NCAA Tournament 2018: Top Sleeper Teams Heading into March Madness

NCAA Tournament 2018: Top Sleeper Teams Heading into March Madness

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The last three NCAA tournaments have been conquered by No. 1 or No. 2 seeds.

But in 2014, the seventh-seeded UConn Huskies cut down the nets, knocking off the eighth-seeded Kentucky Wildcats in the title game.

That was, of course, the exception to the rule, however lower-seeded squads are always capable of bracket-busting. Last year’s tournament, for instance, saw the seventh-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks crash the Final Four and the eleventh-seeded Xavier Musketeers reach the Elite 8.

Sleepers—defined for our purposes as a team outside the Top 12 in the latest AP poll—often come to define March Madness, and this installment (which spans from March 13 through April 2) will be no different.

The following three squads all pack the potential to outperform their seeding and make deep runs into the Big Dance.

           

Arizona Wildcats

The Wildcats’ season became an unpredictable journey from one off-court distraction to the next.

Former assistant coach Emanuel Richardson was fired after being arrested on federal bribery charges. Guard Allonzo Trier was briefly suspended for testing positive for a "minuscule amount" of a performance-enhancing drug, per the Arizona Republic. Head coach Sean Miller was forced to take a brief leave of absence over an ESPN report on alleged discussions of paying a prominent then-recruit.

It’s possible no team enters the tournament with more chips on its shoulder.

It’s also possible no team has a more dangerous duo than Trier and star freshman center DeAndre Ayton, a potential No. 1 pick in a star-studded 2018 NBA draft. Both average better than 18 points per game, and each shoots at least 52 percent. Ayton also provides 11.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, while Trier adds 3.3 assists and a 40.4-percent three-point stroke.

These are two of the most efficient offensive players in the country, per Synergy Sports:

Ayton, in particular, is an almost impossible matchup, as ESPN.com’s Myron Medcalf observed:

"Imagine if Shaquille O’Neal could hit the occasional 3-pointer. In most cases, any comparisons to one of the most powerful centers in NBA history would draw justified criticism and questions about the author’s credibility. But Ayton, a freshman from Nassau, Bahamas, is 7-foot-1 and 260 pounds. The most freakish prospect at his position since O’Neal is averaging a healthy double-double this year. He could go Anthony Davis on the field and carry Arizona to the Final Four."

The Wildcats have their issues—mainly, everything connected to their 95th-ranked defense. If Trier and Ayton aren’t razor-sharp, the ‘Cats could find themselves on upset alert.

But Arizona might have the best two players on the floor any given night. As long as those stars are effective and utilized, they can power this group through its region.

           

Texas Tech Red Raiders

A popular sleeper-picking strategy involves tabbing teams that caught fire down the stretch. The Red Raiders did the opposite, losing four of its last five outings—the same number of losses it suffered during its first 26 contests.

So, why put Chris Beard’s group on this list? Because the losses were largely explainable, but they’ll still impact the seeding in a way that puts this team well below its talent level.

Texas Tech was hit hard by injuries down the stretch, most notably a toe problem that hobbled All-Big 12 first-teamer Keenan Evans. The scoring guard paced the Red Raiders in points (17.4), assists (3.3) and steals (1.3).

This squad struggles to function when Evans isn’t healthy and dominant. His in-conference splits were staggering—22.2 points per game in wins, 8.2 in losses.

But when he’s right, this group is scary. The way ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla sees it, Tech should be healing up at the optimal time:

The Red Raiders boast the country’s third-best defense, so they’re rarely out of games. As long as this offense can follow Evans’ lead, Tech has the tools to get to the Elite 8 or beyond.

             

Kentucky Wildcats

These Wildcats seemingly lack the top-level talent of a typical John Calipari-led team. But maybe that says more about the absurd wealth of it on former squads as opposed to a dearth on the current one.

If the NBA draft follows the big board of Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman, Kentucky would still have a top-10 pick (Kevin Knox, ninth), another first-rounder (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 17th) and an early second-round selection (Hamidou Diallo, 34th). The only other team with three players in Wasserman‘s top 34 is Duke, a possible No. 1 seed.

As B/R’s Kerry Miller observed, great things can happen when the Wildcats play to their potential:

"Kentucky doesn’t give 100 percent every night, but when it does, it is simply more athletic than every team it faces. It blocks shots. It crashes the offensive glass. It draw fouls. And it closes out on three-point shooters in the blink of an eye. The Wildcats don’t shoot very well, but they can win a lot of games in March simply by committing for 40 minutes."

Freshmen-heavy, as most of Cal’s clubs are, the Wildcats progressed over the course of the season. Before being blitzed by a hot-shooting Florida team in its regular-season finale, Kentucky had won four straight by an average of 16 points per game.

This isn’t an elite group on either end, but it’s solid both ways. The defense sits 23rd, and the offense isn’t too far behind at 41st. The absence of floor-spacers might be a fatal flaw, but the ‘Cats can often work around it by locking down on defense, owning the offensive boards and flying on fast breaks.

The formula isn’t that different from the one Kentucky has followed to 13 wins over the past four NCAA tournaments. If these youngsters mature at the right time, they could add to that victory total in a big way.

           

Statistics used courtesy of ESPN.com and KenPom.com.

Breaking Sports News

via Bleacher Report – Front Page http://ift.tt/yO6Sgr

March 7, 2018 at 07:35AM

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