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2015 NCAA Tournament's Top Sleeper Teams
Teams who came together late to earn a bid
The St. John's Red Storm came together late with seven wins in their final 10 games to earn an at large bid for the NCAA tournament this season, but the suspension to Chris Obekpa could hurt their chances of making a run this season. The UCLA Bruins had plenty of rough stretches throughout their season, but with nine wins in their final 13 games they did enough to earn an at large bid for this year's NCAA tournament. Ohio State experienced some struggles this season, but with D'Angelo Russell leading the way, they are in great position to make a deep tournament run this season. Wichita State does not have the team they had last year as a one seed, but this year as a team who earned a seventh seed, they are a candidate to make a surprising run into the tournament. A year after heading into the tournament with expectations surrounding them due to T.J. Warren's dominant efforts, N.C. State once again is in the tournament ,with some transcendent talent leading the way to give them the opportunity to surprise teams this year. Most of these teams were able to come together late with a strong collective effort in order to earn their way into the tournament, with transcendent talent at one or two different positions on the court to give them the opportunity to make a deep run.
St. John's Red Storm
The Red Storm's strong combination of size and guard play, led the way for a strong finish to the team's 2015 portion of the regular season schedule. Transcendent athleticism especially at the guard positions makes the Red Storm a nightmare matchup for just about any team in this year's NCAA tournament. Four different perimeter players averaged more than double figures in points scored per game this season, with the coaching staff finding playing time for each of these highly skilled players. Having one of the leading shot blockers in the nation out for two weeks hurts their chances, but once he returns, he rounds out the versatile and strong starting lineup for the Red Storm.
Six feet, six inch tall senior guard, Sir'Domonic Pointer is the enforcer of this group as he attacks the basket to create high percentage looks on the offensive end of the floor. After leading the team in dunks this season, Pointers was also able to make significant contributions on the defensive end of the floor with 2.4 blocks per game and 7.6 rebounds per game. The Red Storm use Pointer as a power forward of sorts, but as a natural guard he regularly puts his offensive skills on display. He is complemented by teammates D'Angelo Harrison and Rysheed Jordan. With both guards standing at six feet, four inches tall, the veteran Harrison provides the team with plenty of leadership as a senior and the team's leading scorer at 17.5 points per game. Jordan as just a sophomore, has been a strong contributor this season with 14.3 points per game to go along with his more efficient shooting percentage and team leading 3.1 assists per game. Phil Greene is the smallest guard of the group, but he is the team's best three point shooter with enough athleticism to drive to basket on a regular basis.
Chris Obekpa is the player on the Red Storm roster that has a significant impact even without scoring many points. The junior big man stands at six feet, 10 inches and provides the team with exactly the rim protection they need to play aggressive defense on the perimeter. With 3.1 blocks per game and seven rebounds per game, Obekpa's impact is significant even though he averages just over five points per game on the offensive end. He will not be able to make an appearance in the tournament to help the Red Storm make a run though, unless they get to the sweet 16, as he is currently serving a two week suspension. With a very complete and versatile attack, the St. John's Red Storm could be a team that fans pick to make a deep run in this year's tournament as they fill out their brackets.
The UCLA Bruins feature strong guard play from Norman Powell and Bryce Alford to get the job done in their efforts to make the NCAA tournament this season. Freshmen forward Kevon Looney, provides the Bruins with a strong three point shooting threat after an extremely efficient season from behind the arc. The Bruins should not be favored to defeat any of their opponents in this year's tournament, but they definitely do possess the talent to surprise a couple teams this year. The 11th seeded Bruins face Southern Methodist University in the first round of tournament action this season, and they will be one of the top picks among double digit seeds to pull the upset. If they are able to get this done, the good size and passing ability of Bryce Alford will be the key for UCLA as an underdog in every game they play this time around as they join the madness.
UCLA gets it done with a versatile offensive attack that featured five different players to average double figures in scoring this season. With plenty of size on the interior with two players at 6'9" regularly on the floor for the Bruins, UCLA uses a two forward attack with Looney stretching the floor with his three point shooting. Alford is the other long range shooting threat for the Bruins, but when opponents close out on him too quickly, he is able to facilitate better shots for his teammates who attack the basket more regularly. The Bruins versatility should allow them to overcome struggles by one player in their starting five, and the experience across their roster allows them to turn to others to carry the scoring load in any given game. UCLA may not go very far in the tournament this year, but it would not be a huge surprise to see them make a run after their strong finish to the season.
