Sure, we know about Michigan’s terrific season, Kentucky’s struggles, and Kansas’ home winning streak but this is the time of year where we begin to wonder who the sleeper teams could be for this upcoming March. These teams traditionally reside in “mid majors”, definition of which has changed over the years, but for the purpose of this article I am highlighting some squads from non- power conferences that have an opportunity to be just that; the sleeper team. The A-10 specifically Butler, VCU and La Salle seem to have surpassed this criterion and are primed to make noise as we continue to tread through conference play and into March.
Some of these teams are more notable than others, but a common thread sounds throughout; all of them are under the radar. Some notes for you to consider today and as March quickly arrives:
No #16 has ever reached the Round of 32
6 #15 seeds have reached the Round of 32 (twice occurring in 2012)
The #8 seed has only reached the championship game 3 times (Butler, 2011)
Two indexes are used here to consider the potential of the teams listed below.
RPI(Ratings Percentage Index)- This index is composed of wins and strength of schedule (25% winning %, 50% opponents winning %, and 25% winning % of the opponents’ opponents.
Flaws- Is there considerable favoritism to teams from power conferences, who PLAY tougher teams(results are not part of equation)?
BPI(Basketball Power Index)- Additional criteria utilized in order to better calculate and determine the quality of the team such as missing players not held against the team (Syracuse, Fab Melo 2012) and actual margins factored in. In the RPI, a 30 point victory has much more weight than a 15 point victory, but in the BPI this is less drastic of an indicator.
Flaws-Is this too granular from the viewer perspective? Is this something that the tournament committee would consider come March Madness time?
With all that said, let’s get into it. Here’s my list of 8 teams, nice and lucky, who you may not know much about, but should watch out for.
Colorado State Rams
Mountain West Conference
Conference Rival- UNLV, New Mexico, SDSU
13th RPI/22nd BPI
With two teams in the MWC within the top 20 in RPI (UNM and UNLV), a 3rd getting off to a 13-0 start (Wyoming), and a fourth led by Steve Fisher over at SDSU it is easy to lose the Rams in the mix. They cracked the AP top 25 last week for the first time since 1954 and have now rattled off 8 wins in their last 9 contests. The Rams are led by local boy, Pierce Hornung, boasting an efficient 9.7 ppg/9.3 rpg on only 6.6 shots per game. With a strong supporting cast, (5 guys averaging more than 9 ppg) and with a 72% team FT average there is reason this is the 5th Mountain West team in the mix for the NCAA tournament. Minnesota transfer, Colton Iverson ( no relation to the former Turkish League guard), stands 6’10” 260 lbs and with 14.3 ppg/9.5 rpg in only 29 minutes/game of play, is a true impact player.
The team defense that they play is stifling. This past week they took on SDSU. SDSU’s star player Jamaal Franklin was held scoreless for the first 15 minutes of the second half. Hornung led this responsibility but it was surely a team effort. That win coupled with the win Saturday at Air Force positions CSU nicely, only .5 game back in the MWC with some manageable games remaining.
Larry Eustachy( first year coach from Southern Miss, replacing Tim Miles) seems to have the Rams on the right track and poised to return for their 2nd tournament berth in as many years and at this rate I expect them to win a game or two.
Wichita State Shockers
Missouri Valley Conference
38th RPI/26th BPI
Sure, they were ranked #15 in the AP a few weeks back, but do people believe they are this good? Even with their recent difficulties in league play, I would be hard pressed to think they are the most talked about team in their own conference with rival Creighton (also struggling) and POY candidate Doug McDermott.
With that said, do not sleep on the Shockers.. The former Winthrop coach Greg Marshall has went a sizzling 102-29 in his last 3 ½ years as coach of Wichita State. Led by two JUCO transfers in Cleanthony Early (14.5ppg/5 rpg/82 FT %), coming off of a 39 point effort in a comeback victory vs Southern Illinois, and Carl Hall (12.9 ppg/7.9 rpg) this team has great potential. Oh, and their point guard Malcolm Armstead, the University of Oregon transfer, and former JUCO player, is the field general leading the team with 4 apg. He is more than just a feeder for Wichita State though, with splits of 9.5 ppg/3.7 rpg/2.1 spg . In addition to Creighton, who they face in the regular season finale March 2 ,the Shockers will play the dangerous Indiana State Sycamores again on February 19th. The Sycamores beat Wichita State in their own building cracking an impressive home winning streak and the Shockers will be sure to have revenge on the mind. Indiana State has a couple impressive wins on their resume against the Miami Hurricanes and Ole Miss Rebels.
