March 15, 2010
We showed you the Cinderellas earlier; here are the sleepers. The foresight is so crazy it just may be true.
Richmond Spiders (7). Hard to make Richmond a sleeper pick because this has become a chic choice for the Sweet 16. The Spiders get Saint Mary's first, and then it's probably a Villanova team that has been hobbling for the past month. You want to know the best reason to consider the Spiders for the second weekend? If you can believe it, they have better guard play than Villanova. Ultra-quick Kevin Anderson and in-the-gym range David Gonzalvez will provide a challenge that's unique to anything Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes have seen this season. And why stop at the Sweet 16? If Notre Dame manages to get past Baylor, it matches up miserably to Richmond for the right to reach the regional finals. Hard to go against a team that's proven itself against five other teams in the field (Temple, Xavier, Florida, Old Dominion, Missouri) and beat a sixth (Mississippi State) that just missed out.
Northern Iowa Panthers (9). You have to have a bit of a soft spot for UNI because it hails from everyone's favorite little-guy conference, the Missouri Valley. The Panthers get UNLV in the first round, and that's a game that could go a number of ways. A clash of styles and starting fives, the Panthers should be able to fend off the pesky Runnin' Rebels just enough to get a second-round game against Kansas. And, oh, what a game that could be.
Everyone's talked about just how rough of a region the Jayhawks have been placed in that most have overlooked the possibility of a second-round upset. Northern Iowa has age and tons of credible balance. When I say credible balance, I mean its players stuff the stat sheet when it matters and are always finding ways to make plays almost every time down the floor. If Kansas has a two-minute mental lapse, you best believe UNI has the gumption to take advantage and go on an 8-0 run.
Gonzaga Bulldogs (8). It's tough to pick so many 8/9 participants as sleeper candidates -- especially since 1-seeds haven't lost in the first weekend in six years --but we've got a crop of teams that are absolutely capable of getting to the Sweet 16. Consider Gonzaga: horribly under-seeded, much tougher and durable in the paint than it was last year and not a pound of pressure on its back, for once. Sure, Gonzaga is somewhat expected to play up to its role every season, but it's no longer looked at as The Cinderella or The Overachiever. Mark Few's recruiting is too good not to, at least, reach an Elite Eight again. There's enough balance on this year's team to make a run and the Bulldogs can absolutely defeat Syracuse if Arinze Onuaku can't go. (Yes, I've now posted about the possibility Syracuse could lose in both the first and second round this year. Send the hate mail, if you must.) Plus, playing in Buffalo against Florida State isn't going to make a difference because Gonzaga gets a night game Friday. Quick evaluation on FSU against Gonzaga: We like the Zags because FSU's strength is its interior defense. Bulldogs have no problem scoring from the outside, led by Matt Bouldin, and Robert Sacre should be able to give 7-1 Seminoles center Soloman Alabi a gamer's game, which is something Alabi hasn't seen much this year.
Texas Longhorns (8). Yes, Texas. What a tease its placement is. The Longhorns get underachieving Wake Forest in the first round and then have an absolutely must-watch second-round game against Kentucky. This was a matchup most thought we'd be getting in Indianapolis rather than New Orleans. What subtly jumps to mind here: TEXAS HAS THE TALENT TO BEAT KENTUCKY. That's what we can't forget. If these two squads played a best-of-seven series on the playground, it's entirely likely Texas could win that series four games to two. Everyone's waiting for the Wildcats to fall because the lack of experience and maturity, so why not Texas? Not one player on UK's roster has played in an NCAA tournament game, and that's a lot of pressure on Big Blue in a year where minimal expectations are a Final Four appearance. Texas is suddenly playing with house money and has the depth to, at least, not get tired playing in Kentucky's running game. And what a matchup Dexter Pittman vs. DeMarcus Cousins would be. For all the gaffes the selection committee made this year, the prospect of a UK-Texas matchup was one of the home runs.