Sleeper Rankings for the 2018 NCAA Tournament

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 19, 2018

Sleeper Rankings for the 2018 NCAA Tournament

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    James Crisp/Associated Press

    Kentucky reached the national championship as a No. 8 seed four years ago, and the somewhat-bubbly Wildcats could be headed for a similar starting position in the 2018 men's NCAA tournament.

    What are the odds the result is the same?

    For all the time we spend arguing about No. 1 seeds and teams right on the cut line, it's the ones in that Nos. 6-11 range that tend to destroy everyone's brackets.

    In each and every tournament in the 2010s, multiple No. 1 or No. 2 seeds have failed to reach the Sweet 16, meaning that with one No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast exception (2013), it was always a team in the Nos. 7-10 range winning multiple games in their place. And in six of those eight tournaments, at least two No. 6 or No. 11 seeds made it into the second weekend.

    With just a couple of weeks remaining until Selection Sunday, who are those teams looming large as Sweet 16 sleepers?

    Using Friday's Bracket Matrix update as a guide of who is seeded where, we've scoured the list of at-large candidates projected for a No. 6 seed or worse to let you know which ones could cause problems in the first two rounds.

    Teams are listed in ascending order of how comfortable we would feel picking them to win multiple games regardless of their draw.

    Note: This list does not include teams from projected one-bid leagues. There will be a similar bracket-busters piece next week in which we'll look at the likes of Middle Tennessee, Nevada, New Mexico State and other mid-major or minor-conference monsters who could pull off huge upsets.

Washington Huskies

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    Jaylen Nowell
    Jaylen NowellPorter Binks/Getty Images

    Projected Seed: First Four Out

    Seeded Here Because: Washington is one of many teams right on the bubble with a bunch of strong wins and a bunch of bad losses. The Huskies won at Kansas and USC. They beat Arizona and Arizona State at home. But they also got swept by Utah, lost a home game to Stanford and immediately followed up those wins over the Arizona schools with ill-advised losses to the Oregon schools. Washington probably needs to go 4-0 the rest of the way to feel good about reaching the Big Dance.

    Bread and Butter: After many years at Jim Boeheim's side, Mike Hopkins has brought a tough zone defense to Seattle. It flummoxed Kansas and caused major problems for both Arizona schools. Washington has only given up more than 77 points six times this season, and only once in the past 13 games. Quite the one-year turnaround for a team that played atrocious defense in 2016-17.

    Star Player: You could go with freshman guard Jaylen Nowell here, but give me junior forward Noah Dickerson. In Washington's aforementioned quality wins, the big man averaged 19.0 points and 11.0 rebounds in 30.5 minutes. And he excels at drawing contact, which could be a huge advantage in the tournament.

    March Madness Ceiling: Right after the marquee win over Kansas, Washington was throttled by 27 points against Gonzaga. Similarly, the key win over USC was immediately followed by a 21-point loss to UCLA. And after beating Arizona, the Huskies mustered just 40 points in a blowout loss to Oregon. They might pull off one big upset, but don't count on multiples.

Seton Hall Pirates

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    Angel Delgado
    Angel DelgadoNati Harnik/Associated Press

    Projected Seed: No. 8

    Seeded Here Because: To put it lightly, the past six weeks have not gone well for Seton Hall. The Pirates are 4-7 in their last 11 games, and the only win over a team even remotely in the conversation for a spot in the NCAA tournament was a home game against Providence. Seton Hall was blown out by Marquette and Creighton and had a brutal loss to Rutgers back before this cold spell even began. Were it not for the early win over Texas Tech, the Pirates might be on the wrong side of the bubble.

    Bread and Butter: Per KenPom, Seton Hall only ranks in the top 50 nationally in one of the 18 "Four Factors" or "Miscellaneous Components" categories, and that's offensive rebounding. The Pirates get back more than 34 percent of their own misses, which helps make up for the fact that they aren't typically a great shooting team. In the aforementioned win over Texas Tech, though, they shot 11-of-20 from three-point range and got 15 out of a possible 36 offensive rebounds (41.7 percent). That's one heck of a recipe for success.

    Star Player: Seton Hall's king of the offensive glass is Angel Delgado, who grabs better than four a night. As a result, he's on the short list of six players averaging at least 13 points and 11 rebounds per game. When he records a double-double, the Pirates are 14-3.

