NCAA Bracket Predictions 2016: Sleeper Teams to Watch
If this season in college basketball really is so wide-open with a lot of parity (drink!), then it's justified to go sleeper-crazy in your bracket.
The tournament is all about matchups, and this year when the difference in seed lines is smaller than most, that's even more so the case.
The eight teams in this group, all seeded eighth or lower, have the potential to reach the second weekend. I'm not endorsing that you put every sleeper there—I didn't in my bracket—but these are teams that are certainly worth consideration.
Gonzaga (Midwest Region, No. 11 Seed)
Gonzaga is one of the most talented teams ever to fall on the 11 line. The Zags have one of the best scoring front lines in the country with Domantas Sabonis (17.4 PPG and 11.6 RPG) and Kyle Wiltjer (20.7 PPG). Those two are really hard to match up with, and what held the Zags back this year was their backcourt.
Well, that backcourt is starting to come around. Redshirt freshman point guard Josh Perkins averaged 14 points in the WCC tournament, and senior guard Eric McClellan broke out for 20.3 points per game and shot 7-of-13 from deep during the tourney.
Seton Hall is no slouch as a No. 6 seed, but Gonzaga has more tourney experience, and the difference between these teams definitely isn't five seed lines. According to KenPom.com, Seton Hall is the 26th-best team in the country and Gonzaga is just two spots below.
And get this: If Gonzaga were to face third-seeded Utah in the next round, it would actually be the favorite, according to Ken Pomeroy's numbers (Utah ranks 29th on the site). The Zags are also one of the few teams that have someone (Sabonis) who can legitimately match up with Utah star Jakob Poeltl.
I like the surrounding cast around Sabonis better than what Utah has around Poeltl.
Pittsburgh (East Region, No. 10 Seed)
Let's assume Pittsburgh gets past Wisconsin. The Panthers are the more talented team, so that's not really much of an upset.
In the next round, Pitt would likely face second-seeded Xavier. The Musketeers play both man-to-man and a 1-3-1 defense, and last year, head coach Chris Mack leaned heavily on the 1-3-1 in the NCAA tournament. Makes sense, especially in the second round when a team has just one day to prep for a defense that barely anyone in college basketball plays.
The Panthers, however, are as well-equipped as they come to face such a D. Jamie Dixon's teams have always been known for their great passing, and this group is no different. The Panthers have thrived against zone, beating Syracuse five straight times the last two seasons.
Now the Syracuse zone is different than Xavier's, but the way to beat it—ball movement and getting into the seams—is similar.
The other big weapons the Panthers have are two playmaking forwards in Jamel Artis and Michael Young. Both big fellas can create off the bounce and are difficult to match up with. Their ability to handle and pass will come in handy in the Sweet 16 if they see West Virginia's press. The tourney is all about matchups, and Pitt's strengths can combat the biggest strengths of both Xavier and WVU.
If you want to put a double-digit seed in the Elite Eight, the Panthers would be as good a bet as anyone to get there.
Hawaii (South Region, No. 13 Seed)
Hawaii was going to be a team, pre-bracket, that I planned on picking to at least reach the round of 32. I caught the Rainbow Warriors several times this season, including a three-point loss to Oklahoma back in December, and this team absolutely belongs on the floor against major-conference opponents.
The Rainbow Warriors have a stretch 5 in former Missouri big man Stefan Jankovic who has range on his jumper (39.5 percent from three) and can also score from the blocks. Not many centers in college basketball are as skilled as Jankovic. Point guard Roderick Bobbitt is a gifted creator off the bounce and another player who is a major-conference talent, and Aaron Valdes is a big, physical wing who can score.
Now here's the bad news: that draw. California has two future lottery picks (Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb) and at least a third pro in senior guard Tyrone Wallace. The Bears finally started to play to their talent late in the year. Get past Cal, and Maryland likely awaits in the next round. You could make the argument that Maryland has the most talented starting five in America.
That said, I still think very highly of Hawaii and wouldn't call anyone crazy for picking that team to pull an upset or two. It's a crappy draw, but Hawaii is much better than its seed.
Wichita State (South Region, No. 11 Seed)
This is the worst team Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker have been on in their careers at Wichita State. The Shockers lack an inside scorer, which is something they've always had, and the complementary players around VanVleet and Baker aren't quite at the same level as in the past.
But that backcourt.
VanVleet and Baker are not going to be an easy out, especially in their senior seasons. The two guards have a Final Four, undefeated regular season and a Sweet 16 on their resumes.
KenPom.com has the Shockers a bit overrated, but if you believe in the numbers, you should bet on this group. They rank 12th on KenPom.com, which is higher than any team they'd face in the first three games. Miami, at No. 13, is closest.
The reason the Shockers are so high is they rank No. 1 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. Gregg Marshall is an excellent defensive coach, and VanVleet and Baker are two of the best defensive guards in college basketball. Marshall also has a tool bag of presses and traps that he can throw at opponents.
The Shockers might not be a trendy pick because they got a tough draw, but the last time they weren't a trendy pick, they ended up in the Final Four.
