March Madness Sleepers 2014: Predicting Which Teams Will Impact NCAA Tournament

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistMarch 14, 2014

March Madness Sleepers 2014: Predicting Which Teams Will Impact NCAA Tournament

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    As March Madness approaches, many discerning basketball fans are trying to identify the sleepers: teams not among the favorites showing signs that they might make an impact in the 2014 NCAA tournament.

    Squads or players that are hot coming down the stretch can sometimes carry that momentum into the postseason. These teams may have spent much of the season in a funk, or they may be members of conferences that don't get much attention. But they are asserting themselves now, just in time to be players on college basketball's biggest stage.

    Teams expected to be seeded among the top four or five in a region don't qualify as sleepers. Those teams have already established their capabilities.

    Instead, we list 11 teams that are lurking in the background, capable of pulling an early upset or getting deeper into the tournament than expected.



Oklahoma State

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    Oklahoma State probably will be seeded somewhere between No. 7 and No. 10 in the NCAA tournament. That's because the Cowboys only finished eighth in the 10-team Big 12 and suffered through a seven-game losing streak in February. For a while it appeared they might not even make the NCAA field.

    However, their decisive victory over Texas Tech in the first round of the Big 12 tournament and an overtime loss to regular-season champion Kansas in the second round suggest they are back to the form that earned them a No. 6 national ranking on Jan. 1. They are a team to fear again.

    The Cowboys have won five of their last seven games, the only losses coming in overtime to nationally ranked teams, Iowa State (on the road) and Kansas (on a neutral court). Kansas was without center Joel Embiid in the conference tournament, but Oklahoma State beat the Jayhawks on March 1.

    Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart seemed frustrated through the middle part of the season, when the Cowboys struggled. But he appears to have regained a comfort level over the past few games.

    Although Oklahoma State ended up losing to Kansas in the Big 12 quarterfinals, the way the Cowboys hung tough and forced the game into overtime after trailing by 11 points in the second half showed they may be ready to break through in a big way in the NCAA tournament. 


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    It is difficult to think of Gonzaga as a sleeper after it was a No. 1 seed in last year's NCAA tournament. But before this year's West Coast Conference tournament began, the Bulldogs were not absolutely certain they would get into the 2014 NCAA tournament.

    They struggled in their opening game of the WCC tournament, needing David Stockton's driving layup with less than two seconds remaining to beat No. 9-seeded Santa Clara by two points. Had Gonzaga lost that game, its berth in the NCAA tournament might have been in jeopardy. Santa Clara had given Gonzaga problems in their two regular-season meetings, so the outcome was not a complete surprise.

    However, after that close call, the Bulldogs dominated two formidable foes in the semifinals and finals. Gonzaga crushed St. Mary's 70-54 in the semifinals, then built a 20-point lead in the second half against BYU in the title game before easing to an 11-point victory.

    Gonzaga has proven over the years that it will not be intimidated by the reputation of its opponents in the postseason. With a talented and experienced backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. and a reliable inside scorer in Sam Dower, Gonzaga has the manpower to hold its own against topflight opposition.

    Where the unranked Bulldogs will be seeded is anyone's guess. projects the Bulldogs as a No. 7 seed as of March 13, but has them seeded No. 11 in its projections. In any case, Gonzaga's play in the conference tournament suggests it could get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, perhaps further.




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    Although Harvard may have a double-digit seed again, it is better than the Crimson squad that upset No. 3-seeded New Mexico in the NCAA tournament last year.

    Harvard returns four starters from last year's team, including its three standouts: Wesley Saunders, Laurent Rivard and point guard Siyani Chambers. The Crimson enter the NCAA tournament on an eight-game winning streak and have won 12 of their last 13 games. They clinched the Ivy League title outright with a convincing road win against second-place Yale on March 8 and are peaking at the right time.

    The experience gained in last year's NCAA tournament should help, and Harvard tested itself against high-caliber talent this season. It lost close road games to Colorado (when the Buffaloes still had Spencer Dinwiddie) and Connecticut, and its only bad loss was against Florida Atlantic.

    The only problem for Harvard (26-4) is that it has lost the element of surprise; no opponent will take the Crimson lightly this year.



