Opinion: Top Sleeper Teams in the NCAA Tournament

Every year during March Madness, as I look over my bracket on the first day of the tournament, I feel pretty confident with my picks. All it takes is about four hours of basketball for my hopes and dreams to be crushed by the ‘Little Sisters of the Poor’ knocking off my Goliath that I picked to go to the Final Four. So before you make the mistake of looking past the lower seeds, here are some potential sleeper teams that could ruin everybody’s bracket.

South Region: No. 12 Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (31-2)

Matchups against No. 5 seeds and No. 12 seeds are always ripe with upsets, and this game is no exception. SFA has not lost a game since November 23 and ran away with the Southland Conference. They have a favorable matchup with VCU, who lost in the Atlantic 10 final to St. Joseph’s. In March, the best teams are not always the ones that move on. The hottest teams have the most success historically and no team is hotter than SFA. The Lumberjacks score nearly 77 points per game and have nine wins by 20 or more points, albeit against subpar competition. However, VCU has one of the toughest defenses in the nation, and it will be SFA’s first real test since they lost to Texas over four months ago.

West Region: No. 6 Baylor Bears (24-11)

After starting 12-1, Baylor imploded and lost seven of their next eight games, dropping them to 2-8 in the Big 12 and putting them on the wrong side of the bubble. Then the Bears caught fire and resurrected their season, finishing on a 10-2 run and losing in the Big 12 championship game to Iowa State. Cory Jefferson is the team leader, averaging 13.5 points with over eight rebounds per game. Sophomore center Isaiah Austin will be a nightmare for anyone who dares to put up a shot at the rim. Standing at 7-1, he guards the basket like a momma bear guards her cubs. Brady Heslip is a deadeye shooter who will make you pay if you give him an inch of space, but struggles defensively. The key to beating Baylor is shooting well from outside to bust their zone defense.

East Region: No. 12 Harvard (26-4)

The Crimson are not new to the sleeper role. Last year they upset No. 3 New Mexico in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and Tommy Amaker’s squad is even better this year. They have six players that average more than nine points per game and they have the 13th best defense in the nation. Their opponent, No. 5 Cincinnati, struggles mightily on offense, ranking No. 237 in the nation in scoring. But the Bearcats’ defense is even better than Harvard’s, coming in at No. 6 in the nation. Harvard has an RPI of 46 and although they do not have any RPI top-50 wins, they did defeat Green Bay by 12 and only lost to Connecticut by five. Watch out for the Crimson to ruin your bracket, again.

Midwest Region: No. 12 North Carolina State Wolfpack (22-13)

When talking about the Wolfpack, the one name you must remember is T.J. Warren. The ACC Player of the Year leads NC State in points and rebounds. In their last five games, Warren is averaging 28 points per game, including a 42-point outburst against Boston College. He is one of the best players in the NCAA tournament and put in a strong showing in the First Four matchup with Xavier. NC State’s first matchup is a soft No. 5 seed in Saint Louis. They stumbled in the final stretch of their season, losing four of their last five games. The Wolfpack had to scratch and claw their way into March Madness by winning four games in a row, including beating Syracuse in the ACC tournament. Now they are poised to pull the upset once again.

Blake Froling is the co-host of Impact Izzone for Impact Sports.

Photo: NCAA