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

source:

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 Ballinisahabit.net and follow him on Twitter at @BIAHTroyMachir.