconds left or whatever it was. Maurice said, 'Give me the ball.' He wanted the ball. And we didn’t have anybody that really wanted the ball or could really do anything last year at the end of the game, and he made a jump shot. It gave our team confidence that they had a teammate we could put the ball in his hands at the end of the game and he would make a shot. That just gave all our team confidence that, 'Hey, we can win close games.'
Expect everyone to pull their weight if GW gets into the tournament, but Creek will be counted on to rise to the occasion when the game is on the line. The 6’5” senior guard has ice in his veins and might end up being one of the nation’s darlings during March Madness.