Major Conference Sleepers
Although people sometimes overlook this category, identifying the teams from the power leagues that are apt to making a run is also crucial. These teams are usually seeded 6-11 and have the potential to take down one of the top-seeded teams in a region. Last year's surprise teams were Villanova, a 12 seed that reached the Sweet Sixteen, and West Virginia, a 7 seed that came within four points of an Elite Eight appearance. Here are the teams most likely to spring a few "upsets" in the tournament:
Arizona State: This might be my one true sleeper pick of the Tournament. I think the Sun Devils have the personnel to potentially reach the Elite Eight. James Harden is an All-American; Jeff Pendergraph is a force inside; and there are plenty of quality role players. This team can also lock opponents up defensively.
Arizona: The Wildcats were one of the last teams in the NCAA Tournament (and maybe the final selection), but they are going to make the most of it. Nic Wise, Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill form one of the most talented trios in the country, and this team can beat anyone in the country – they’ve already proven that.
USC: The Trojans are playing their best basketball of the year, coming off of their Pac-10 tournament title run. When healthy, they have as much talent as anyone. Dwight Lewis and DeMar DeRozan form a great scoring tandem, while Daniel Hackett and Taj Gibson are a great inside-outside combo.
West Virginia: The Mountaineers always seem to be lurking in the middle seeds as a team that can make a run. They defeated Pittsburgh in the Big East Tournament, and are excellent at both ends of the floor. Da’Sean Butler and Alex Ruoff are a dynamite scoring duo, and Bob Huggins knows how to win in March.
UCLA: The Bruins had one of the best offenses in the country all season, efficiency-wise, and Ben Howland has led this team to three straight Final Fours. Darren Collison is an outstanding point guard, while Josh Shipp can shoot. UCLA has plenty of scorers, and it still has the potential to shut teams down defensively.
LSU: If the Tigers weren’t placed in North Carolina’s pod, this team could be a Sweet Sixteen threat. They are one of the longest and most athletic teams in the country, and they have a variety of shutdown defenders. Plus, Marcus Thornton is a big-time scorer with the potential to carry this team.
Clemson: The Tigers went into their typical late-season swoon down the stretch, but don’t write this team off just yet. They are very difficult to play against due to their style of play and athleticism, and they have experience. K.C. Rivers can score, and Trevor Booker is a beast down low. If this team can force turnovers, look out.
Texas: The Longhorns disappointed for much of the season, but it’s not over yet. They have plenty of NCAA Tournament experience, and one of the better duos in A.J. Abrams and Damion James. Dexter Pittman is a space-eater, and Justin Mason can do it all. Plus, the Longhorns have depth and Rick Barnes can coach.
Oklahoma State: The Cowboys finished the season very strongly, and also made an impression against Oklahoma down the stretch – twice. They have plenty of perimeter scorers and guys that can create their own shots when it counts. They would play Pittsburgh in the second round, but they have the pieces to give them a scare.
Tennessee: The Volunteers have been hot-and-cold all season long, but they seemed to be hitting their stride in the SEC Tournament – before falling in the title game. Still, they have a lot of postseason experience on the roster, and Bruce Pearl is tournament-tested. Tyler Smith is one of the most versatile players around.