NCAA Tournament 2014: Sleeper Teams to Watch in Each Region
Thanks to a ton of parity and the recent success of lower seeds, everyone out there should be looking for the next surprise sleeper in the 2014 NCAA tournament.
You know it's coming—a team playing with house money is bound to go on a run and take out a couple of power schools.
Let's identify those under-the-radar teams from each region that are prime candidates to send a few favorites home early.
South Region: Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (No. 12 Seed)
Stephen F. Austin just might be the most dangerous double-digit seed in the entire dance.
The Lumberjacks are riding a 28-game winning steak into the tournament, the second-longest streak next to No. 1 seed Wichita State.
This team is all about guard and wing play. Jacob Parker is the biggest dude in the starting lineup at 6'6".
But everyone on this team can shoot it. Its top five scorers all shoot at least 35 percent from downtown.
And you have to love teams that share the ball on offense and D up at the other end. The Lumberjacks rank No. 8 in the country in assists per game and No. 26 in points allowed.
From an analytics standpoint, it's tough to ignore the fact they're also No. 3 in the country in defensive turnover percentage and No. 11 in offensive rebounding percentage, per Kenpom's advanced stats.
But the selling point here is the team's recent play, as it hasn't lost a game since November 23. If the Lumberjacks catch fire against a VCU team that just lost its conference tournament championship game to Saint Joseph's, who knows how far they could run?
South Region: Stanford Cardinal (No. 10 Seed)
Stanford just has a number of tough matchups down the lineup that could pose problems for teams like New Mexico or Kansas.
And it starts with Dwight Powell up top, who, at 6'10", can play all over the floor. A big-time athlete who runs, plays above the rim, scores in the post and on the perimeter, New Mexico just doesn't have the athleticism up front to chase him around the court.
Junior guard Chasson Randle has also evolved into one of the toughest offensive players in the Pac-12. He averaged 18.7 points on a career-high 39.7 percent shooting from downtown, and he's taken almost 100 more free throws this season than he did a year ago.
With glue guy Josh Huestis making energy plays as a rebounder and finisher, Stanford has some nice balance in the lineup, as well as an older group that's been playing together for a while now.
Kansas, the No. 2 seed in the South, is just not the same team without Joel Embiid in the middle. And if Stanford could take out New Mexico, they'd have an excellent opportunity to pull off a major upset in the Round of 32.
East Region: North Carolina Central Eagles (No. 14 Seed)
North Carolina Central is entering the tournament on a 20-game win steak, something they've done with a whole lot of defense.
The Eagles rank No. 7 in the country in points allowed and No. 26 in steals per game.
They hold their opponents to just 30.6 percent shooting from downtown, and Kenpom's advanced stats have them ranked top-five in the country in defensive effective field-goal percentage and turnover rate.
They're also led by 20-point-per-game scorer Jeremy Ingram, a senior who's exploded for 36 points, 37 points and 38 points this season. Ingram can light it up from behind the arc or get to the rack, as he makes two threes per game and he gets to the line more than eight times a night.
In the Round of 64, The Eagles get Iowa State, a team that scores a ton of points and relies on offense. If North Carolina Central's stout defense can help neutralize the Cyclones' attack, they might have enough firepower with Ingram to pull off the first-round upset.
And with Villanova as the No. 2 seed on their side of the region, a team that just lost to Seton Hall, the Eagles have gotten themselves as good of draw as they could have hoped for.
East Region: Providence Friars (No. 11 Seed)
After knocking off Creighton in the Big East Championship game, Providence has now emerged as an extremely dangerous double-digit seed.
Coach Ed Cooley's Friars are led by Bryce Cotton, arguably one of the most prolific playmakers in all the country. Cotton is one of those lightning-quick guards who's impossible to stay in front of. And he's also capable of taking over stretches of a game with the ball in his hands.
Providence has also been getting strong play from forward Tyler Harris, a versatile mismatch who can score inside or attack off the bounce. Pair Harris with upperclass forwards LaDontae Henton and Kadeem Batts, who both average more than seven boards a game, and the Friars have themselves a number of different weapons that might give North Carolina and Iowa State (or North Carolina Central) problems in the first few rounds.
