One sleeper (in each conference) to rule them all

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Yeah, that’s a loaded title. But think about it. Every year there is a team in each conference who performs better than expected. Every year there is a team that catches us off guard and makes us feel like morons for not expecting better of them.  Every year, there is a “darkhorse” or a “sexy pick” or a “sleeper” team in each conference. Call it what you will, but there isn’t reason to believe that this will be any different in 2011-2012.

The teams listed below are poised to better than people think. Maybe it’s because they are in a conference with a lot of question marks. Maybe it’s because they can’t possibly get any worse than they were last season, and maybe it’s because it’s just time for the program to have a breakout season.

Atlantic Coast: Virginia Tech

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 6th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 5th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
With this team’s crippling addiction to “the bubble”, the Hokies could be picked dead last in the ACC, and we should still expect to talk about them on Selection Sunday. Sure Malcolm Delaney is gone, and sure this team continues to be plagued by injuries, but other than North Carolina and Duke, the conference is wide open. VaTech returns more experienced talent than any of the non-Tobacco Road ACC teams. With guys like Dorenzo Hudson, Victor Davilla and Cadarian Raines, the Hokies definitely have a shot at finishing in the top half of the ACC. The only teams that should be able to finish above the Hokies are Virginia, Miami and North Carolina State, and each of those teams have just as many, if not more, question marks than Tech.

Atlantic 10: George Washington

Preseason Ranking: 8th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 4th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Like the ACC, the Atlantic-10 features a huge drop between the top two teams and the “also-rans”. Xaiver and Temple are by far the top teams in the A10, but the jury is still out on the remaining 12 teams. George Washington has an experienced back-court in Tony Taylor and Lasan Kromah, and new head coach Mike Lonergan should be able to infuse some new life into a struggling Colonials program. To be honest, I think it’s kinda-shocking to see the Colonials picked so low in the preseason polls. The rest of the conference could be in for a rude awakening this season. Look for George Washington to contend with Saint Louis for the top “also-ran” position in the A-10.

Big East: Georgetown

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 10th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 9th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
There are a handful of questions that the Hoyas need to answer this season. Can Markel Starks have a breakout sophomore season as the starting point guard? Can Jason Clark be more than just a spot-up 3-point shooter? Can the Hoyas rely on a inexperienced, freshman-heavy front-court? I’m not sure of any of these answers, but the Hoyas have been known to exceed expectations early in the season. If they can get accelerated play from at least two of their freshman forwards, this team could creep up in the standings. Plus, the Big East has a gaping hole in the middle. On top of that, Georgetown’s Big East home-and-home draw is very weak. They play Marquette twice, Providence twice and St. John’s twice, and their only two difficult road games will be at Syracuse and at Pittsburgh.

Big Ten: Minnesota


Preseason Ranking: Big-Ten does not have a preseason poll
Where We Ranked Them: 8th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Despite losing Royce White, Devoe Joseph and Colton Iverson to other schools, the Gophers still return a lot of front-court production in Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III. Along with athletic junior Rodney Williams, the Gophers feature one of the better front-courts in the conference. The Big-10 features one really good team (Ohio State), two good teams (Wisconsin and Michigan State), and a bunch of teams trying to figure themselves out. I mean, is this REALLY the year Northwestern finally makes it to the tournament? Probably not. Illinois lost just about everybody, we still aren’t certain about what Michigan brings to the table and Purdue has to rely solely on Robbie Hummel and we know what to expect from Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska. Sure, the Gophers won’t finish ahead of Michigan State, Wisconsin or Ohio State, but is a fourth or fifth place finish really that unrealistic?

