Thursday, October 22, 2009

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 Boston College, Virginia Tech, Seton Hall, Wisconsin, Oregon 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.

Miami (Fl.):
 The Hurricanes were on the cusp of the NCAA Tournament last season, but they couldn't get it done late in games and fell short of the Big Dance. Now, they lose go-to-guy Jack McClinton and are not expected to do much in the ACC. However, don't count out the Hurricanes. Dwayne Collins is a solid big man down low, and sophomore DeQuan Jones is expected to take the next step. The key will be the talented backcourt of Villanova transfer Malcolm Grant and freshman Durand Scott, both New York products.

St. John's: The Red Storm have not been anywhere near the NCAA Tournament in the past few years, but that could change this season. They have a lot of talent coming back and also bring in some quality players. It starts with the wing duo of D.J. Kennedy and Paris Horne, two athletic performers. Sean Evans is the go-to-guy inside, and Malik Boothe can handle the point. The biggest factor could be the return of Anthony Mason Jr. from a season-ending injury last season -- but he is going to be out another 4-6 weeks.

South Florida: The Big East will be down as a whole this season, and there are some second-division teams with the chops to make a jump in the standings. USF is one of them. The Bulls return the inside-outside duo of Dominique Jones, one of the most underrated scorers in the country, and big man Augustus Gilchrist. Head coach Stan Heath is excited about the additions of JC transfer Jarrid Famous and Ohio State transfer Anthony Crate, who will become eligible in December. This team will win some games. 

Indiana: The Hoosiers were one of the worst major-conference teams in the country last season, but they have an opportunity to take strides this year. They have some of the best perimeter talent in the Big Ten, with double-figure scorers Devan Dumes and Verdell Jones and shooter Matt Roth returning and the additions of Georgetown transfer Jeremiah Rivers and freshmen Jordan Hulls and Maurice Creek. However, the frontcourt needs help from Tom Pritchard and freshman Christian Watford.

Iowa State: The Big 12 is stacked at the top, but there is some room for the Cyclones to move up a couple of notches in the conference. Obviously the biggest reason is the return of All-American Craig Brackins, one of the best players in the country. However, the perimeter trio of juniors Diante Garrett and Lucca Staiger and freshman Chris Colvin is going to provide excellent balance in the backcourt. Forward Marquis Gilstrap is going to be a key next to Brackins up front.

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders struggled immensely last season and lose their leading scorer in Alan Voskuil -- so why are they are? Well, Tech returns three double-figure scorers and bring in some players ready to make an impact immediately. John Roberson is a very productive point guard and forward Mike Singletary is prepared for a huge season. Nick Okorie also returns. Forwards Brad Reese and Theron Jenkins and guard Davis Tairu, all JC transfers, need to make an impact immediately.

USC: Yes, I know that the Trojans lost most of their team and basically their entire recruiting class, but they still have talent and could pull a few surprise wins in a down Pac-10. Dwight Lewis one of the top scorers in the conference and North Carolina transfer Alex Stepheson should make an immediate impact on the inside. Leonard Washington is a physical forward who will be solid when he becomes eligible. Kevin O'Neill is a defensive-minded coach who will try to squeeze some wins out of this group.

Arizona State:
 The Sun Devils are coming off an outstanding season in which they won 25 games before losing in the second of the NCAA Tournament. However, they lose lottery pick James Harden and all-conference forward Jeff Pendergraph. This team won't go down without a fight, though. Herb Sendek is an excellent strategic coach, and he returns quality players in guards Derek Glasser and Ty Abbott (who is out for a month), as well as forward Rihards Kuksiks. 

Arkansas: The Razorbacks got off to a great start last season, beating Texas and Oklahoma, before falling apart in SEC play and finishing 2-14 in conference play. Still, they return one of the best inside-outside combos in the country in guard Courtney Fortson and forward Michael Washington. Rotnei Clarke might be the best three-point shooter in the country and Stefan Welsh is another double-figure scorer. Freshman Marshawn Powell could fight for a starting job next to Washington.

Auburn: The SEC West isn't as wide-open as it has been in the past, with Mississippi State and Mississippi the clear favorites. The Tigers might be able to make some noise within the division, though. Seniors DeWayne Reed and Tay Waller return as double-figure scorers in the backcourt, and Frankie Sullivan is ready to make a leap. Lucas Hargrove is back up front. The key could be the newcomers, namely JC transfer Kenny Gabriel and freshman Rob Chubb, both big men.

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