Ohio State Buckeyes
D'Angelo Russell fits the mold of the player necessary to carry a team on a deep run through the NCAA tournament. The team earned a double digit seed in the tournament this year, after losing five of their final 11 games, but they still have the talent to make a deep run in the tournament. D'Angelo Russell leads the way to create an identity for Ohio State as a team to be reckoned with offensively. The 6'5" freshmen guard provides the Buckeyes with the balance needed to create floor spacing for interior scoring. Averaging over 19 points per game allowed Russell to take over ballgames this season as both a scorer and distributor. Even with a capable contributor like Sam Thompson on the court with him, D'Angelo Russell does it all for the Buckeyes as their leading scorer, rebounder and best distributor.
As a 10 seed in the tournament, the Buckeyes probably will not be favored in any game they play in the coming weeks. They are a legitimate threat though, because past tournaments have shown that one player with the ability that D'Angelo Russell possesses, can lead a team on a deep tournament run. While Russell may not have the best talent around him, Ohio State has enough size and athleticism to complement Russell to the point where teams will always have to respect his ability to create open shots for teammates. While Ohio State is not likely to win it all this season, they could be the team that ruins plenty of brackets for those NCAA basketball fans who do not believe Ohio State can make a significant tournament run.
Wichita State Shockers
The Wichita State Shockers have been a story the past two tournaments for one reason or another. Two years ago it was because they were the mid-major Cinderella team that made a final four run as a nine seed in the NCAA tournament. Last year it was because they had an undefeated regular season, and earned a number one seed in the tournament. This year they are a story again headed into the tournament, because they have the talent to surprise some teams early on. Even with Cleanthony Early heading to the NBA, the Shockers have plenty of scoring this season that allowed them to go 28-4 as a member of the Missouri Valley Conference.
With three players who averaged double figures in scoring this season, and nearly a fourth, the Shockers feature a balanced attack offensively with plenty of tournament experience. As a seven seed, the Shockers will be favored in their first round matchup, but if they are able to move on they will be heading into matchups as the underdog. Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet, Darius Carter and Tekele Cotton are all upper classmen who know how to play strong team basketball. With some size and plenty of athleticism, the Shockers balanced attack features plenty of sharing the basketball. The ability of Darius to attack the basket, will help to open the perimeter for Baker and VanVleet to make open shots from the perimeter. This dangerous combination could once again have the Shockers making a deep run into the tournament.
North Carolina State Wolfpack
The Wolfpack do not have the transcendent ability of T.J. Warren on their roster this time around, but they do have plenty of impact players in their effort to surprise teams in the tournament as an eight seed this season. Trevor Lacey, Ralston Turner and Anthony Barber lead the way for North Carolina State this season, in a balanced offense that features plenty of three point shooting ability. With each of these three guards being 6'2" or taller, and each averaging more than 10 points per game this past season, the Wolfpack are in great position to make a significant tournament run this season. Beejay Anya continues to provide the Wolfpack with the significant inside presence needed to protect the rim and to create an inside-out offensive attack.
Even though both Anthony Barber and Ralston Turner were able to record more than three assists per game this past season, it is the ability of each of these guards to create their own shot that makes the Wolfpack so dangerous. North Carolina State will be favored by a slim margin in their first round matchup against LSU, but after that they will once again be headed into matchups where they are the underdog. Fantastic guard play typically leads to success in the tournament format, and for NC State that should prove to hold true for them once again this season. The long range shooting ability and the athleticism to create their own shots, will help Ralston Turner and Trevor Lacey to be able to put on a show in their efforts to lead the Wolfpack on a Cinderella run this season in the NCAA tournament.
Can one of these teams make a championship game appearance?
Last season an eighth seeded Kentucky Wildcats team was able to make a championship game appearance led by their transcendent talent level. That Kentucky team shared some common ability to some of the teams on this list as a team that had to face a very high seed in the second round of the tournament. While one player can dominate enough to carry a team on a deep tournament run, one of the teams on this list with multiple strong contributors may be one of the best candidates to be this year's top surprise in the NCAA tournament.