Thursday, September 28, 2006

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, and aren't considered locks to make it this season. Major conference sleepers can be broken down into three groups.

There is the main group of teams that are being touted as NCAA Tournament teams and can win a game or two if they get there. Moreover, these are basically teams that didn't make the NCAA Tournament last season but should this year and can make noise if they do.

There are also the teams that are not expected to make the Big Dance and seem to be a few players away from contending. However, these teams can also make some moves in their conference if they get a few breaks here and there.

Lastly, there are the deep sleepers. These are teams that can contend for a bid if everything, and I mean everything, goes right.

Top-Tier Sleepers (Georgia Tech and Louisville are too good to be considered sleepers, even though they fulfill the criteria)

Virginia: After the top four in the ACC (UNC, Duke, Georgia Tech, Boston College), the race for the fifth spot is wide-open. Right now, there doesn't seem like a better candidate than the Cavaliers. They return the best backcourt duo in the country in Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds. Singletary is a driving point guard that is strong going to the basket, while Reynolds has an excellent offensive game and is difficult to stop when he is hot. Adrian Joseph also returns on the wing, while Jason Cain and Laurynas Mikaluaskas will again man the interior. Several newcomers will make an impact, including forwards Jamil Tucker and Will Harris. This team could really make some noise if a go-to-guy emerges in the frontcourt.

Virginia Tech: Like most of the teams on this list, the Hokies had an awful season—finishing 4-12 in the ACC and losing six of their last seven. However, Virginia Tech was supposed to be a potential NCAA Tournament team last season. Maybe the predictions were a year off, because the Hokies have the goods to make a run at a bid this season. Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon form one of the most versatile backcourts in the country, as both players are good scorers, rebounders, defenders, and passers. Coleman Collins is one of the most underrated big men in the country, but he is somewhat inconsistent. Deron Washington is a very athletic forward who is a good all-around player. If the Hokies play together as a team, expect them to be in the thick of things come March.

Maryland: The Terrapins have underachieved for the past couple of years and have missed the NCAA Tournament back-to-back seasons but have been on the bubble each time. This year, they have enough talent and balance to make the return to the Big Dance. One of the main reasons is the fact that they now have a pure point guard to run the show in freshman Eric Hayes. He should be able to handle a starting job, and also will allow wing D.J. Strawberry to play his natural position. Mike Jones is a very good scorer. Ekene Ibekwe and James Gist form an athletic inside duo. Gary Williams should be able to get back to the Tournament with this group.

Florida State: The Seminoles were on the bubble this past season, but should be in the Big Dance this year. The loss of Alexander Johnson to the NBA Draft hurts, but Leonard Hamilton should have this team ready to go. Al Thornton is one of the conference's toughest match-ups and can carry FSU. Jason Rich and Isaiah Swann also return as starters in the backcourt. Add Auburn transfer Toney Douglas to a deep perimeter group and the Seminoles should have the goods to make a run in the ACC. The only thing stopping them from contending for a top-3 finish in the conference is their lack of a go-to post player. But no one is going to want to play this team late in the season.

DePaul: After a positive non-conference campaign last season, in which the Blue Demons went 7-4 and beat teams like California, Creighton, and UAB, they struggled in the Big East en route to a 5-11 conference record. However, with the return of their top 13 players and 99.1% of their total minutes played a year ago, fans can expect more results like the ones they had in the non-conference season. Sammy Mejia is an excellent wing that can do-it-all, while Draelon Burns is one of the best sixth men in the country. Inside, Wilson Chandler and Karron Clarke are formidable options at both ends of the floor. The Blue Demons also bring in point guard recruit Will Walker, who could make an immediate impact in the backcourt. Don’t be shocked to see DePaul making a case for an NCAA bid.

Michigan: While the NIT runner-up loses four players that started at least six games, the Wolverines should be able to avoid a third consecutive late-season collapse and finally make the jump to the NCAA Tournament. The loss of Daniel Horton is going to make a huge impact, but incoming freshman Deshawn Sims should contribute immediately on the wing. Returning big man Courtney Sims is one of the best post players in the country at times, while the athletic Brent Petway can rebound and block shots on the interior. The perimeter should be loaded. Dion Harris and Lester Abram form an excellent duo, while Ron Coleman has potential. If Jerret Smith can replace Horton at the point, Michigan will be in the Field of 65.

Kansas State: This pick is more about the coach than the players. The biggest change in the coaching world this offseason was the Wildcats picking up former Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins. If he instills the same principles he used with the Bearcats, this team will improve immediately. However, all-conference performer Cartier Martin was suspended indefinitely but he should be back by the start of the season. They need him to return if they want to receive an NCAA bid. Even without him, though, KSU is going to be tough. David Hoskins and Lance Harris are solid players on the wing, while Akeem Wright and Clent Stewart also contribute on the perimeter. Throw in recruits Blake Young and Jason Bennett, and Huggins has a team that can compete with anyone.

