We at Sports on Earth are here to help. The first few days of this week, every year, can be agonizing, as people across America spend hours in front of their computers crunching numbers, reading thorough matchup analysis, asking their friends, picking names out of a hat and maybe even reading tea leaves.
There is no scientific method of filling out an NCAA tournament bracket, no perfect art to the process, but we can all keep trying to find one in hopes of winning the office pool against the person who hasn't watched a basketball game since 1997.
To aid in the process, the Sports on Earth braintrust has attempted to identify a plausible sleeper in each region. We're not guaranteeing that fans of these four teams can book their flights to Atlanta, or even that we're sure these teams will advance to the Sweet 16. But we can say, with reasonable conviction, that they're teams to target if you're looking to dig beneath the obvious favorites.
MIDWEST SLEEPER: St. Louis University
The strange thing about this perfect season for St. Louis -- this amazing season they'll be talking about at that school for another 100 years -- is how inherently unrepeatable it is. This is a team that won the Atlantic 10 in a season where the conference existed in a way it never will again; it's essentially exploding into shards all across the country. (Where SLU ends up in this, no one's quite sure.) It's a team that has an interim coach that is both doing a terrific job and also sorta hanging on for dear life. It's a team that has had transfers and loss and scandal, a program many fans have long felt was cursed. And all that just peeled away, like nothing, as the team has become its best self.
St. Louis will be good again, but it will never be this again, and everyone knows it, and is trying to appreciate it.
And then there is of course the death of coach Rick Majerus. It is worth remembering Majerus' last tourney win, a 61-54 win over Memphis, on March 16, 2012, a masterpiece of coaching. Memphis fans still frustrated that Josh Pastner hasn't won a tournament game can point to this one, in which Majerus, almost effortlessly, outwitted him at every turn, wasting Pastner's top-shelf recruits with his unheralded, two-star veterans. Majerus signature pressing, almost obnoxious defense -- loud, grating, irresistible, like the coach himself -- was never better in that game … and Majerus himself was never the same. The rumors about his declining health had been swirling all fall, and when he died on December 1, his team served as pallbearers. These were boys recruited by Majerus, at the job he took because he decided he couldn't handle being an ESPN analyst anymore. He said the network told him, "We're not going to show some guy in a defensive stance on 'SportsCenter.'" So it was back to coaching, and back to this team.
To watch SLU play defense is to watch Majerus, back to life. It is his defense, his intensity, his defensive principles, put into action by a team that is out there displaying what he taught them. It is, actually, quite moving, to see a man live on, ghost-like, in the play of the team he put together. You cannot live forever. But what you teach can. He has been gone only 3 ½ months, but this team is pure Majerus.
They are in the toughest bracket, though; it would have been fun to see them in the East, where they would probably be the second best team in the region, behind Indiana, a team they'd matchup well against. Instead, it's the West, with Louisville and Duke and Michigan State and all sorts of scary things. But this is what makes SLU fun, and this year feel so special.
Of course it has to be hard. If St. Louis is gonna go down, in this of all years, it's going to be to someone big, in a way no one will forget. When the team, stuck in traffic, had to stop at that Best Buy in Jersey just to find out its place in the NCAA tourney, it felt perfect. Awkward, improvised, hilarious and a little bit insane. Pure Majerus. If you're not rooting for the Billikens in this tournament, it's gonna be hard for us to be friends for a while.
EAST SLEEPER: UNLV
Let's consider for a moment that Charles Barkley's remarks on Sunday about the Mountain West Conference were more than just uninformed, purposely-provocative bibble-babble.
Barkley called the Mountain West the best conference in the nation, and specified that it was better than the Big Ten, which didn't sit well with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo (who publicly asked Barkley where his alma mater Auburn was in the tournament -- zing!), Barkley's television co-hosts, or power conference apologists everywhere.
Barkley says many stupid things and several brilliant things, and it sometimes takes a half decade to properly sort them out. But the RPI also ranks the Mountain West as the toughest conference in the nation, and the selection committee gave berths to five of its nine programs, a testimony to the league's depth. Computers, selectors, and round mounds of rebound can all be wrong, but their consensus must be considered.