    March Madness Ceiling: If Seton Hall remains in the No. 8 or No. 9 range, it could be a candidate to knock off a No. 1 seed in the second round. The Pirates put up a good fight in two of their three games against Villanova and Xavier, already proving they can compete with those teams. But it's hard to imagine this team playing at its peak for more than two games, since we haven't seen that at any point this season.

Virginia Tech Hokies

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    Chris Clarke
    Chris ClarkeRobert Franklin/Associated Press

    Projected Seed: No. 10

    Seeded Here Because: Virginia Tech soared into the projected field with a road win over Virginia two weekends ago, which paired nicely with the home win over North Carolina in late January. However, the Hokies didn't do anything good in nonconference play, and even took a bad neutral-court loss to Saint Louis. As a result, they might need to win two of their remaining four games (Clemson, Louisville, Duke, at Miami) just to get into the tournament.

    Bread and Butter: They didn't show it in recent games against Virginia and Duke, but the Hokies are one of the best shooting teams in the country. They make 39.6 percent from beyond and arc and 58.8 percent inside it. Virginia Tech ranks fourth in the nation with a 59.0 effective field-goal percentage, er KenPom.

    Star Player: All five starters average at least 11 points per game, but the MVP of this team might be sixth man Chris Clarke. He plays as many minutes (25.3) as Nickeil Alexander-Walker (25.3) and Kerry Blackshear Jr. (25.2), so he's basically a sixth starter. And he puts up 8.5 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game.

    March Madness Ceiling: VT's ceiling will depend on whether it can maintain this momentum. Four of its five best wins of the season have come in the last eight games. If that team shows up in the second half of March, Virginia Tech could be this year's double-digit seed who reaches the Sweet 16.

Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Collin Sexton
    Collin SextonBrynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Projected Seed: No. 7

    Seeded Here Because: Alabama is wildly inconsistent. It has won six games against teams in the KenPom top 50, but it has also lost six games against teams outside the top 50. And it's not like the Crimson Tide were hot for a while against good teams and then struggled against bad teams. It has just been a flip of the coin on a nightly basis as to whether they will play well or fall flat.

    Bread and Butter: Led by Donta Hall and Daniel Giddens, Alabama is an excellent shot-blocking team. It swatted a dozen shots in the big win over Oklahoma in the SEC/B12 Challenge, and it averages 5.9 rejections per game. The Crimson Tide also alter a ton of shots that they don't block, which has helped them become the 10th most efficient defense in the country.

    Star Player: Alabama is a lot more than just Collin Sexton, but he's also clearly the star of the show. The freshman combo guard is averaging 18.1 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. And though Alabama has been inconsistent all season long, Sexton has been rock solid since returning from an abdominal injury, scoring at least 12 points in seven straight contests.

    March Madness Ceiling: It's impossible to put a limit on what this team can do. Alabama won by 18 points at Florida earlier this month and followed it up with a 28-point win over Tennessee one week later. But it's the loss to Mississippi State in between those statement wins that is going to keep most from picking the Crimson Tide to reach the Sweet 16.

St. Bonaventure Bonnies

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    Jaylen Adams
    Jaylen AdamsMitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Projected Seed: First Four Out

    Seeded Here Because: The Friday night win over Rhode Island put St. Bonaventure in great shape to reach the tournament, in spite of some ugly losses to Dayton, Saint Joseph's and Niagara. The fact of the matter is the Bonnies simply haven't beaten many quality opponents. Their second-best win of the season was probably the overtime road win over Syracuse, which is on the bubble, at best. But if they can push this eight-game winning streak to 12 games, they'll be dancing.

    Bread and Butter: St. Bonaventure is one of the best perimeter teams in the country. Led by Matt Mobley and Jaylen Adams, the Bonnies shoot 40.2 percent from three-point range and limit opponents to 31.3 percent. They also have a strong turnover margin, forcing 14.9 per game while committing just 11.4 on offense.

    Star Player: Mobley puts up great numbers (18.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 2.7 APG), but Adams is the undeniable phenom here. He missed the first six games of the season due to injury, but he still has seven games this season with at least 20 points and five assists. Through five games in February, Adams has averaged 28.8 points and 6.6 assists.