Big 12: Iowa State

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 8th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 6th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Why will they be better than expected? Have you seen how many all-conference-caliber transfers they got this off-season? Fred “The Mayor” Hoiberg did wonderful things in his first year at his Alma Mater, and with guys like Royce White, Chris Babb, Chris Allen, and Will Clyburn in his lineup, the Cyclones could be headed towards big things. ISU returns Scott Christopherson, one of the best pure shooters in the conference, and sophomore forward Melvin Ejim. I mean, the fact that I can rifle-off the name of 4-7 Cyclone players should be proof enough that big things could be on the horizon. If ISU can get freshman Naz Long cleared, don’t be surprised if this team is competing for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

Colonial Athletic: Delaware

Preseason Ranking: 7th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 7th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
The Blue Hens had a promising season in 2010-2011 season, and they bring in a solid crop of young talent. The CAA is always competitive, and there doesn’t seem to be one team that is far-and-away better than everybody else. Look for Devon Saddler to take command of this team. The reigning CAA Freshman of the Year is poised for a sensational sophomore season. The teams in the CAA will beat each to a pulp, and because of this, expect to see a few teams finish out of place in the final standings, including Delaware about the No. 7 spot.

Conference USA: Alabama-Birmingham

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: C-USA does not have a preseason poll
Where We Ranked Them: 5th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
This team is coached by Mike Davis, right? This team has C-USA preseason PoY Cameron Moore right? No chance the blazers finish in fifth place. In Mike Davis’ five season at UAB, only once has his team not won at least 20 games. Sure, they won’t be as good as Memphis but they aren’t that far behind Marshall, Tulsa or Central Florida. We never know what we are going to get from this conference, so it’s very possible that UAB finishes higher in the standings than we expect.

Horizon League: Green Bay

Preseason Ranking: 6th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 6th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Why? Because after Butler, this conference is up for grabs. Detroit is not going to be as good as people think, Cleveland State is without Norris Cole, and Milwaukee is still searching for conference stability. Alec Brown, the Phoenix’s 7-foot sophomore center will face little competition on the interior during Horizon League play. Green Bay might not finish in the top-three, but don’t be too surprised if they do.

Missouri Valley: Evansville

Preseason Ranking: 5th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 4th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Evansville has seemed to improve in each of the past three seasons. Last season the Aces beat a ranked-Butler team and knocked off Missouri State and Northern Iowa when both teams were fighting for conference supremacy. I’m not sure what is it about this team, but they always seem to beat good teams. Now if they can only learn to not lose to the bad teams. Like the CAA, Missouri Valley Conference teams love to beat each other up. This means that the Aces may be able to finish above teams that are better than them.

Mountain West: Wyoming

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 6th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 7th Place
Why they will be better than expected:
Why? because this conference is pretty dreadful with the exception of New Mexico. The Cowboys three best players, Afam Muojeke, JayDee Luster and USC-transfer Leonard Washington should be able to match-up with any non-New Mexico trio in the conference. This team won just four conference games last season and fired their coach in the middle of the year. Look for Larry Shyatt to keep his job the entire season and look for the Cowboys to win more than four conference games.

Pac-12: Oregon

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 5th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 5th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Like Iowa State, this team is chalk-full of transfers. The Ducks showed a lot of promise late in the season, which included a championship in the CBI. The Pac-12 is going to be much better than in recent years, but so will Oregon. The Ducks will have a solid starting-five, and if they can get production from their bench, we could see this team hover somewhere on the outskirts of the top-25. E.J. Singler is going to have a huge year, Olu Ashaolu, Devoe Joseph and Tony Woods are all going to be instant impact transfers. Oregon starts the year off against Vanderbilt, a team with a ton of pressure to succeed this season and a big hole up front due to the suspension/injury to Festus Ezeli. The Ducks can open a lot of eyes with a season-opening victory over the Commodores.

Southeastern: Mississippi State

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 5th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 5th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
We have to assume that Vanderbilt won’t be handle all the pressure that comes with such lofty expectations. We know Kentucky is going to be really good, but, like, Florida has literally no front-court and Alabama has literally no back-court. That all sets up nicely for Mississippi State to have a solid SEC season. Of course, all of this hinges on the performance of Renardo Sidney, and he’s anything but a sure thing right now. But if Sidney, Dee Bost and Arnett Moultrie can put it all together, Mississippi State will be much better than the 5th best team in the SEC.

