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In addition to identifying the teams ripe for an upset in the first weekend, one must find the smaller conference clubs that have the potential to make a run into the second week. Every NCAA Tournament has them; you just have to figure out which ones. Don’t mistake this for a “Who is this year’s George Mason?” or “Who’s this tournament’s Davidson?” column, though – that’s simply not going to happen again. Here are the top sleepers from the mid-majors seeded 11 and below:
Note: Xavier, BYU, Gonzaga, Northern Iowa/UNLV, Temple, Saint Mary’s/Richmond have a great shot at winning their respective first-round games, but are too high of a seed to be considered a true “sleeper.”
San Diego State: The Aztecs are coming off of a Mountain West tournament title, and they have the athletes to give Tennessee a great run. Kawhi Leonard is an underrated freshman, while Billy White and Malcolm Thomas combine with him to form a great frontcourt.
UTEP: The Miners were dropped to a No. 12 seed despite dominating Conference-USA, but they have what it takes to win a game or two. Randy Culpepper is an entertaining guard, while Derrick Caracter leads a deep and talented frontcourt. They are not going to back down from anyone.
Murray State: The Racers are extremely balanced and can beat opponents in a variety of ways. They play tough defense and force turnovers at a high rate. Furthermore, they crash the offensive glass. Vanderbilt ahs struggled with ball-handling and boxing out – look out Commodores.
Oakland: The Golden Grizzlies aren’t going to be a pushover in the first round against Pittsburgh. Keith Benson is a 6-11 center that has the ability to dominate inside, while Derick Nelson can fill it up. Johnathon Jones can distribute, and Larry Wright knocks down shots. Pitt can’t overlook this team.
Old Dominion: Coming off of a CAA regular-season and conference tournament title, the Monarchs are riding high. Gerald Lee is a dominant big man that is capable of putting ODU on his back and carrying them. This team has the size and balance to knock off Notre Dame in the first-round.
Utah State: Like UTEP, the Aggies were relegated to a No. 12 seed despite dominating their conference all season. Utah State is one of the best-coached teams in the country and is a nightmare to prepare for on short notice. Jared Quayle and Tai Wesley lead a host of versatile performers.
Siena: The Saints are barely considered a sleeper at this point. They have won games in the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons, and draw the worst No. 4 seed in the field, a hobbled Purdue team. Siena is an experienced and balanced group that can hurt opponents all over the court.
Cornell: The Big Red are another popular upset pick in this season’s bracket. They were underseeded at a No. 12, and have shown the ability to play with anyone in the country. Ryan Wittman leads a host of three-point shooters, and Louis Dale is a solid point guard. Jeff Foote is a 7-foot center that creates match-up problems.
Wofford: The Terriers are absolutely rolling right now, having won 22 of their last 24 games heading into the Big Dance. Noah Dahlman is a dominant offensive player, and could be a player that can carry Wofford to an upset. They do face a tough match-up against Wisconsin in the first-round, though.
BONUS: New Mexico State and Houston both snuck into the NCAA Tournament by winning the WAC and Conference-USA conference tournament titles, respectively. Both teams are high-scoring groups that are not afraid to get up and down the court and put up points in a hurry. Look out for Houston’s Aubrey Coleman and Kelvin Lewis and New Mexico State’s Jonathan Gibson and Jahmar Young to make a name for themselves.