Sleepers to Watch in Every Major College Basketball Conference

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2015

Sleepers to Watch in Every Major College Basketball Conference

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    Sleepers keep us awake.

    If it weren’t for sleepers, then the entire landscape of American sports would be pitifully boring.

    Sleepers create story, upsets and make us hold our breath when the ball is in the air.

    Take what Nathan Giese of Fansided said on the matter: “Every college basketball season is full of surprises. Whether it be players, teams or game outcomes, there are some things that we just don’t see coming prior to the season. It’s part of the magic that keeps the sport so interesting.”

    Otherwise there would be no UConn or Kentucky reaching the finals a year ago.

    With that said and with conference play ready to leave the tarmac and take flight, here’s a list of sleepers who could, in theory, threaten the tenured elite atop the standings.

Washington Huskies

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Current Record: 11-1

    Biggest Win: vs. No. 13 San Diego State

    Why They Can Win

    The Huskies have been one of the more surprising teams this year, even more surprising than their upset loss to Stony Brook. Washington was ranked No. 13 at the time of the loss.

    The win for Stony Brook was its biggest in history.

    No matter, the Huskies have Robert Upshaw in the middle blocking over four shots per game. Washington also rebounds the ball extremely well, 41 per game, good for 21st in the country.

    Arizona will win the Pac-12. There’s no real argument there, but Washington has proved with wins over San Diego State and Oklahoma that it’s for real this season.

Seton Hall Pirates

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Current Record: 11-2

    Biggest Win: vs. No. 15 St. John’s

    Why They Can Win

    Seton Hall proved it can hang with a Top 25 team without one of its most talented players.

    The Pirates won their Big East opener against St. John’s without Isaiah Whitehead, a freshman scoring 11.9 points, 4.3 boards and 3.4 assists per game to go along with 1.3 steals. Whitehead suffered a stress fracture just before Christmas and will miss several games.

    Sterling Gibbs stepped up in a major way against the Red Storm, scoring 25 points, announcing that these Pirates aren’t afraid of anyone in the Big East.

    “I think everyone understands we’re deeper now,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard told The New York Times.

    That spells trouble for big teams in the Big East like St. John’s and now Villanova, who Seton Hall plays Jan. 3 at home.

Maryland Terrapins

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Current Record: 13-1

    Biggest Win: vs. No. 13 Iowa State

    Why They Can Win

    Not many thought Maryland would saunter to the Big Ten and assert itself with this kind of authority. Add to that witches’ brew that the Terps did most of this winning without their best player, Dez Wells.

    Wells broke a bone in his wrist, which caused him to miss four weeks in December.

    Now Wells is back and he helped lead his team to a double-overtime thriller at Michigan State in Maryland’s Big Ten opener. That game-tying three-pointer at the end of regulation was the stuff of legend around the Beltway.

    Roman Stubbs of The Washington Post wrote, “Armed with its highest ranking in 10 years, No. 12 Maryland had arrived here less to celebrate its inclusion in a new league than to deliver a statement against one of the conference’s blue bloods.” 

    The foregone conclusion is that Wisconsin will run away with the Big Ten, but Maryland showed just how tough it will be on the road, speak nothing of how they’ll play back east.

Indiana Hoosiers

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Current Record: 11-3

    Biggest Win: vs. No. 23 Butler

    Why They Can Win

    Anytime a reputable columnist the likes Eammon Brennan writes on ESPN.com, you take notice:

    There are many reasons the Hoosiers are America's most watchable college basketball team, and all of them were on display Saturday. Tempo is a good place to start: Against Butler, the Hoosiers, who usually hover around 70 possessions per game, pushed the pace up to 75. The ball never really stops in Indiana's offense; even on made shots, Tom Crean's players sprint to inbound the ball and get it up the floor as quickly as possible. If there are any openings, IU takes them. 

    Watchable teams tend to be hungry teams and hungry teams are dangerous.

    Freshman James Blackmon is lighting up the court with 17.2 points and 5.4 rebounds a game. He shoots a solid 46 percent from the field, 86 percent from the free-throw line and 44 percent from three.

