Sleeper Rankings for the 2020 Men's NCAA Tournament

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 12, 2020

Sleeper Rankings for the 2020 Men's NCAA Tournament

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    Michigan's Zavier Simpson and Illinois' Ayo Dosunmu
    Michigan's Zavier Simpson and Illinois' Ayo DosunmuLeon Halip/Getty Images

    Last year's men's NCAA tournament was a major exception to the sleeper rule of thumb.

    In each of the previous nine tournaments, multiple No. 1 or No. 2 seeds failed to reach the Sweet 16, and in every year from 2013 to '18, at least one team seeded No. 6 or worse made it to the Final Four. Last year, all eight No. 1 and No. 2 seeds survived the first two rounds, and No. 5 seed Auburn was the only team lower than a No. 3 to reach the Elite Eight.

    With the way this season has been going, though, don't be surprised if we make up for lost time with a Final Four in which the seeds add up to almost 30.

    Before we dive into this year's crop of sleeper candidates, let's first define the term. Because while often used interchangeably, there's a fine line between a "sleeper" and a "Cinderella."

    The latter is a small school that comes out of nowhere and reaches the Sweet 16, maybe even the Final Four. Teams like 2013 Florida Gulf Coast and 2018 Loyola-Chicago were unforgettable Cinderella stories.

    But a sleeper can be any team outside the top five seed lines that makes a deep run. No. 7 seed Connecticut beating No. 8 seed Kentucky for the 2014 national championship was a sleeper spectacular, as was Syracuse making the Final Four as a No. 10 seed two years later.

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

    Using Sunday'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 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.

    Statistics are current through the start of play on Tuesday, Feb. 11.

10. Florida Gators

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    Kerry Blackshear Jr.
    Kerry Blackshear Jr.Matt Stamey/Associated Press

    Projected Seed: No. 11

    Seeded Here Because: Florida was supposed to be the SEC front-runner and one of the top 10 candidates to win the national championship, but the Gators have been wildly inconsistent thanks to a freshman class that hasn't come anywhere close to living up to the hype. Florida did blow out Auburn a few weeks ago, but that barely even begins to make up for the losses to Missouri (by 16!), Utah State and Connecticut.

    Bread and Butter: Few teams can catch fire like the Gators do. In that win over Auburn, they went on a 20-1 run late in the second half. They trailed by as many as 21 against Alabama, but a 16-1 spurt in less than four minutes helped erase that deficit for an eventual double-overtime victory. And in a recent win over Georgia, they exploded for a 31-4 run in under nine minutes, turning a 17-point deficit into a 10-point lead in what felt like an instant. If only they could learn to play with that type of urgency before their backs are up against the wall.

    Star Player: Getting Kerry Blackshear Jr. as a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech was the biggest reason so many bought preseason stock in the Gators, and at least he has met expectations, leading the team in points and rebounds. In each of the wins over Alabama and Auburn, he finished with 16 rebounds. And in an eight-man rotation otherwise comprised entirely of freshmen and sophomores, he's the veteran presence they'll be counting on in the tourney. 

    March Madness Ceiling: There's no question that Florida has the talent to pull off an upset or two, but we can probably rule out a Final Four run for a team that has yet to string together more than two impressive performances in a row. The Gators could change that narrative over their final six games of the regular seasona stretch that consists of four Quadrant 1 games and a pair of high-Quadrant 2 games. Given the way this season has gone, though, that challenge is probably just going to push them closer to the wrong side of the bubble.

9. Memphis Tigers

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    Precious Achiuwa
    Precious AchiuwaBrandon Dill/Associated Press

    Projected Seed: First Four Out

    Seeded Here Because: Losing James Wiseman after just three games significantly lowered Memphis' ceiling, and a mediocre strength of schedule has limited the Tigers' ability to pick up quality wins. The 80-40 loss to Tulsa didn't help matters, either. But they're still in the hunt for a bid. There are four tough games remaining against Houston (two), Cincinnati and Wichita State, though. Simply getting into the tournament might be a stretch here.

    Bread and Butter: Hard to believe, but this team lost its 7'1" star and still has an elite interior defense. Memphis is leading the nation in defensive effective field-goal percentage and ranks top three in both two-point defense and block percentage. The Tigers are 13-1 when blocking at least six shots.

    Star Player: Precious Achiuwa has been the team leader on both ends of the floor, averaging 14.7 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. Those numbers are on par with what Jalen "Stick" Smith is doing for Maryland, but Achiuwa hasn't received anywhere near as much national acclaim.