Western Athletic: Hawaii

Preseason Ranking: 4th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 4th Place
Why they will be better than expected:
When Hawaii wins the WAC this season, remember that you read it here first. The Warriors feature two preseason All-WAC first-teamers, Arizona-transfer Zane Johnson and center Vander Joaquim. They also bring in the conference’s best freshman, Harlem-native Shaquille Stokes. Plus, head coach Gib Arnold is one of the most underrated coaches in the country. Did I mention that the WAC is rather weak this season? Utah State doesn’t have the horses they did last year, and while Nevada does have the best trio in the conference (Dario Hunt, Deonte Burton and Malik Story), no team has the size that Hawaii does. this is the best team Hawaii has fielded in a while and this is the weakest the WAC has been in a while as well.

West Coast Conference: Portland

Preseason Ranking: 7th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 7th Place
Why they will be better than expected:
The top-three spots in the WCC are a near-lock. So look for Portland to improve and finish atop the other WCC “also-rans”. The Pilots have shown improvement in each of the past three seasons, and have stolen a big non-con game every now and then. This season, Portland will be forced to deal with the graduation of quite a bit of talent. Nemanja Mitrovic, Eric Waterford and Luke van der Mars are going to have to do most of the heavy-lifting, but this team capable of finishing above at least two teams this season.

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You can read more of Troy’s writing at and follow him on Twitter at @BIAHTroyMachir.

Clark, Iowa end perfect South Carolina season in Final Four

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

DALLAS – Caitlin Clark overwhelmed the reigning champions with another sensational game, scoring 41 points to help Iowa spoil South Carolina’s perfect season with a 77-73 victory on Friday night in the Final Four.

The spectacular junior guard set a record for the highest-scoring semifinal game and became the first women’s player to post back-to-back 40-point games in the NCAA Tournament. She now has the Hawkeyes in a spot they’ve never been in before – one victory away from a national championship.

They’ll have to beat another SEC team to do that as Iowa (31-6) will face LSU in the title game on Sunday afternoon. The Tigers beat Virginia Tech in the other national semifinal.

It’s the Tigers’ first appearance in the title game as Kim Mulkey became the second coach to take two different teams to the championship game.

Thanks to the spectacular play of Clark and the historic year by South Carolina, this was one of the most talked about and highly anticipated matchups in women’s Final Four history,

The game lived up to the hype surrounding it- the best player vs. the best team – much to the delight of the sellout crowd of over 19,000 fans.

Coach Dawn Staley and South Carolina (36-1) had won 42 in a row, including last year’s championship game.

This was Iowa’s first appearance in the Final Four in 30 years. The last time the Hawkeyes advanced this far was 1993 and C. Vivian Stringer was the coach of that team that lost to Ohio State in overtime.

Clark wowed the crowd that included Harper Stribe, a young fan of the team who has been battling cancer. She was featured in a surprise video that informed the Hawkeyes’ star that she was the AP Player of the Year.

Trailing 59-55 entering the fourth quarter, South Carolina scored the first five points to take the lead. Clark answered right back with two deep 3-pointers and an assist to Monika Czinano to give the Hawkeyes a 67-62 lead.

South Carolina got within 69-68 on Raven Johnson’s 3-pointer before Clark got a steal for a layup with 3:32 left. Neither team scored again until star Aliyah Boston was fouled with 1:37 left. She made the second of two free throws.

Clark then scored another layup on the other end out of a timeout to make it a four-point game. After a layup by Zia Cooke made it a two-point game with 58 seconds left, the Hawkeyes ran the clock down with McKenna Warnock grabbing a huge offensive rebound off a Clark miss with 18 seconds remaining.

Clark hit two free throws after South Carolina fouled her with 13.5 seconds left. They were her 38th and 39th point, moving her past Nneka Ogwumike for the most points scored in a Final Four semifinal game.