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    The Atlantic Sun gave us the story of the NCAA tournament last year, when No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast stunned Georgetown and San Diego State to reach the third round. Mercer is capable of similar achievements after beating Florida Gulf Coast in the finals of this year's Atlantic Sun tournament.

    Mercer is likely to be seeded one or two slots higher than Florida Gulf Coast was last season, and the Bears have a chance to pull an upset over a No. 3 or No. 4 seed. After that, who knows?

    What made Mercer's title-game victory impressive was that it was achieved on Florida Gulf Coast's home court. The Bears dominated most of the game, building a big lead, then turning back a Florida Gulf Coast rally for a 68-60 victory.

    Langston Hall is the closest thing Mercer has to a star, but all five starters are seniors, so they know how to handle themselves in pressure situations.



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    It's strange to see Kentucky in the sleeper category. After all, the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in preseason and have seven McDonald's high school All-Americans on the roster. That suggests they are an elite team, not one lurking on the fringes.

    However, they are no longer among the favorites for the NCAA title. They finished six games behind Florida in the Southeastern Conference standings and are unranked. Unless it wins the SEC tournament, Kentucky probably will be given a No. 6 or No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament. National champions seldom start from that position, and with four losses in their last seven regular-season games, the Wildcats have done nothing lately to suggest they will go deep into the NCAA tournament.

    So why is Kentucky listed as a sleeper?  Because its stockpile of talent makes it a threat against anyone. If John Calipari can instill that certain something that has been mysteriously missing, Kentucky is still capable of going on a serious run.

    The freshman starting five of Julius Randle, James Young, Dakari Johnson, Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison, with Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress coming off the bench, represents a scary seven-man grouping of future pros.

    The Wildcats may fall flat on their face because of their defensive deficiencies. But, based on talent alone, Kentucky is a threat to do some damage if things suddenly start to click.


Eastern Kentucky

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    Eastern Kentucky had only the third-best record in the Ohio Valley Conference, but the Colonels are dangerous for two reasons: They are on a hot streak, and they take and make a lot of three-pointers.

    Eastern Kentucky was the preseason favorite in the Ohio Valley Conference, but it sort of muddled along until recently. It has now won seven in a row, including four in the conference. The Colonels finished off the tournament by beating the top two teams in the OVC, Murray State and Belmont, and Belmont beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill early this season.

    More than 44 percent of Eastern Kentucky's shots are three-point attempts. It makes 39 percent of those three-pointers as a team, and three of its top five scorers hit more than 42 percent of their long-range shots. Eastern Kentucky hit 50 percent of its three-pointers in the win over Belmont, a good defensive team.

    Although the Colonels are likely to be seeded No. 14 or No. 15, they have a shooter's chance to pull off a major upset.




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    Oregon had won eight straight games before losing to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals. That run of success reversed what appeared to be a mid-season collapse. It also makes the Ducks one of the most dangerous teams in the country again.

    A five-week stretch in the middle of the season nearly doomed Oregon. The Ducks were gliding along with a 13-0 ranking and a No. 10 ranking when the bottom dropped out. They lost five games in a row, then dropped to 3-8 in the Pac-12 when they lost consecutive two-point games to Arizona and Arizona State in early February.  A berth in the NCAA tournament seemed out of the question.

    However, the Ducks ended the slump just as dramatically and as inexplicably as it started. Wins over UCLA and Arizona highlighted the recent run, as the Ducks started hitting on all cylinders again.

    Oregon relies on scoring a lot of points out of its free-flowing offense and pressure defense to get on a roll. The Ducks don't have a lot of size and their defense is inconsistent, so when things are not running smoothly at both ends, they can look out of sorts. The 19-point loss to UCLA that ended the winning streak demonstrated how mediocre Oregon can be at times.

    When things are falling into place, as they have been for the most part lately, Oregon is a locomotive that is difficult to derail. 

    The Ducks probably will be seeded around No. 8 in the NCAA tournament, and it will be difficult to knock the confident Ducks off the track if they are in a groove.





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    No one was talking about Nebraska when it was 0-4 in the Big Ten. At that point, the Cornhuskers were doing pretty much what was expected of them after being picked in preseason to finish at or near the bottom of the 12-team conference.

