NCAA Bracket Predictions 2017: Sleeper Teams Destined to Ruin Brackets
The key to NCAA tournament opening-weekend superiority in your office pool is picking the right sleepers to advance but not going too wild.
I'm here to help. I've identified two double-digit seeds in each region that have chances to win at least one game and, in most cases, realistic paths to the second weekend.
These teams are either too talented for their seed lines, face teams that are over-seeded or simply match up well with their opponents.
Did I pick them all in my bracket? Heck no. But be advised that last year in this same space, I gave you Gonzaga (No. 11 seed that made Sweet 16), Hawaii (No. 13 seed won a game), Wichita State (No. 11 seed that won its play-in game and then beat Arizona), Northern Iowa (No. 11 seed that seemingly had Texas A&M beat in the round of 32 and then lost on a gut-punching miraculous comeback by the Aggies) and Yale (No. 12 seed that beat Baylor). Boom. Killed it.
That probably means these 2017 sleepers picks are doomed to fail. You've been warned.
East Tennessee State (East Region, No. 13 Seed)
There's usually a mid-major team I have my heart set on picking pre-bracket, and East Tennessee State was the one this year.
The Buccaneers are the perfect blend of mid-major sleeper. They have a point guard who is unknown to the Power Five teams but probably better than the guy those schools have at the position. T.J. Cromer averages 19.1 points per game, can shoot the three (40.4 percent), has size (he’s 6'3") and can get to the rim whenever he wants.
Cromer's sidekick in the backcourt is A.J. Merriweather, a physical guard who is probably going to shut down an opponent's best player.
Then ETSU has a frontcourt made up of guys who started at bigger programs and believe they can hang with anyone in Hanner Mosquera-Perea (Indiana transfer) and Tevin Glass (Wichita State transfer).
The Bucs have athletes at every spot on the floor, and they play their butts off on the defensive end. Head coach Steve Forbes was an assistant for Gregg Marshall at Wichita State before landing this gig, and Forbes seemed to bring that "play angry" mantra with him. These dudes just have an edge about them.
But, yeah, about my pick...I wussed out.
ETSU got a tough draw in Florida as a No. 4 seed. The Gators rank ninth at KenPom.com, suggesting they might be one seed too low. They also have the athletes to run with the Bucs.
But one reason to roll with ETSU is Florida lost its center, John Egbunu, late in the year and is 3-3 without him.
If the Bucs win their matchup, they could easily end up playing another mid-major (UNC Wilmington) or get matched up against a Virginia team that has been allergic to making buckets as of late.
If you're looking to put a mid-major in the Sweet 16, this pod is one to target.
UNC Wilmington (East Region, No. 12 Seed)
Virginia's pack-line defense is the best in the country—ranked No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency (87 points allowed per 100 possessions)—and head coach Tony Bennett's club has an offense that has looked like it has had to go up against its own defense of late. Virginia games are where offense goes to die. (This is a good time to remind everyone a couple of weeks back Virginia beat North Carolina 53-43. Apologies if you just ate.)
UNC Wilmington cannot be jacked to go against that defense, but here's the weird thing about this matchup: The mid-major team is the more talented one on offense.
The Seahawks rank 18th in adjusted offensive efficiency and play a small-ball lineup that spreads the floor. They shoot a bunch of threes and rarely turn it over—their turnover rate (13.9) is the second-best in the country.
They've also proved they can hang with an ACC team in the tourney. Last year, Wilmington put up a scare against Duke and led at halftime. The Seahawks returned four of five starters from that team, led by sophomore guard C.J. Bryce, who scored 16 points last year against the Blue Devils.
UNC Wilmington head coach Kevin Keatts is also a hot name who should be in play for one of the big-boy openings. And doesn't it always seem like the "it" coach at the mid-major level goes on a tourney run before booking it for a sweet payday?
Get ready to embrace Keatts and the Seahawks, America.