After a putback by Johnson with 9.9 seconds left got the Gamecocks within 75-73, Clark sealed the game with two more free throws.

As the final seconds went off the clock Clark threw the ball high in the air and galloped around the court.

The loss ended a spectacular season for the defending champion Gamecocks, who were trying to become the 10th team to go through a season unbeaten.

Cooke led the Gamecocks with 24 points. Slowed by foul trouble, Boston had just eight points and 10 rebounds as the Hawkeyes packed the paint, daring South Carolina to shoot from the outside.

The Gamecocks finished 4-for-20 from behind the 3-point line and couldn’t take advantage of their 49-25 advantage on the boards that included 26 offensive rebounds.

Mulkey, LSU women rally in Final Four, reach first title game

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

DALLAS – Kim Mulkey is back in another national championship game, this time taking the flagship university from her home state there for the first time.

It took LSU only two seasons to get there with the feisty and flamboyantly dressed coach, and a big comeback in the national semifinal game that was quite an undercard Friday night.

Alexis Morris scored 27 points and had two of her misses in the fourth quarter turned into putback baskets by Angel Reese in a big run as LSU rallied to beat top-seeded Virginia Tech 79-72 in the first semifinal game.

“I’m never satisfied. I’m super-excited that we won, but I’m hungry,” said Morris, who jumped on a courtside table and fired up LSU fans after the game. “Like, I’m greedy. I want to win it all so I can complete the story.”

Reese finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds for LSU (33-2), which will play in the national title game Sunday against the winner of the highly anticipated matchup between Southeastern Conference foe South Carolina or Iowa in the other semifinal.

“It’s like a dream. It still hasn’t hit me that I’m at the Final Four,” said Reese, the transfer from Maryland who carries the nickname, ”Bayou Barbie.” “I’m just not even believing this right now. It’s crazy how much my life has changed in one year.”

Mulkey – in a carnation pink top this time – won three national titles in four Final Four appearances over her 21 seasons at Baylor. She is only the second coach to take two different teams to the national championship game. The other is C. Vivian Stringer, who did it with Cheyney in the inaugural 1982 women’s tournament and Rutgers in 2007.

“I came home for lots of reasons,” Mulkey said. “One, to some day hang a championship banner in the PMAC (Pete Maravich Assembly Center). Never, ever do you think you’re going to do something like this in two years.”

LSU made five national semifinal games in a row from 2004-08 – the only times the Tigers had made it this far. They lost each of those years.

The Tigers had to dig deep for this one, with neither team backing down.

Trailing 59-50 after three quarters, LSU went ahead with a 15-0 run over a five-minute span. The Tigers led for the first time since late in the first half when Falu’jae Johnson had a steal and drove for a layup to make it 64-62.

Reese had six points in that game-turning spurt, including a basket after Morris’ attempted 3-pointer clanked off the front rim. Reese had a second-effort follow of her own miss after rebounding another shot by Morris.

Elizabeth Kitley, the 6-foot-6 senior, had 18 points and 12 rebounds for Virginia Tech (31-5), the Atlantic Coast Conference champion that was in the Final Four for the first time. Georgia Amoore and Kayana Traylor each had 17 points, while Cayla King had 14.

Amoore set a record for the most 3-pointers in a single NCAA Tournament with 24, though she had a tough night shooting – 4 of 17 overall, including 4 of 15 from beyond the arc. She passed Kia Nurse’s record 22 set in the 2017 tourney for UConn, which lost in the national semifinals on the same court. Arizona’s Aari McDonald had 22 in six NCAA tourney games two years ago.

The big run for LSU came right after Amoore made her last 3-pointer with 7:52 left for a 62-57 lead. The Hokies didn’t make another basket until King’s 3 with 1:19 left.

“I think we had a few crucial turnovers as well as missed box-outs where they scored on second-chance opportunities,” Traylor said. “I think that’s just what it came down to really.”

