A Six-Pack of Sleepers for Your 2019-20 College Basketball Consideration
Look, anyone can pencil in Duke for the Final Four. The same holds true for its Tobacco Road rival North Carolina. Go a little further west, and Kentucky looks to have the horses once more to cut down the nets. Now that Virginia has exorcised its demons from 2018 by winning the NCAA Tournament last March, it is not far-fetched the Cavaliers could become a Final Four fixture as well.
But that is not what this article is about. We’re not looking for chalk. We’re looking for sleepers, the teams just under the radar or perhaps off it in terms of national recognition who could be national players during March Madness. They could be a beat off the AP Top 10 or hovering on the cusp of the Top 25.
What we’re looking for is the potential to be great. Who are they? Well, that’s the hard part. But here are six teams who could crash the party at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta come the first Saturday in April. All odds courtesy the FanDuel Sports Book.
College Basketball Sleeper No. 1: A Penny for your Thoughts
Memphis (+1,300) – Let’s start this list with a bang because there is arguably no elite team in the country like the Tigers. Penny Hardaway’s first season in charge was arguably a success, posting 22 wins with a team that included holdovers from predecessor Tubby Smith and reaching the second round of the NIT.
Season two, however, will severely challenge Hardaway’s coaching acumen and patience. The former NBA guard has opted to recruit in the style of Kentucky and Duke counterparts John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski, finding some of the best players in the country who in all likelihood will leave the Mid-South when this season ends.
Twelve of Memphis’ 13 players are either freshmen or sophomores, and Hardaway has assembled arguably the best recruiting class in the nation. That group of seven is led by 7-foot-1 center James Wiseman, who played for Hardaway’s AAU team before his alma mater came calling.
Wiseman has the potential to be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft after his freshman season should he opt to come out, and is projected to be part of a Memphis starting five with fellow first-year forwards Precious Achiuwa and D.J. Jeffries and guard Rejean Ellis, who decommitted from Duke to join Memphis. If sophomore point guard Tyler Harris’ offense catches up to his defense, the Tigers could challenge Gonzaga for the mythical title of best mid-major.
College Basketball Sleeper No. 2: Running with the Buffaloes
Colorado (+9,000) – Colorado is a college basketball anomaly in the sense it returns not only its entire starting five from last season but also its top six scorers and all eight players who were in Tad Boyle’s starting five at least once. Also note that it will not be surprising if the Buffaloes get off to a rocky start.
Colorado is opening the season against Pac-12 rival Arizona State in a non-conference game in Shanghai. Given the wild fluctuations and biorhythms of college athletes, anything and everything is possible for Colorado upon its return from the Far East.
That said, Colorado boasts a pair of first-team all-Pac 12 selections in Tyler Bey and McKinley Wright, who combined to average 26.6 points. With Wright fully healthy, he should improve on his 13 points per game from 2018-19 and help the Buffaloes reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016 and win an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2012.
College Basketball Sleeper No. 3: X Gonna Give it To Ya
Xavier (+9,000) – Yes, Villanova gets most of the ink when it comes to being the top dog of the Big East, and rightfully so. It has won two NCAA Tournament titles in the past four years, and coach Jay Wright has built a Program with a capital P on the Main Line in Philadelphia during his 18 seasons with 14 NCAA Tournament titles.
The thing is, Xavier has also been a successful program for most of that same timeline, with the lone difference being the lack of a Final Four appearance. The Musketeers have seen quality coaches come and coaches go – Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, Sean Miller, Chris Mack, and now Travis Steele have all done good things at the Big East school in Cincinnati.
Steele moved one seat over after Mack was tasked with restoring Louisville after the fallout from the Rick Pitino saga, and while Xavier missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013 last season, it was clearly on the upswing the final two months with eight wins in its final 11 games and a second-round NIT appearance.
Four starters return, paced by seniors Quentin Gooden and Tyrique Jones plus juniors Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs. The Big East is set to rebound as a whole from last season, and Xavier will be at the forefront of it.
Best Sportsbook 2019
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College Basketball Sleeper No. 4: No Sin in Thinking Good Thoughts About Cincy
Cincinnati (+7,000) – The other residents of the Queen City, the Bearcats could very well be the one team that does not suffer teething pains from a coaching change. Mick Cronin departed for UCLA after nine consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, but Cincinnati needed to look only across the river for his replacement in John Brannen.
Brannen guided Northern Kentucky to three consecutive postseason appearances, including two trips to the NCAA Tournament, and Cronin did not leave him a bare cupboard. Jarron Cumberland, who averages 18.8 points, returns and will be joined by his cousin Jaevin, a graduate transfer from Oakland University who averaged 17.2 points for the Grizzlies last season and left an impression on Brannen in their Horizon League matchups.
Keith Williams and Trevon Scott are the other returning starters, and if Brannen can mesh his offensive concepts while maintaining Cronin’s rock-tough defense, the Bearcats could challenge Memphis for AAC honors.
College Basketball Sleeper No. 5: Is This Finally the Seminoles Year?
Florida State (+5,000) – It seems every season Leonard Hamilton assembles a collection of freakishly long, athletic, and big players and turns them loose on an unsuspecting ACC, and everyone acts surprised when the Seminoles not only finish in the top half of the conference but also play their way into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
It will be a challenge this season since Florida State must replace Mfiondu Kabengele and Terance Mann, who were both NBA Draft picks, but there are pieces who can do so in senior point guard Trent Forrest and highly touted freshman forward Patrick Williams. The Seminoles will be a more up-tempo team than last season after reaching the Sweet 16, and JUCO transfers Nate Jack and RayQuan Evans could be difference-makers in helping take the next step.
College Basketball Sleeper No. 6: The Longest of the Long Shots: Davidson
Davidson (+21,000) – We’ve saved the deepest sleeper for last in the Wildcats, another team that returns all five of its starters from last season. Davidson will forever be remembered for reaching the Elite Eight with Stephen Curry in 2008, but this team has a chance to create a legacy for itself as veteran coach Bob McKillop begins his 31st season on the bench.
It starts with junior guard Kellan Grady, who averaged 17.2 points last season despite missing time due to knee surgery during the non-conference portion. A slasher who can get to the paint consistently, teams cannot afford to collapse in the paint against him since Davidson has a pair of dead-eye shooters in Jon Axel Gudmundsson and Luke Frampton, who combined for 160 3-pointers.
Luka Brajkovic anchors the frontcourt after a promising freshman season in which he averaged 11.1 points and 6.0 rebounds. The Wildcats somewhat underachieved last season by only reaching the NIT after finishing runner-up in the Atlantic 10, and the attitude of unfinished business could go a long way in them being a nightmare matchup come March.
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