Rhode Island (Midwest Region, No. 11 Seed)
The Creighton Bluejays are on the six line for its entire body of work, which included an 18-1 start with assist machine Maurice Watson Jr. running the show.
Watson tore his ACL on Jan. 16, and the Bluejays went 7-8 the rest of the way.
The Rhode Island Rams, meanwhile, have won eight straight games and just won the Atlantic 10 tourney over Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday.
Momentum is not always relevant when it comes to picking the bracket—it can fool us into doing some silly things—but this just makes too much sense.
Based on their talent, the Rams were underachieving this season. Head coach Dan Hurley is a great recruiter who has a roster that looks like it belongs in a Power Five league. Leading scorer E.C. Matthews, former Memphis forward Kuran Iverson, guard Jared Terrell and former Indiana guard Stanford Robinson were all top-100 recruits coming out of high school.
The Rams are also equipped to shut down what Creighton does best. The Bluejays love to shoot the three, and Rhode Island holds opponents to 29 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Rhode Island does a good job of running opponents off the three-point line as well. Only 29.8 percent of field-goal attempts come from beyond that point.
The reason for such numbers is Rhode Island runs out five athletes who rarely get beat off the dribble. Creighton thrives on forcing defenses into rotations, and it's going to be difficult to do that against this defense.
The line for this game opened with the Bluejays as three-point favorites but had already moved to Creighton favored by one Monday morning, according to Odds Shark.
Obviously, Rhode Island is a popular pick and for good reason.
Its potential second-round draw, No. 3 Oregon, is not so inviting. You could have made an argument for the Ducks as a No. 1 seed.
But if you want to buy the Rhode Island stock, the Rams at least will be able to hang with the Ducks from an athletic standpoint and won't be bullied by a bigger, faster and stronger team in this matchup. They're one of the few teams in the country you can say that about. So they'll have a chance in that game, where most non-Power Five schools would get run off the court.
Oklahoma State (Midwest Region, No. 10 Seed)
Oklahoma State has the best offense in college basketball—No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency—and somehow ended up on the 10 line. That's because the Cowboys are pretty lousy on defense—133rd in adjusted defensive efficiency—and lost six straight games to start the Big 12 schedule.
You don't have to go back far to find another team with a similar statistical footprint. Last season, Notre Dame ranked ninth in adjusted offensive efficiency and 158th on the defensive end.
The Irish made a run to the Elite Eight.
Hey, guess who the Irish played in the first round? Michigan!
The Cowboys don't have as easy a path, though. Notre Dame was the higher seed in all of its games until the Elite Eight, and Oklahoma State draws a team similar to itself (awesome offense/crummy D) in Michigan.
The Wolverines have a distinct advantage inside, so I picked them to win.
But the Cowboys are still a solid sleeper pick because of that offense and because they have Jawun Evans.
Evans is one of the best point guards in the country. He can pick defenses apart with his passing and his ability to slither into the paint off the bounce. Head coach Brad Underwood surrounds him with deadeye shooters, and that makes for efficient offense.
The Cowboys also defended better late in the year when Underwood made adjustments with how his team pressured. He's a smart coach who has already proved himself in the tourney at Stephen F. Austin, where he won two tournament games in three seasons.
O.K. State would likely play Louisville in the second round, and the Cardinals recently lost to another team with the OSU formula (awesome offense/bad defense) in Wake Forest. It's a tough draw for the Cowboys, but they're a better team than their seed line would indicate.
Middle Tennessee (South Region, No. 12 Seed)
This might be the most picked upset in the bracket, and that makes me nervous. Middle Tennessee is almost too hip to be a sleeper.
But the Blue Raiders are so hot right now for a reason.
They returned the core from the team that knocked off Michigan State a year ago—remember, Sparty was a popular national champion pick—and this year's version is even better.
Middle Tennessee beat up on Conference USA, finishing 17-1 in league play, and then cruised to the conference tourney title with three wins all by double digits.
The Blue Raiders also have a killer 1-2-3 punch in Jacorey Williams, Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw.
