Major Conference Sleepers
Everyone thinks of sleepers as the mid-major teams that have great seasons and have huge amounts of hype going into the NCAA Tournament. That may be true, but sleepers come in all shapes and sizes. Another category for sleepers is the major conference sleepers. Going into the season, they are teams that didn't make the Field of 65 the season before or have lowered expectations after losing several key players, and aren't considered locks to make it to the Tournament this season. Furthermore, I didn’t include teams like Georgia Tech, Cincinnati, Providence, Illinois, etc.., who are predicted to be second-division teams in their respective conferences but have enough talent to easily make a run at the Dance. These are true sleepers that no one really expects to make a run towards March Madness.
Florida State: The Seminoles always seem to be in the hunt for an at-large bid late in the season, but always fall short. This year is not expected to be the same, but they do have the pieces necessary to potentially pull off a few surprises. Toney Douglas is one of the best guards in the ACC, while Uche Echefu is a solid big man. Leonard Hamilton also brings in a dynamite recruiting class that includes McDonald’s All-American Chris Singleton and junior college stud Derwin Kitchen.
North Carolina State: Last year was supposed to be the season the Wolf Pack put everything together and make a run at the NCAA Tournament, but nearly everyone took a step back and they didn’t even make the NIT. This year, without J.J. Hickson up front, they might be better. Brandon Costner and Ben McCauley can go back to creating match-up problems for opponents, while Courtney Fells will be the main scorer on the wing. If Farnold Degand handles the point, this team could be solid.
Seton Hall: The Pirates are going to start the season with a scant few scholarship players, due to suspensions and eligibility issues. However, if Keon Lawrence and Melvyn Oliver are cleared to play, and when Robert Mitchell is done with his suspension, this team will have talent. Eugene Harvey and Jeremy Hazell can score in the backcourt, while Paul Gause and freshman Jordan Theodore are quick guards. Up front, John Garcia showed flashes of his potential and Mike Davis can bang.
Northwestern: The Big Ten is going to be awful this season, so there were truly slim pickings for a potential sleeper in the conference (I thought about Michigan, but given the overall lack of good teams in the conference, the Wolverines are going to be picked sixth or so). And, yes, I went with Northwestern, a team which finished 1-17 in the league last season. Kevin Coble is one of the better forwards in the Big Ten, and Craig Moore and Michael Thompson form a very solid backcourt.
Kansas State: The Wildcats reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, but they lost starting forwards Michael Beasley and Bill Walker to the NBA Draft, where Beasley was selected No. 2 overall. Still, KSU does have talent. Jacob Pullen performed well at the point last season, and Miami (Fl.) transfer Denis Clemente will step in immediately in the backcourt. Ron Anderson showed potential last season in the frontcourt and will be the go-to-guy up front. JC transfer Buchi Awaji will make an impact.
Nebraska: When a team finishes below .500 in the Big 12 and then proceeds to lose its best player – a player who was a 20-10 threat every night for the past few seasons – it seems interesting to put them as a potential sleeper. However, the Cornhuskers have a ton of perimeter talent and an impact newcomer up front in Christopher Niemann. There is an issue with Niemann and a team in Germany, though, so that issue will need to be resolved. Steve Harley, Ryan Anderson and Ade Dagunduro need to step up.
Oregon: The Ducks had a lot of hype going into last season, after reaching the Elite Eight in 2007 and returning four starters. They struggled all season, though, and didn’t even get out of the first-round of the NCAA Tournament. Three starters are gone from last year’s team, but Tajuan Porter and Joevan Catron provide a decent nucleus to start with. Kamyron Brown can handle the point, while a very solid freshman class will provide reinforcements. Incoming center Michael Dunigan has a chance to become a star.
California: Will the arrival of new head coach Mike Montgomery turn the Golden Bears around? They went just 6-12 in the Pac-10 last season and also lost starting big men Ryan Anderson and DeVon Hardin. Immediately, though, Montgomery will likely improve this team’s defense and discipline. Plus, he does return guards Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher, a very solid backcourt. Theo Robertson comes back from a medical redshirt season, while former Duke transfer Jamal Boykin could break-out this year.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks haven’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2004, and aren’t expected to break that drought this season. However, any time a team has a backcourt with the talent of Devan Downey and Zam Frederick, it cannot be counted out. Downey is one of the best point guards in the country, while Frederick is a good scorer. Brandis Raley-Ross can really shoot the rock. Up front, Mike Holmes seemed to be coming on late in the year and Dominique Archie is a versatile double-figure scorer.
Auburn: With the SEC West as wide-open as it is, with nothing close to a clear favorite, any team has a chance to make a run at the division title. Even the Tigers, who haven’t reached the postseason since 2003, have the weapons to surprise people. Korvotney Barber is one of the best big men in the conference when healthy, while Rasheem Barrett can fill it up. Quantez Robertson and DeWayne Reed are a very good point guard duo. Lucas Hargrove also played well up front at the end of the season.