    However, Nebraska went 11-3 over the rest of the regular season, including victories against Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin. The Cornhuskers finished alone in fourth place after beating the Badgers in their regular-season finale, and they entered the Big Ten tournament as the hottest team in the conference.

    Not surprisingly, Nebraska head coach Tim Miles was named Big Ten Coach of the Year.

    Swingman Terran Petteway has become a star. He was a non-factor as a freshman at Texas Tech two years ago, when he averaged 3.1 points. This season, as a Nebraska sophomore, he was a first-team all-conference selection.

    Because of their poor start, the Cornhuskers were still on the bubble for an NCAA tournament at-large berth when the conference tournament began. They should make the 68-team field for the first time since 1998. But they probably will be seeded around No. 10 or 11, providing a major opening-round challenge for a pretty good opponent.

    Defense and momentum are Nebraska's allies at the moment, and the Cornhuskers are on a roll that could push them deep into the tournament.




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    Milwaukee was only 7-9 in Horizon League play, but the Panthers' performance while winning the conference tournament suggests they are on a roll that could lead to an upset.

    Milwaukee beat regular-season champion Green Bay for the second time this season in the semifinals, and beating the Phoenix twice is a bigger accomplishment than some might think. Green Bay is a quality team that beat Virginia and lost to Wisconsin by just three points.

    Milwaukee then knocked off third-place Wright State in the title game on the Raiders' home floor.

    The return of guard Jordan Aaron was a major factor in the Panthers' recent surge. He missed four games late in the season, and the Panthers lost three of those games. He came back for the conference tournament opener, and he averaged 20.5 points in the four tournament victories.

    Milwaukee probably will be seeded around No. 15, so it will be a big underdog in its opening NCAA tournament game. However, the Panthers have the wherewithal to make that game competitive. Remember, three No. 15 seeds beat No. 2 seeds over the past two NCAA tournaments, so such upsets are becoming more common.





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    Talent was never the issue for Baylor.  The Bears' starting five rivals any in the Big 12, as evidenced by the fact that they started the season 12-1 with a No. 7 national ranking.

    However, their inconsistency and penchant for inexplicable mistakes plague them. They lost eight of their next 10 games, dropping off the national radar.

    The decision by coach Scott Drew to put shooting guard Brady Heslip back in the starting lineup at midseason and the recovery of point guard Kenny Chery from a turf toe problem helped Baylor right itself. The Bears have won nine of their last 10 games heading into Friday's Big 12 semifinal game, and two of the past four wins came against ranked teams: Iowa State and Oklahoma.

    The 78-73 victory over Oklahoma in the Big 12 quarterfinal provided a perfect example of the erratic nature of Baylor basketball. Baylor was blowing the No. 17-ranked Sooners off the court for the first 23 minutes, building a 21-point lead, when the Bears suddenly lost their edge. The Sooners cut the deficit to four points with 1:30 left before Baylor made enough free throws to hold on.

    With Heslip and Chery in the backcourt and the 7'1" Isaiah Austin and 6'9" Cory Jefferson in the frontcourt, the Bears have the talent, athleticism and scoring potential to overwhelm almost any opponent if they avoid letdowns.  At the moment, the Bears are on a roll and making minimal mistakes, and when they are rolling, they can beat almost anyone in the NCAA tournament.  


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    Louisiana-Lafayette needs to win the Sun Belt tournament to get into the NCAA tournament. But if the Ragin' Cajuns get there, they could pull a surprise or two.

    Two things give Louisiana-Lafayette a chance to make an impact in the postseason despite the fact that it only finished third in the Sun Belt standings and would be a double-digit seed in the NCAA tournament.

    First, the Ragin' Cajuns are playing their best basketball now. If they win the conference tournament, they will have won 11 of their last 13 games. The only losses in that stretch would be three-point road losses to Georgia State and Western Kentucky, the top two teams in the final Sun Belt standings.

    Second, and perhaps more significantly, Louisiana-Lafayette has two stars: point guard Elfrid Payton and forward Shawn Long. Both were first-team all-conference selections who average better than 19 points a game, and Payton is projected to be a first-round NBA draft pick by both and

    Individual standouts such as Long and Payton can carry teams to surprising success in single-elimination events.