Once you assume that the Mountain West Conference, if not actually better than the Big Ten, is better than its mid-major reputation, UNLV's disappointing season no longer looks quite as disappointing. Their five-point loss to Colorado State in January is no big deal when you recognize that Colorado State is a #8 seed, the bracketological equivalent of Pitt, North Carolina, and NC State, teams you can lose to without arching anyone's eyebrows. Their loss to Boise State in February, another tournament team, is offset by two wins; their two losses to #3 seed New Mexico are mollified by a convincing win. Their loss at Air Force in February is not so terrible when you recognize that the Falcons won 17 games against a tough schedule and confounded many opponents with a motion offense and the talents of senior Michael Lyons. The Rebels beat the Falcons twice, anyway: that is how it goes in the Mountain West, where the same nine teams keep clanging into one another.
Those two losses to 11-19 Fresno State … well, they are still pretty disappointing, though as the worst losses on the UNLV resume, they are not bad. UNLV can be a vexing team when they are off. When everything is clicking, however, they have one of the most talented lineups in the country, a versatile bench, and the ability to match up with anyone.
Every player in the Rebels rotation comes with a "yeah, but" qualifier. Freshman big man Anthony Bennett can post up, shoot from long range, and finish plays in transition, plus he's an exceptional rebounder and recycler. He's also a freshman, susceptible to critical lapses and defensive mind melts, and he has been playing through a nerve injury in his shoulder. Guard Anthony Marshall is a fine shooter and playmaker who often saves his turnovers for the worst moments. Freshman guard Katin Reinhardt has great range but cannot tell good looks from bad. Bryce Dejean-Jones got hurt before the season opener and was slow to find his niche. Mike Moser spent the first half of the season on the wing, trying to prove to the NBA that he was a 6-foot-8 small forward. Lots of missed jumpers ensued, and Moser is back down low for most of his minutes, where his rebounding is an asset. Center Khem Birch is a rebounding machine some nights and three quick fouls on others.
There have been several nights when all of those "buts" butt together. The Rebels came unglued in their second loss to Fresno State on March 9th. Moser and senior backup Justin Hawkins dressed Reinhardt down on the court for sloppy mistakes. Coach Dave Rice admitted that the team "panicked" when it fell behind, and everyone started trying to make "home run plays." Bennett admitted that the ball got "sticky;" the Rebels became five guys looking for their shot, not a basketball team.
In the Air Force loss, the Rebels frontcourt got perplexed at the sight of a simple high screen, and Bennett drew a technical and a seat on the bench for flinging the ball at Lyons after a bucket. Moser was ejected for a flagrant foul in the Boise State loss. When things go bad for the Rebels, they snowball.
But then there are the "yeahs." Rice knows the strengths and weaknesses of his personnel and juggles lineups to exploit matchups and find hot hands. Bennett can kill opponents in the low post or draw his defender to the wing with his three point shooting. Reinhardt gets big minutes when he is on and gives way to DeJean-Jones or Hawkins when he isn't. The Moser experiment is over, and the Rebels are wiser for it. Birch and Quintrell Thomas can thump with big men so Bennett does not have to.
Rice's Rebels can go big or small, up-tempo or half court. They can beat Cal -- they did it in December, despite an injury to Moser and 1-for-7 shooting from Reinhardt -- and they can throw a ton of looks at Cody Zeller and the Hoosiers in the second round. The freshmen have to play a little smarter, the role players have to play their roles to perfection, but the Sweet 16 is possible.
Anything is possible, really. This is the most talented team in what might be the best conference in the nation. Someone from the Mountain West will make a deep run, and while New Mexico may have the most team discipline and the easiest road, UNLV has the greater upside.
At least Charles Barkley isn't the kind to say "I told you so."
Oh wait, yes he is.
SOUTH SLEEPER: San Diego State
Maybe it's difficult to get excited about a seven-seed that's been hovering on the fringes of national relevance most of the season, one that has struggled away from home, one that can't shoot three-pointers. Considering San Diego State hasn't put together more than two straight wins since early January, I can understand any hesitance to agree with labeling the Aztecs as a sleeper.
Lost in all the Midwest hype is that the South may be the most top-heavy region of them all, with Kansas, Georgetown, Florida and Michigan occupying seeds one through four, even though they have all been considered possible one-seeds at some point over the last month or two. Picking a sleeper is a difficult task, because it seems likely that chalk will advance right on through to Arlington.
But this is March Madness, after all, and all it takes is one upset to create an opening for a sleeper. Georgetown should be on alert if seven-seed San Diego State dispatches Oklahoma in its opener in Philadelphia on Friday.