Morris had opened the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer for LSU, then had a driving layup before Reese had a layup after a steal by Johnson. That quick 7-0 run prompted a timeout by Hokies coach Kenny Brooks.

“They hit a couple of shots, gave them a little bit of momentum. They hit a 3 right off the bat … kind of changed the momentum,” Brooks said. “They were aggressive in the passing lanes. But they also were a little bit more aggressive down low.”

Virginia Tech had ended the first half with its own 11-0 run to lead for the first time, at 34-32 on Traylor’s driving layup with 53 seconds left.

But it was the Tigers who led for 17:55 of the first half with the Hokies getting off to a slow start shooting – they missed eight of their first nine shots – that an LSU cheerleader had an assist even before they officially had a shot.

King was charged with a turnover on a ball that hit the rim and bounced over the top of the backboard and got stuck there. With encouragement from officials and others at that end, a male cheerleader lifted up a female cheerleader, who knocked the ball down.

Gradey Dick to leave Kansas for NBA draft after one season

Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

LAWRENCE, Kan. – Kansas sharpshooter Gradey Dick is entering the NBA draft after one season with the Jayhawks.

The 6-foot-8 guard announced his decision in a social media post Friday.

Dick started all 36 games for the Jayhawks and averaged 14.1 points while shooting better than 40% from 3-point range. He made 83 3-pointers, a program record for a freshman.

Kansas lost to Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, with Dick scoring just seven points in his finale.

Marquette’s Shaka Smart voted men’s AP coach of the year

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Shaka Smart has packed an entire career’s worth of experiences into 14 years as a college head coach. He led VCU to an improbable Final Four as a 30-something wunderkind in 2011, guided mighty Texas to a Big 12 Tournament title during six otherwise tepid years in Austin, and now has turned Marquette into a Big East beast.

It’s sometimes easy to forget he’s still just 45 years old.

Yet his work with the Golden Eagles this season might have been his best: Picked ninth in the 11-team league by its coaches, they won the regular-season title going away, then beat Xavier to win their first Big East Tournament championship.

That earned Smart the AP coach of the year award Friday. He garnered 24 of 58 votes from a national media panel to edge Kansas State’s Jerome Tang, who received 13 votes before guiding the Wildcats to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, and Houston’s Kelvin Sampson, who earned 10 before taking the Cougars to the Sweet 16.

Voting opened after the regular season and closed at the start of the NCAA Tournament, where the No. 2 seed Golden Eagles were knocked out in the second round by Michigan State and Smart’s longtime mentor, Tom Izzo.

“I’m very grateful to win this award,” said Smart, the second Marquette coach to take it home after Hall of Famer Al McGuire in 1971, “but obviously it always comes back to the guys you have on your team.

“Early on,” Smart said, “we had a real sense the guys had genuine care and concern for one another, and we had a very good foundation for relationships that we could continue to build on. And over the course of seasons, you go through so many different experiences as a team. And those experiences either bring you closer together or further apart. Our guys did a great job, even through adverse experiences, even through challenges, becoming closer together.”

It’s hardly surprising such cohesion is what Smart would choose to remember most from a most memorable season.

The native of Madison, Wisconsin, who holds a master’s degree in social science from California University of Pennsylvania, long ago earned a reputation for building close bonds with players and a tight-knit camaraderie within his teams.

No matter how high or low the Golden Eagles were this season, those traits carried them through.

“Everything that we go through, whether it be the retreat that we went on before the season, all the workouts in the summer, he’s preaching his culture,” said Tyler Kolek, a third-team All-American. “And he’s showing his leadership every single day, and just trying to impart that on us, and kind of put it in our DNA. Because it’s definitely in his DNA.”

That’s reflected in the way Smart, who accepted the Marquette job two years ago after an often bumpy tenure at Texas, has rebuilt the Golden Eagles program after it had begun to languish under Steve Wojciechowski.

