Sunday, October 9, 2005

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 sleeper. Going into the season, they are teams that didn't make the NCAA Tournament the season before, and aren't locks to the make it this season. However, they have the potential to make the NCAA Tournament as a 9-12 seed, and possibly win a few games in the Tournament.

Virginia Tech: Last year's surprise ACC team should again surprise some people with another good season. However, this time they will parlay that good season into a possible NCAA berth. Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon form an excellent backcourt, with both being able to play the point and the wing. Coleman Collins is one of the more underrated players in the conference, but can hold his own down low with the best of them. Deron Washington and Wynton Witherspoon are very slender for the power forward position, but they handle it well. The return of Markus Sailes from injury should provide a boost to the backcourt. If the Hokies can become more efficient on offense, and win some games on the road, they will be on the right side of the bubble this season.

Xavier: The Musketeers followed up their run to the Elite Eight in 2004 with a respectable 17-12 season. They return their top eight scorers from that team. Guard Stanley Burrell improved as the season went on, and can develop into an All-Conference player this season. Brian Thornton is a solid low-post option, while Justin Doellman can step out and hit the three. Also in the frontcourt, the versatile Justin Cage finds a way to score and rebound every night out; Josh Duncan and Will Caudle provide excellent depth down low. If Dedrick Finn runs the team like a true leader from the point, this is a darkhorse conference title contender.

Vanderbilt: The Commodores had a quiet 20-win season a year ago, and look to build on that this season. Mario Moore is streaky, but when he is on, he can carry Vandy. Shan Foster and Derrick Byars will comprise possibly the best offensive wing combo in the league. Alex Gordon provides scoring off the bench in what is a very deep and talented backcourt. Up front, Julian Terrell leads the way. He needs to continue the way he played down the stretch. If the frontcourt produces every night, and develops another scoring option in the post, the Commodores will contend for second place in the SEC East.

South Carolina: The Postseason NIT champs would much rather see their name in an NCAA bracket this season. With the team they have, that is very possible. Although no double figure scorers return for the Gamecocks, several productive role players are back. Tarence Kinsey hit the game winner at the buzzer in the NIT title game, and is the best shooter on the team. He could end up being the leading scorer. Tre' Kelley and Rocky Trice also return in the backcourt. In the frontcourt, they need to replace do-everything forward Carlos Powell. Antoine Tisby, Brandon Wallace, and Renaldo Balkman are all solid players up front, but none stand out. If any of the former role players develop into a go-to-guy, the Gamecocks won't have a chance to defend their NIT Title.

Houston: Tom Penders started his turnaround of the Cougars' program, and a trip to the NCAA Tournament would be the next step. It will be difficult with the loss of star Andre Owens, but there is enough talent in Houston to overcome that. Lanny Smith is a good place to start. He can do a little bit of everything on the court, and is one of the best players in the conference. Brian Latham is an excellent defender, and complements Smith well. Oliver Lafayette could be an impact newcomer in Conference USA, while Chris Lawson provides depth. Ramon Dyer is the only sure thing in the frontcourt, but Lamar Roberson and Jahmar Thorpe are expected to make immediate impacts on the baseline. If the newcomers make the expected difference, the Cougars will be a tough out in the Tournament.

California: Heading into last year, some people were saying that Cal was going to be a sleeper team out west. Then Leon Powe injured himself, and all the optimism was gone. Well, now Powe's back and so is the optimism. He could challenge for the Pac-10 player of the year if he can stay healthy. His partner down low will be Rod Benson, who did an excellent job picking up the slack in Powe's absence a year ago. Jordan Wilkes and DeVon Hardin provide excellent low post depth. On the perimeter, loads of talent returns. Marquise Kately is very athletic, while Ayinde Ubaka is a very solid point guard. Richard Midgley was the second leading scorer on the team last season, but might lose minutes to Kansas transfer Omar Wilkes, who is expected to add a mid-range game to the team's offense. Martin Smith also returns in the backcourt. If Powe stays healthy, there is no reason the Golden Bears should not make the NCAA Tournament.

Oregon: Another Pac-10 club that should take the next step to the NCAA Tournament, Oregon collapsed down the stretch a year ago. With another year of experience, the young Ducks should be able to handle the rigors of an entire season. One of the best perimeters in the country returns for them. Aaron Brooks is an underrated point guard that is extremely quick. Malik Hairson shold live up to his potential this season. He can do everything on the court. Bryce Taylor is an excellent shooter that slowed down late in the season. The only question mark is the frontcourt, but it is a big one. Mitch Platt, Ray Schafer, Maarty Leunen are all decent options in the low post, but no one stands out down low. Ivan Johnson could solve their problems if he makes the impact that is expected of him. Since the backcourt is loaded, the frontcourt is what will hold them back if they don't make the NCAA Tournament. That shouldn't happen.

