Stratton’s Stand: Four sleepers from college basketball that could make noise in March

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The Criteria: A “sleeper” is admittedly a pretty vague term in the college basketball world. Ultimately it’s pretty subjective. A team ranked No. 11 could be a sleeper when discussing who may make it to the final four, but a team ranked No. 300 could be a sleeper to make March Madness by winning its conference tournament. So let’s set some ground rules. On Tuesday, ESPN released a men’s bracketology and a women’s bracketology, which I will use, for all intents and purposes, as “the real bracket” since they tend to be pretty accurate. I picked two teams from both the men’s and women’s side who are 9-16 seeds, who I believe have potential to make it to the second weekend and beyond. These bottom-half teams are better than their metrics indicate, so let’s find out which squads made the cut. 

MEN’S 

11 San Francisco – The Dons seemingly came out of nowhere this year and are quickly establishing what seems to be a dream season in their third year under head coach Todd Golden. After a long mix of mediocrity and pain for a program that hasn’t finished a season in the top 65 in the KenPom Era (from 2002 to present), San Francisco currently sits at No. 27. Led by Jamaree Bouyea (17.9 points, 3.8 assists), the Dons have notched several wins, notably against Power Five Arizona State and UAB, which are both top 50 KenPom squads. They also kept competitive with No. 1 Gonzaga in a contest decided by just 16 (a lot closer than their +25.7 scoring margin this year) that the Bulldogs ran away with late. According to Joe Lunardi, San Francisco would face off against LSU in the first round. The unranked Tari Eason-led Tigers went through stiff SEC competition losing six of seven, but have since rebounded with two straight wins. They would then theoretically have to play No. 11-overall Texas Tech, which had been doing well in its first year under Mark Adams, losing just six games, with four of those coming against current top 10 squads. The Raiders would pose a serious challenge, but the Dons would certainly be able to make it a game, given the direct comparison of Gonzaga, who beat San Francisco and Tech by 16 and 14, respectively.  

10 Murray State – The No. 22 Racers are a really interesting team here, lining up as one of the stronger 10 seeds in recent years if Lunardi is correct. After making the round of 32 as a 12 seed back in 2019 thanks to Ja Morant’s heroics, Murray State had two straight years as a sub-100 KenPom team. This year, it started out the year as No. 128 in KenPom, but has since risen all the way to No. 26 and is even ranked in the AP poll. It beat a bubble team in Memphis on the road and lost narrowly to No. 2 Auburn away too. The only bizarre mark on their resume is a defeat on a neutral floor to ETSU, currently No. 176 in KenPom, but everything else fits its makeup. In the first round, Lunardi has the team playing Marquette, who has the most votes of unranked teams. The Golden Eagles have lost three of their last four, including a flukey one to Butler, but are still strong. KenPom rates the Racers as a better team, so this should not be difficult win. The next one would be against No. 9 Duke, a good, but not unbeatable, team. The Blue Devils lost twice in their past ten games to teams ranked below No. 75 in KenPom. If they faced off, perhaps Murray State could give Duke its fifth defeat of the year. 

WOMEN’S 

10 Princeton – The Tigers are listed by Charlie Creme as a No. 10 seed, meaning that even if they don’t come out atop the Ivy League tournament next month, they still should be in good shape to make the tourney, thanks to their 17-4 record. They collected some early season wins that aged terrifically, namely against current No. 25 Florida Gulf Coast and Villanova, who just gave UConn its first conference loss since leaving and rejoining the Big East. With the increased parity in women’s college basketball this year, Princeton’s recent scorching-hot run positions the team well to beat whichever major conference foes it faces. Creme’s bracket would have the Tigers playing unranked Ole Miss in the first round — a team that is 6-5 in the tough SEC — and No. 15 Oklahoma — a team that has been strong of late, but could be less fresh after facing a tough final stretch in the Big 12. 

10 DePaul – The strong 10 line continues with DePaul, a team that has been tested in a strong Big East conference. The Blue Demons currently sit at third place in conference, largely thanks to the efforts of freshman Aneesah Morrow, who has exploded onto the national stage, averaging 20.9 points and 13.7 rebounds on over 50% shooting from the field. A team with the starpower of a player like Morrow always has potential to make a serious run. The Demons don’t have a great signature win, with their best one coming against then No. 22 Kentucky, a team that turned out to be overrated and is now nowhere to be found in any bracket projections. To get to the second weekend, DePaul would have to beat one of the hotter teams in the country right now, No. 17 Florida, which had won eight of its last nine games, with five coming against ranked competition. DePaul would then have to play Michigan, a team that has been strong, but just lost two straight games to unranked opponents who are rated worse than the Blue Demons.  

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