On Wednesday, we took a look at the six teams that can legitimately be called national title contenders as well as the three teams that are a small tweak or two away from joining them.
Yesterday, we took look at the rest of the teams around the country and found eight that are seriously flawed but dangerous enough to win six games come March.
Today, we’re diving into Final Four sleepers, teams that are currently off of your radar but that have the horses to make a run come tournament time.
KANSAS STATE (+20000)
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: It is damn near impossible to score on Kansas State. They rank fourth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and as you might expect, they are near the top of every relevant defensive statistic — top 40 in defensive effective field goal percentage, top 25 in defensive turnover rate, third nationally in defensive rebounding percentage.
It all starts with Barry Brown Jr., who is one of the nation’s premier on-ball defenders and deserves to be in the same conversation with the likes of Tre Jones, Ashton Hagans and Zavier Simpson when it comes to the player most capable of wreaking havoc on opposing ball-handlers. His tenacity permeates the rest of the roster, which is made of dudes that are built to compete on that end of the floor. They’re tough, they’re old, they’re physical and they know they need to get stops to win. Last year, this style got them to within one game of the Final Four playing with this same team but without their best player, Dean Wade. It can work again.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: There are times where it is literally impossible for Kansas State to get a good shot offensively. Prior to this recent five-game winning streak, the Wildcats ranked outside of the top 200 in adjusted offensive efficiency. This is totally anecdotal, but I can not remember a single good team ever ranking that low.
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what’s going on here, either. The Wildcats don’t have shooters, which allows teams to clog the paint and, since they have a roster full of guards, they don’t exactly have the horses to finish through all those bodies. They are just #NotGood on that end of the floor.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: It already has changed: Dean Wade made his return to the lineup. Kansas State started off the season 6-0, but they lost Wade — who was already recovering from a foot injury that cost him last year’s tournament run — to another foot injury. He missed six games, but his return to the lineup and coincided with Kansas State’s return to form. His importance is two-fold:
- He is far and away the best three-point shooter on the roster, and since he’s 6-foot-10 and has to be run off the three-point line, his presence on the floor helps pull defenses away from the rim. He has gravity. No one else on Kansas State does.
- He’s also the best passer on the team, and while that doesn’t mean he’s going to lead the program in assists on a nightly basis, it does mean the ball moves better. Better ball movement means a defense that’s moving which means more driving lines and space for Kansas State’s slashers to create.
Bruce Weber’s teams doesn’t turn into the 2018 Villanova Wildcats with Wade on the floor, but they go from arguably the worst high-major offense in the sport to being a team that just might be good enough.
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: The talent that Will Wade has amassed around Tremont Waters has been as good as advertised. We knew what Waters was going to be entering the season, and frankly, he has been somewhat underwhelming as a sophomore, at least early in the season.
But Naz Reid has looked the part of a future first round pick while Skylar Mays and Ja’vonte Smart have been able to chip in with scoring and creating shots. Throw in the production that Wade is getting from Emmitt Williams, Kavel Bigby-Williams and Marlon Taylor, and this LSU team is going to be a tough out.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: They don’t get stops. The biggest issue is on the defensive glass, where the Tigers allow opponents to grab more than 30 percent of their offensive rebounds, which ranks 267th nationally. Considering the size and athleticism along that frontline, that’s not something that should be happening. The Tigers have also had issues running people off the three-point line, and while they create a lot of turnovers, they don’t force you into many bad shots.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: The Tigers will hit their ceiling when Waters hits top gear. He might already be there. During this current eight-game winning streak, Waters is averaging 17.9 points, 7.1 assists and 4.0 steals while shooting 38.5 percent from three. He is their engine, and while the rest of that roster is talented, if he’s not playing like an all-american, LSU is not going to be a threat to make a run in March.
Well, over the course fo the last six weeks, he has been playing like an all-american.
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: This team has turned out to be more than just the Carsen Edwards.
And to be clear, this is still the Carsen Edwards Show. C-Boogie has been as good as advertised this season, averaging a shade under 25 points while posting impressive efficiency numbers considering just how much of a load he carries in this offense.