    March Madness Ceiling: Guard play is the name of the game in the NCAA tournament, and there aren't many backcourt duos in the entire country better than St. Bonaventure's. More so than perhaps any other team, though, its ceiling will depend on the draw. A team like Arizona, Purdue or Michigan State with multiple capable big men could eat the Bonnies alive in the paint. With a little luck, they'll be able to avoid such a foe for at least the first weekend.

Missouri Tigers

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    Kassius Robertson
    Kassius RobertsonL.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    Projected Seed: No. 6

    Seeded Here Because: Missouri has quite the blah resume. The Tigers have a few nice home wins over Tennessee, Kentucky and Texas A&M, but the most noteworthy thing about their nonconference schedule was a neutral-court loss to Illinois. They also have losses at LSU, Utah and Mississippi State. They probably need to go 3-1 the rest of the way to feel safe. The good news is that's what they're projected to do.

    Bread and Butter: Missouri doesn't block a ton of shots, but it does a great job of controlling the tempo and forcing opponents to settle for contested looks at the rim. Its defensive effective field-goal percentage ranks 12th in the nation, per KenPom. And when the Tigers hold teams to 60 points or fewer, they are 11-1 this season.

    Star Player: It was supposed to be Michael Porter Jr., and if he does come back, there's a 110 percent chance he'll be the most mentioned player on this roster in the tournament. Until that happens, though, Kassius Robertson is the man for Mizzou. The graduate transfer from Canisius is shooting 42.7 percent from three-point range and averaging three makes per contest. He's leading the Tigers in scoring at 16.5 points per game.

    March Madness Ceiling: Depends on the status of Porter, but let's play it safe and assume he doesn't return. This is still a solid team that can catch fire from three-point range and plays quality defense. Missouri is something of a poor man's Michigan State, because turnover margin is usually the story when it loses (average margin of minus-7.3 in nine losses). The Tigers should last for as long as they can avoid beating themselves in that department.

Saint Mary's Gaels

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    Jock Landale
    Jock LandaleMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Projected Seed: No. 8

    Seeded Here Because: Saint Mary's played nobody. Its only Quadrant 1 game was a road win over Gonzaga. Its only nonconference Quadrant 2 game was a neutral-court loss to Georgia. Factor in the bad losses to San Francisco and Washington State, and it would appear many bracketologists are being far too generous by projecting this team for a single-digit seed.

    Bread and Butter: The Gaels are ridiculously efficient on offense. They rank in the top 20 nationally in three-point percentage, two-point percentage and turnover percentage, which has propelled them to No. 3 in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency. They aren't a particularly high-scoring team, because they play at a Virginia-like pace. But they scored better than one point per possession in each of their first 27 games of the season.

    Star Player: Jock Landale struggled in recent losses to Gonzaga and San Francisco, which is largely why Saint Mary's lost those games. He has been a workhorse in the paint, averaging 21.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per contest. When he gets at least 20 points or 10 rebounds, Saint Mary's is 21-2.

    March Madness Ceiling: It's so hard to gauge what Saint Mary's is capable of doing, considering it has only faced one quality opponent all season long. But this offense might have Final Four potential with the right draw. An opponent who can pound the paint and get Landale into foul trouble could mess up everything the Gaels want to do on offense. But they do have six quality three-point shooters if Landale gets taken out of the game.

Florida Gators

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    Chris Chiozza
    Chris ChiozzaJeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Projected Seed: No. 7

    Seeded Here Because: We previously lamented Alabama's inconsistency, but Florida is right there, too. The Gators have great wins away from home against Cincinnati, Gonzaga, Kentucky, Missouri and Texas A&M. They also have ugly home losses to Loyola-Chicago, South Carolina and Georgia. In other words, if you were surprised when they lost to Vanderbilt on Saturday night, you simply haven't been paying much attention to this team. No result is surprising.

    Bread and Butter: The polar opposite of Missouri, Florida almost never shoots itself in the foot with turnovers. Granted, the Gators don't force many, either, but in SEC play, they have committed an average of just 8.6 turnovers per game. Dodging those mistakes keeps them in games even on nights when they're ice cold from the field. Only three of Florida's 10 losses came by a margin of more than six points.