Oklahoma State: While the Cowboys struggled last season in what was a rebuilding last year, they are going to be loaded this season. The top ten scorers return for new coach Sean Sutton, and OSU also brings in McDonald’s All-American Obi Muonelo. He and JamesOn Curry should form a very good scoring combo on the wing. Mario Boggan is a beast on the interior. Marcus Dove is a lock-down defender, while David Monds is a productive forward. If they can get consistent point guard play from Byron Eaton and Jamaal Brown, the Pokes could compete for a Top-3 finish in the Big 12.

USC: After an encouraging 17-13 season (in which the Trojans were inexplicably left out of the NIT), USC took some hits in the offseason with some unfortunate news. First, starting point guard Ryan Francis was shot and killed in May. Next, star guard Gabe Pruitt was ruled academically ineligible for the first semester. However, the Trojans could be a tough team to beat come March. Nick Young is one of the most talented players in the country, and could develop into a household name this season, while Pruitt is an all-conference guard. Lodrick Stewart is also very solid on the perimeter. Up front, incoming forwards Taj Gibson, and Kevin Galloway are expected to combine with returnees RouSean Crowell and Abdoulaye Ndiaye to comprise a formidable frontcourt. If they can find someone to replace Francis at the point, look out for them in the postseason.

Oregon: The Ducks need to get to the NCAA Tournament this season. It's that simple. They have had the talent the past two seasons but have not lived up to expectations either season. That should end this year. Malik Hairston is one of the best all-around players in the Pac-10, while Aaron Brooks needs to develop some consistency at the point. Wings Bryce Taylor and Chamberlain Oguchi provide scoring and shooting. The problem they have is their lack of interior play. Maarty Leunen and a host of other post players will have to step up down low or the Ducks may disappoint again. Coach Ernie Kent can't have that.

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs could be one of the true sleepers/surprises in the SEC this season. They only managed 5 wins in the conference a year ago, but return some very solid players and also bring in a couple of players capable of contributing right away. Jamont Gordon and Charles Rhodes form one of the best inside-outside combos in the country. Gordon is extremely versatile and can do it all on the country, while Rhodes is developing into the one of the best big men around. Guards Reginald and Richard Delk also return, as does wing Dietric Slater (although he is suspended for the first semester). Freshman Jarvis Varnado can be a solid player up front, while classmate Ben Hansbrough could start at the point eventually. Look out for Mississippi State.

Potential Spoilers

Clemson: How many people know that Clemson went 19-13 overall and 7-9 in the ACC last season? Anyone? When looking at that, it's completely justified to see the Tigers has a potential threat in the second division of the ACC. They have a very athletic team, led by guards Vernon Hamilton and Cliff Hammonds. While they are not very good shooters, they can get to the basket on offense and force turnovers on defense. James Mays is the anchor down low, but forwards Sam Perry and Julius Powell are solid up front. Look out for freshman Trevor Booker. If the Tigers can improve their shooting, look out for them this season.

St. John's: Although they only won 12 games last season and didn't even make the Big East Tournament, this could be the year coach Norm Roberts takes the next step and gets the Red Storm to the postseason--whether it be the NCAA or NIT. Lamont Hamilton is one of the most underrated big men in the country, while wing Anthony Mason, Jr. has a lot of potential on the offensive end. Guards Darryl Hill and Eugene Lawrence are small, tough-minded guards that can create on offense. The incoming newcomers are expected to make an immediate impact. Derwin Kitchen and Avery Patterson add shooting and scoring on the perimeter, while forward Qa'rraan Calhoun could start at some point this season. This team has enough depth and talent to be competitive this season.

Providence: The Friars could really make some noise this season in the Big East if all the pieces come together. They had the same exact record as St. John's last season, but could improve even more than the Red Storm. It starts up front with Randall Hanke and Herbert Hill down low. Both are good shot-blockers and rebounders, while Hanke is a very efficient offensive player. Forward Geoff McDermott is a match-up nightmare for most 3s. He is an exceptional rebounder for his position (2nd in the Big East last season) and could have a huge year. Sharaud Curry is a good scoring point guard and steadily improved as the season went on a year ago. If a perimeter option steps up and shows the ability to hit shots from outside, the Friars are not going to be a team anyone wants to play.

Purdue: One of the top candidates for biggest improvement from last season to this season. That is mainly due to the addition and return of several big-time players. It starts with big man Carl Landry, who is one of the top power forwards in the country. He only played in 5 games last year due to injury, but he is back to dominate for the Boilermakers. David Teague and Tarrance Crump will start in the backcourt after redshirting last year. Moreover, Boston College Gordon Watt is expected to make an impact up front. Guards Chris Lutz and Marcus Green will also contribute in the backcourt. If the injured players return to their pre-injury form, this team could be a load to deal with in the Big Ten.

