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Last Updated Mar 17, 2022, 17:17 PM

NCAA Tournament Sleeper Teams to Watch

Here are some of the small conference automatic qualifiers that have a more reasonable chance at a first round upset in the Round of 64 than the standard seeding might suggest. These teams are long shots for a S/U win but there is a realistic path to victory and they may also be appealing underdogs in the Round of 64. Note that Loyola-Chicago, Murray State, and South Dakota State have been excluded from this list as those teams are viable threats to move on and could even be priced as favorites by tip-off. 

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JACKSONVILLE STATE GAMECOCKS

  • Record: 21-10
  • Conference: ASUN
  • Region: Midwest
  • Regional Seed: No. 15
  • Overall Seed: No. 61

The narrative around the Jacksonville State Gamecocks will be that they didn’t exactly earn this bid. They were eliminated by Jacksonville in the Atlantic Sun Tournament and Jacksonville lost to Bellarmine in the tournament championship game. As Bellarmine is in a transition period to the Division I level, they are not eligible for the NCAA Tournament, leaving Jacksonville State as the qualifier with the best regular season record at 13-3. Perhaps that dialogue could provide some fuel to this group that was one of the better teams in a conference that traditionally earns a strong rating among mid-majors.

Jacksonville State has a veteran team that went 18-9 while competing in the Ohio Valley last season and this year’s squad also has some traits of an upset threat in the Round of 64. The Gamecocks play at a deliberate pace to limit the possession count for their opponents and on offense will take 3-point shots at a high frequency and success rate. Jacksonville State has hit 3-point shots at an over 38 percent clip, led by Jalen Gibbs (41%) and Demaree King (45%).

(Jacksonville State Athletics - Matt Reynolds)

Four of five starters were on last year’s team and this group has a star leader in Darian Adams, who started his career at Troy. Brandon Huffman and Maros Zeliznak give Jacksonville State enough height in the paint to compete with a major conference foe as well. This squad tested itself in the non-conference season playing close games with Wichita State (lost by 3), VCU (lost by 14), and Alabama (lost by 6) and was the dominant team in conference play outside of a stretch in early February when they lost three of four games. The outside shots were simply not falling in that period of games but in the conference season, Jacksonville State shot almost 40 percent beyond the arc.

As a #15 seed, a Jacksonville State win would be a significant upset. Auburn is a squad that many have pegged as a vulnerable group but still holding on to a #2 seed gives the Tigers a more favorable draw than many expected. Jacksonville State makes 3-point shots at a percentage six percent better than Auburn, though the Tigers do have a strong 3-point defense. Auburn’s ability to force turnovers likely limits the possibility of an upset for Jacksonville State but a scare in the first half while hanging on for the underdog cover seems like a strong possibility. Jacksonville State is in Jacksonville, Alabama, not Florida as most might assume, as drawing one of the prominent schools in the state should provide a boost for the underdog as well.

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COLGATE RAIDERS

  • Record: 23-11
  • Conference: Patriot
  • Region: Midwest
  • Regional Seed: No. 14
  • Overall Seed: No. 57

Colgate should be on everyone’s list as an upset threat as the Raiders have given top SEC teams a scare in the past two NCAA Tournaments. The Patriot League champions won its three tournament games by a combined 64 points and are on a 19-1 run in the past 20 games. This will be one of the most experienced groups in the field and in non-conference action Colgate competed well with three ACC teams, beating Syracuse, and losing by three points to both NC State and Pittsburgh. Those results were before the Raiders really hit their stride as well, starting 4-10 before the current run.

With the second best 3-point success rate in the nation at over 40 percent Colgate can lead a furious charge in an opening round matchup. Last year in a 3/14 pairing Colgate led Arkansas by 14 points just before halftime. The upset bid fell apart in the finals minutes for a misleading 85-68 result that was the largest lead of the game for Arkansas. Hitting 12 3-point shots against a quality SEC team was an impressive showing and if not for a 29-17 deficit in free throw attempts the game would have been much closer.