    March Madness Ceiling: It's a challenge to put any faith in a team that doesn't value the ball, and Memphis commits more than 17 turnovers per game. As solid as this defense is, the Tigers have a tendency to simply give away that advantage. Moreover, they don't shoot well enough to make up for that sloppiness. This team could certainly defend its way to an 11-over-6 type of upset, but a dance to the second weekend probably isn't in the cards. And Wiseman or not, that's a disappointment for a team that spent all of November and December ranked in the AP Top 16.

8. Texas Tech Red Raiders

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    Jahmi'us Ramsey
    Jahmi'us RamseyOrlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Projected Seed: No. 8

    Seeded Here Because: Texas Tech is in the projected field because it has not yet suffered a bad loss, but it is on the bubble because it only has two remotely impressive victories. The Red Raiders won a neutral-site game against Louisville in December and fortunately picked up a home win over West Virginia in their final game of January to bolster their case for a bid. Still, they're going to need to avoid pitfalls the rest of the way.

    Bread and Butter: The defense isn't anywhere near as fierce as it was en route to last year's national championship game, but Chris Beard is still preaching defense first and foremost. All nine leaders in minutes played average at least one steal per 40 minutes, and T.J. Holyfield has been an above-average shot-blocker for a team that doesn't have much height.

    Star Player: With an honorable mention to Virginia Tech transfer Chris Clarke leading the team in rebounds and assists, freshman Jahmi'us Ramsey is the Red Raider who could take over some games in the NCAA tournament. Not sure how they beat Louisville by 13 without him, but he had 21 in the win over West Virginia, as well as 20 and 26, respectively, in the close losses to Baylor and Kansas.

    March Madness Ceiling: It all depends on which offense shows up. The one that was held to 54 points or fewer in January losses to TCU, Baylor and West Virginia wouldn't make it out of the first round. But the one that consecutively put up 74, 89 and 75 against Kentucky, West Virginia and Kansas could beat anyone. If the Red Raiders do end up on the No. 8 or No. 9 seed line, expect them to win the opener before a hard-fought loss to Gonzaga or San Diego State.

7. Rhode Island Rams

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    Fatts Russell
    Fatts RussellJulio Cortez/Associated Press

    Projected Seed: No. 9

    Seeded Here Because: Aside from a close call at West Virginia and a home win over bubble-y Alabama, Rhode Island did nothing good in nonconference play. It even suffered a borderline unforgivable 10-point loss to Brown. But the Rams have been on fire with 10 consecutive wins, including a season sweep of VCU. In a season relatively devoid of bubble teams successfully playing their way into the field, that should be good enough.

    Bread and Butter: In the aforementioned bad loss to Brown, the Bears shot 13-of-28 (46.4 percent) from three-point range against Rhode Island. Even with that outlier, the Rams have done a phenomenal job of defending the perimeter, averaging nearly nine steals per game while holding opponents below 30 percent from three-point range. Best of luck trying to rely on the deep ball against these guys.

    Star Player: Daron "Fatts" Russell is one of the best players who doesn't get much national attention. Rhode Island's junior point guard is averaging better than 20 points, four assists and three steals per game. He's putting up numbers almost identical to what Allen Iverson did as a freshman at Georgetown nearly a quarter century ago. Sure, the mid-90s Big East was a different beast than the current Atlantic 10, but it's worth mentioning how much of an impact this guy is making on a nightly basis.

    March Madness Ceiling: Unless they can upset Dayton at some point, it's going to be hard to convince anyone that the Rams can win multiple games against single-digit-seed competition, considering they have yet to win one game against that caliber of opponent. This is a talented bunch, though, and it would likely be a mid-tier team in any of the major conferences aside from the Big Ten. Rhode Island could be a Sweet 16 team for the first time since 1998.

6. BYU Cougars

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    Yoeli Childs
    Yoeli ChildsYoung Kwak/Associated Press

    Projected Seed: No. 8

    Seeded Here Because: BYU has arguably the most bizarre resume in the country. The Cougars are No. 23 in the NET and No. 17 on, but who the heck have they beaten? Their only Quadrant 1 wins were against Houston and Utah State, neither of which is a lock for the tournament in its own right. BYU also has losses to Utah, Boise State and San Francisco, none of which is in the mix for an at-large bid. The Feb. 22 home game against Gonzaga will be critical.

    Bread and Butter: BYU is leading the nation in three-point percentage and boasts one of the most efficient offenses. The Cougars have scored at least 80 points in each of their last five games and look the part of a team that can score at will against anyone while at full strength. Granted, this defense leaves a lot to be desired, but this feels like the Jimmer Fredette days of BYU that could shoot its way to any victory.

