Best Bets: Final Four sleepers you need to know about

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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.

Those nine teams should be the consensus best in college hoops.

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.



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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

LSU (+10000)

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.

(Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

PURDUE (+4000)

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.

(Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

MARYLAND (+8000)

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.

(AP Photo/Andy Manis)

WISCONSIN (+10000)

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.

Duke edges North Carolina 63-57 behind Roach, Lively

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

DURHAM, N.C. — Jeremy Roach scored 20 points, Dereck Lively II had career highs of eight blocks and 14 rebounds and Duke defeated North Carolina 63-57.

Kyle Filipowski added 14 points and Tyrese Proctor 11 for the Blue Devils (17-6, 8-4 ACC), who won their third straight and beat the Tar Heels (15-8, 7-5) for the first time in three meetings, including in last year’s Final Four in the NCAA Tournament.

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot had 14 points and 10 rebounds for his 63rd career double-double, extending his own program record, Leaky Black had 13 points and 10 rebounds, Caleb Love added 12 points and RJ Davis 11.

Roach scored eight of Duke’s final 10 points, including the last four after Lively’s tiebreaking dunk with 1:35 to go. North Carolina missed its last five shots, including a trio of 3-point tries in the final minute.

The Blue Devils’ six-point winning margin matched their largest lead.

Neither team reached 40% shooting but Duke outscored North Carolina 20-2 off fast breaks and was 11 of 15 at the free-throw line to only 2 of 3 for the Tar Heels.

The stat sheet was fairly even at halftime when Duke led 33-32 except for one telling stat, a 16-0 advantage for the Blue Devils on fast-break points as they scored repeatedly off transition.

A 14-5 run erased a seven-point North Carolina lead — the Tar Heels’ largest — and put Duke in front 26-24 with just under four minutes left in the half. A Proctor 3-pointer broke the fourth tie before Bacot cut it to the one-point margin at the break. Bacot had 12 points in the first half. Roach had 10.

The game matched two men who played in this rivalry and are now leading the programs they played for: first-year Duke coach Jon Scheyer and Hubert Davis, in his second year for North Carolina.

The teams will meet again in their regular-season finale at Chapel Hill on March 4. Duke plays at No. 23 Miami on Monday. North Carolina is at Wake Forest on Tuesday.

No. 13 Iowa State rolls past eighth-ranked Kansas 68-53

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

AMES, Iowa – Jaren Holmes scored all 15 of his points in the second half as No. 13 Iowa State rolled past No. 8 Kansas 68-53 on Saturday.

Osun Osunniyi added 13 for the Cyclones (16-6, 7-3 Big 12), who stayed within at least a game of front-running Texas in the conference standings. Tamin Lipsey added eight rebounds and 10 assists.

“Today, we came out and played desperate,” Holmes said.

Jalen Wilson led the Jayhawks (18-5, 6-4) with 26 points for his sixth straight game with at least 20. No other Kansas player had more than 8 points.

“It’s not a formula for success for us,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “We need balance from our starting five. If one guy feels like he’s got to go do it all on his own, it crashes the offense.”

The Cyclones led for all but 1:14 of the game, building a 34-16 scoring edge in the paint. Kansas struggled early, making just two of their first 10 shots and committing 11 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.

Iowa State shot 46% for the game.

“From the beginning, we gave them some easy buckets,” Wilson said. “That’s something we’ve struggled with (defensively) … the easiest way to get comfortable is easy buckets, layups, stuff like that.”

Iowa State was up 33-21 at the break.

Holmes missed all four shots in the first half, but after getting sick at halftime, he helped the Cyclones stretched the lead to 42-31 early in the second half with a 3-pointer and layup.

“I felt a little nauseous the whole day,” he said. “I’ve been dealing with some sickness over the past week and a half.”


Kansas: The Jayhawks dropped to 3-4 during a stretch in which six of its seven opponents were ranked. The lone unranked foe was Kentucky. … Kansas committed a season-high 20 turnovers Saturday. … The loss to Iowa State was Self’s first in five meetings with second-year Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger.

Iowa State: Improved to 12-0 at home this season and 5-0 in the Big 12. It was also the Cyclones’ fifth win over a top-10 opponent in the past two seasons.


Kansas: Hosts No. 10 Texas on Monday.

Iowa State: Travels to West Virginia on Wednesday.

Bishop helps No. 10 Texas rally past No. 7 Kansas State, 69-66

Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Christian Bishop was as frustrated as anyone in a Texas jersey in the first half Saturday. He’d been held without a point by Kansas State and, not surprisingly, the No. 10 Longhorns were facing a double-digit deficit on the road.

Maybe that’s why he punctuated every bucket in the second half with a fist pump.

