March Madness Sleepers 2017: Predicting Which Teams Will Impact NCAA Tournament

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistMarch 11, 2017

March Madness Sleepers 2017: Predicting Which Teams Will Impact NCAA Tournament

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    When filling out an NCAA tournament bracket, everyone wants to know which teams might pull off an upset or two. Those surprise teams can make or break a person's tournament projections, and they provide the excitement of the tournament's early rounds.

    The surprise teams come in two forms: the sleeper and the Cinderella. A sleeper is any team that advances farther than its seed suggests. A Cinderella is a team from a small conference that upsets a presumed giant. A team from a power conference can be a sleeper if it has a relatively low seed, but it cannot be a Cinderella. All Cinderella teams are sleepers, but not all sleepers are Cinderellas.

    When you are filling out your bracket, you don't care about the distinction, you just want to a identify those teams that might do better than expected.

    For our purposes, a team with a seeding of sixth or worse, based on the Bleacher Report projections as of Saturday morning, can be considered a sleeper. We identified nine teams that fit that criterion and have a chance to advance to the Sweet 16 and perhaps the Elite Eight. 

    We might have included a team like Syracuse if it had been projected to be in the tournament, and keep the Orange in mind if they happen to sneak in when the field is announced Sunday.

    Picking sleepers before the tournament pairings are announced is difficult, because sleepers often arise when they have a certain style or personnel that bothers its first- or second-round opponent.

    Despite that, we press ahead with our nine potential sleepers.

Michigan State

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    Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected seed: 11

    Michigan State is on this sleeper list because of its postseason history, not for anything it has done this season.

    Ranked No. 12 in the preseason Associated Press poll, the Spartans demonstrated early on that they would not be as good as expected.

    Their chance of making the NCAA Tournament for a 20th consecutive year was in question when they were 12-9. They performed better down the stretch, but losing their final two regular-season games and a second-round game to Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament put them back on the bubble and killed any kind of momentum.

    Michigan State presumably has done just enough to get in, and the postseason is where the Spartans under Tom Izzo have shined. In seven of the past nine years and 13 of the past 19, Michigan State reached at least the Sweet 16.

    Last year's shocking loss to No. 15-seed Middle Tennessee is a notable exception, but the Spartans won't have the pressure of being a heavily favored team in their first-round game this time. In fact, with a No. 11 seed, the Spartans will be clear underdogs and might even have to play a preliminary-round game.

    Somehow Izzo knows what it takes to win in the postseason, and his freshman-laden team featuring talented first-year players Miles Bridges, Cassius Winston and Nick Ward may be mature enough at this point to win a couple games in the NCAA Tournament.

Iowa State

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Projected seed: 6

    Iowa State may be the ultimate sleeper. The Cyclones have a chance to win two or three games in the NCAA Tournament, perhaps even get to the Final Four.

    Two things about Iowa State make it dangerous. 

    First of all, the Cyclones are playing their best basketball at the moment. They have won eight of their last nine games heading into Saturday's game against West Virginia. Just before that run, they earned a Feb. 4 win at Kansas, ending the Jayhawks' 51-game winning streak at Allen Fieldhouse.

    The second thing Iowa State has going for it is point guard Monte Morris. Overshadowed a bit by the presence of Kansas' Frank Mason III in the Big 12, Morris does all the things a point guard is supposed to do to win games. Besides averaging better than 16 points a game, he has had nine rebounds or more five times and nine assists or more eight times.

    Just as important is the fact that Morris takes care of the ball. His 5.88 assist-to-turnover ratio through games played March 9 leads the nation by a wide margin. Only one other player has a ratio better than 4.0. In his last 11 games before Saturday's contest, Morris has 80 assists and 10 turnovers, an 8-to-1 ratio.

    When the Cyclones need a big play to be made, Morris usually makes it.

    Making the Cyclones more dangerous is that Deonte Burton has become almost unguardable. He is averaging 19.6 points over his past five games with his versatile offensive skills.

Saint Mary's

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Projected seed: 6

    It all depends on the matchups for Saint Mary's. If the Gaels draw a long, athletic team in the first round, they may make a quick exit. If they can avoid a team that will overwhelm them with athleticism, they may win a few games.

    Saint Mary's has lost only four games, and three of them were to a Gonzaga team that might earn a No. 1 seed. The other loss was a 14-point home defeat against Texas-Arlington, which was too quick, too strong, too long and too athletic for the Gaels to successfully run their precise offense and defense.

    But if they are given the time to do what they want to do, the Gaels can be a headache for any opponent.