And if you like Vandy to knock them off in the First Four, that's another sleeper candidate. The Commodores have three future pros in their starting lineup, including two probable first-rounders this year (Damian Jones and Wade Baldwin), and that's a team that looked top-10ish good early in the year.
Saint Joseph's (West Region, No. 8 Seed)
The last time Phil Martelli's team was in the NCAA tournament in 2014, the Hawks led Connecticut in the final minute of regulation and went on to lose in overtime in the opening round.
That UConn squad went on to win the national championship.
This team's star, DeAndre' Bembry, played 45 minutes and scored 16 points in that game. Bembry, a 6'6" junior wing, is a future pro. He was at the Nike Skills Academy this past summer with some of the best players in the nation—Denzel Valentine, Buddy Hield, Kris Dunn, Ben Simmons, Jakob Poeltl, etc.—and Bembry absolutely belonged on the court with those guys.
The Hawks also have one of the nation's most improved players in stretch 4 Isaiah Miles. Miles is the team's leading scorer at 18.4 points per game and is a matchup problem because of his ability to take bigs out to the perimeter, where he shoots 38.8 percent from three.
Martelli is also one of the game's best in-game coaches. Give him two stars in a tourney setting, and he's going to put them in spots to succeed.
If Saint Joseph's gets past Cincy, you could make the argument that Bembry and Miles will be two of the three best players on the floor against top-seeded Oregon. The Ducks are weaker than most No. 1 seeds—most years, that's a team that would probably fall on the three or four line—and the talent gap between the two teams isn't huge.
Get to the Sweet 16, and Baylor and Duke are two of the weaker teams on their seed line. Also worth mentioning is that the A-10 has had a team reach the Sweet 16 in each of the last eight seasons. Saint Joseph's is the best bet to keep the streak alive.
Northern Iowa (West Region, No. 11 Seed)
Meet the giant killers.
Northern Iowa finished tied for fourth in the Missouri Valley this season, yet this is a team that owns wins over North Carolina, Iowa State and Wichita State (twice).
UNI also enters the tournament with 12 wins in its last 13 games. What's changed late in the year is the Panthers have gotten back to playing the kind of defense that helped them go 31-4 last year.
Ben Jacobson runs the pack-line defense, and that's a defense that should be very effective against Texas, which is struggling shooting the ball right now and depends on the penetration of Isaiah Taylor. It's really hard to get into the teeth of a pack-line D.
The other reason UNI has been a giant killer this year is senior guard Wes Washpun. Washpun, a lefty who has kind of an unorthodox game, went for 21 points against UNC, 28 points against Iowa State and 20 points in the MVC semifinal win over Wichita State.
Texas A&M would be a tough matchup in the second round. The Aggies have much better talent than the Panthers. But so did Iowa State and North Carolina. Beware A&M.
Yale (West Region, No. 12 Seed)
Harvard won in the first round in 2013 and 2014, and this Yale team is on the level of those Harvard teams.
The Bulldogs have experience and can really guard. Their defense ranks 21st in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom.com. They are the best team on the 12 line and also get the benefit of being in the region with arguably the weakest combination of No. 4 and No. 5 seeds in Duke and Baylor, respectively.
To beat Baylor, you have to be able to rebound. The Bears are the third-best offensive rebounding team in the country. That just so happens to be a strength for Yale as well. The Bulldogs rank seventh in both defensive rebounding and offensive rebounding rate.
Baylor's zone is a challenge to face, but Yale's ability to shoot the three (37.4 percent) and hit the offensive glass—rebounding out of a zone is always tough—is something that should help attack the zone.
In the next round, Yale could face Duke for a second time this season. The Bulldogs lost by 19 back in late November to the Blue Devils, but that game was at Cameron and the Devils still had the services of Amile Jefferson. Even with Jefferson, who is Duke's best interior defender, Yale star forward Justin Sears scored 19 points.
Despite the semi-lopsided score, it was a game for a half. The Bulldogs led midway through the first half and trailed by only two at halftime. If they get the Devils again, they should have faith they can play with them.
UNC-Wilmington (West Region, No. 13 Seed)
The Colonial is the ninth-best league in America, according to KenPom.com, and the last time a league finished in the top 10 in those rankings and was just a one-bid league was the Horizon in 2011.
That one bid went to Butler, which ended up playing in the national championship game.
I'm not endorsing UNC-Wilmington as a Final Four candidate, but the numbers suggest the Colonial is much better than anyone would perceive.
The Seahawks also get a first-round opponent they can match up with. The five guys who play the most minutes for Wilmington are all 6'6" or shorter, and Duke is a team that isn't going to exploit the lack of size. The Devils also like to play small.
Wilmington likes to play fast, and with Duke's lack of a bench, that could be advantageous.
I have a hard time seeing Duke lose in an up-and-down game where the opponent doesn't have the bigs needed to bang inside, but the Blue Devils are certainly beatable, and this group is similar to the Jabari Parker-led team that lost in the opening round two years ago.
Get past Duke, and there's a decent chance Wilmington would face Yale in the next round. So if you're looking for one area of the bracket to pick a definite sleeper to the Sweet 16, this is one region to target.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @CJMooreBR.