Sleepers: The teams primed to surprise
The term "sleeper" is a relative one. None of the teams we list below are necessarily Final Four or national-title sleepers. But all have qualities about them that make us believe they have the potential to put it all together and surprise some folks this season.
Here are some of the teams we're keeping an eye on for the upcoming season
Eamonn Brennan: Can a second-year coach transform a dormant program into a competitor on the strength of transfers alone? Last season, the Cyclones landed four useful transfers who become eligible in 2011-12: guard Chris Allen (Michigan State), forward Royce White (Minnesota), forward Anthony Booker (Southern Illinois) and guard Chris Babb (Penn State). Former Michigan State guard Korie Lucious also arrived at the school, but he won't be able to suit up until 2012-13.
There is some risk associated with these moves. White is infamous for his immature freshman season at Minnesota, during which he was involved in two separate theft-related legal incidents and recorded a YouTube video announcing his retirement from basketball. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo dismissed Allen last August after a summer of deliberation; we still don't know exactly what Allen did to get kicked off the team in the first place.
Adding one such player to your team can be risky. Adding two is doubling down. Still, all indications out of Fred Hoiberg's team are that his transfers are behaving amicably and performing well. This summer, one Des Moines Register columnist quoted an Iowa State fan who said that White -- who averaged the first triple-double in Ames summer league history this year -- would go down as the best player in Cyclones history. That may be a bit of an overstatement, but it gets to the second salient fact about this ISU team: It could be good, too.
We know Allen is a big-time college shooting guard. Babb and Booker are promising players, and Iowa State has a few of its own already -- freshmen Melvin Ejim in particular. Hoiberg rolled the dice on the transfer racket early in his coaching career. Could it blow up? Sure. But if The Mayor can maintain diplomatic relations, Iowa State will have its most talented squad in a decade. Ames is starting to feel like the land of misfit toys. But that doesn't mean those toys can't play.
Andy Katz: I know, I know. I've gone down this road before with the Golden Gophers. Haven't I learned my lesson with this squad? Well, apparently not. They were my sleeper team a year ago to challenge for the Big Ten title and the Gophers didn't even make the postseason. But they did have some legitimate excuses. Devoe Joseph left in the middle of the season, and that crushed their guard play. Why? Because Al Nolen was hurt and Blake Hoffarber wasn't a true point. The Gophers were never a complete team and it showed throughout the Big Ten season.
But Minnesota has hope. The Gophers return one of the toughest big men in the country in Trevor Mbakwe, who will be a beast to deal with on the interior. Ralph Sampson III decided against staying in the NBA draft and should finally be ready to reach his potential. If Maurice Walker is healthy from a knee injury and if Rodney Williams can live up to the hype and do more than be an athletic wing, the Gophers will have the deepest and most productive frontcourt in the Big Ten outside of the one-man wrecking crew at Ohio State.
The main question: Are guards like Austin Hollins, Chip Armelin and Maverik Ahanmisi ready to step up their production and leadership? If the Gophers can get quality guard play, this team will surprise. The early schedule is manageable and should build confidence heading into the Big Ten with a weak Old Spice Classic and home games against rebuilding Virginia Tech and USC. Tubby Smith has always had Minnesota competitive. The Gophers will always defend well -- the issue for this team has been scoring. That shouldn't be a problem inside. If they can make perimeter shots and not waste possessions with costly turnovers, these Gophers can make some noise.
Diamond Leung: Dana Altman was far from Oregon's first choice last spring when the school set out to hire a coach, and after coming aboard, he was left with a team depleted by transfers and picked to finish last in the Pac-10. But after the Ducks won 21 games on their way to a CBI championship, Altman added a significant amount of talent and has his team poised to become the surprise of the Pac-12 and challenge for an NCAA tournament bid if things fall right.
Oregon learned on its preseason tour of Italy that freshman Jabari Brown might have what it takes to step right in and carry the team. Brown, who ESPN ranked seventh among shooting guards in the incoming class, led UO by averaging 15.4 points over five games. While the 6-foot-4 Brown made his share of mistakes, it's clear his presence gives the Ducks a dimension they didn't have last season.
Altman also brought in three potential impact transfers who are all eligible to play this season. Olu Ashaolu withdrew his name from the NBA draft to continue his college career after leaving Louisiana Tech, and he already has shown he can be a force inside by leading the team with seven boards a game in Italy. Tony Woods is a 6-11 center who can add to the frontcourt after Wake Forest dismissed him in the wake of an assault case. Also getting a second chance is guard Devoe Joseph, who transferred from Minnesota and will be available in December.
Along with returning starters E.J. Singler and Garrett Sim, the Ducks should get better as the season progresses while they develop a team chemistry with all the newcomers. While many Pac-12 teams lost top talent to the NBA, Oregon improved its roster. In their first full season playing in Matthew Knight Arena, the Ducks appear ready to take flight.
Dana O'Neil: It's been a long time since optimism dared to rear its head around Charlottesville. Glimmers of hope, rare unto themselves, have had the shelf life of a pint of milk, past their due date after one appearance in the NCAA tournament. But Virginia fans are slowly, tentatively coming around to this new-fangled thing called faith -- and they have good reason. Tony Bennett isn't building a season. He's building a program, laying the foundation with one solid recruiting base on top of another.
The most critical building block could very well be laid this season. After a respectable 16-15 finish a season ago, Virginia will roll out a team that could spell NCAA for the first time since 2007. Mike Scott was awarded a medical redshirt after an ankle injury sent him to the sideline 10 games in. The forward had been leading the team in scoring and rebounding. He'll be joined by four of the Cavs' other top five leading scorers.
