As is the case with every NCAA tournament, there are always several sleepers poised to ensure that March Madness lives up to its name.
For some of these teams, a late-season surge has transformed into a stealthy pick to make a deep run. For others, injuries and health concerns are the only reason for a low seed.
All in all, each of these teams has the talent and potential to give opposing teams fits.
But before we get into some strong sleeper options, let’s take a look at the bracket:
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West No. 9: Oklahoma State (21-12)
It’s been a roller-coaster year for the Cowboys.
After racing out to a 15-2 record, the team looked like a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. However, a disastrous seven-game losing streak put that, along with Oklahoma State’s tournament inclusion, in doubt.
Thankfully, the team seems to be playing its best basketball at the right time.
Since Feb. 22, the Cowboys are 5-2, with their only two losses coming to Iowa State, 85-81 (OT), and Kansas, 77-70 (OT). Not only were both losses against teams currently ranked in the Top 10, but both were also decided in overtime.
Although Oklahoma State would have liked to win those games, there’s no doubt that the team has been battle tested in a very good Big 12.
And as French League basketball player Kim English notes, opponents in the West bracket better watch out:
Oklahoma State is lurking in dark corners in the top half of the West region. Very dangerous team if Markel Brown has healed his wounds.— Kim English (@Englishscope24) March 16, 2014
Marcus Smart (17.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 4.7 APG) should lead the charge. But guard Markel Brown (17.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.9 APG) and forward Le’Bryan Nash (14.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.6 APG) are lethal too.
A first-round matchup with untested Gonzaga—the team has faced just one Top 25 opponent—should be no problem. It’s the potential second-round matchup with West No. 1 seed Arizona that will be tough.
But if the Cowboys can get past the Wildcats, a run to the Final Four would seem to be all but assured.
South No. 4: UCLA (26-8)
The Bruins are another team that is headed into the Big Dance on a hot streak.
UCLA beat three opponents that are in the NCAA tournament on its way to securing the Pac-12 tournament title over the weekend. That includes an impressive victory against West No. 1 seed Arizona, 75-71, in the title game.
Pac-12 tournament Most Outstanding Player Kyle Anderson has taken his game to tremendous heights in recent weeks. The sophomore guard/forward has averaged 16.0 points and 10.5 rebounds over the last four games.
And don’t forget leading scorer Jordan Adams (17.2 PPG). The sophomore guard is only four games away from dropping 55 points in a two-game stretch earlier in the month.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better shooting team than the Bruins. Entering the tournament, the team ranks No. 12 in scoring (81.8 PPG), No. 10 in field-goal percentage (49.0) and rank No. 21 in free-throw percentage (74.9).
Furthermore, the draw seems to be working in UCLA’s favor. After Tulsa, a potential second-round matchup with No. 5 seed VCU poses little threat.
That leaves likely showdowns with Florida in the Sweet 16 and Kansas in the Elite 8.
West No. 11: Nebraska (19-12)
After a 9-9 start to the season, it’s quite surprising to see the Cornhuskers in the tournament, let alone chosen as a sleeper.
Still, there’s no doubt the team is deserving of the honor. Since Jan. 26, Nebraska is 10-3, including victories over two Top 10 opponents in Michigan State, 60-51, and Wisconsin, 77-68.
But swingman Shavon Shields hopes that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the team’s success this season.
“We have to keep it going and not let our heads get big and just stay modest and keep humble,” he said, via ESPN. “Keep our underdog thing going.”
Shields has certainly been doing his part lately to help. The sophomore has poured in 18.0 points and 6.8 rebounds over the last four games.
And with guard/forward Terran Petteway leading the way, the Cornhuskers believe they can win any match. The sophomore has averaged 18.1 points on 43.0 percent shooting this year and has netted 46 in his last two outings.
A first-round matchup with Baylor won’t be a pushover—the team has won 10 of its last 12. But if Nebraska can find a way to contain the Bears, a deep run in the West shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats, rankings and other information are courtesy of ESPN.com.