Michigan: The Wolverines, like Oregon, fell off the map down the stretch. They lost 13 of their last 14 to kill any hopes of a postseason berth. With the returns of Lester Abram (injury) and Daniel Horton (suspension), that won't occur again. Abram is a very versatile scorer, while Horton is a solid point guard. Dion Harris is the leading scorer, and won't have to carry the entire load this season. The post quartet of Chris Hunter, Brett Petway, Graham Brown, and Courtney Sims is extremely talented, but hasn't really done much thus far at Michigan. They are all very solid down low, but one or two need to step up and start dominating. Even more depth comes from swingman Ron Coleman and guard Sherrod Harrell, who both started late in the season. If everything plays out correctly and no players are unexpectedly lost for the season, the Wolverines will give Tommy Amaker his first NCAA berth in Ann Arbor.

DEEP SLEEPERS (Teams that can make some noise during the season if everything, and I mean everything, goes right; out on a limb picks):

Colorado: Even though the Buffaloes went 14-16 last season, they should improve upon that with the return of eight seniors and one of the best palyers in the league in Richard Roby. He can do everything and produces in all aspects of the game. Chris Copeland and Andy Osborn comprise a formidable forward duo, while Marcus Hall and Jayson Obazuaye are two more excellent options in the backcourt. Julius Ashby and Glean Eddy are solid rebounders on the interior. If the newcomers produce admirably, and the role players contribute, Roby can carry them to the brink of an NCAA berth.

Providence: Yes, they lost All-American Ryan Gomes. Yes, they won 4 Big East games last season--with Gomes. However, they have a chance to make some noise in the newly-designed Big East. Donnie McGrath and Dwight Brewington are a very good backcourt. McGrath is an excellent shooter, and Brewington has an opportunity to become one of the top scorers in the conference. DeSean White is very athletic and versatile and will be the first to step into Gomes' shoes. Herbert Hill and Randall Hanke are good shot blockers down low, and Hanke could develop into one of the better low post players in the Big East. If they learn how to play better defense, and win close games (8 Big East losses by 5 points or less), the Friars could have a decent season.

St. John's: The Red Storm won 9 games a season ago--and that was considered a success. They should improve that by at least 5 victories this season, which would put them on the lower end of the bubble, heading into the Big East Tournament. Upset a few teams here and there and the Johnnies are on the brink of an NCAA Tournament berth. Why would anyone expect that out of St. John's this season, though? Start with Darryl Hill. The Big East's best scorer, he can carry the Red Storm to a couple of wins this season. He needs to cut down on his turnovers, however. Lamont Hamilton is a very good low post presence. He and Hill are an excellent inside-outside duo. Also inside, JC transfer Aaron Spears will give them another option. Freshmen Anthony Mason, Jr. and Ricky Torres will see lots of playing time on the wings, as both are good shooters. Jermaine Maybank sat out last season with an injury; he might be the most athletic player on the roster. Oh, there's also three more returning starters from last season: guards Eugene Lawrence and Cedric Jackson, and forward Dexter Gray. Throw in explosive Ryan Williams, and you have a ridiculously deep and taltened team that could string together a couple of quality wins somewhere along the line. It may sound far-fetched, but don't be surprised when you see St. John's winning games in the Big East.

Florida State: This may be far-fetched as well. The Seminoles didn't live up to expectations a year ago, and limped to a 12-19 record. However, if you look at the roster, there is a lot of talent that just needs to be mixed right to improve their record. In the backcourt, Todd Galloway will run the point and will be joined by a slew of talented wings. JC transfer Jerel Allen is expected to be a big-time scorer, while Andrew Wilson and Jason Rich are the projected starters. Isaiah Swann and Jason Mims are combo guards that are also fighting for time. That perimeter sextet is going to create problems for many teams in the ACC. Inside, Al Thornton could develop into an all-conference type of player. Alexander Johnson, who has yet to live up to his potential, will start next to him. Deigo Romero and freshman Uche Echefu will provide depth. Echefu is expected to have an immediate impact in the low post. Like St. John's, if the Seminoles can mesh all the talent and depth that they have, they can win some games they shouldn't in the ACC.

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