Boasting a 3-0 record versus RPI top 50 and a +11.0 scoring margin, the Wichita State Shockers, if able to navigate the MVC, could have a legit shot to find themselves in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2006. A recent 3 game losing streak was a bit of a surprise skid after the team was rolling in December and January. With two consecutive wins I look for this team to continue to gain momentum and elevate itself to maintain the top spot in the MVC and be ranked in coming weeks.
Akron Zips ( late addition/ unclear omission)
Mid American Conference
In Conference Rival- Ohio
48th RPI/49th BPI
. Ohio made a run last year in March and returns their entire starting lineup, but how about them Zips for the Mid American crown? Akron has won 17 straight games (quietly? If that’s possible), the longest active streak in D-1 Men’s Basketball. Zeke Marshall, the 7 foot senior, is 4th in the nation in FG % at just over 66% and paces the squad with 12.5 points coupled with over 6 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per contest. He is a formidable interior presence. Alex Abreu is a 5’10″ Puerto Rican point guard that does a real nice job of distributing, over 6 assists per game. Against rival Ohio February 2, he finished with 21 points, 9 assists and only 2 turnovers ( they play again February 27). This team is very deep with 11 guys playing at least 9 minutes per game and because of that, as well as some of their star veteran players providing necessary leadership and ability, they are certainly a team with great potential for March 2013.
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
Conference Rival- Memphis
42nd RPI/61st BPI
A similar theme seems to resonate here for the Golden Eagles as their top three players all have experience at the junior college level. Jonathan Mills is an undersized bruiser from Chicago with solid 8.9 ppg/6.7 rpg splits and he is backed by Jerold Brooks, the former Rochester East, NY star as well as travelled swingman Dwayne Davis. Twice, Davis had been ruled academically ineligible in years past at Morehead State and then again at junior college. He has grown considerably and boasted a 3.0 GPA in the fall of 2012. Donnie Tyndall, first year Southern Miss coach and former Morehead State coach, seems poised to continue to develop the program. The Eagles are boasting a 48.8 FG %, 15th best in the nation and are a dangerous squad (winning 12 of their last 14) that needs to be closely monitored. Their game February 23rd against the Memphis Tigers will be sure to be highly competitive and a crucial game for both opponents as USM looks for redemption following the rout earlier this month. Look for them to be a 9 or 10 seed if they do not win the C-USA, but with great opportunity to surprise a team or two come March.
Ohio Valley Conference
Conference rival- Murray State
29thth RPI/52nd in BPI
Boasting a 10-0 record versus sub 150 RPI competition the Bruins have beat up on some bad teams. However, 29th in RPI, regardless of your thoughts on the index, is nothing to scoff at. This RPI ranking puts them above the likes of Pittsburgh and Wisconsin. They lack that marquee win, but boasting a 49.1 FG %, and with a strong core of leadership ,all top 5 scorers and top 5 minutes played, come from upperclassmen. Rick Byrd is in his 24th year with Belmont and the stability that this unit possesses gives them reason to believe.
In the past known for being extremely deep, often having 10 guys in the rotation in a given game, they seem to be shallower in 2013. They have found two seniors to lead the Bruins. Point guard Kerron Johnson ignites the squad and averages splits of 13.5 ppg/3.3 rpg/4.6 apg, not too shabby. Speaking of not too shabby, Ian Clark seems to have a vendetta against the entire Ohio Valley Conference. With significant improvement in many offensive categories, including a 11% jump in FG %(45 to 56), this is one of the most underappreciated players in the country. At 6-3 175 lbs, the Memphis, TN native averaging 19.2 ppg and 68% from the field including 28/43 from beyond the arc over a stretch of 7 conference games last month. Read that again.
They have lost 2 of their last three against two other talented teams in the OVC in Murray State and Tennessee State. Murray State obviously a dynamic and veteran led club and Tennesee State boasting future NBA player Robert Covington. Bracketbusters on February 23rd against Ohio should help to set the barometer for this team’s potential. They need to rattle off some wins prior to conference tournament to give them confidence in that tournament and beyond.