(AP)

In the 2019 NCAA Tournament Colgate only lost 77-70 to Tennessee and took the lead with about 11 minutes remaining in the second half, hitting 15 3-point shots for nearly 52 percent in a 2/15 pairing. Colgate rarely struggles with turnovers on offense but can also struggle defending the 3-point shot. For as strong of a shooting team as Colgate is beyond the arc, the Raiders have hit below 70 percent from the free throw line for a surprising result as this group would not want to get into a physical game with a lot of foul shots both ways.

While the Badgers have drawn a pretty favorable big picture path in Milwaukee and opposite a #6 seed that just lost its head coach, this first round draw is dangerous. Few power rankings consider Wisconsin a #3 seed and the Badgers are one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the field in great contrast to Colgate. Wisconsin has a good defense but has not been elite against 3-point shooting and there is an eight percent gap in effective field goal rate between these teams in favor of the underdog. Wisconsin has had a knack for winning close games with 19 of 24 wins by 10 or fewer points and a narrow escape is the most likely outcome, but Colgate should be considered a serious upset threat in this game.

CHATTANOOGA MOCS

  • Record: 27-7
  • Conference: SoCon
  • Region: South
  • Regional Seed: No. 13
  • Overall Seed: No. 51

The Mocs needed an amazing shot in overtime for a one-point win in a tough Southern Conference final vs. Furman but they are into the Big Dance and will be a threat to win a game in the Round of 64. Chattanooga played the top two OVC teams on the road in December and had competitive defeats while the Mocs won at VCU in November for some credibility on the non-conference schedule that ranks near the nation’s top 100. Chattanooga only played two teams outside the nation’s top 300 all season and went 4-2 vs. top 100 teams this season.

This is an experienced team that has brought in several transfers for a great starting five. Kansas transfer Silvio De Sousa gives the Mocs a rare interior presence for a smaller conference team while David Jean-Baptiste and Malachi Smith are returning starters from last year that both shoot extremely well all over the floor and are excellent at the line as late-game ball handlers. Chattanooga ranks in the nation’s top 50 in 2-point field goal percentage and free throw percentage and the Mocs are a solid defensive team as well, particularly against the 3-point shot.

(Chattanooga Athletics)

This will be the first NCAA Tournament appearance under Lamont Paris, now in his fifth season and delivering a remarkable turnaround from going 10-23 in 2017-18. He is a name to keep an eye on in the hiring cycle following the tournament after this breakthrough season. Being a former Wisconsin assistant under Bo Ryan and Greg Gard with the Badgers having a successful season doesn’t hurt his credentials either.

Chattanooga is here because of going 3-0 vs. Furman, the other top tier team in the Southern Conference. Furman takes a great deal of 3-point shots and is susceptible to the strength of the Chattanooga defense as an ideal draw will be a squad that also likes to fire often from long range. Illinois fits the bill perfectly as Illinois gets nearly 37 percent of its points from beyond the arc.

The Illini are a strong 3-point shooting team even though the face of the team, Kofi Cockburn, hasn’t attempted a 3-point shot all season. The Illini have not landed a favorable draw to make amends on last season’s disappointing tournament as Chattanooga should be considered an extremely live underdog in this game, though the short underdog price will reflect that as this upset pick will be a popular one. 

VERMONT CATAMOUNTS

  • Record: 28-5
  • Conference: America East
  • Region: West
  • Regional Seed: No. 13
  • Overall Seed: No. 53

Vermont played a competitive 76-69 game with Florida State in the 2019 NCAA Tournament as a #13 seed with the Seminoles making the Elite 8. FSU had a 37-13 edge in free throws to prevent the upset in a game where Vermont made 16 3-point shots. That will be the formula again this season for the Catamounts who have three regulars that hit over 41 percent from 3-point range, led by Ben Shungu and Ryan Davis, both long-time starters for Vermont. 