The bigger news: Bennett has a trio of freshmen who could make an immediate impact. Malcolm Brogdon and Paul Jesperson both ranked in the ESPNU 100. They were Georgia's and Wisconsin's players of the year, respectively. Mix in Darion Atkins and you have the makings of a class that could pay dividends this season, and more importantly, for the foreseeable future.
Certainly there is little wiggle room in the top spots of the ACC this season, but if the Cavs can play their cards right -- and a decent but not insane nonconference schedule ought to allow for that -- they could easily move into the top five of the league. That generally means a ticket to the Dance.
And Don't Forget About
Four more non-tournament teams from last season that we think have a chance to break through and make some noise in 2011-12:
Arkansas The long-term prospects for Mike Anderson's return to Fayetteville are good, but he might actually have this team improving in his very first year. Why? Two reasons. First, John Pelphrey landed one of the nation's best recruiting classes in 2011, and Anderson managed to retain those players in the transition this spring. Second, Anderson's blitzkrieg hoops style is excellent at minimizing more talented opponents' advantages. The Razorbacks may not be ready to wake up the echoes just yet, but they could give the rest of the SEC plenty of headaches. -- Brennan
Indiana Tom Crean pleaded for patience and promised it would be awarded. By their fingernails, Indiana fans hung on. Now comes the payoff. The Hoosiers' climb out of the Kelvin Sampson sinkhole appears to have finally reached the end. The state, of course, awaits with breathless anticipation the debut of Cody Zeller. The McDonald's All-American is easily the most critical recruit in the Crean era and a legitimate program-changer. Paired alongside Christian Watford in the frontcourt, Zeller could be especially formidable. The equally good news is that Maurice Creek could finally be healthy. Sensational as a freshman -- he dropped 31 on Kentucky -- Creek has been sidelined in each of the past two seasons with knee problems. If he remains healthy, this group has tourney hopes. -- O'Neil
Marshall The Thundering Herd haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 1987 but are knocking on the door after back-to-back 20-plus-win seasons. There's a feeling among Conference USA insiders that this program is ready to lift off. Second-year coach Tom Herrion returns his high-scoring backcourt of Damier Pitts (16.2 ppg) and DeAndre Kane (15.1), and the team also added 6-9 JC All-American Robert Goff, who was given his scholarship release following a coaching change at Oklahoma. Besides clear C-USA favorite Memphis, there is room for Marshall to go dancing at season's end. -- Leung
St. Bonaventure The Atlantic 10 probably has two to four more teams than it should. But there is hope that some programs that have struggled to emerge can rise up and crack the top four and make a postseason run. St. Bonaventure could be that team this season. The Bonnies return the No. 3 scorer in the nation in Andrew Nicholson (20.8 ppg), so that's a heck of a start. Guard Michael Davenport (11.1 ppg) is a quality complement and the tandem will make this squad a tough out for opponents. Last season, the Bonnies won eight A-10 games (and 16 overall) and played in the CBI. More should be expected this season and more should be accomplished. If it plays to its full potential, St. Bonaventure has a chance to make just its second NCAA tourney appearance since 1978. -- Katz
Mid-majors you shouldn't sleep on
Four mid-majors you don't want to see on your schedule this season -- the ones you should know before March:
Belmont scared the bejesus out of Duke fans three years ago in the NCAA tournament. This season the Bruins could scare plenty of folks. Belmont lost just one Atlantic Sun game last season and rolled to a 30-5 overall record. Nine of 11 players return from that team, giving coach Rick Byrd the perfect recipe for Cinderella success: upperclassmen experience and underclassmen talent. The Bruins roll out six juniors and seniors, including Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders, the second- and third-leading scorers. That experience is bolstered by the likes of Ian Clark, the one-time A-Sun freshman of the year who led Belmont in scoring last season. -- O'Neil
Now that Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack have left Butler, it's hardly a stretch to call Ray McCallum's Detroit squad the most talented team in the Horizon League. McCallum's son, Ray Jr., turned down a host of elite offers to play for his dad last season. McCallum's big man, Eli Holman, is a former Indiana prospect who followed the coach to Detroit and has developed into a bona fide low-post threat. Don't go predicting the demise of the Dogs just yet -- but keep a prudent eye on these talented Titans. -- Brennan
Long Beach State
The 49ers return their top three scorers as seniors, including reigning Big West player of the year Casper Ware. They captured the regular-season title last season and now coach Dan Monson's team looks to get over the hump after falling in the Big West tournament final in back-to-back years. The 49ers have opportunities for big wins, scheduling games at Pittsburgh, Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina before opening play in the Diamond Head Classic against Xavier. So if this is truly a dangerous mid-major, we certainly won't have to wait until March to figure it out. -- Leung
The Shockers could've been an NCAA tournament team a season ago but were stunned by Indiana State in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Gregg Marshall's crew was able to stabilize, though, winning legitimate NIT games over Virginia Tech, Washington State and Alabama to take home the postseason title. Leading scorer J.T. Durley is gone but the rest of the core returns, led by Toure' Murry and David Kyles. The Shockers returned from Brazil last month still on target to be the Valley co-favorite with Creighton. Marshall stayed instead of pursuing possible job opportunities at Missouri or NC State or Georgia Tech. He stayed because he knew he had a team that can still make the NCAAs and create some noise. -- Katz