    Star Player: Senior point guard Chris Chiozza is the reason this offense has been so turnover-averse. He had some occasional issues in the first five weeks of the season, but dating back to Dec. 20, "Cheese" has 101 assists against just 22 turnovers. That's 5.9 assists per game and 4.6 assists per turnover. By the way, he also puts up 11.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.9 steals per night. If Florida hadn't dropped off a cliff as far as the national radar is concerned, he'd be an All-American candidate.

    March Madness Ceiling: Who knows what seed the Gators will ultimately end up withthey still have four brutal games remaining before the SEC tournamentbut this is a team that has proven on a bunch of occasions that it can beat a quality opponent away from home. The disappointing losses make it impossible to trust them, but the Gators could reach the Elite Eight for the eighth time in the last 13 years.

Rhode Island Rams

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    Jared Terrell
    Jared TerrellJessica Hill/Associated Press

    Projected Seed: No. 5*

    Seeded Here Because: Rhode Island's metrics are great, and it passes the proverbial eye test, but it is a bit lacking in the quality-win department. The Rams won home games against Providence and St. Bonaventure and a neutral-court game against Seton Halleach of which is currently a bubble teamand that's about it. The good news is they don't have a single bad loss, so they're in great shape.

    Bread and Butter: Rhode Island might have the best perimeter defense in the country. The Rams rank fifth in defensive turnover percentage and seventh in defensive three-point rate, per KenPom. Sometimes that aggressive style comes back to bite them in the form of free-throw attempts allowed, but that's a small price to pay for one of the best turnover margins.

    Star Player: E.C. Matthews had been the star in recent years, but Jared Terrell is the man this season. One of five key seniors on this roster, Terrell is averaging 17.7 points and 1.5 steals while shooting 43.0 percent from three-point range. He has been Rhode Island's rock, scoring at least a dozen points in 16 of his last 17 games.

    March Madness Ceiling: Among teams that actually have a chance for an at-large bid, Rhode Island is the shortest, ranked 320th in average height by KenPom. That size could determine the ceiling for the Rams, as there's only so much they can do against a dominant centerlet alone a team with multiple big men who can ball. But this is a group of talented veterans that won't be intimidated by anyone. Rhode Island probably can't win it all, but of all the options here, it arguably has the best odds of reaching the Sweet 16, regardless of draw.

    Note: Though it was stated in the intro that we're only considering teams projected for a No. 6 seed or worse, it's a safe assumption Rhode Island would no longer be a No. 5 seed following Friday's loss to St. Bonaventure. Thus, an exception was made to include the Rams.

Kentucky Wildcats

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    Kevin Knox
    Kevin KnoxSam Craft/Associated Press

    Projected Seed: No. 6

    Seeded Here Because: Much has been made of Kentucky's supposed slide to the bubble, so let's instead use this space to explain why Kentucky is still safely in the projected field. Yes, the Wildcats have nine losses and a .500 record in SEC play, but the worst loss is either a neutral-court game against UCLA or a road game against South Carolina, neither of which is terrible. Meanwhile, they won at West Virginia and have a total of 11 Quadrant 1 or 2 wins. As long as they don't go 0-4 the rest of the way, your Robert Morris jokes are a waste of time.

    Bread and Butter: Kentucky doesn't give 100 percent every night, but when it does, it is simply more athletic than every team it faces. It blocks shots. It crashes the offensive glass. It draw fouls. And it closes out on three-point shooters in the blink of an eye. The Wildcats don't shoot very well, but they can win a lot of games in March simply by committing for 40 minutes.

    Star Player: One big reason Kentucky hasn't lived up to the hype is that it doesn't have that singular go-to player. But the guy who has assumed that role the most this season is Kevin Knox. The 6'9" wing-forward has scored in double figures in seven of the last eight games, including the phenomenal 34-point performance in the road win over West Virginia.

    March Madness Ceiling: Kentucky has advanced at least to the Elite Eight in six of John Calipari's first eight seasons at the helm. Even though this has been a bit of a disappointing season, you're out of your mind if you try to say with certainty that this team can't win a national championship. That said, it doesn't mean the Wildcats should even make it out of the first weekend. They are the ultimate wild card.

                  

    Statistics current through the start of play on Feb. 18.

    Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.