Penn State: The Big Ten is not overly impressive this season outside of Wisconsin and Ohio State. After those two and maybe Michigan and Illinois, there is a group of several teams looking to separate themselves from each other. One of those teams is the Nittany Lions, who could really surprise some people this year. They have one of the best forward tandems you've never heard of in Geary Claxton and Jamelle Cornley. Claxton is one of the best small forwards in the country, while Cornley was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season. Ben Luber and David Jackson form a solid backcourt tandem, while Mike Walker also contributes on the perimeter. If a center emerges, Penn State will be a solid group to watch.

Baylor: Yes, Baylor. Yes, the team that went 4-13 last season. Mark it down: No one is going to want to play Baylor late in the Big 12 season. The Bears have one of the deepest backcourts in the country, led by Aaron Bruce and Curtis Jerrells. Both are combo guards who are studs at both ends of the floor. Patrick Fields and Henry Dugat also contribute on the perimter, as will McDonald's All-American Tweety Carter. Tim Bush and Kevin Rogers are solid forwards, while Mamadou Diene provides rebounding and defense down low. This team has a lot of quality players, but they do need to develop a go-to-guy up front in order to make a serious bid for an NCAA Tournament spot.

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders came into last season with fairly high expectations. They were supposed to return to the NCAA Tournament after making it two seasons ago. However, their frontcourt never developed and Tech disappointed with a below-.500 season. They should turn that around this season, especially with Bobby Knight only needing 11 wins to become the winningest coach in college basketball history. One of the top backcourts in the country returns in Jarrius Jackson and Martin Zeno. Jackson is an outstanding scorer and three-point shooter who can carry Tech to several wins. Zeno is a very good scorer and a solid rebounder. Darryl Dora and Jon Plefka return up front. Several newcomers are going to have to step up, though, including JC transfers Charlie Burgess and Roderick Craig.

Georgia: Even though the Bulldogs lost seven of their last eight games to end the season, they could be a team to watch this season. Eleven of their top twelve scorers return, including one of the most underrated perimeter groups in the country. Levi Stukes and Sundiata Gaines form an excellent combo, while Channing Toney also starts. Mike Mercer and Billy Humphrey, both sophomores-to-be, were two of the best bench contributors in the SEC. Dave Bliss and Steve Newman are going to have provide solid rebounding and defense down low. While their stable of guards is deep and talented, if the Bulldogs don’t get enough inside production, they won’t be able to reach their full potential. All of that adds up to what could be a sleeper team in the conference.

Vanderbilt: It seems that the Commodores find a way to make it on the bubble every season, and this year doesn't look any different. Vandy has one of the best wing duos in the country in Derrick Byars and Shan Foster. Both could be All-SEC performers this season. At the point, Alex Gordon and freshman Jermaine Beal will fight for the starting spot. LSU transfer Ross Neltner is expected to make an immmediate impact up front, while Alan Metcalfe is poised for a big year down low, as well. Heading into the season, the Commodores seem to have a few holes but they have players on the roster capable of stepping up and filling those gaps. This could be a good club.

Deep Sleepers

Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish were known as an unlucky team last season, and ended up going only 6-10 in the Big East. This season, the expectations are not very high for Notre Dame as they lose their best players in guard Chris Quinn, the team's leading scorer, and big man Torin Francis, a double-double threat every night. However, this team could beat some teams it shouldn't this season. Russell Carter and Colin Falls form a very good wing combo as Carter is an excellent athlete, while Falls is an outstanding long-range shooter. Rob Kurz and Luke Zeller are solid big men, while freshman Luke Harangody will also see time down low. Notre Dame may be depleted, but I wouldn't overlook this team.

Auburn: The Tigers are usually not considered much of a contender in the SEC, and they aren't going to be this season, either. However, they aren't going to be a pushover this year. Jeff Lebo has the team ready to compete every night out. Furman transfer Quan Prowell is going to make an immediate impact down low. He is a match-up problem and can score both inside and outside. He is joined up front by returnees Josh Dollard and Korvotney Barner, two solid forwards. In the backcourt, Quantez Robertson is an underrated point guard and a solid distributor. Rasheem Barrett is the team's leading scorer, while Frank Tolbert and Daniel Hayles also are solid scorers on the perimeter. This team has a lot of the pieces necessary to be a solid squad, and could pull a few upsets this year.

Iowa: The only team on this list that made the NCAA Tournament a year ago, the Hawkeyes are being overlooked this season and are predicted to drop to #9 in the Big Ten after coming within a game of the conference title last season. They lose three starters, but will still field a competitive team. Adam Haluska is an excellent all-around scorer who could be poised for a huge year this season. Mike Henderson and Tony Freeman also return on the perimeter. Henderson is an outstanding defender. Freshman Tyler Smith is expected to have an immediate impact at the forward spot, while JC transfer Cyrus Tate will also likely start right away. I see this team making the postseason.


  1. What about Kentucky. Don"t you think that they maybe a major '"sleeper"

  2. I would never really consider Kentucky a sleeper--just a powerhouse that is waiting to return to form.