NCAA Tournament: 1 Final Four Sleeper from Each Region
It's the most wonderful time of year.
The 2014 NCAA tournament is set to begin, and the entire country is in the process of filling out their brackets. The folks in the Northeast can see a light at the end of the tunnel that was a brutal winter. By the time someone cuts down the nets at Jerry's World, Spring will have sprung.
This year more than ever, any team is capable of beating any other. You can't automatically pencil a No. 1 or No. 2 seed into the Final Four. Surprises can come from places you'd least expect.
With that in mind, let's take a look at a few sleepers that can surprise everyone and make a run to Arlington and the Final Four. Note: Each team will be seeded No. 5 at best.
Cincinnati is in a tough spot.
The Bearcats are the No. 5 seed in a bracket that includes Michigan State. The No. 4 seeded Spartans are a sexy pick to win it all, with 13.7 percent of people picking them in ESPN's Tournament Challenge. That's the second-highest total behind top-overall seed Florida.
But count out Cincy at your own risk. The Bearcats are led by senior guard Sean Kilpatrick. The 6'4" guard put up 20.7 points per game during the regular season and surpassed 2,000 career points late in the campaign. Kilpatrick has the size and athletic ability to create matchup problems for any opposing guards.
Kilpatrick also runs with fellow seniors Justin Jackson (6'8") and Titus Rubles (6'7"), who lead an experienced and athletic front line. Cincinnati's length and experience can help should it run into Michigan State or Virginia in the East.
Mick Cronin's squad is also a tough defensive team and ranks sixth in the nation in scoring defense at 58.3 points per game. The Cats boast wins over Louisville (on the road), Pittsburgh, Nebraska, Memphis and UConn, all of which are tournament teams.
With an experienced go-to scorer and a defense that can be leaned on, Cincinnati will surely be a tough out for any team.
South: New Mexico
Not a lot of people outside of Mountain West Conference territory know much about New Mexico.
But the MWC tournament champs are for real. Detractors will point to how last year, the third-seeded Lobos went down to Harvard. But upsets happen. Duke lost to Lehigh as a No. 2 seed in 2012 and then went to the Elite Eight in 2013.
The Lobos have a legit low-post threat in the form of 6'9" senior Cameron Bairstow. The Aussie averaged 20.3 points and 7.4 rebounds on the year. And you can never underestimate the power of the high socks.
New Mexico also has a solid long-range threat in the form of Kendall Williams. The 6'4" senior out of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. (I love saying that name) hit over 40 percent of his threes on the season and notched 16.4 points a game.
And the Lobos have shown they can get it done against defensive stalwarts. They knocked off San Diego State—who ranked eighth in field-goal percentage defense and second in scoring defense—in the Mountain West title game and also handled the Aztecs earlier in the year.
Leaning on a seasoned inside-out combo and the ability to score against tough defenses, New Mexico can certainly hang with the best of them.
Cue the usual "Coach Cal can't win with a bunch of freshmen" haters.
Based purely on talent, Kentucky is as good as any team in the country. Julius Randle is a load inside averaging 15 and 10 and has a lot of Zach Randolph potential. He's a future top-five pick. The Harrison twins are an athletic guard combo at 6'6" that can create matchup problems in the backcourt.
Flanking them is James Young, another talented freshman who puts up 14.5 a night. And protecting the rim (when he's not redoing his hair) is 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein. Cauley-Stein is 16th in the country at just under three blocks a night. And how about those Walter White glasses?
Style issues aside, the Wildcats can play with the best of them. They lost to Florida by one in the SEC title game and had a chance to hit a game-winner but failed to get a shot off on the final play.
Talent alone can't win a title, but it sure can help. And John Calipari's team has talent in spades. If Kentucky stays committed on defense and plays unselfishly on offense, the 'Cats can hang with anyone.
West: Oklahoma State
After hitting a mid-season swoon that coincided with the suspension of Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State is flying under the radar a bit entering the Big Dance.
But make no mistake, Oklahoma State is a dangerous team. And how perfect would it be for the Cowboys to make the Final Four at Cowboys Stadium?
Oklahoma State just keeps coming at you with athleticism. Smart is as athletic a guard as there is in the country and is a future NBA lottery pick. Markel Brown (senior) and Le'Bryan Nash (junior) provide depth and experience next to Smart.
Any one of those players can light you up on any night as Smart averages 17.8, Brown 17.1 and Nash 14.2.
And if you load up on the players inside, Phil Forte can make you pay from the perimeter. Forte hit 44.5 percent of his threes on the season. Brown is also a respectable long-range shooter at 38.2 percent. And if the Cowboys find themselves in a close game, their 72.4 percent free-throw shooting can be a weapon.
(By the way, how great is it that OK State's roster doesn't list positions, instead listing players as "guard," "wing," or "post"?)
Perhaps most importantly, the Cowboys will probably be playing with a chip on their shoulders after being given a No. 9 seed. And should they encounter Arizona in the round of 32, they actually match up pretty well with the Wildcats.
Either way, Oklahoma State is a team to watch out West.
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