Yes, the Aztecs struggled away from home in the competitive Mountain West, with their only two league road wins coming against conference bottom-feeders Fresno State and Nevada, and their best road win of the season was against a trainwreck of a USC team that fired its coach a month and a half later. They did, however, beat UCLA by nine in a neutral game in Anaheim, and they do have home wins over tournament teams New Mexico (a three seed), Colorado State and Boise State, along with a one-point neutral-court loss to Arizona.
The only thing San Diego State does poorly is shoot three-pointers, but otherwise this is a well-rounded team with tournament experience (their two best players were on 2011's Sweet 16 team) and good guard play, especially now that point guard Xavier Thames appears to be over the back injury that hampered him through much of conference play. Thames has scored in double figures in four straight games now, highlighted by his 18 points, six rebounds and five assists in a conference tournament win over Boise State.
Thames runs the point, but the centerpiece is the athletic Jamaal Franklin, a 6-foot-5 junior who averages 16.7 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game, and who also occasionally does things like this:
The Aztecs can be exploited underneath, but they're an athletic team with good perimeter defenders between Franklin, Thames and 6-foot-3 senior Chase Tapley, the team's No. 2 scorer (13.5 points per game), which can make life miserable for opposing guards. Despite their struggles in the loss column, they still rank 26th on KenPom.com, with one of the best-rated defenses in America.
Quality guard play can go a long way in the NCAA tournament, and with Thames back on track, the Aztecs have a dangerous trio to wreak havoc on the opposition. Get past Oklahoma, and that weekend date with Georgetown would be interesting, if only because the Aztecs are capable of trading punches at a somewhat slower pace.
The strength of the Mountain West feels like it's overstated occasionally, but it really is a very good league, with San Diego State's inconsistent play causing it to slip through the cracks. But if someone's going to break through those four powers in the South, it's the Aztecs.
If not, Franklin will still at least probably do something special anyway.
WEST SLEEPER: Kansas State
When does a Big 12 co-champion, Big 12 Tournament finalist and No. 4 seed ranked No. 12 in the country get to be a sleeper?
It does when it's Kansas State, forever lodged in the Kansas shadow with no chance to move to another state if it hopes to retain its name.
It does when the No. 5 seed in the bracket, Wisconsin, can't be a sleeper because everyone is touting it after it manhandled Michigan and Indiana last weekend. It does when the Nos. 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 seeds (Arizona, Notre Dame, Pitt, Wichita State, Iowa State, Belmont and Mississippi) all seem one or two gears shy of any potential run to Atlanta.
It does in the kind of year that could produce the kind of Final Four that could run heavy on the kind of teams that spent the year half-occluded in second-violin seats.
And Kansas State does rate a sleeper nod because it seems to have just enough mustard in a diluted regional that might require just enough.
It has a leading scorer, Rodney McGruder, who can go get his own shot when the need strikes. It also has a leading scorer -- that's still McGruder - -who, said Kansas coach Bill Self, "moves without the ball better than anybody in our league, and gets more screens than anybody in our league because of the way he plays, the motion."
It has a tough point guard, Angel Rodriguez, who showed aplomb as a freshman last year when taunted by Southern Mississippi band members hollering for his "green card" in another case for the thick annals of staggering American geographic stupidity. (Note: Natives of Puerto Rico don't need green cards.)
It has an excellent coach, Bruce Weber, whose big knock supposedly is winning with other coaches' recruits, hardly a damning critique, and yet who, in a nice turn of fortune, just so happens to be coaching his first year at Kansas State, thereby using another coach's recruits!
It goes eight deep. It has the know-how of the first Kansas State senior group (McGruder, Jordan Henriquez, Martavious Irving) to reach four NCAA Tournaments. It averages 16 assists per game in a feat of sharing and coaching. It never lost to anybody it shouldn't have. It lost to West No. 1 seed Gonzaga by 16 in Seattle but has the kind of strategist at the helm who can rectify. It starts off almost at home, in Kansas City, where it acquired its steam by beating Florida in December.
It plays attentive defense.
"They've had really great chemistry," Weber said of his players. "They've listened and gotten better."
They occupy a region that lacks Kansas, which dealt Kansas State three of its seven losses. They occupy a tepid region ripe for sudden conquering. Even as a No. 4 seed, they meet the two prerequisites of a sleeper: limited visibility and good capability. Plausibly they could turn up in Atlanta, and cause mass bracket-burning all at once.