Another reason I like this team: free-throw shooting. They knock down 78.1 percent of their attempts from the stripe, good for No. 2 in the country. It's something that helps keep teams in games and ultimately pull them out at the end.
But at the end of the day, it's Cotton, Providence's floor general and leader who wasn't recruited by anyone out of high school, that has Cinderella story written all over him.
Midwest Region: Arizona State Sun Devils (No. 10 Seed)
Arizona State is one of those schools that could knock off anyone if caught at the wrong time. No. 1 seed Arizona found that out the hard way recently.
And it all starts with Jahii Carson, the electric scoring point guard with takeover ability. You won't find many quicker playmakers than Carson, who can get to any spot on the floor and rise and fire for a makable shot.
He could also be going up against two freshman point guards in his first two games—Texas' Isaiah Taylor and Michigan's Derrick Walton Jr.
Down low, Arizona State dresses the country's leading shot-blocker in Jordan Bachynski. He's become a much bigger presence on the interior this season, not only as a rim protector, but as a scorer and rebounder.
In between, the Sun Devils have gotten plenty of production on the wing from Penn State transfer Jermaine Marshall, who's averaging 15 points on 40 percent shooting from downtown.
For Arizona State, it's just a matter of putting it all together and clicking on all cylinders because the talent is definitely there.
Since they haven't played very well lately, most people are likely to write them off in the Round of 64. But their first opponent, Texas, has been just as shaky, having lost five of its last eight games.
Midwest Region: North Carolina State Wolfpack (No. 12 Seed)
North Carolina State squeaked into the play-in game against Xavier. And I'd imagine teams in the Midwest region aren't too thrilled.
That's because it might mean they have to face T.J. Warren, who has gone off for 40-plus points twice in March and 27-plus points four times in February.
Though they fell to Duke, the Wolfpack recently knocked off Syracuse behind Warren's 28 points and eight boards.
Despite the win, most people didn't have North Carolina State getting an invite to the dance. And now it's in it playing with house money, making them a danger to Xavier and Saint Louis early on.
I'll admit, this is pretty much a one-man team, but that one man is a bad one capable of taking someone down by himself.
West Region: Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns (No. 14 Seed)
Louisiana-Lafayette has one of those dynamic duos that just might be potent enough to win a few games on their own.
Point guard Elfrid Payton and big man Shawn Long have both been dominant at times throughout the year at different areas on the floor.
Payton is averaging 19 points, six boards and six assists this season. At 6'3" with showtime athleticism, he has the ability to control the pace of a game and score in the paint with runners, floaters, layups and pull-ups.
Long averages an 18.9-point, 10.4-rebound double-double. At 6'9" and 245 pounds, Long can overwhelm with strength and length on the interior while complementing an inside game with a threatening jumper around the arc.
The Ragin' Cajuns are ranked No. 27 in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, which can be attributed to Long's ability to pick up second-chance buckets at the rim.
This team also has two deadly three-point threats in Bryant Mbamalu and Xavian Rimmer, who each shoot above 37 percent from downtown.
Louisiana-Lafayette tends to rely a little too much on its top two guns, but if they can start working the two-man game effectively and get some support from its role players, the Ragin' Cajuns should have enough firepower to knock off Creighton, Nebraska or Baylor.
West Region: Oregon Ducks (No. 7 Seed)
As a No. 7 seed, you might not consider Oregon a sleeper, but this is a group that I believe can make a run at the Final Four.
Prior to losing in the Pac-12 tournament, Oregon had rattled off eight wins in a row, with big ones coming over No. 1 seed Arizona and No. 4 seed UCLA.
With a dynamite backcourt in Johnathan Loyd and Joseph Young, Oregon comes in with an adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 117.1, good for No. 12 in the country. It also shoots 39.1 percent from downtown and 76.6 percent from the stripe, both top-20 numbers nationally.
This is a dangerous offensive team that has plenty of depth and firepower in the backcourt and one of the more versatile forwards around in Mike Moser, who's averaging 13.5 points and eight boards on 1.7 three-point makes a game.
This team won two games as a 12 seed in the 2013 NCAA tournament, and it looks better and more experienced in 2014.
Wisconsin and Creighton are both very beatable high seeds on Oregon's side of the West region. Between their recent strong play and a good-looking draw, I've got the Ducks emerging as the surprise team in the West.