    Pacific coach Damon Stoudamire used a boxing analogy to give an apt description of Saint Mary's

    "Saint Mary's is like Floyd Mayweather," he told me. "They're like counterpunchers. They run their offense and wait until somebody makes a mistake and then they capitalize."

    The Gaels can drive opponents crazy with their patient, well executed offense and their fundamentally sound defense. Much like Virginia, Saint Mary's grinds and grinds, and usually finds enough holes in its opponent to walk away with a win. Teams that are not prepared for the Gaels may find themselves behind and not know why.

    Saint Mary's has seven players on its roster from Australia, including center Jock Landale, who is the team's star. However, the guiding force is point guard Joe Rahon, who epitomizes the Gaels' style under Randy Bennett.

Middle Tennessee

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    Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected seed: 10

    We are assuming Middle Tennessee will get an at-large bid even if it fails to win the Conference USA tournament, and if the Blue Raiders do get into the field of 68, they will present a challenge for some higher seeded team.

    Middle Tennessee is better than the Blue Raiders team that stunned No. 2-seeded Michigan State in the first round last season. Reggie Upshaw and Giddy Potts, the top two scorers from last season's squad, are back, and the Blue Raiders added JaCorey Williams, a transfer from Arkansas who is their leading scorer this season.

    The result that sticks out is the 71-48 victory over Vanderbilt back on Dec. 8. Yes, the game was on the Blue Raiders' home court in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, but a 23-point victory over a team that beat Florida three times and is likely to be in the NCAA Tournament field cannot be ignored.

    Middle Tennessee is not the outstanding three-point shooting team it was last season, but its overall field-goal percentage (48.8) and turnover average (10.4 per game) are both better than last season.

    The Blue Raiders' victory over Michigan State last season removed the element of surprise, and their first-round opponent will have no illusions that Middle Tennessee will be an easy victim. But the Blue Raiders may be good enough to win a couple games even if their foes know what's coming.

Wichita State

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    Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected seed: 7

    Wichita State has won 15 games in a row, and all but one was by at least 15 points. The Shockers' only Missouri Valley Conference loss was against Illinois State, which finished tied with the Shockers for first place. Since then, though. Wichita State has beaten Illinois State twice, by margins of 41 and 20 points.

    Obviously, Wichita State is on a roll heading into the NCAA tournament.

    Shockers coach Gregg Marshall knows how to prepare for the postseason. Wichita State got to the Sweet 16 each of the past two years and got to the Final Four in 2013.

    The Shockers won at least one tournament game each of the past four seasons, and the only time they failed to reach the second weekend in that span was 2014, when they received a No. 1 seed but got a tough draw, losing by two points to a Kentucky team that would ultimately advance all the way to the national championship game.

    Wichita State lacks star players, with Markis McDuffie and Landry Shamet being the best of a deep team in which 10 players average more than 12 minutes per game. The Shockers are excellent three-point shooters, hitting 40.8 percent of them.

    It will be interesting to see what seed the selection committee gives the Shockers, because there is considerable debate about what that will be.

    Bleacher Report puts the Shockers as a No. 7 seed, but Jerry Palm's projections at CBSSports.com have the Shockers seeded 10th.

Texas-Arlington

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    Chris Covatta/Getty Images

    Projected seed: 12

    It is uncertain whether Texas-Arlington will get into the NCAA tournament if it fails to win the Sun Belt tournament. But if the Mavericks make it, watch out.

    Don't be misled by the fact that Arlington lost four games in the mediocre Sun Belt this season. More significant is what the Mavericks did against Texas, beating the Longhorns on the road, and Saint Mary's. 

    Saint Mary's was ranked No. 12 and had won 23 of its past 24 home games when Arlington came to Moraga, California, in December.  Not only did Arlington win the game, but the Mavericks dominated, leading by 20 points midway through the second half of their 65-51 victory.

    The Gaels could not deal with the Mavericks' speed and athleticism, which will be a problem for any team the Mavericks face in the NCAA tournament, assuming they get there.

    Texas-Arlington lost to Minnesota and Arkansas on the road earlier in the season, but the Mavericks led Arkansas by 11 at halftime and held a six-point lead over Minnesota early in the second half.

    This is an experienced team, with its top three scorers back from last season's team, which went 24-11 and had road wins wins over Ohio State and Memphis.

    Forward Kevin Hervey, the Sun Belt player of the year, is the Mavericks' star, but the speed of point guard Erick Neal is what catches your eye.

USC

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Projected seed: 11

    USC can be great at times, as it was in wins over SMU and UCLA. Other times, the Trojans are terrible, as they were in a loss to Arizona State, a 22-point loss to Utah and a 32-point loss to UCLA. Sometimes USC is both great and terrible in the same game, as it was in its two-point loss to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament.

