The term “sleeper” gets thrown around a lot once the NCAA tournament bracket is set. Everyone wants to identify the unexpected teams that have the potential to surprise with a tournament run.
But, if you’ve been watching closely all year, sometimes these teams pulling off upsets should come as no surprise at all.
Take the 2014-15 North Carolina State Wolfpack, for example. They entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed with a pedestrian 20-13 record. Many surely wrote them off, and that was a mistake. The Wolfpack had wins over three top-15 teams and possessed elite talents, such as Trevor Lacey and Cat Barber. The pieces were in place for a deep run, and that’s exactly what the Wolfpack went on, ultimately knocking off No. 1 seeded Villanova and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen.
This year’s N.C. State is out there, and we'll try to identify who that might be now, rather than in the middle of their tournament run in a few months.
Here are five fringe tournament teams to start following closely because you can say "I told you so" in March.
Texas (9-6, No. 58 in KenPom rankings)
The Longhorns' resume feels like last year’s NC State squad. Texas is just 9-6 and 1-2 in Big 12 play. Not great, right? Let’s look closer, though. The Longhorns have beaten Washington (No. 99 in KenPom rankings), Stanford (No. 83), UT-Arlington (No. 64), Kansas State (No. 44), Utah (No. 43) and North Carolina (No. 7).
The victory over the Tar Heels is the real kicker. When you’ve demonstrated an ability to routinely beat tough opponents and your "A game" is good enough to beat one of the truly elite teams in the country, you’re a team to fear come March. And the cherry on top of this Longhorns sundae; their first-year coach Shaka Smart knows a thing or two about deep tournament runs as an underdog.
UCLA (11-6, No. 54)
The Bruins are another team with six losses, which is never a good sign at this time of the year. But none of the Bruins’ losses look that bad; only one of them has come to a team outside of KenPom’s top 100. They’ve fallen to Washington State (No. 123), Wake Forest (No. 100), Washington (No. 99), Monmouth (No. 56), North Carolina (No. 5) and Kansas (No. 1). All of those teams, with the exception of Washington State, has a strong case to make the NCAA tournament.
On the flip side, they already have wins over three top-40 teams: Gonzaga (No. 36), Kentucky (No. 18) and Arizona (No. 16). This is a balanced Bruins team with five players scoring in double-figures, but they also have a talent in Bryce Alford that can take over when needed (25 points on 9-15 shooting and 5-11 from three, including the game-winner, against Arizona).
Keep an eye on the Bruins.
Monmouth (11-4, No. 51)
The casual fan might only know of the Hawks because of their incredible bench celebrations, but there’s a reason that bench is seemingly always celebrating: Monmouth has a really good team. The Hawks have come out of nowhere to beat top schools like Georgetown (No. 78), UCLA (No. 53), Notre Dame (No. 29) and USC (No. 26). Sure, they have some ugly losses, with their double-digit defeat to an under-.500 Canisius standing out as the worst. But this is a team who has proven it’s not afraid of the biggest stages and is capable of beating great competition, which is ultimately most important when searching for a lower-seeded team that can make a run. Hawks star guard Justin Robinson is a heck of a scorer (20.5 PPG, 40.9 3P%) and could become one of the tournament’s darlings.
LSU (9-6, No. 56)
If the season ended today, the 9-6 Tigers almost certainly wouldn’t be getting an invite to the Big Dance. Thankfully for LSU, the season ends in a few months, giving them ample time to bolster their resume. And if they’re able to do just that, watch out because this team just screams potential. The Tigers are led by arguably the best player in the country in Ben Simmons. The Australian forward is one of the most impressive college players in recent memory, with his elite athleticism, passing, finishing and defensive prowess. His season-long averages are something to behold: 20.6 points, 13.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.3 blocks.
With Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor II back in the fold, Simmons is starting to get some help and the Tigers are starting to look like a tournament team. In their last three games, they’ve beaten Kentucky (No. 18) and Vanderbilt (No. 28) and, while a loss is never a good thing, they looked like they belonged in a six-point road loss to Florida (No. 30). The Tigers must continue building on their recent success if they want a tournament invite; NCAA.com’s Joe Boozell projects they will need 12 wins the rest of the way to make it. But if Simmons’ teammates can be enough to get him to the Big Dance, he has the chance to completely take over the NCAA tournament a la Stephen Curry in 2008.
Marquette (12-4, No. 110)
Marquette is another team that figures to be on the outside looking in right now. They’re 12-4 but have been absolutely blown out in two of their defeats (28-point home loss to Iowa, 20-point home loss to Seton Hall). Still, the Golden Eagles have put together a few performances that make this team worth paying attention to. Despite an absurd 21-point, 20-rebound and seven-assist performance from Ben Simmons, Marquette toppled LSU early in the season. Then, the possible season-changing win came two games ago when the Golden Eagles went into the Dunkin’ Donuts Center and took down Providence (No. 38), who was then ranked No. 8 in the AP Top 25.
Similar to LSU, the Golden Eagles are led by a freshman phenom. Henry Ellenson is proving himself to be one of the best youngsters in the game, with averages of 15.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. Ellenson is the type of special talent you want on your team come tournament time.
With players like Luke Fischer (13.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG) and Haanif Cheatham (11.1 PPG, 55.5 FG%) surrounding Ellenson, the Golden Eagles could certainly present problems in March if they can do enough to earn an invite.