March Madness 2014: Sleeper Picks with Bracket-Busting Potential

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March Madness 2014: Sleeper Picks with Bracket-Busting Potential
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

There are going to be a few sleeper teams in the NCAA tournament that send a prominent high seed and many brackets into the basketball abyss. 

That much is easy to predict. It happens every year. After all, we don't call this March Madness for nothing. 

The trick, of course, is picking which teams will be the sleepers. There is no exact science in this. Sure, there are ways to pick out lower seeds with the potential to make a deep run, but in the end, anything can happen in this tournament format. 

I'll offer up three strong sleeper options below, but first, have a look at the bracket. 

 

All Your Bracket Essentials:
Source: Bleacher Report

 

East No. 6: North Carolina

Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina has had an up-and-down season. The Tar Heels began in terrible form.

They were struggling to find consistent scoring without the suspended and never reinstated P.J. Hairston. The Tar Heels found a new identity, however, and turned the season around. 

The Tar Heels won 12 straight conference games and were in a position to grab a much better seed than a No. 6, but North Carolina ended the season with consecutive losses. That is less than ideal when identifying a potential sleeper, but both were single-digit losses to tournament teams in Duke and Pittsburgh. Head coach Roy Williams certainly was ready to throw in the towel after the loss to Pitt.  

USA Today's Nicole Auerbach passed along this Williams' quote: 

SI.com's Pete Thamel helps highlight the impetus for the Tar Heels' positive turnaround, and it is a good reminder why this team can be a factor:

The Tar Heels put together a 12-game winning streak in conference play but enter the tournament having lost consecutive games, to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium and against Pittsburgh in the ACC tournament. This is a different style UNC team, as Carolina ranks No. 22 in the KenPom.com defensive rankings but just No. 58 offensively.

On offense, the key for North Carolina will be point guard Marcus Paige not waiting until the second half to take over games. He needs to be selfish for UNC to look more like the team that ran through the ACC in February. And that could mean a deep run in March.

The Tar Heels start off with No. 11 Providence. No. 3 Iowa State and No. 2 Villanova loom in their half of the bracket. North Carolina has the defense to frustrate all of these teams and make a deep run in the East. 

 

West No. 6: Baylor

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Since guard Kenny Chery has been back in the starting lineup and healthy, the Baylor Bears have been outstanding.

Which of these teams will advance the furthest?

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Baylor turned its season around by winning 10 of its last 12. That included a 13-point win over Iowa State and a four-point win over Oklahoma. 

Junior guard Chery has been stuffing the stat sheet in that span. He can score and dish with the best of him, and he's also got the quick hands needed to swipe multiple steals. 

A quality, experienced guard provides a strong foundation for any tournament team. 

Like North Carolina, the Bears are equipped to navigate half their region. Baylor starts with a vulnerable Nebraska team. Creighton (3) and Wisconsin (2) sit as the highest seeds in that half of the region. 

Creighton slumped to end the season and is far too reliant on Doug McDermott, and Wisconsin picked up six losses in the Big Ten this year. 

Don't be surprised to see Baylor ending some seasons. 

 

South No. 7: New Mexico

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

New Mexico won the Mountain West tournament and went 27-6 but couldn't muster anything higher than a No. 7 seed.

The Mountain West is not a powerhouse conference, but it is not void of talent. 

The Lobos beat San Diego State in the championship game by six points, and San Diego State is the No. 4 seed in the West.

What I really like about the Lobos is that this team improved as the season went along, and they won with great balance.

The Lobos are good on offense and defense. They also know how to make the most out of possessions. With a 1.46 assist-to-turnover ratio, New Mexico is 15th nationally in that category. The Lobos are an even better eighth in the nation with 27.5 defensive rebounds per game. 

New Mexico's path is not easy. The Lobos start with Stanford and then have No. 2 seed Kansas and No. 3 seed Syracuse sitting in their half of the region. 

Still, Kansas has health concerns with center Joel Embiid, and Syracuse slumped to end the season. It wouldn't be at all shocking to watch New Mexico make a deep run. 

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