Sure, Smart landed his share of transfers – Kolek among them – in an era in which the portal has become so prevalent. But he largely built a team that finished 29-7 this season around high school recruits, eschewing a quick fix in the hopes of long-term stability. Among those prospects were Kam Jones, their leading scorer, and do-everything forward David Joplin.

“He teaches us lots of things about the importance of each other,” Joplin said. “He lets us know, time and time again, that we can’t do anything without each other, but together we can do anything.”

That sounds like a decidedly old-school approach to building a college basketball program.

One embraced by a still-youthful head coach.

“I think being a head coach has never been more complicated, never been more nuanced, and never more all-encompassing,” Smart told the AP in a wide-ranging interview last week. “Does that mean it’s harder? You could say that.

“What makes your job less hard,” Smart said, “is having a captive audience in your players, and guys that truly understand and own what goes into winning, and that’s what we had this past year. But those things just don’t happen. There are a lot of steps that have to occur on the part of a lot of people, not just the coach, to get to where you have a winning environment.”

Purdue’s Zach Edey named AP men’s player of the year

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Zach Edey spent the days following Purdue’s historic NCAA Tournament loss lying low, his phone turned off, along with the rest of the outside world.

The disappointing finish did little to diminish the season the Boilermakers big man had.

Dominating at both ends of the floor during the regular season, Edey was a near-unanimous choice as The Associated Press men’s college basketball player of the year. Edey received all but one vote from a 58-person media panel, with Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis getting the other.

“The season ended in disappointment, which really sucks, but it’s always nice to win individual accolades,” Edey said. “It kind of validates your work a little bit. The last three years I’ve played here, I’ve seen my game grow every year. AP player of the year is a great feeling, it just kind of stinks the way the season ended.”

That ending came in the NCAA Tournament’s first round, when Purdue lost to Fairleigh Dickinson, joining Virginia in 2018 as the only No. 1 seeds to lose to a No. 16.

Before that, Edey dominated.

The 7-foot-4 Canadian was named a unanimous AP All-American and the Big Ten player of the year after finishing sixth nationally in scoring (22.3), second in rebounding (12.8) and first in double-doubles (26).

Edey also shot 62% from the floor and averaged 2.1 blocked shots per game while leading Purdue to its first outright Big Ten regular-season title since 2017. He is the first player since Navy’s David Robinson in 1985-86 to have at least 750 points, 450 rebounds and 50 blocked shots in a season.

“He’s kind of a one of a kind,” Purdue guard David Jenkins Jr. said. “I’ve never played with someone like him, probably never will again.”

And to think, Edey didn’t want to play basketball when he was younger.

A hockey and baseball player growing up in Toronto, Edey resisted basketball at first. He was 6-2 by the sixth grade and the natural inclination by the adults was to push him toward basketball, where his size would be a massive advantage.

“It was something I kind avoided all my life.,” Edey said. “I didn’t like people telling me what I should be doing with my life and it felt like that’s what people were doing with basketball. When I started playing competitively, that’s when I really fell in love with the sport.”

Edey developed his game quickly. He played at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and proved himself against some of the nation’s best high school players, drawing attention from college coaches. He ended up at Purdue, where coach Matt Painter had a proven track record of developing big men.

Edey had a limited role as a freshman, then averaged 14.4 points and 7.7 rebounds last season on a team that had talented big man Trevion Williams and future NBA lottery pick Jaden Ivey.

Already a tireless worker, Edey put in even more time during the offseason, spending extra time after practice and taking better care of his body. His already solid footwork got better, he added quickness and developed more patience with the constant double teams he faced – not to mention the barrage of physical play teams tried to employ against him.

“There’s not really any kind of cool, sexy answer,” Edey said. “I came in every day, I worked hard, I stayed after practice – stayed a long time after practice. I took care of my body and was able to steadily improve. There was nothing revolutionary I did. I just worked hard.”

It certainly paid off, even if the season ended with a huge disappointment.