March Madness is an upset season. We know this. Whether it’s an underdog team doing the unthinkable, or a perpetual front-runner simply blowing it, no time of the sports year is more ripe for some can-you-believe-it moments. Legacies are cemented, draft stock is affected, and every game matters more than the last. So who are this year’s sleeper picks? Who has the potential to be a 2010 Butler, or a 2008 Davidson? Let’s take a look below:
Kentucky – 5 Seed – South Region
While it may seem strange to view Kentucky as a sleeper pick in any tournament, John Calipari’s Wildcats have struggled all season to prove they can keep up with the cream of the NCAA Men’s crop. We can suppose that this is sort of the nature of the beast when it comes to building a rotation of players who are likely to play for you for two years max; some years, you end up with basically two starting-caliber lineups, a situation Calipari had the privilege of coaching to a Final Four appearance in 2015. This is a different Kentucky team, though, one with perhaps more youth than Calipari has ever had to coach all at once. That being said, this Kentucky team has gotten hot at the right time. They’ve won seven of their last eight, including the SEC championship, after spending most of the season falling in the rankings and playing rattled inconsistent basketball. This Kentucky team is truly an anything-can-happen squad, the kind that could make a deep run or get bounced by a lower-seeded team of upperclassmen. Speaking of which…
Davidson – 12 Seed – South Region
Okay, so Davidson is definitely a viable sleeper pick, if for no other reason than the fact that our first sleeper pick, 5th-seeded Kentucky, is their first-round opponent. Davidson has gone on a run before, making a trip to the Elite Eight as a 10 seed in 2008 while led by a baby-faced Steph Curry. While this Davidson team has nobody close to a Steph Curry on it, senior forward Peyton Aldridge is fresh off an Atlantic 10 tournament victory, making Davidson tit-for-tat with Kentucky in terms of hot streaks coming into their first-round matchup. Aldridge has started for Davidson for four years, averaging over 20 points-per-game in each of the last two seasons. Kentucky has two juniors and zero seniors on its roster. If there’s only one first-round game worth watching, it very well may be this one.
Missouri – 8 Seed – West Region
Missouri is prepared to raise eyebrows in the tournament for one reason: Michael Porter Jr. The freshman forward and projected lottery pick who missed the entire regular season following back surgery is an X-factor on a team that can already handle its own when it comes to scoring. Porter may be a bit slow in his return from a microdiscectomy, but his size and offensive acumen from various spots on the floor will open up the lights out shooting of Missouri’s guards. Missouri is an eight-seed that came into the season with much higher hopes, and they now have the roster they expected to ride into battle with. Florida State will pose an uber-athletic first-round matchup, and the Tigers can’t be expected to recreate a season’s worth of chemistry by simply inserting a really, really good player into their starting lineup. But damn it sure does help.
West Virginia – 5 Seed – West Region
If it comes down to facing coach Bob Huggins in a win-or-go-home game, most teams would much rather just not. And while this Mountaineers squad lost its share of bad games late in the season, they spent the first half of the season looking as dangerous as any team outside of the top three seeds. Their players are experienced and aggressive, with strong wins recently over Baylor and Texas Tech in the Big 12 Tournament, and they’ll need to be in going up against 12th-seeded Murray State in the first round. While the Mountaineers look to some like potential first-round upset bait, this isn’t so much due to the untapped potential of Murray State’s squad; the Racers are in fact a pretty damn good 12-seed, West Virginia has just been really inconsistent. After starting the season with a 15-1 record, West Virginia lost nine of their next 18. That’s two very different teams in terms of performance and outcome, and against a Murray State team that has actually won 13 games in a row, that difference could prove to be massive for coach Huggins and the Mountaineers.
Rhode Island – 7 Seed – Midwest Region
The Rams are just a fun team. Their coach, Dan Hurley, is expected to move onto a bigger coaching job somewhere else next season, and with good reason. The Rams play a hectic, smothering style of defense that makes opposing offenses look flat-out silly, and while their second-game draw against two-seeded Duke is as tough as it gets, Rhode Island looks like the kind of team that could very well stifle this year’s Duke squad. Of course they’ll have to take care of Trae Young and the Oklahoma Sooners first, which is no small task at all. While the Rams have the defense to defend most teams, Trae Young and the Sooners pose an interesting challenge. Consider that Young seems to spend half of his games flat-out dominating, and the other half looking burnt out and frustrated, and it would seem that Rhode Island’s chances of making a run this year will rely on the same formula they’ve succeeded with all year: wear the other guys down, force mistakes, and then pull away.
Who did we leave off that deserved a spot on this list? Who did we include that had no business on here? Let us know in the comments!