Williams, a transfer from Arkansas, is the main reason this team is better. He leads the Blue Raiders in scoring at 17.3 points per game.
Potts and Upshaw were the heroes in last year's tourney. Potts scored 19 points against the Spartans, and Upshaw, a point-forward type, carved up MSU with 21 points and four dimes.
The Middle Tennessee draw is also attractive. Minnesota seemed over-seeded on the five line, and potential second-round opponent Butler is the least talented of the No. 4 seeds.
Too good to be true? Maybe. But I have the Blue Raiders in my Sweet 16.
Wake Forest (South Region, No. 11 Seed)
Since the NCAA expanded the field to 68 in 2011, participating in the play-in game as anything but a No. 16 seed has arguably been an advantage.
Every year since, one of the play-in winners has won at least one game in the main bracket, and three teams have gone on deep runs: VCU to the Final Four in 2011, La Salle to the Sweet 16 in 2013 and Tennessee to the Sweet 16 in 2014.
The Demon Deacons are a lot like that 2014 Tennessee squad in that their talent is much better than what you'd expect from a team just barely sneaking into the tourney. Those Vols had three guys who have played in the NBA (Jarnell Stokes, Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson).
Wake Forest has two definite future pros in John Collins and Bryant Crawford. Collins is an All-American-caliber player who could end up a 2017 lottery pick.
If the Demon Deacons get past Kansas State, they'll have the best two players on the floor when they face off with No. 6 Cincinnati. Win that game and they'll likely face off against another stacked roster in UCLA.
It's tough to see Wake getting to the Sweet 16, but the Demon Deacons recently beat Louisville, a team on the No. 2 line. And Collins is one of the best big men in this field.
Plus, Wake head coach Danny Manning is used to pulling off miracles. (See 1988.)
Florida Gulf Coast (West Region, No. 14 Seed)
We're four years removed from Dunk City, and it feels like it's time for the Eagles to bust up a bracket again.
Head coach Joe Dooley's club is back in the NCAA tournament for the second straight season and last performed about as well as any No. 16 seed ever had—eventual national runner-up North Carolina led by just one at half in the round of 64.
This team also proved back in November that it can hang with Power Five schools. The Eagles led Florida by five at one point in the second half, led Baylor by three early in the second frame and lost by just one point to Michigan State in a game FGCU led by four with 3:43 left.
No. 3 seed Florida State is also a team that's been prone to lose to lesser foes this year. The Seminoles can look national-title good on one day and NIT-bound the next. This season, they've lost to several mediocre ACC teams (Georgia Tech, Syracuse and Pittsburgh) and dropped a game to Temple in nonconference action.
The Eagles also have the luxury of playing a weaker tourney pod that includes Xavier (without starting point guard Edmond Sumner) and a young Maryland squad that overachieved this season.
Oh, and this team likes to dunk a lot. The Eagles attempt 44.6 percent of their shots at the rim, which is the 12th-most nationally, according to Hoop-Math.com.
Dunk City is back, baby. Let’s go!
VCU (West Region, No. 10 Seed)
Speaking of teams that are March darlings…
Yep, VCU is lurking again as a dangerous double-digit seed in March.
The Rams finished second in the Atlantic 10 this season, and if there's a league that typically doesn't get the love it deserves from the committee, it's the A-10.
VCU, as it was under Shaka Smart, is an uncomfortable team to play because of its press and the athletes head coach Will Wade is able to throw out on the court.
The Rams have two bruisers inside in Justin Tillman and Mo Alie-Cox and a lightning-quick point guard in JeQuan Lewis.
It's a tough matchup for the No. 7-seeded Saint Mary's Gaels, a team out of the West Coast Conference that is not used to seeing athletes like this.
Arizona is a strong No. 2 seed and would be a tough opponent in the round of 32, but Lewis could be a difference-maker in that game. He can get to the rim at will, and Arizona doesn't have a strong rim protector on the back line of its defense.
The Rams may not have the shooting to go on a deep run, but their defense and their ability to make games sloppy will give them a shot.