The madness did not wait until March this season (See what I did there?). It took over men’s college basketball in 2017-18, which could mean we’re in for a wild March. This also means you better identify the sleepers in the field this year if you want to win your respective pools.
Consider some of the craziness we’ve already witnessed. For example, god damn St. John’s was 0-11 in the Big East and won back-to-back games against Duke and Villanova. Like seriously who in the HELL could have predicted that. No one, no one at all and if you could have predicted that come at me, I want to fight you. Next fricken Wofford won at North Carolina. Which may have been easier to predict but still pretty hard. Last but not least, Loyola-Chicago won at Florida. Like for real Gators? Just quit basketball after that loss. The list could go on and on with more hot takes but I don’t want to bore you. So get ready for some wackiness and consider these five sleeper teams to go on deep runs and bust the bracket. I am foretelling that I will go 5 for 5 with these picks and if I don’t my fans can choose my destiny.
New Mexico State (Midwest Region, No. 12 Seed)
Aggies head coach Chris Jans is no stranger to playing the spoiler in March. He was a longtime assistant under Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall. Jans has a very Shockerish team in Las Cruces. (By the way, who in the world would want to go to school there, S/o GCU fans). The Aggies get after it on the defensive end and have the best mid-major defense in the country, ranking 16th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Aggies have already proven they can play with the big boys, knocking off Illinois (wouldn’t consider the Illini big boys but they are a power 5 team) and Miami in December. As well as nearly beating USC in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic.
Jans also has two players on his roster who would start for most teams in the country. Fifth-year senior Zach Lofton (19.8 PPG) spent a year at Minnesota and is one of the best pure scorers in the country. Honestly, this dude is so good, he makes me want to go play basketball again and I’m white. Jemerrio Jones is a rebounding machine and a versatile defender who takes care of all the dirty areas. He averages a double-double, 11.0 points and 13.2 rebounds per game. The Aggies will not be intimidated after proving they could hang with Miami and USC earlier this year, and they’ve got the right mix of talent and coaching to win in the tourney.
South Dakota State (West Region, No. 12 Seed)
The NCAA tournament will be more entertaining the more Mike Daum we get. Daum is the three-point-bombing center for the Jackrabbits, and if you haven’t heard of him, it’s time to study up. For real, if you haven’t heard of him you must live under a DAMN rock. He averages 23.8 points per game, and while he wasn’t recruited by current head coach T.J. Otzelberger, South Dakota State made the perfect hire in luring the former Iowa State assistant to Brookings. Quick side note, who would want to coach or play in South Dakota? I mean what’s out there? Just tumbleweeds I’m guessing.
Otzelberger learned under Fred Hoiberg, who was a master at running his offense through a stretch big man like Georges Niang. The Jackrabbits spread the floor and run a lot of sets to get Daum looks, and with a high release, he doesn’t need much space to create magic. He shoots 42.1 percent from deep and SDSU shoots 40.3 percent as a team. Another reason to bet on South Dakota State is the team’s ability to take care of the ball. The Jackrabbits turn it over on only 13.8 percent of their possessions, which is tops in the country.
Loyola-Chicago (South Region, No. 11 Seed)
Loyola-Chicago shares some similarities with a former Missouri Valley team that has played Cinderella in March: Northern Iowa. Similar to UNI, Loyola plays a slow pace and is difficult to score against in the half court. The Ramblers rank 24th in adjusted defensive efficiency, and they keep the pace slow by sacrificing offensive rebounds to get back on defense to prevent transition opportunities. That strategy works because Loyola is a great shooting team, ranking eighth nationally in effective field-goal percentage. Loyola also has a win at Florida on its resume and is led by former Iowa State point guard Clayton Custer (13.4 points, 4.3 assists, 1.5 steals), who is the Missouri Valley Player of the Year. Personally, I love the Ramblers based on their name. So for sure listen to me.
Murray State (East Region, No. 12 Seed)
Murray State has long been one of the top mid-major programs in the country and one that teams don’t want to see in March. The Racers have won a game in their last two tourney appearances, and this is a group with the talent to definitely do some damage.
The Ohio Valley champions are led by former Tulane guard Jonathan Stark, who averages 21.8 points per game. The program also has a history of recruiting great point guards like producing pros Cameron Payne and Isaiah Canaan. Plus coach Matt McMahon has found a good one in Temetrius Morant. (HUGE fan of the first name, the kid is going to go places with a name like that). The freshman is averaging 12.6 points, 6.4 assists and 6.6 rebounds per game. Murray State does not have any wins on the resume that jump out but did play Auburn close (81-77) back in December. The Racers also haven’t lost since mid-January. Count me in on a fan of the Racers and watch them do some damage!
Marshall (East Region, No. 13 Seed)
Similar to his brother, Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni plays the numbers game and has built the Thundering Herd program to almost mirror the Houston Rockets. They don’t have a James Harden, but they do shoot a ton of threes (45.6 percent of their field-goal attempts) and play fast (average possessions last 14.2 seconds, third-fastest in the country).
D’Antoni puts five guys on the floor who are all capable of hitting threes. The Thundering Herd are led by one of the best scoring duos in the country in Jon Elmore (22.8 PPG) and C.J. Burks (20.5 PPG). Marshall finished fourth in Conference USA regular season but was at its best against top teams, sweeping C-USA regular-season champion Middle Tennessee and nearly knocking off Xavier on the road back in mid-December, losing 81-77. Watch out for the Herd in round one, I love this team.