Mid-Major Sleepers to Watch
In March, the major question everyone wants to know is: "Which small-conference team is going to pull an upset or two and possibly reach the second weekend?" Every NCAA Tournament has at least one; you just have to figure out which one or two it is going to be. Don’t mistake this for a “Who is this year’s George Mason?” column, though—that’s simply not going to happen again. Maybe it’s more like a “Who is this year’s Davidson?” column. I'm not including teams from the Atlantic-10, Conference-USA, Mountain West, WAC, or Gonzaga, because saying Nevada is a sleeper is not the same as saying that Cleveland State is a sleeper.
For my complete Non-BCS Top 25, click here.
Saint Mary’s: Can the Gaels put an end to Gonzaga’s reign atop the West Coast Conference? They came within one game of doing it last year, and they might be even better this season. Patty Mills is one of the best point guards in the country, and is coming off a great summer with Australia in the Olympics. Up front, Diamon Simpson is a double-double lock every night out, while Omar Samhan is very good at both ends of the floor. Furthermore, Ian O’ Leary can score and rebound, while Indiana transfer Ben Allen can stroke the three well for a big man.
Davidson: This year’s Davidson might be...Davidson. Although the Wildcats lost point guard Jason Richards and forwards Boris Meno and Thomas Sander, any team with Stephen Curry is a threat every night out. Curry might have to play a little more point guard this season, but his shooting and scoring prowess won’t suffer. Andrew Lovedale came alive in the NCAA Tournament down low, and freshman Frank Ben-Eze will make an impact. Max Paulhus Gosselin also returns on the wing.
Siena: The Saints pulled off an upset of Vanderbilt in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in March, and they have the pieces to go a round further this season. Kenny Hasbrouck is one of the best guards in the mid-major world, and might be the best player in the MAAC. Edwin Ubiles is an outstanding wing who can really fill it up offensively, while Alex Franklin is a scoring and rebounding machine in the low-post. Two more starters also return in point guard Ronald Moore and forward Josh Duell.
San Diego: Sure, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s are both ahead of San Diego on paper, but the Toreros won the conference tournament and was also the only WCC team to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, knocking off Connecticut on a last-second shot by De’Jon Jackson. Brandon Johnson is an outstanding point guard, and he and Gyno Pomare form one of the best inside-outside combos in the country. Rob Jones has plenty of potential, while Trumaine Johnson is a solid guard.
Creighton: Missouri Valley teams are always threats in the NCAA Tournament, and Creighton could be the best of the lot this season. P’Allen Stinnett leads the way; he is a very good all-around player who will be a candidate for conference player of the year this season. Cavel Witter and Booker Woodfox could be ready for increased roles this season, while Josh Dotzler has experience. Up front, Kenny Lawson needs to take the next step, and former Louisville transfer Chad Millard will contribute.
VCU: Yup, the Rams are not going away as a threat just yet – and probably won’t as long as coach Anthony Grant is there. Eric Maynor, the guy who buried Duke with his pull-up jumper two years in the NCAA Tournament, is still one of the best point guards in the country, and could take on an even bigger role this season. Joey Rodriguez also returns in the backcourt, while T.J. Gwynn could become a major factor on the wing. Up front, Larry Sanders is long and athletic, and is a menacing presence defensively and on the glass.
Illinois State: The Redbirds should have made the NCAA Tournament last season, after going 24-9 during the regular season and finishing 13-5 in the Missouri Valley, but they’ll try to take it out of the Committee’s hands this season. Osiris Eldridge is arguably the best player in the conference; he is exciting to watch. Transfers Chamberlain Oguchi (Oregon) and Landon Shipley (Austin Peay) will contribute on the wing, while Dinma Odiakosa will have to step up his production down low.
Kent State: The Golden Flashes never seem to go away, and this season won’t be any different. The returning MAC champs lost a lot of frontcourt talent, but their backcourt duo of Al Fisher and Chris Singletary is second to none in the conference. Fisher can single-handedly carry this team to victory; he is the defending MAC Player of the Year. Up front, Julian Sullinger will hope to regain his sophomore year form, while several newcomers are also expected to step in immediately and contribute.
Southern Illinois: Another team that always seems to be there at the end of the season, the Salukis struggled early last year but came on down the stretch and finished third in the MVC – and that was a disappointment by recent standards. Bryan Mullins is still around to man the point guard position, while defensive stopper Wesley Clemmons lines up next to him. Josh Bone needs to step up his scoring on the wing. Tony Boyle and Carlton Fay will step in for departed veterans Randal Falker and Matt Shaw.
Potential First-round Upset Threats
American: After giving Tennessee everything it could handle in the first-round of the NCAA Tournament last season, the Eagles will look to finish the job this year. They return three-point marksman Garrison Carr and point guard Derrick Mercer in a dynamite backcourt. When those two are on their game, this team can hang with anyone.
Cleveland State: With Butler falling back to the pack this season, is another Horizon League team ready to step up and assume the role of Cinderella? The Vikings might be the best bet, led by two of the best players in the conference, forward J’Nathan Bullock and guard Cedrick Jackson, one of the best on-ball defenders in the nation.
Portland State: The Vikings ran through the Big Sky last season, and will look to do the same thing this year. Jeremiah Dominguez was the conference player of the year last season, while Andre Murray is a solid guard. More reason for optimism comes from three transfers, including Dominic Waters (Hawaii), Phil Nelson (Washington) and Jamie Jones (Portland).
Cal State Northridge: The Big West always seems to send teams to the NCAA Tournament with legitimate aspirations of a first-round upset; could this year be Northridge’s year? The backcourt of Deon Tresvant and Josh Jenkins is one of the best in the conference, while Tremaine Townsend is a double-double lock every time out.
Mount St. Mary’s: After finishing fourth in the Northeast Conference last season, the Mountaineers made a run through the conference tournament and even won the NCAA Tournament play-in game. Behind the return of four starters, they will look to continue that run this year. Guard Jeremy Goode leads the way.
Tennessee-Martin: The minute Lester Hudson made the decision to withdraw from the NBA Draft and return to the Skyhawks, UT-Martin’s NCAA aspirations skyrocketed. With one of the nation’s top scorers in Hudson leading the way, they have the pieces to throw a scare into opponents. Marquis Weddle can really fill it up, and the newcomers add size up front.