Cinderella stories are what the big dance is all about, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we have more than one in 2019. There are upsets every year, and finding those upsets can help you win your bracket.
In this article, I’ll give my top 3 sleepers (schools outside the top 3 seeds) in each region, who I think could make some noise an potentially advance to the Sweet 16 and beyond.
Find out how far I have each of these sleepers advancing in my bracket.
NCAA Tournament Sleepers in Each Region That Could Make the Final Four
I really feel bad for the Bearcats, as I really feel like they deserved to be a better seed than what they got. I like Cincinnati to make easy work of No. 10 Iowa in the first round, but that sets up a likely showdown with one of my favorite teams in the tournament in Tennessee. Getting past the Vols will be quite the challenge, but if the Bearcats can make it to the Sweet 16, they could be the surprise team out of the South to make the Final Four.
Oregon defeating No. 5 Wisconsin is actually the only upset I have in the first round in the South. The Ducks were a team coming into the year that many had picked in the Top 25, but a injury to star freshman Bol Bol really put this team behind the 8-ball early. The Ducks were a mere 15-12 with a 6-8 record in the Pac-12 as late as Feb. 23rd. Things clicked after that, as Oregon won 4 straight to close out the regular-season and carried that over to a Pac-12 title and automatic bid. I not only think they get by the Badgers, but I have them knocking off K-State to reach the Sweet 16.
#13 UC Irvine
While I have the Anteaters losing to No. 4 seed Kansas State, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see them pull off the upset. The Wildcats earned a share of the Big 12 regular-season title, but I think that has them a bit overvalued. Based on the numbers I would have had K-State closer to a No. 6 seed. Making matters worse, the Wildcats could be without All-Big 12 big man Dean Wade, who had to sit out the Big 12 Tournament. UC Irvine comes in having won 16 straight games and had road wins over Texas A&M and St. Mary’s in non-conference play.
#4 Florida State
The Seminoles might just be the biggest sleeper in the tournament. While I have them losing to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, this is a team that’s capable of winning the whole thing. Florida State often gets overlooked with all the hype around the three No. 1 seeds in the ACC in Duke, Virginia and UNC, but the Seminoles are every bit as talented as those three. Not only were they one of the better teams in the best conference in the country, they had non-conference wins over both the SEC regular-season champs (LSU) and Big Ten regular-season champs (Purdue).
The Bulls are the highest seeded mid-major not named Gonzaga in this year’s field and many of you will likely recall last year’s NCAA Tournament, where No. 13 Buffalo took down No. 4 Arizona 89-68. If you like strong offensive teams with veteran leadership, this team will definitely get your attention. The Bulls averaged 85 ppg and have 3 different seniors who average in double-figures. Their up-tempo in your face attack is also something that could give teams who haven’t seen them before a lot of problems. If they can get by No. 3 Texas Tech in the round of 32, they might just make the Elite 8 or more.
#12 Murray State
Here’s another No. 12 seed that I think could make some noise and take down No. 5 seed Marquette. Chances are you probably didn’t catch a lot of Murray State games this year, but have at least heard the name Ja Morant. He’s not just the best player on Murray State, some have him projected to go No. 2 overall behind Zion Williamson in next year’s NBA draft. Morant averaged a double-double with 24.6 ppg and 10.0 apg. I can guarantee you the other teams in the West are hoping Morant and the Racers are knocked out early, as this is a team no one wants to face.
#4 Virginia Tech
Much like Florida State, Virginia Tech is another ACC team that gets overlooked with all the attention given to Duke, Virginia and North Carolina. The Hokies did something not a lot of other teams could do. They didn’t crumble after losing their rock at point guard in senior Justin Robinson. A big reason for that is the dynamic duo of Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kerry Blackshear. Not only will they have those two to carry them in the Big Dance, but Robinson is expected to return from injury. If he’s anything close to what he was before he got hurt, this is a team that could not only make the Sweet 16, but punch a ticket to Minneapolis.
The Gophers are one of those teams that I think surprised some that they made it. Sure, Minnesota won 21 games, but their non-conference wasn’t all that challenging and they finished just 9-11 in the Big Ten. They were just 3-7 over their final 10 regular-season games, before beating Penn State in OT and pulling off the big upset against Purdue. I don’t know that they are capable of making a deep run, but I do think they could pull off the upset against Louisville and they will certainly be familiar with their likely second round opponent in Michigan State.
My favorite sleeper in the East is the combination of #11 seeds Belmont and Temple. I think whoever wins the play-in game on Tuesday is more than capable of beating No. 6 Maryland. The Terps play six freshman and had a horrible showing in the Big Ten Tournament, losing to Nebraska, a team they had previously beat by 15 on the road. Not only do think the Belmont/Temple winner will advance to the Round of 32, I think they will make the Sweet 16.
I’m sure there’s a number of teams in the Midwest wondering how Auburn is in their bracket as a No. 5 seed. The Tigers got off to a bit of a slow start in SEC play, but closed out the season playing their best basketball. They won 4 straight to end the regular-season and went on to win the SEC Tournament, routing the Vol 84-64. This is a team that had wins over a lot of quality teams in non-conference, but arguably their most impressive out of conference performance came in a mere 6-point loss to Duke on a neutral site.
#6 Iowa State
I was surprised to see the Cyclones this low, especially after Iowa State caught fire in route to another Big 12 Tournament title (won 4 of the last 6). When this team is on they are capable of beating any team in the country. All five starters averaged at least 9 ppg, led by Marial Shayok at 18.7 ppg. They also have a double-digit scorer in Lindell Wigginton (13.4 ppg) coming off the bench. The only problem is they need the shots to fall, as they aren’t a great defensive team and struggle on the boards.
The Terriers enter the NCAA Tournament having won 20 straight games and have one of the best players that you likely haven’t heard of in senior guard Fletcher Magee. For those that don’t know, Magee is a legit sharpshooter, having made more than 500 3-pointers in his career. He hit 41% from long-distance this season and averages more than 20 ppg. We have seen similar type of players go off in the Big Dance. The only problem is the path to the Final Four couldn’t be much tougher, as they will have to get by No. 2 Kentucky just to make the Sweet 16.