The Second Weekend Sleepers
While most standard pools don’t give you extra points for choosing upsets, you can gain an edge by selecting an unheralded sleeper to make the second weekend. In order to gain that small, early, but beneficial head start on your competition, here are some teams to look out for.
New Mexico State
Wichita State, the former darlings of the Missouri Valley Conference, have always been known for their stellar team defense. This year they have been slacking on that end despite returning their entire roster from last season. What gives? The coaching staff. Plucked from Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall’s bench, Chris Jans has taken a consistently competitive New Mexico State program and turned them into a second weekend darkhorse due to their effort and efficiency on the defensive half of the court. The Aggies are ranked 14th in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom, and are led by star senior guard Zach Lofton, who averages 20 points per game on 45% shooting from the field. This team has a supporting cast with the ability to knockdown shots and string together stops on defense, so they were all but guaranteed to be a tough out.
Further in their favor, New Mexico State drew a weakened Clemson team in the 1st round. While Clemson has weathered the storm after losing Dontae Grantham early in the year with stellar defense of their own, they have struggled away from the infamously rowdy Littlejohn Coliseum. Assuming chalk holds elsewhere, NMSU would face Auburn in the 2nd round, a team who has struggled recently despite a hot start to the season. Auburn relies on guard play to win after losing two interior players to injury this season. Unfortunately for the Tigers, NMSU’s opponents shoot a paltry 30% from beyond the arc. With two favorable matchups in the first two rounds, NMSU has as good a chance as any double-digit seed to make the Sweet 16.
While their first round game will be an interesting matchup of offense versus defense, the Hokies are near impossible to stop when they’re hitting shots. Just ask Virginia, who dropped their lone conference game to their in-state rivals. If they get past Alabama, Virginia Tech will match up perfectly with Villanova, as neither team plays a large roster and relies heavily on hitting three point shots. In a hundred simulations, Villanova wins 80/100 games. Luckily for the Hokies, they only need to win once in March, and if the shots are falling they can easily unseat the Wildcats. More importantly, a Villanova loss would be crippling to the rest of your competition, as many of them will follow the experts’ safe picks and have the Wildcats reaching at least the final four, if not winning the championship.
You don’t earn the nickname Sweet 16 Alford for no reason. This year should be no different for the Bruins and their ever-underperforming coach. Led by PAC-12 player of the year runner up Aaron Holiday, who has been on a tear lately, this Bruins team will be scary for opponents. With the “immortal Irishman” (thanks Bill Walton) and ever-improving freshman Kris Wilkes adding additional firepower, the Bruins will get buckets in a hurry. Their first round game will be won by whichever team reaches 90 first, as their opponent, Saint Bonaventure, can also light up the scoreboard. UCLA, however, is simply too talented to drop this game. After winning their first four game in Dayton, the Bruins will face the inconsistent Florida Gators, who despite returning the majority of last year’s elite eight team, have struggled shooting the ball frequently this year. Add that together with an inability and disinterest in playing defense on most possessions, UCLA should avenge their Final Four losses from 2006 and 2007. Next, the Bruins would likely face Texas Tech. Despite possessing an excellent coach in Chris Beard, athletic forwards, and talented two-way guards, Tech has not played well down the stretch, mostly as a result of a toe injury to Keenan Evans. While Evans has been healthy recently, UCLA’s Kris Wilkes, who has been phenomenal of late, will introduce himself to the general public and carry the Bruins into the Sweet Sixteen alongside the brilliance of Aaron Holiday.
Elite Eight Sleepers
There is no team more polarizing than Kevin Keatts’ Wolfpack this year. They have beaten Duke and North Carolina, title favorites, in addition to losing to Northern Iowa. Since the return of point guard Markell Johnson, the Pack have been much more consistent and competitive. Anchored by scoring guard Allerik Freeman, NBA bound big Omar Yurtseven and a roster stacked with three point shooters, the Wolfpack are a difficult draw for any team. In the first round against a Seton Hall team that has struggled all season, the Wolfpack will be tasked with stopping star forward Angel Delgado. Should they succeed, a matchup with Kansas awaits in the second round. Despite their lower seed, the Wolfpack match up excellently with the Jayhawks. North Carolina State plays a four out-one in lineup identical to that of Kansas. With Yurtseven on the inside, the Wolfpack can get Udoka Azubuike into foul trouble, the only way to prevent him from imposing his will on the offensive end. On the other end, outside of Devontae Graham, Kansas’ guards have been wildly inconsistent this season scoring the basketball. Although Kansas has been better of late, the Wolfpack’s nearly equivalent talent and up and down style, coupled with Kansas’ thin bench may enable the Wolfpack to steal a game from Bill Self’s squad. In the next round, they would face the winner of the matchup between aforementioned NMSU Aggies and the Clemson Tigers. The Wolfpack’s strong play will continue in Omaha, as they’ll roll by the Aggies before falling short against ACC rival Duke in the Elite Eight.
Since all pools award more points with each successive round, picking a champion is the most important aspect of winning a bracket pool. While it’s easy to pick all the number one seeds or the name-brand twos such as Duke and North Carolina, there are several other teams with the potential to cut down the nets in San Antonio.
For basketball nerds like myself, defense is really fun to watch. This squad has it all: hot shooting from Duncan Robinson, the underappreciated Muhammed Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and high level play from Moe Wagner, all the makings of a championship team. After starting the year unranked, the Wolverines consistently improved throughout the season, capping off their year with four wins in four days to win the Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden. By playing as a team, the Wolverines have masked individual weaknesses, however the free throw problem still persists. If the Wolverines can solve their woes at the line, Michigan could secure its first title in the John Beilein era.
Deandre Ayton. That’s all. The unstoppable cyborg from Nassau has taken his play to another level the past few weeks, all the while the centerpiece of an FBI scandal. Despite the turmoil in Tucscon, Sean Miller’s Wildcats banded together to win the PAC 12 title fairly easily, despite a scare in the semifinals against UCLA. Now a criminally underseeded four, the Wildcats road to the championship will not be easy. Luckily, this team has both talent and experience. Alongside Ayton are uber-talented sophomores Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins, the ever calm Dusan Ristic, and a deep bench containing more experience and talent. Sean Miller’s never been to a final four, but this year his team owns its best collection of experience and talent, both of which are necessary to winning it all. While at times they’ve lagged on the defensive end of the court, Miller’s team has shown flashes of brilliance in stopping opponents. If they can bring the intensity on defense in every game that they’ve merely shown at times, it could be Arizona’s title to lose.
While they no longer have Nigel Williams-Goss, Silas Melson has done a commendable job filling his shoes. With a deep roster, similar in experience and talent to Arizona, Mark Few’s squad could reach the Final Four easily, as they are in the West region and drew the weakest number one seed in Xavier. If the threes are falling for Gonzaga to complement their interior dominance on both ends of the court, Mark Few could finally bring home that elusive championship.
Well, there you have it folks. If you want to fit in with the crowd and finish in the middle of your pool, go ahead and choose the chalk. But if you're aiming for first place just like me, make sure to lock in your leverage picks and blow your friends away when they convey.