    He’s got Yogi Ferrell scoring 16.3 points with 5.0 assists a game, too.

    Yes, the consensus is that Wisconsin will win the Big Ten, but with teams like Maryland and Indiana, the Crean is rising to the top.

Oklahoma Sooners

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Current Record: 9-3

    Biggest Win: vs. UCLA

    Why They Can Win

    Oklahoma is one of the most well-rounded teams in the country. It has a top-five defense, according to KenPom.com.

    The Sooners did lose a bunch of talent, namely Cameron Clark and Tyler Neal. Replacing them was a challenge, but with Buddy Hield scoring 15.7 points a game and Ryan Spangler cleaning up the glass with 8.4 boards per game, the Sooners could threaten Texas and Kansas atop this league.

    The Sooners get a big test when they host 11-1 Baylor on Jan. 3. A win puts the Sooners in the Big 12 conversation.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Joe Raymond/Associated Press

    Current Record: 13-1

    Biggest Win: vs. No. 19 Michigan State

    Why They Can Win

    How many tough losses is Michigan State going to suffer this year? Man, it’s brutal, but this is a Notre Dame slide, so let’s can the digression.

    Notre Dame is third in the country in points per game with 86.1. The Fighting Irish are doing that with their hydralike scoring monster with Jerian Grant (17.4), Zach Auguste (14.9), Demetrius Jackson (14.4) and Pat Connaughton (14.0).

    That sounds like a defensive challenge that would keep UVA’s Tony Bennett tossing and turning in his orange and blue onesie.

    Syracuse.com’s Patrick Stevens gave Notre Dame a good grade early on:

    Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish got Jerian Grant back from suspension, got major leaps from Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste and also exploited a laughably soft nonconference schedule en route to a 13-1 record. Notre Dame still has work to do in league play, but it has played well so far.

    Don’t be surprised if Notre Dame battles for fourth place in the ACC while traditional powers North Carolina and Syracuse remain unpredictable.

Florida Gators

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    Phil Sandlin/Associated Press

    Current Record: 7-5

    Biggest Win: None

    Why They Can Win

    Check out the scores of each of Florida’s losses: 69-67, 66-65 OT, 75-64, 71-65, 65-63.

    Two of those losses came to intra-state teams in Miami and Florida State and two others came against a No. 5 UNC team and a No. 11 Kansas team.

    Florida could just as easily be 10-2 or 9-3 and be considered, on paper, a threat to the Kentucky Wildcats sitting atop the spoils of the SEC.

    At the very least, Florida’s road loss to FSU should have gone into overtime. Instead, Florida fumbled a defensive rebound that tipped into its own bucket at the buzzer giving FSU the 65-63 win.

    Now Florida appears to have a full roster for the first time all season, just in time for SEC play.

    “We’ve got 12 players out there now and practices have been much, much more competitive,” Billy Donovan said on GatorCountry.com. “I think there’s a better opportunity for us to get better and improve in practice with more bodies. So from a competitive standpoint and even in duration of practices, there’s a little bit more subs, there’s a little bit more rest, we can go a little bit longer and we can do a little bit more.”

Georgetown Hoyas

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    David Kohl/Associated Press

    Current Record: 8-4

    Biggest Win: vs. Indiana

    Why They Can Win

    The Hoyas’ record doesn’t look impressive until you examine their losses: 68-65 loss to No. 2 Wisconsin and a 75-70 loss to No. 10 Kansas.

    Sadly for Georgetown, it got blown out, 70-53, by Xavier in the Big East opener. Not good.

    “Xavier did a good job," Georgetown coach John Thompson III said in USA Today, via The Associated Press. "They didn't do any one thing in particular. Nothing was easy for us today. Every team in this conference is good from top to bottom."

    As it stands, Georgetown is a top-40 team, according to KenPom.com, with a top-34 offense.

    Defensively the Hoyas rank 27th in blocks per game (5.5) and 58th overall in steals per game with 8.1.