Vermont took on a decent non-conference schedule that ranks #109th nationally as almost every non-conference game they faced was tougher than every America East game. Vermont had a couple of decent wins beating Northern Iowa and Evansville from the MVC, plus Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, and Patriot League Champion Colgate. They also defeated Appalachian State and lost competitive games by 11 and 10 at Maryland and at Providence as this team didn’t look out of place playing up. 

(AP)

Vermont had a top five effective field goal rate nationally this season but can’t expect to match its season 2-point success rate against a likely significantly bigger NCAA Tournament foe from a major conference. 3-point defense was a surprising problem spot for Vermont, allowing 37 percent in America East play even while going 17-1 in the regular season with only an overtime road loss by one-point.

A team with great size would seem to be an imposing pairing for Vermont but Arkansas is not in that category with a relatively small lineup by SEC standards outside of Jaylin Williams. Having multiple quality 3-point shooters could help Vermont overcome the expected mismatches in the paint and the Razorbacks have been a fairly average 3-point defense for the season, though Arkansas did wind up fourth in the SEC in 3-point defense after marginal numbers in the non-conference season. Burlington is about 370 miles away from Buffalo but is in America East territory as this  location provides an edge for the underdog as this is about as good of a draw as Vermont could have hoped for. 

NEW MEXICO STATE AGGIES

  • Record: 26-6
  • Conference: WAC
  • Region: West
  • Regional Seed: No. 12
  • Overall Seed: No. 50

The WAC is a well-regarded conference as one of the better smaller conference leagues in the nation, ranking above the CAA and SBC and not far behind more well-known leagues like Conference USA. In most measures the WAC is closer to the Pac-12 than it is to the SWAC at the bottom of the rankings as all small conferences should not be treated equally. New Mexico State has been in two of the past three NCAA Tournaments under Chris Jans and performed admirably, losing by just 11 points to Clemson in 2018 and by just one-point to Auburn in 2019, a team that eventually made the Final Four. New Mexico State was a #12 seed in both those seasons and landed a #12 again this season despite not ranking quite as high as those two teams. 

With recent realignment the WAC had 13 teams this year and the conference does a good job of giving its best teams the best opportunity to earn the automatic bid as New Mexico State only needed to win two games to take this spot, beating an Abilene Christian team in its fourth conference tournament game in the final Saturday night. A bad late season loss to Chicago State in what was a tough third straight road game provided a big hit in the rankings for the Aggies who impressively have 12 top 150 wins and five top 100 wins. They beat the second-best rated WAC team Grand Canyon three times and went 13-4 in the WAC regular season. 

(AP)

New Mexico State has quality non-conference credentials as well defeating Davidson and Washington State away from home while also beating UC Irvine, Indiana State, UTEP (2x), Loyola Marymount, and splitting with rival New Mexico. New Mexico State has very good size for a smaller conference team with all five starters at 6’4” or higher and this is a great interior scoring team on both sides of the ball. Four starters were with the team last season and Nebraska transfer Teddy Allen has provided the quality scorer the Aggies needed to get back on top of the WAC this season. Turnovers and free throws are red flags for New Mexico State but the Aggies have also had some bad luck with one of the worst rates of free throw success against them in the nation this season.

The Aggies won’t want an overly aggressive defensive team and also won’t want to get into a 3-point shooting contest. Connecticut is an appealing draw in that regard as the Huskies were one of the worst teams in the Big East creating defensive turnovers. Connecticut is a decent 3-point shooting team but the Huskies don’t take a great deal of 3-point shots and despite good size the Huskies score inside at a lower percentage on 2-point shots than should be expected. Landing in Buffalo and not a western venue like San Diego should help Connecticut’s case to avoid the upset but New Mexico State did land a pairing that provides a reasonable opportunity to move on. 

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