    The Trojans are coached by Andy Enfield, who took Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16 in 2013 with a team known as Dunk City. He has another athletic team this season, and the Trojans could surprise a higher seeded team if they get on a roll. They could also embarrass themselves and lose by 30 points.

    Bennie Boatwright is capable of big scoring games, and 6'11" Chimezie Metu can perform some impressive athletic feats. But the key to USC's success is point guard Jordan McLaughlin, whose aggressive style can lead to impressive scoring runs or lackluster scoring droughts.

    The Trojans block a lot of shots but are otherwise a poor defensive team. It is the Trojans' ability to score with a variety of weapons that make them unpredictable, and therefore dangerous if they get into the 68-team field.

Oklahoma State

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Projected seed: 9

    Oklahoma State was not much of a team back on Jan. 18. The Cowboys had just lost their sixth straight game and were 0-6 in the Big 12. A berth in the NCAA tournament seemed like a pipe dream.

    Oklahoma State then suddenly turned it around, winning 10 of its next 11 games, including a road win over West Virginia. The Cowboys come into the NCAA tournament on a three-game losing streak, but losing to Iowa State twice and Kansas once, all by relatively close scores, does not constitute a slump.

    What makes Oklahoma State dangerous is its offense. The Cowboys are among the nation's leaders in scoring at 85.5 points per game, and they lead the country in offensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy's metrics.

    Oklahoma State's three starting guards can match any backcourt in the country in terms of offensive production. Phil Forte III and Jeffrey Carroll are outstanding three-point shooters, and Oklahoma State's do-everything star is Jawun Evans, who averaged 23.8 points and 8.2 assists over the final six games.

    Things are now clicking for the Cowboys under first-year coach Brad Underwood, who certainly knows how to prepare a team for the postseason. His Stephen F. Austin team stunned third-seeded West Virginia in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament before losing to Notre Dame by a point. In 2014, Underwood's Lumberjacks upset fifth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth in their opener.

Vanderbilt

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Projected seed: 11

    Well, if Vanderbilt could play Florida in every round of the NCAA tournament, it might win a national title. The Commodores beat the Gators three times this season, which is a significant feat. That might merely indicate a favorable matchup against the Gators if it weren't for the success the Commodores had against other teams in recent weeks.

    Vanderbilt had won seven of its last eight games heading into Saturday's Southeastern Conference semifinal game against Arkansas. That included two of the wins over Florida as well as a victory over South Carolina. The only defeat in that span was a six-point road loss against Kentucky, a game Vanderbilt led by 12 with less than 14 minutes left. Vanderbilt is rolling.

    It all started on the heels of an inexplicable 20-point loss to Missouri, which was 1-10 in the SEC at the time.

    It took awhile for the Commodores to get going under first-year coach Bryce Drew, but now they are cooking. They rely heavily on the three-point shot, making nearly 10 per game, and they hit at least 11 in four of their past five games.

    When the perimeter game is clicking, it opens things up inside for 7'1" Luke Kornet, who scored 21 points in a Feb. 28 game against Kentucky and 24 points four days later against Florida.

Michigan

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Projected seed: 7

    Michigan may feel it is a team of destiny after what happened during the Big Ten tournament. After having the plane carrying the team slide off the runway in a scary incident, the team had to find alternative means of travel to Washington, D.C., site of the conference tournament.

    As described by mline.com, the team arrived at 10:41 a.m., a little over an hour before it was scheduled to play Illinois. With uniforms stuck in the hold of the plane that crashed, the Wolverines wore their practice gear (shown above).

    Not only did they beat Illinois, the Wolverines beat Purdue in their second game. Heading into Saturday's semifinal game against Minnesota, the Wolverines were on a serious roll. They went 8-2 over their last 10 games, beating regular-season champion Purdue twice and Wisconsin and Michigan State once each in that span.

    The Wolverines are not a great defensive team, but they shoot well, hitting 47.9 percent of their shots and 38.1 percent of their three-pointers. Their biggest asset is that they take care of the ball, leading the nation in fewest turnovers per game at 9.4 through Thursday's games, and at 9.5 as of Saturday morning.

    Derrick Walton Jr. is Michigan's star, but the players have taken turns being the team's standout in recent games. Things have been working out nicely for Michigan recently, and that is a great feeling to have heading into the postseason.

    It's a lot different from the mindset they had following their embarrassing 61-46 loss to South Carolina on Nov. 23, when the Wolverines shot 19.2 percent from the field and made 2-of-26 three-point shots.