NCAA: Sleepers To Watch
Senior NBA & College Basketball Editor
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Late last week we went over how wide open things are shaping up to be for the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Three of the top five teams in the country lost last week and there is currently only one undefeated team in the country remaining: the 11th-ranked Murray State Racers.
Despite the parity throughout the nation, come time to fill out brackets you’re likely to see a lot of the traditional power houses picked by the masses. Kentucky, Syracuse, Ohio State, Kansas, North Carolina and Duke are still highly ranked and understandably hard to pick against.
However, they are all beatable as we’ve seen so far this season and if there was ever a year to familiarize yourself with teams not looked at in the same regard, this is it. So, in this edition of our NCAA notebook, we take a look at ten sleepers with a focus on teams outside of the Associated Press Top 25.
(21) Saint Mary’s Gaels – 19-2 (8-0 WCC)
The Gaels of Saint Mary’s have passed the test of time and proven to consistently be one of the premier mid-major programs in the country along with the likes of Gonzaga, Butler and San Diego State. They fell flat in their first big test of the season against Baylor, falling to the Bears 72-59. Since then, though, the Gaels have rattled off nine straight including an 83-62 blowout of the aforementioned ‘Zags. Their strength of schedule is outside the top 120, but with talented offensive players like Matthew Dellavedova and Rob Jones and great team defense, the Gaels should be feared come tourney time. They’ll be hoping to avoid good three-point shooting teams as that is the Achilles’ heel of their impressive defense.
(18) Mississippi State Bulldogs – 16-4 (3-2 SEC)
At the beginning of the season the Bulldogs were on a tear, winning 12 of their first 13 including notable wins over then-ranked Texas A&M and Arizona. They’ve slowed down since then, slipping up against Baylor, Arkansas and Ole Miss. Still, the Bulldogs have a dangerous balance of talented interior players and explosive guards. Arnett Moultrie has been one of the best power forwards in the country this year and center Renardo Sidney has looked better as of late. Dee Boost and Rodney Hood will make you pay for giving them too much attention. As a team the Bulldogs rarely turn it over and are solid defensively. Their ability to attack teams in multiple ways will serve them quite well in the big dance.
Illinois Fighting Illini – 15-5 (4-3 Big 10)
The Fighting Illini’s victory against Ohio State on January 10th was thought to be a momentum-building victory that would propel them to making a run for the Big 10 title. Instead, it’s nothing more than an afterthought now since they followed it up with losses to Penn State and Wisconsin. They dropped those games by a combined six points, meaning it’s no reason to get too down on them; if anything, it’s just a testament to how good the Big 10 is this year. The Fighting Illini feature a nice inside-outside tandem with guard Brandon Paul, who is the team’s leading scorer at 14 points a contest, and center Meyers Leonard. Leonard will have to be a difference maker in order for them to go on an extended run. He’ll have to dominate the paint on both ends as he has done at times this year. It will be important for the Fighting Illini to control the tempo of games and play their style, which is grinding it out in the half court.
Wichita State Shockers 17-3 (8-1 MVC)
Winners of last year’s National Invitational Tournament, the Shockers are anxious to prove themselves on the bigger stage this year. They’ve quietly put together a solid year, knocking off UNLV back in December and winning 15 of their last 16. The loss during that stretch came to the 19th-ranked Creighton Bluejays. Overall they have the 27th-ranked RPI and 66th-strongest schedule, which should be good enough to earn them an at-large bid if Creighton wins the league as expected. The Shockers are a veteran-laden team led by three seniors in Garrett Stutz, Joe Ragland and Toure’ Murry. Their one of the highest scoring teams in the country, are well coached and very disciplined.
Harvard Crimson – 16-2 (2-0 Ivy)
Teams from the Ivy League often don’t get much respect nationally, but the Crimson were knocking on the NCAA tournament doorstep last year and are playing well enough this year to where it looks like they’ll be participating for the first time since 1946. Defensively there are few teams in the country better than the Crimson, who hold their opponents to a fourth-ranked 54 points a night. They haven’t played the toughest schedule, but they do have quality wins against Florida State and UCF. The Crimson are far from a juggernaut offensively. They only score 65 points a game. They’ll be relying heavily on Keith Wright, a fourth-year power forward who will likely have the opportunity to continue his playing career after this year somewhere overseas if he desires.
Vanderbilt Commodores – 15-5 (5-1 SEC)
Few teams in the country are as difficult to figure out as the Commodores. They are loaded with NBA talent and have looked like a formidable squad for most of the season, but it’s impossible to overlook the struggles that their core of John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor, Lance Goulbourne and Festus Ezeli have experienced in the past. They’re playing well right now, winning nine of their last ten. The loss they suffered was a one-point overtime defeat against Mississippi State. With two matchups against Kentucky and Florida State on the horizon, we should have a much better idea of just how much faith the Commodores deserve come tourney time. This is the year for them to make a big run since they’ll look much different next year with the team’s leaders likely headed to the pros.
Gonzaga Bulldogs – 16-3 (6-1 WCC)
It wouldn’t be a sleeper list if the always-scary Bulldogs weren’t on it. The program that has set the blueprint for how a mid-major should conduct itself. Several other teams have followed their footsteps and experienced great success. As always, the Bulldogs have high major talent on their roster, led by Elias Harris, Kevin Pangos and Robert Sacre. Harris and Sacre combine to form a lethal duo on the frontline. When they play up to their full potential, the Bulldogs are hard to stop. They possess the 16th-ranked RPI and a chance to avenge an earlier loss against Saint Mary’s on February 9th. With Mark Few on the sidelin, the Bullodgs will always have a chance no matter who they are playing.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders – 19-2 (8-0 Sun Belt)
After going .500 last year at 16-16 the Blue Raiders are well on their way to running away with the Sun Belt this year. Led by the 13 points and six rebounds of LaRon Dendy and the versatile Marcos Knight, the Blue Raiders are hungry and eager to make a name for themselves nationally. Their calling card is their defense, which is one of the best in the nation. They hold their opponents to 59 points a night on 37% shooting from the field. They’re also fifth in the nation in blocked shots with five a game. They work very well as a team and like to push the tempo offensively when the opportunity presents itself.
Florida State Seminoles – 13-6 (4-1 ACC)
The Seminoles put the rest of the country on notice this week as to just how good they really are. They started it off by blowing out North Carolina 90-57. Then, they followed that impressive feat up by ending Duke’s 45-game home winning streak with a Michael Snaer three at the end of regulation. They have now won four straight. Speaking of Snaer, he’s really having a big year. He’s taken over the leadership role with Chris Singleton now a member of the Washington Wizards. The Seminoles still have the same philosophy that they’ve had in years past. They’re not the best offensive team by any stretch of the imagination, but all they’re trying to do is be just barely good enough to outscore you as they rely heavily on their defense.
Virginia Cavaliers – 15-3 (2-2 ACC)
The Cavaliers are on this list for the same reason as their conference foe Florida State. Defensively, there are few teams in the country capable of shutting down the opposition like the Cavaliers can. They hold their opponents to 50 points a game on 38% shooting from the field and 26% from deep. They do so by playing sound defensively. They don’t go for a lot of blocks or steals, they just make every shot as difficult as possible. Offensively they run things through fifth-year senior power forward Mike Scott inside. He averages a team-high 16 points and 7 rebounds a night for a team that is otherwise pretty lackluster offensively.
Senior NCAA and NBA analyst Yannis Koutroupis will be hosting his chat this Friday January 27th at 11 am EST. You can get your questions into him here.