    Star Player: Jake Toolson and Alex Barcello are leading the three-point assault, but Yoeli Childs is BYU's sine qua non. The big man missed 13 games this season, but he has averaged 21.9 points and 8.7 rebounds when available. And while he doesn't shoot much from the perimeter, he has made 16 of 28 three-point attempts (57.1 percent); well more than enough to keep the defense honest.

    March Madness Ceiling: The lack of marquee wins is concerning, but the predictive analytics are clearly enamored with this squad. And with good reason. The only convincing losses they've suffered all season were games away from home against Gonzaga and Kansastwo of the projected top three overall seeds in the tournament. This program has only been to the Sweet 16 once in the past 39 years, but it is proficient enough on offense to fix that.

5. Virginia Cavaliers

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    Mamadi Diakite
    Mamadi DiakiteLee Luther Jr./Associated Press

    Projected Seed: No. 12

    Seeded Here Because: The reigning national champions are a travesty on offense, held to 65 points or fewer in each of their first 21 games of the season. Yes, the pace of play is a factor, but it didn't stop them from putting up at least 70 in 21 games last year. Their three-point shooting (28.8 percent) ranks among the worst in the nation, and Kihei Clark (3.5 turnovers per game) has been painfully careless with the ball. That has resulted in bad losses to Boston College and South Carolina.

    Bread and Butter: For the seventh consecutive year, Virginia ranks in the top seven in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom. The Jay Huff-Mamadi Diakite-Braxton Key frontcourt trio makes the Cavaliers arguably the best interior defense in the nation, and the extended three-point arc has made it even harder for teams to consistently makes threes against the pack-line D. They never score more than 65, but opponents rarely score more than 60.

    Star Player: Diakite has expanded his range and taken on a much larger role as a senior, leading Virginia in both points and rebounds. After three straight years of making better than 57 percent of his two-point attempts, that success rate has dropped below 50. Hard to blame him for that, though, since there's nowhere near as much room to operate in the paint now that defenses don't need to worry about the likes of Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome on the perimeter.

    March Madness Ceiling: Defense wins championships, right? Virginia didn't shoot well early in last year's tournament, either, averaging 62.3 points per game and allowing 52.0 in the first three rounds. Maybe the Cavaliers could do the same, making a surprise run to the Elite Eight. Eventually, though, they're bound to run into an opponent that can hit some shots, and that'll be the end of their run.

4. Michigan Wolverines

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    Zavier Simpson
    Zavier SimpsonCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Projected Seed: No. 8

    Seeded Here Because: The rigors of Big Ten play have taken their toll on a Michigan team that went 7-0 in November with wins over Gonzaga, Creighton and (when it was still respectable) North Carolina. And with the exception of road losses to Louisville and Michigan State, it's not like the Wolverines have gotten blown out of games. Still, the nine losses make it tough to envision this squad ending up with anything better than a No. 6 seed.

    Bread and Butter: Since the start of the 2016-17 season, Michigan's defense has ranked among the best in the nation at denying three-point attempts and limiting assists. The Wolverines don't force many turnovers, but they also don't give you much of an opportunity to operate along the perimeter. In fact, no opponent has made 10 or more triples against them yet this season.

    Star Player: Zavier Simpson is at the forefront of that defense, but he's also the veteran leader of the offense, averaging 12.9 points and 8.2 assists per game. He had 13 of each in the win over Gonzaga and went for 22 and nine while playing almost every minute of the double-overtime win over Purdue. He's usually more of a calming presence than a "put the team on his back" type of guy, but Michigan certainly wouldn't be as good without him.

    March Madness Ceiling: The winner of the Battle 4 Atlantis has won the last two national championships, and Michigan hoisted that trophy earlier this year. If the Wolverines can get back to playing like that on neutral courts, anything is possible. However, a 7-9 record in the past 16 games paints the picture of a team thatin its current stateprobably shouldn't be trusted. Maybe that will change if and when Isaiah Livers returns to full strength.

3. Marquette Golden Eagles

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    Markus Howard
    Markus HowardMichael Hickey/Getty Images

    Projected Seed: No. 6

    Seeded Here Because: Marquette has six Quadrant 1 wins and has only suffered one remotely problematic lossan overtime home game against Providence. But the Golden Eagles were blown out in four of their losses, and even their best wins (vs. Villanova, at Xavier) weren't that great. A road win over Villanova on Wednesday or a home win over Seton Hall at the end of the month could be a big boost.

