In the Crosshairs: NCAA Tourney Sleepers to Watch

Ken Cross

February 06, 2018 at 12:23 pm.

Jan 31, 2018; Highland Heights, KY, USA; Houston Cougars guard Wes VanBeck (12) talks with head coach Kelvin Sampson against the Cincinnati Bearcats at BB&T Arena. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 31, 2018; Highland Heights, KY, USA; Houston Cougars guard Wes VanBeck (12) talks with head coach Kelvin Sampson against the Cincinnati Bearcats at BB&T Arena. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

We are five weeks from Selection Sunday when at 6 p.m. EST, the world comes to a halt as the Field of 68 for this season’s NCAA Men’s Tournament will be unveiled. The sport is thriving as probably 15-20 teams have a legitimate shot to cut down the nets in San Antonio. The stakes get even higher in the weeks leading up to the conference tournaments and, of course, they are multiplied by then. Here is a look at potential sleepers in the eight top conferences in the game.

American – Kelvin Sampson has done a stellar job in getting the Houston Cougars into the upper echelon of the AAC as they are currently sitting in a second place tie with Wichita State at 7-3 while hoisting a 17-5 ledger. The Cougars have defended really well this season as it may be easier to spot up a shooter from three, rather than find openings in the mid-range game. Guard Rob Gray has had a season worthy of first team All-AAC honors so far this season.

Atlantic 10 – Barring injuries, this conference is Rhode Island’s to lose, so when considering a potential second NCAA participant, Davidson comes to mind. The Wildcats are impeccably well coached by 29-year veteran Bob McKillop and they will not beat themselves. The team is a three-point shooting arsenal as seven players have 15 or more three-point makes, led by Kellan Grady’s 50. Peyton Aldridge is a tough matchup at forward as he can nail the triple or post up strong and score. Iceland native John Axel Gudmundsson is a quality point guard, who has a tough mantra and is underrated nationally.

ACC – Identifying a sleeper here is almost impossible. How about Notre Dame? The Irish have predictably free-fallen with a myriad of injuries since being picked by many to potentially win the ACC. Bonzie Colson, a national Player of the Year candidate, went down in early January with a broken foot, but could return about the time of the ACC Tournament. Point guard Matt Farrell has been a game-time decision with foot injuries of late and then freshman D.J. Harvey could return next week after suffering a bone bruise in his left knee in mid-January. Notre Dame has continued to play tough and hustle as they had five losses decided by an average of 5.1 points per game and two were in overtime. They actually played in last week’s loss at Duke with only seven players.

Big 12 – This league has no bottom. It is should be an eight-bid league in the NCAA Tournament. If you have to pick a ninth team, go for Oklahoma State. The Cowboys come off an 84-79 win at Kansas and have played tough basketball and held their own in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Coach Mike Boynton in his initial voyage. The key now is how they navigate the back of the Big 12 schedule with eight games to go. At 14-9, they need a couple of upsets and probably a 5-3 finish down the stretch and then a win in the Big 12 Tournament. The athletic Jeffrey Carroll and Kendall Smith lead a sneaky good team with potential to beat anyone in this tough league.

Big East – Providence coach Ed Cooley has seen his Friars thrive with the inside-outside game of Kyron Cartwright and Rodney Bullock, a physical presence inside that can carry Providence. Cartwright can move this team in the open court and make plays as he gets to the rim and frees up Jalen Lindsey from three. The Friars have defended well from three and have their next three games at home as they host Georgetown and DePaul before a Valentine’s Day matchup with Villanova.

Big Ten – Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State look like certain tournament qualifiers, so let’s go to Nebraska where coach Tim Miles is fashioning a quiet run as the Cornhuskers sit in fifth right now after winning five out of six games and hoisting a 17-8 overall record. The schedule is very agreeable as six games remain and none of them are against the aforementioned top four of the league. Miles’ teams are always strong defensively and this Huskers team in really athletic. Swingman James Palmer is raising his stock as he consistently scores on the perimeter and down low. Likewise for the 6-9 Isaac Copeland, whose length makes him tough on the defensive end, as well.

Pac-12 – Washington was generally picked near the bottom three of the league. Dominic Green’s buzzer-beater lifted the Huskies over Arizona, 78-75, on Saturday night and it positioned Washington into a solid third place in the Pac-12, Conference of Champions, as of now. In his first year, Coach Mike Hopkins has implemented the 2-3 zone that he learned in his many years on the bench beside of Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. Hopkins inherited some really strong upperclassmen in Noah Dickerson, David Crisp, and Matisse Thybulle. Freshman Jaylen Nowell has scored the ball really well as he has shown great confidence.

SEC – There seems to be eight teams in this league that will get the nod on Selection Sunday. Mississippi State is worthy at 17-6 and parked at 5-5 in the middle of the tough SEC. As of now, the Bulldogs have an RPI of 57 and a Strength of Schedule of 104, so there’s work to do. The Bulldogs played an easy non-conference schedule as the team needed to get its confidence collected and find some wins before diving into the SEC. Ben Howland went to three Final Fours at UCLA and he has a pair of brothers in Quinndary and Nick Weatherspoon who have dynamic skills which make them a tough matchup every night.