The point is it’s not just the Carsen Edwards Show. Ryan Cline has grown into being a dangerous three-point shooter. Matt Haarms, Evan Boudreaux and, most recently, freshman Trevion Williams have taken turns being productive in the paint. Grady Eifert has developed into a solid role player that spaces the floor. The issue for this group isn’t on the offensive end the floor, where they are sixth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: Where they struggle is on the defensive end, and the biggest issue is that they aren’t running opponents off the three point line. Purdue is allowing 36.9 percent shooting from deep (291st nationally) while neatly 39 percent of the points scored against them come via the three-ball. This isn’t exactly unexpected, given that Purdue does not have all that much length or athleticism on their perimeter, but in an era that is dominated by three-point shooting, this is the kind of thing that can tank a season.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Honestly, not much.
They just need to start winning close games. To date, the Boilermakers are eighth in KenPom’s rankings largely due to the fact that they have only lose two games by double digits (at Michigan and at Michigan State) and that all six of their losses have come away from home. This is a good basketball team that hasn’t had many breaks go their way.
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: You probably don’t realize just how talented this team actually is.
The name that everyone has been on recently is Bruno Fernando, an athletic, 6-foot-10 monster that has been overpowering defenders in the post and grabbing seemingly every rebound within reach. He’s improved his draft stock as much as anyone this year, going from being a likely second rounder to a borderline lottery pick.
And he wasn’t even supposed to be the lottery big man on this roster, Jalen Smith was.
And neither of them are Maryland’s best player. Anthony Cowan is. There is a lot to like about this group.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: Maryland has an issue at the point guard spot. One of the things that Mark Turgeon has done this season is move Anthony Cowan off the ball in the same way that he moved Melo Trimble off the ball later in his career. This made sense with Trimble because Cowan was on the roster, but I’m not sure that this makes sense right now. Cowan might be Maryland’s best scorer, but putting the ball in Eric Ayala’s hands full time has not been all that successful — Ayala has a higher turnover rate than assist rate — and the Terps currently sit 206th nationally in turnover rate.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: Ayala is a freshman, and as he gets more experience under his belt the turnovers should be less of an issue. The same can be said about Jalen Smith, another freshman, or Aaron Wiggins. In fact, the Terps are one of the youngest teams in all of college basketball, with just one senior (who rarely plays) and one junior (Cowan) in the rotation. This is the kind of team that only gets better as they get more reps, and they are already 16-4 on the year and 7-2 in the Big Ten.
THEY CAN WIN IT ALL BECAUSE: Ethan Happ is the most unique player in the country that is not named Zion Williamson. He’s 6-foot-11 and the best post scorer in the country. He’s averaging 19.2 points, 10.3 boards and 4.8 assists on the season, which is a stat line that has only been put up once since 1992.
By Ben Simmons.
And like Ben Simmons, Happ is essentially a point guard that hit a growth spurt late. He’s a terrific ball-handler that often grabs a defense rebound, handles the ball and dribbles into a post-up, which he is as good as anyone at passing out of. All you need to do is watch the performance he had in Saturday’s win over Michigan (26 points, 10 boards, seven assists) to understand just how dominant he can be.
BUT THEY’RE IN TROUBLE BECAUSE: Happ cannot shoot. He is 1-for-15 from three in his collegiate career. He shot 64.3 percent from the foul line as a freshman and has not cracked 55 percent in a season since then. He’s because such a liability at the line that teams have gone to a Hack-a-Happ strategy late in games. That hasn’t always been successful, but it is never a comforting thing for a coach when you are hesitant to put the ball in your best player’s hands late in a close game for fear of him getting sent to the foul line intentionally.
WHAT NEEDS CHANGING?: While I’m sure Badger fans would love to see Frank Kaminsky’s jumper transplanted into Happ (which, frankly, would make him a top five pick in this year’s draft, don’t @ me) the truth is that Wisconsin really just needs some consistency out of their supporting cast to be able to hit their ceiling. D’Mitrik Trice was lights-out for the first six weeks of the season, but it’s not a coincidence that Wisconsin struggled to score as defenses were able to key in on him. Brad Davison is a really good role player and fits the Wisconsin brand perfectly, but he’s not exactly a guy that you want to rely on to be your second-best weapon offensively. That’s just not his skillset.
I’d love to see Nate Reuvers be a little more consistent and aggressive, but he’s produced in his minutes. The answer, in my mind, is finding a way to get Kobe King, Aleem Ford and Brevin Pritzl going. When they do, I doubt that you’ll see Wisconsin put up anymore 14 point halves.