NCAA Bracket Predictions 2018: Sleeper Teams Destined for Deep Runs

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterMarch 11, 2018

NCAA Bracket Predictions 2018: Sleeper Teams Destined for Deep Runs

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    Ron Irby/Associated Press

    The madness did not wait until March this season. 

    Parity took over men's college basketball in 2017-18, which could mean we're in for a wild March—and that means you better identify the sleepers if you want to win your bracket pool. 

    Consider some of the craziness we've already witnessed:

    • St. John's was 0-11 in the Big East and won back-to-back games against Duke and Villanova. 
    • Wofford won at North Carolina. 
    • Loyola-Chicago won at Florida. 

    The list could go on and on. 

    So get ready for some wackiness and consider these five sleeper teams to go on deep runs and bust the bracket. 

           

    Editor's note: All advanced stats were pulled from KenPom.com.

New Mexico State (Midwest Region, No. 12 Seed)

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    Zach Lofton
    Zach LoftonSam Wasson/Getty Images

    New Mexico State coach Chris Jans is no stranger to playing the spoiler in March. He was a longtime assistant under Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall.

    Jans has a very Shockerish team in Las Cruces. The Aggies get after it on the defensive end and have the best mid-major defense in the country, ranking 16th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.

    The Aggies have already proven they can play with the big boys, knocking off Illinois and Miami in December and then nearly beating USC in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic.

    Jans also has two players on his roster who would start for most teams in the country. Fifth-year senior Zach Lofton (19.8 PPG) spent a year at Minnesota and is one of the best pure scorers in the country. Jemerrio Jones is a rebounding machine and a versatile defender who takes care of all the garbage responsibilities. He averages a double-double, 11.0 points and 13.2 rebounds per game.

    The Aggies will not be intimidated after proving they could hang with Miami and USC earlier this year, and they've got the right mix of talent and coaching to win in the tourney.

South Dakota State (West Region, No. 12 Seed)

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    Mike Daum
    Mike DaumPeter G. Aiken/Getty Images

    The NCAA tournament will be more entertaining the more Mike Daum we get.

    Daum is the three-point-bombing center for the Jackrabbits, and if you haven't heard of him, it's time to study up. He averages 23.8 points per game, and while he wasn't recruited by current head coach T.J. Otzelberger, South Dakota State made the perfect hire in luring the former Iowa State assistant to Brookings.

    Otzelberger learned under Fred Hoiberg, who was a master at running his offense through a stretch big man like Georges Niang. The Jackrabbits spread the floor and run a lot of sets to get Daum looks, and with a high release, he doesn't need much space. He shoots 42.1 percent from deep and SDSU shoots 40.3 percent as a team.

    Another reason to bet on South Dakota State is the team's ability to take care of the ball. The Jackrabbits turn it over on only 13.8 percent of their possessions, which is tops in the country.

Loyola-Chicago (South Region, No. 11 Seed)

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    Aundre Jackson
    Aundre JacksonLoren Orr/Getty Images

    Loyola-Chicago shares some similarities with a former Missouri Valley team that has played Cinderella in March: Northern Iowa.

    Similar to UNI, Loyola plays a slow pace and is difficult to score against in the half court. The Ramblers rank 24th in adjusted defensive efficiency, and they keep the pace slow by sacrificing offensive rebounds to get back on defense to prevent transition opportunities. That strategy works because Loyola is a great shooting team, ranking eighth nationally in effective field-goal percentage.

    Loyola has a win at Florida on its resume and is led by former Iowa State point guard Clayton Custer (13.4 points, 4.3 assists, 1.5 steals), the Missouri Valley Player of the Year.

Murray State (East Region, No. 12 Seed)

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    Jonathan Stark
    Jonathan StarkAssociated Press

    Murray State has long been one of the top mid-major programs in the country and one that teams don't want to see in March. The Racers have won a game in their last two tourney appearances, and this is a group with the talent to do some damage.

    The Ohio Valley champions are led by former Tulane guard Jonathan Stark, who averages 21.8 points per game. The program has a history of recruiting great point guards—producing pros Cameron Payne and Isaiah Canaan—and coach Matt McMahon has found a good one in Temetrius Morant. The freshman is averaging 12.6 points, 6.4 assists and 6.6 rebounds per game.

    Murray State does not have any wins on the resume that jump out but did play Auburn close (81-77) back in December. The Racers also haven't lost since mid-January.

Marshall (East Region, No. 13 Seed)

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    Jon Elmore
    Jon ElmoreMichael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Similar to his brother, Marshall coach Dan D'Antoni plays the numbers game and has built the Thundering Herd program to almost mirror the Houston Rockets. 

    They don't have a James Harden, but they do shoot a ton of threes (45.6 percent of their field-goal attempts) and play fast (average possessions last 14.2 seconds, third-fastest in the country).

    D'Antoni puts five guys on the floor who are all capable of hitting threes. The Thundering Herd are led by one of the best scoring duos in the country in Jon Elmore (22.8 PPG) and C.J. Burks (20.5 PPG).  

    Marshall finished fourth in Conference USA but was at its best against top teams, sweeping C-USA regular-season champion Middle Tennessee and nearly knocking off Xavier on the road back in mid-December, losing 81-77.

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