Sunday, July 22, 2018
Sports

Beware these six sleeper schools in NCAA tourney

The key to winning your NCAA Tournament pool always seems to be picking the right teams to knock off higher-seeded opponents — except last year, when things unfolded more or less predictably — and the volatility of this season means identifying potential upsets may be even more important than usual.

Yale (12) over Baylor (5)

Why it could happen: Yale ended the season on a 17-1 run, cruising through the increasingly competitive Ivy League with a 13-1 record. Its veteran team had to deal with the pressure of becoming the first Bulldogs squad to qualify for the NCAA men's tournament since 1962 and the scrutiny of the midseason departure of its captain, Jack Montague, in what was later revealed to be an expulsion in connection with a sexual misconduct accusation. In senior big man Justin Sears, Yale has a go-to scorer. Baylor, meanwhile, beat only five teams bound for the NCAA tournament.

Why it might not: While the Ivy League is increasingly competitive, it isn't the Big 12, in which Baylor had a winning record.

X Factor: Yale sophomore Makai Mason has grown into his role as starting point guard, and he had 22 points — and just two turnovers — in Yale's bid-clinching victory over Columbia this month. Will he be ready for the biggest spotlight of his career?

Hawaii (13) over Cal (4)

Why it could happen: California's interior defense is stellar; its opponents score the lowest percentage of their points via 2-point field goals, per KenPom.com. But Hawaii is great at scoring down low, led by 6-foot-11 junior Stefan Jankovic, who is particularly good at being fouled and a threat to shoot 3-pointers. In that matchup, why shouldn't the tie go to the offense, and to the more experienced team?

Why it might not: In terms of raw talent, California was, if anything, underseeded at No. 4. It has beaten some terrific teams — St. Mary's, Oregon State, Arizona, Utah, Oregon — and NBA teams are eager to get their hands on talents like Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb.

X Factor: Cal is one of the worst teams at turning over the ball, which can be a gift to Hawaii if the Rainbow Warriors can exploit it.

Northern Iowa (11) over Texas (6)

Why it could happen: This is not the first rodeo for Northern Iowa, which was 1-1 in last year's NCAA tournament and knocked off No. 1 North Carolina early this season. (It has been erratic since, enduring a 5-10 stretch in the middle of the season, then finishing with a 12-1 stretch.) As was the case with his Virginia Commonwealth teams, Texas coach Shaka Smart's manic defenses either work or don't work. Most recently, against Baylor in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals, they didn't.

Why it might not: Shaka Smart upsets you. You don't upset Shaka Smart.

X Factor: It goes without saying that underdogs need to have their shots go in, but in the Panthers' case, it is absolutely vital: They are dead last in Division I in offensive rebounding percentage, per KenPom.com. Texas will deny them enough on first chances, and there may not be many second chances.

Arkansas-Little Rock (12) over Purdue (5)

Why it could happen: The Trojans have proven they can play well above their Sun Belt Conference status. Little Rock beat Tulsa, San Diego State and DePaul on the road this season, and its formula was simple: ball possession. The Trojans were 13th nationally in turnover margin (3.5), while Purdue can be sloppy with the ball (-2.5). Little Rock also held teams to under 40 percent shooting 19 times.

Why it might not: Purdue can control the tempo against Little Rock, which does not play fast, and it should be able to dominate the boards, creating second-chance opportunities.

X Factor: Denver's thin air, which neither team will be used to. Purdue will travel to Colorado today to prepare.

Stephen F. Austin (13) over West Virginia (4)

Why It Could Happen: Stephen F. Austin has won in the tournament before, and it happens to match up well with West Virginia. The Mountaineers press relentlessly and force turnovers, but the Lumberjacks do not make many mistakes. And coach Brad Underwood will have his team prepared; he was an assistant under West Virginia's Bob Huggins at Kansas State.

Why it might not: West Virginia's aforementioned pressure (9.9 steals a game) is stressful for any team, and it will be applied by players and with an intensity unlike most anything Stephen F. Austin has seen in the Southland Conference.

X Factor: Stephen F. Austin's deep bench — namely Clide Geffrard, C.J. Williams, Jared Johnson and Dallas Cameron — will be called upon to handle West Virginia's constant pressure.

Gonzaga (11) over Seton Hall (6)

Why it could happen: A lot of pundits are buying high on Seton Hall after it won the Big East tournament. That is fair, but a few words of caution: The Pirates remain young and prone to wild emotional swings. They built large leads against Xavier and Villanova last week and nearly blew both in the second half. Though Seton Hall should be commended for hanging on, Gonzaga is a savvy, tournament-experienced team with a major front-court edge.

Why it might not: Seton Hall is playing with a ton of confidence, led by Isaiah Whitehead, a dynamic offensive talent, and the complementary backcourt mates Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez, who like to get up and down.

X Factor: Kyle Wiltjer was a preseason favorite for national player of the year honors. The 6-foot-10 senior, who transferred to Gonzaga from Kentucky, fell under the radar a bit, but he remains a matchup nightmare for teams like Seton Hall.

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