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Top 5 NCAA Tournament sleepers

Profile Picture: Jason Ence

March 12th, 2020

When it comes tournament time in college basketball, teams can get hot at just the right time and go on a deep run.

Figuring out which teams are capable of busting brackets can win your office pool. It also means you can find some solid lines for betting, as well. Let’s break down five under-the-radar teams that have the ability to win you some cash.

Michigan State 

The Spartans might not seem like much of a sleeper, but many wrote them off because of their early season struggles after the loss of Joshua Langford. The current favorite to win a tough Big Ten Tournament, they sit fifth in the betting odds for a national title, yet don’t get mentioned nearly as much as some other options.

They present a solid return on investment, especially with how they are playing as of late. They have a point guard in Cassius Winston, who can take over at any moment and is shooting 49% from three-point range, and their run to the Final Four last year gives them big-game experience.

The Spartans were three games back in the conference race with six games remaining, but they were able to win their last five games, including four straight against ranked teams.

They have shown they are capable of overcoming deficits, like when they escaped a 19-point hole against Penn State in a road win during the final week of the regular season. They also rank in the top 10 nationally in assists per game, and 22nd in rebounding. Michigan State might have nine wins, but look for a strong run in the Big Ten Tournament and an impressive performance in the Big Dance.

Oregon

A dominant scoring point guard can carry a team to a national championship. Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier both showed with Connecticut it can be done, and Payton Pritchard fits that mold perfectly. The Pac-12 Player of the Year was only the fourth player in conference history to be the leading scorer (20.5 points per game) and leading assist man (5.5 per game). He’s a dead-eye shooter from the outside (46%), and at less than two fouls averaged per game, he’s rarely off the floor.

Pritchard has help, though, with three other guards averaging 8.5 points or more per game. Outside shooting is what carries the Ducks, but it can also hurt them. Will Richardson and Anthony Mathis both average more than 45% shooting from three-point range, but Chris Duarte shoots just 33.6% and has taken 140 attempts this season. In six of their seven losses this year, the Ducks shot 30% or worse from long rang.

If Oregon is hot, it can shoot its way to a Final Four.

Virginia

Tony Bennett’s gang is ready to defend its title. The Cavaliers' offense has been putrid, but that’s to be expected when you lose three players to the NBA. However, Virginia hasdefeated Florida State, Duke, and Louisville in the past three weeks and has just one loss since it fell to NC State in January. The Cavaliers also have their disruptive, pack-line defense, which ranks first in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.

Three-point shooting is their Achilles’ heel. They are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Oregon. They have made less than 32% of their attempts in conference play this season, and not a single Cavalier shoots 40% or better from three-point range.

If a team is able to figure out Virginia's defense, the Cavaliers' 57 points averaged per game will be exposed. The other issue is there is not a single team in the nation that plays at a slower pace than Virginia, and slow games can allow underdogs to hang around—just ask UMBC—but it also means the Cavaliers can hang around with higher-scoring foes.

If the Cavaliers can find some offense, their defense can take them deep into the Tournament. 

BYU

The Cougars took down Gonzaga by 13 points a couple weeks ago, and their high-octane offense is going to give many teams fits. They rank 10th in the nation in assists per game, and they have three players with at least 75 three-point attempts who make 44.2% of their threes or better. Their 42.3% team shooting from the outside leads the nation, and they have shown their chops on the road, with 10 wins away from Provo.

Three of their most important players are seniors, which gives them a leadership aspect teams need to make a solid run.

Yoeli Childs is a man-child. He has averaged 22.2 points and nine rebounds per game this season. However, BYU has struggled in games where he has not received help. It is vital that TJ Haws and Jake Toolson show up, if they want to play deep into March.

Utah State

The Aggies upset San Diego State on Saturday to secure an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament. They were down 16 points in the first half, but Sam Merrill hit a three with less than three seconds left to send them to the Big Dance.

They were expected to have a solid season, after last year’s success, but the loss of shot blocker Neemias Queta early in the season derailed any mometum. They have now won nine of their last 10 games and have beaten three teams that will be in the tournament, all on neutral courts.

Utah State is outstanding defensively, which it showed against San Diego State, when the Aggies held the Aztecs to their worst points-per-possession average of the season.

They rank in the top 50 in both KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency rankings, and they will likely be a double-digit seed. Look for the Aggies to advance to the second round, possibly even the third, behind Merrill’s clutch shooting.


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