As noted, the Bruins do not have one win to hang their hat on , but that should not dismiss them from “sleeper” category. With strong leadership and shooting prowess this team could certainly do damage come March if the matchup(s) prove favorable.
Conference rival- Lehigh
57th RPI/59th BPI
Ok, these next few teams won’t be quite as glamorous as the first few listed, but still could prove damaging on the 14th,15th and 16th lines of the bracket. The Bison do not have a marquee victory , but the La Salle victory in December is beginning to look more and more like it. The Bison are led by Minnesota big man Mike Muscala. Muscala, albeit in a notoriously weak conference, is putting up gaudy numbers. He is putting up splits of 19.0 ppg/11.4 rpg/ 2.8 apg. The 6’11” 240 lb center is surrounded by Canadian sharpshooter Bryson Johnson and former head Philadelphia 76ers coach’s son, Cameron Ayers. Ayers is known for being a defensive stopper but has had to pick up the scoring load in 2013, averaging 12 ppg. The Bison’s four leading scorers are all upperclassmen and Dave Paulsen (5th year coach) will look to get the team back on track after a surprise home loss to a McCollum- less Lehigh squad on January 23rd. CJ McCollum, a more highly touted NBA prospect than Muscala, broke his foot in early January for the Lehigh Mountain Hawks. The Patriot League will hurt from this loss and an at large bid for the Bison will be difficult to ascertain. More recently on February 16 the Bison had a disappointing road loss to Lafayette to bring them to 8-2 in conference play. Monday, they were able to respond and beat Lehigh on the road, to bring them to 9-2 in conference. Muscala has had a double double in 11 of his previous 12 games and with the right matchup, and if they can survive the Patriot League tournament, it could give them more than a fighting chance in March.
Stony Brook Seawolves
Conference rival- Vermont
88th RPI/94rd BPI
Similarly, Stony Brook a favorite to win their respective conference, are coming off a loss to in division opponent, Vermont Catamounts. In ancient history, 2005, the Catamounts put the America East on the map when T.J. Sorrentine and Taylor Coppenrath upset the Syracuse Orange. I know that was painful for all you Upstate New Yorkers. With that said, Stony Brook has two players that are helping to propel them in the America East. Tommy Brenton, a 6’5”senior, with an impressive and balanced 8.7 ppg/8.3 rpg/4.8 apg is their unquestioned leader and is coming off the Seawolves’ first ever triple double individual performance on January 26th versus University of Maine(15 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists). Jameel Warney is the second player. At 6’8” and 255 lbs he is a force in the America East, and a sort of Dejuan Blair in training. The freshman is averaging 12.0 ppg/7.6 rpg and shooting 62% from the field. Stony Brook will play Vermont again next month and also has two crucial matchups against the always competitive Albany Great Danes (what a great name). As a strong FT% shooting and rebounding team the Seawolves are a team to watch.
Aside- Hey, who knows… maybe this is the year for the 16 vs 1 seed upset…(Jameel Warney holds Jeff Withey to 1-9 shooting and 4 rebounds as the Seawolves knock off the Kansas Jayhawks 69-67…. Ok back to it, sorry)
Big Sky Conference
In conference rival- Weber State
110th RPI/140nd BPI
Yes, I understand that this is the Big Sky(notorious 1 bid and usually a 15 or 16 seed), but this is the same conference that produced Weber State’s Damian Lillard, a guy who has to be in the conversation for NBA ROY here in 2013. The Grizzlies have been a part of the Dance two of the previous 3 years, and boast an opening round victory before getting blasted by Wisconsin last year. Wayne Tinkle is in his 6th season as coach with the Grizzlies and is paced by forward Mathias Ward (15 ppg) and point guard Will Cherry. Cherry surfaced last year as a player to watch on national spotlight, but had faded a bit at the end of 2012 after breaking his foot. Since he returned December 15th (minus his 13 minute performance on that particular day) the Grizzlies have lost only once, against rival Weber State. Cherry in their first matchup versus Weber finished with a line of 28 points/6 rebounds/ 4 steals, including 15-16 from the charity stripe. Sure, they do not have a guy in the rotation bigger than 6’9”, but this attack mentality coupled with a strong team FG % makes them a team to keep an eye on.
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