    Bread and Butter: Few teams take and make threes quite like Marquette does. The Golden Eagles rank 11th in three-point percentage and 33rd in percentage of shots taken from three-point range, per KenPom. North Florida is the only other team in the top 20 and top 40, respectively. And it's not just Markus Howard. They also have Sacar Anim and Brendan Bailey combining for 3.4 makes per game and 40 percent shooting, and Koby McEwen can make it rain from distance from time to time.

    Star Player: Howard is leading the nation in scoring at 27.4 points per game, and he is showing no signs of slowing down. He has scored at least 26 points in 11 of his last 14 games, and one of the exceptions was due to a broken nose suffered midway through the second half against Xavier. If anyone is going to single-handedly carry his team deep into this year's tournament, Howard is the most likely suspect.

    March Madness Ceiling: Marquette's defense isn't great, it doesn't shoot well inside the arc and it's just OK on the glass. There are plenty of reasons not to buy this team as a title contender. But there's usually one team that simply cannot miss from three-point range and makes a run to the Elite Eight, or further. Purdue and Auburn did it last year, and Marquette could do it this year.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Kaleb Wesson
    Kaleb WessonPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    Projected Seed: No. 7

    Seeded Here Because: Ohio State started out 11-1 with wins over Villanova, Kentucky, Penn State, Cincinnati and North Carolina, but then the Buckeyes went into a deep freeze, losing six of seven games and plummeting from a projected No. 1 seed to the bubble in the span of a month. They've bounced back a bit with recent wins over Indiana and Michigan, but they would need to be almost flawless the rest of the way to get back in the mix for a spot on the top five seed lines.

    Bread and Butter: The Buckeyes are loaded with three-point shooters. Seven players have made at least 18 triples this season, and they are almost unbeatable when those shots are falling. Ohio State is 13-1 when shooting better than 35 percent from distance.

    Star Player: Part of Ohio State's allure is its diversity in production. Even if D.J. Carton ultimately doesn't return to the team this season, the Buckeyes still run eight deep with everyone contributing. But Kaleb Wesson is clearly the leader, pacing the Buckeyes with roughly 14 points and 10 rebounds per game. The big man also has three-point range (40 percent) and the willingness to share the rock (2.1 assists per game), which makes him so tough to shut down.

    March Madness Ceiling: Despite its struggles in January, Ohio State is still a top-15 team on KenPom. Sure, a good chunk of that is the fact that the wins over Villanova, North Carolina and Penn State were by a combined margin of 82 points. But that early success showed what this team is capable of doing when it gets into a rhythm. While a championship seems unlikely, this did feel like one of the favorites not that long ago.

1. Illinois Fighting Illini

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    Kofi Cockburn
    Kofi CockburnMichael Hickey/Getty Images

    Projected Seed: No. 7

    Seeded Here Because: Illinois' nonconference resume is a disaster. The Fighting Illini only played one game against each of the top three Quadrants, and they lost all three of those games. So even though they have asserted themselves as one of the top teams during Big Ten conference play, the overall profile isn't great. They would pretty much need to win out in order to earn anything better than a No. 6 seed.

    Bread and Butter: Illinois doesn't shoot well, but it makes up for it by owning the offensive glass. Freshman Kofi Cockburn leads the way in that department, but it's hardly a one-man show. Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Alan Griffin, Kipper Nichols and Andres Feliz also spend a lot of time cleaning up misses.

    Star Player: Tough call here between Ayo Dosunmu and Cockburn. The former is the leading scorer with ice in his veins who can get you a bucket when you need it most. The latter is a 7'0", nearly 300-pound mountain in the paint who is almost unstoppable when he doesn't take himself out of games with foul trouble. Aside from Duke's Tre Jones/Vernon Carey Jr. and Kansas' Devon Dotson/Udoka Azubuike, there might not be a better lead guard/center combo in the nation.

    March Madness Ceiling: In January, Illinois won seven consecutive games, six of them against potential NCAA tournament teams and three of those on the road. Thus, the Illini have already shown they can succeed for a prolonged time against quality competition. It's hard to dream up a path in which I'd feel comfortable picking this team to the Final Four, but it also wouldn't be all that shocking if it happened. This is the best Illinois has looked in more than a decade.

    Disclaimer: Dosunmu suffered a nasty-looking knee injury on the final play of Tuesday night's 70-69 loss to Michigan State. At time of publish, we do not yet have information on the extent of that injury. We'll hope for the best and assume he's OK until hearing otherwise. But if he misses the tournament, Illinois probably no longer belongs on this list at all, and certainly not in the top spot.

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