With Selection Sunday behind us, we have officially started the greatest sports event in the world: March Madness. The 2014 NCAA tournament field is set, which means that millions of people around the globe are scrambling to learn about the teams as they fill out their brackets. Invariably, we will all end up pulling our hair out in frustration as some team we’ve never heard of upsets our predicted winner early in the tournament. It always happens, so you may as well accept it.
In fact, it’s so certain to happen that you may as well spend some time learning about those sleeper teams that are desperate for their turn to try on Cinderella’s glass slipper. It’s highly unlikely that any of these teams will make it to the Final Four—let alone cut down the nets at the end of it all—but they can all make deeper runs than anybody expected and wreck your bracket in the process.
There are various reasons that these teams will exceed expectations. For some, it’s because of the coaches who know how to get the job done in pressure situations and make sure that their teams don’t beat themselves.
For some, it’s because they have a star who can carry the team through multiple rounds of the tournament. Whatever the reason, these teams have the mettle and talent to make you crumple up your bracket and scream in frustration.
Maybe you don’t think Providence is a true “sleeper” since it just won the Big East championship by beating Creighton in the tournament final. Perhaps you just think that was a fluke win.
Either way, the Friars are a team with the potential to surprise their opponents. They haven’t been able to consistently play their highest level of defense, but when they’re locked in it’s incredibly difficult to score on them—as we saw in the Big East final when they held Creighton, one of the best offenses in the country, to just 17 points in the first half.
But the biggest reason why teams should fear Providence is because of guard Bryce Cotton. The senior is hardly physically imposing, standing at 6’1” and 165 pounds, but when he gets hot he is an unstoppable scoring machine with the ability to stroke it from downtown or beat his man off the dribble and get to the rack.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott was certainly afraid of Cotton before the championship game, as he told the Associated Press (h/t to ESPN.com):
I was scared to death of the fact that he didn't shoot it good the first two games because, in my mind, I'm saying, `There's no way Bryce Cotton's having three bad games shooting the basketball in a row,' and that proved to be the case.
Cotton’s play was the most instrumental factor in the Friars’ conference championship, and he was rewarded with the Most Outstanding Player award.
Not sure there's a player in America that means as much to their team as Bryce Cotton means to Providence. Does everything for the Friars.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) February 19, 2014
With a physical defense that can defend the three-point line well and a prime-time performer, Providence has the chance to upset North Carolina in the first round and keep rolling through the tournament.
The Arizona State Sun Devils are certainly a boom-or-bust sleeper team because of their inconsistency. Some teams are so solid in their play that they aren’t going to dominate teams, and they’re never going to be blown out.
That’s not Arizona State.
They’ve had disappointing double-digit losses to tournament-caliber teams like Creighton, UCLA and Arizona.
Then again, they’ve also beaten Colorado, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona.
With a solid defense that ranks 27th in the country according to Ken Pomeroy’s advanced ratings, the Sun Devils have the athletes to lock down the opposition, and they have a bona fide star in Jahii Carson.
The sophomore point guard is an electrifying, do-it-all player who averaged 18.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game this year.
A legitimate NBA prospect, Carson will use the tournament as a showcase for his all-around game—especially after a disappointing showing against Stanford—and that means trouble for his competition.
North Dakota State
North Dakota State doesn’t play very good defense, but it is extremely efficient on offense. That is actually underselling it.
The Bison are one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country, and that will pose problems for the Oklahoma Sooners in the second round and for their opponents beyond that:
|Points per Shot||1.43||8|
|Adjusted Field-Goal Percentage||56%||9|
Matt Norlander of CBS Sports is very impressed with how the Bison play ball and had this to say about the men from North Dakota State:
NDSU can score, it can pass, and it makes winning look tough yet easy. A well-built veteran team that's highly unlikely to lose by double digits in the NCAAs. Want to pick 'em to win? You could do a lot worse. Keep an eye out. Saul Phillips' team has been flying under the radar all season for a group that so clearly was the best this conference had to offer.
The second-round matchup against Oklahoma is a fairly good one considering that it should be a high-scoring affair. The Bison can score with anybody, so they are sure to surprise folks and ruin some brackets in the process.