Five sleepers to watch in the NCAA tournament

by | Special to

They're talked about in office pools and highlighted in newspapers. From the minute the brackets are released, everyone wants to know the same thing -- who are the sleepers in the NCAA tournament?

Get a head start with the list below and check out five sleepers we've identified for this year's NCAA field of 68.

Ian Clark is one of the reasons Belmont scares bigger programs. (US Presswire)  
Ian Clark is one of the reasons Belmont scares bigger programs. (US Presswire)  
Record: 30-4
Best Player: Ian Clark
X-Factor: Mick Hedgepeth
Why They're Dangerous: Bruins coach Rick Byrd has won over 600 games in his career and most coaches will tell you three words when you mention Belmont -- "do not schedule." This team can really make shots from deep and has good size up front for a mid-major school with Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders. With 11 players averaging double-figure minutes, Byrd has to like his chances to scare somebody in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Record: 24-7
Best Player: Rashad Bishop
X-Factor: Yancy Gates
Why They're Dangerous: Depth. Mick Cronin is as good as any coach in the country at utilizing all the pieces he has at his disposal. Much like he did at Murray State, Cronin regularly shuffles different lineups on and off the floor in hopes of wearing down the opposition with his vintage full-court pressure. The Bearcats may not have a true dominant offensive star, but Cashmere Wright, Dion Dixon, and Sean Kilpatrick are all capable of scoring in double figures on the perimeter. Plus, Gates has finally played up to his ability recently. You wouldn't think this team would be considered a sleeper since it plays in the Big East, but Cincinnati doesn't receive nearly the same amount of publicity as some of the other teams in what many consider to be the best conference in college basketball.

Old Dominion
Record: 27-6
Best Player: Frank Hassell
X-Factor: Trian Iliadis
Why They're Dangerous: This is a Big Ten team that plays in the CAA. Many mid-major teams are overmatched when they face major BCS teams in March -- that won't happen to the Monarchs. Thanks to a plethora of burly players on the interior and a terrific all-around talent in Kent Bazemore, Blaine Taylor has a team that can do major damage in the field of 68. Four starters are back from last year's team that beat Notre Dame and lost to Baylor in the NCAA tournament, and there's reason to believe this group could be better because of its ability to get second chances at the rim. Old Dominion will be able to rebound with any team it faces, and that alone should make them a team that no one wants to play.

St. Peter's
Record: 20-13
Best Player: Wesley Jenkins
X-Factor: Jeron Belin
Why They're Dangerous: John Dunne is one of the better coaches at taking teams out of what they like to do offensively. In back-to-back MAAC tournament wins over Fairfield and Iona, the Peacocks slowed the pace and forced both the Stags and Gaels to play catch-up from the opening tip. Any hopes of St. Peter's having a chance to win a game in the NCAA tournament will depend on the matchup but this team defends, has two veteran guards in Jenkins and Nick Leon and a solid inside game with Belin and Ryan Bacon.

Utah State
Record: 28-3
Best Player: Tai Wesley
X-Factor: Brockeith Pane
Why They're Dangerous: Experience. Six of the Aggies seniors have won four WAC titles and seem destined to win a game in the NCAA tournament. The emergence of Pane as a legitimate scoring threat from the perimeter has helped Wesley, who Aggies coach Stew Morrill has said is one of the more complete players in all of college basketball. If Utah State can continue to get solid production up front from 6-foot-9 big man Nate Bendall, the Aggies will be a real nuisance to their first-round opponent.

This and that

 Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt will know by March 15 if he will be retained for next season. Hewitt has a 30-day window in his contract in which he must be informed whether his deal will be rolled over for another year. It's amazing these are the circumstances for Hewitt considering how many players he's sent to the NBA during his time in Atlanta, which was highlighted by a trip to the national championship in 2004.

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 Sources indicate that former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie could be a major candidate for the vacancy at Texas Tech to replace Pat Knight, who was fired on Monday.

 Richmond could be a factor in the NCAA tournament if it gets quality production from big man Darrius Garrett. In the Spiders' season-ending victory over Duquesne, the 6-9 Garrett scored five points and grabbed nine rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench. Richmond coach Chris Mooney told me throughout the season that Garrett could change the entire dimension of the Spiders defensively if he consistently produced.

 Very quietly, Temple has won 11 of its past 12 games and sits with a 24-6 record as the Owls head into the Atlantic-10 Conference Tournament. Fran Dunphy's team has adjusted nicely since losing starting center Michael Eric for the season with a patella injury, and has gotten good play from both Khalif Wyatt and Rahlir Jefferson. Atlantic-10 Sixth Man of the Year Scootie Randall has missed the last five games due to an injury to his right foot and likely won't return until at least the NCAA tournament, if at all.

 If Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim could combine the offense of C.J. Fair with the defense of Baye Moussa Keita, he might have the perfect fifth starter for the Orange.

 With Rakeem Buckles lost for the season with an ACL tear, Louisville coach Rick Pitino is going to need more from big men Gorgui Dieng and Stephan Van Treese. Both have shown the potential to contribute when given extended minutes for the Cardinals, who often have played small for extended periods of time this season. Pitino often uses a lineup of Preston Knowles and Peyton Siva in the backcourt with Kyle Kuric, Mike Marra, and Terrence Jennings up front. The shooting ability of Kuric and Marra really allow the floor to be spaced and augment the ability of Knowles and Siva to dribble drive and penetrate to the basket.

 He might not be Enes Kanter or Demarcus Cousins, but one cannot discount the impact that Josh Harrellson has had this year for Kentucky. A true warrior on the offensive boards, the Wildcats need Harrellson on the floor to have a chance to win in the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

 The team I'd love to steal a bid this week is Washington State. The Cougars have all the ingredients to win the Pac-10 tournament, now that Klay Thompson will be back in the lineup after serving a one-game suspension for being cited with marijuana. Ken Bone's group has scoring on the perimeter with Thompson and Faisal Aden along with an underrated inside presence in DeAngelo Casto.

 Regardless of whether it does enough in the Big Ten tournament to earn an at-large bid, Michigan should be thoroughly pleased with the development of its backcourt. Sophomore floor general Darius Morris has evolved into one of the more complete guards in the conference, and freshman sniper Tim Hardaway Jr. has emerged into a dependable scoring option off the ball. Keep an eye on this duo as their careers progress in Ann Arbor.

 San Diego State is 29-2. And nobody seems to care.


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