Bishop poured in 14 points after the break to lead the Longhorns’ comeback, including the go-ahead lay-in with 37 seconds to go, and the new Big 12 leaders held on for a 69-66 victory over the No. 7 Wildcats on Saturday.

“Christian’s been working really hard over the last couple of games to get him back to the level he was playing four or five games ago,” interim Texas coach Rodney Terry said. “He really came out and rebounded and gave our team an incredible lift the way he played the second half.”

Red-hot guard Sir’Jabari Rice also had 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Longhorns, and it was his two free throws with nine seconds left that forced the Wildcats into needing a 3-pointer to send the game to overtime.

After a quick timeout, the Wildcats’ Ismael Massoud got an open look from the wing but came up well short of the basket, allowing the Longhorns to hold on for their fifth win over a Top 25 team this season.

Tyrese Hunter and Marcus Carr added 10 points apiece for Texas (19-4, 8-2), which took over sole possession of first place in the rough-and-tumble Big 12 by avenging its overtime loss to the Wildcats (18-5, 6-4) early last month.

“Our league, we don’t have any bad teams,” Terry said. “To come in on a home court against a top-10 team and have this kind of performance, I’ll stack it up with one of the best wins I’ve been part of in 30 years of coaching.”

Keyontae Johnson struggled through foul trouble but still had 16 points to lead the Wildcats, who have lost back-to-back games for the first time this season. Desi Sills scored 11 points and Markquis Nowell had 10, but he also had six turnovers, including one with less than a minute to go and Kansas State down by one.

“I don’t want to wash this one. I want to live with this one for 36 hours,” Wildcats coach Jerome Tang said. “Everybody in our arena did our job except the coaches and players on the floor.”

Kansas State and Texas played one of the most entertaining games of the season in Austin, when they went bucket-for-bucket through regulation and into overtime. The Wildcats eventually escaped with a 116-103 victory.

Early on Saturday, Texas looked as if it would struggle to score half as much.

With the Wildcats clamping down on the perimeter, the Longhorns kept throwing the ball away, and at one point had seven turnovers against just five made shots. They also went a stretch of more than 7 minutes with just one field goal.

Kansas State took advantage of their offensive malaise.

Despite the sure-handed Nowell’s turnover trouble, and leading scorer Johnson picking up his third foul with 5 1/2 minutes left in the half, the Wildcats steadily built a lead. It reached as many as 14 before Texas made three free throws in the final second to get within 36-25 heading to the locker room.

It was the spark the Longhorns needed: They made their first six shots of the second half, and their run spanning the break eventually reached 17-4 while getting them within 40-39 with 15 minutes left in the game.

“There were points in the second half we did get rushed,” Nowell said, “and it led to turnovers and fast-break points.”

Rice’s 3-pointer a few minutes later gave Texas its first lead since the opening minutes. And when the Wildcats went on a nearly 5-minute scoring drought, Bishop began to assert control, the Creighton transfer scoring 11 points over a 6-minute stretch and punctuating each of them with a roar and a fist pump.

Just like their first meeting Jan. 3, though, the rematch Saturday was destined to go down to the wire.

“There’s no blowouts in our league,” Tang said.


Texas could do nothing right in the first half and nothing wrong in the second, shooting 57% from the floor over the final 20 minutes. Most of the success came in the paint; the Longhorns were just 4 of 16 from the 3-point arc.

Kansas State couldn’t overcome 19 turnovers, including six by Nowell, who had 36 points, nine assists and eight rebounds when the teams met in Austin. He had just six rebounds and three assists on Saturday.


Texas heads down Interstate 70 to face eighth-ranked Kansas on Monday night.

Kansas State wraps its homestand against No. 15 TCU on Tuesday night.

James leads No. 2 Tennessee over No. 25 Auburn, 46-43

Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Josiah-Jordan James scored 15 points and 14 rebounds to lead No. 2 Tennessee to a 46-43 victory over No. 25 Auburn on Saturday in a game in which every point was difficult and nothing flowed.

“Both teams played as hard as they could,” said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes. “Every possession was a grind.”

The Volunteers (19-4, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) shot just 27% from the field and 9.5% from the 3-point line. They were recovering from a Wednesday loss to Florida in which they shot 28%.

Tennessee had a 47-42 edge on the boards and 15-8 on the offensive glass.

“A game like this shows a lot of character,” said James. “I knew coming in (rebounding) was what I’d be called to do. I had to use the body God’s given me.”

“Both teams did a fantastic job,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. “To hold Tennessee to 27% … It doesn’t get any better than that.”

“I don’t think there’s a more physical league in the country,” said Barnes.

The Tigers (17-6, 7-3) were led by Johni Broome with 11 points and nine rebounds and K.D. Johnson off the bench with 10 points. Auburn managed only 24% from the field and 11% from the 3-point line.

Jaylin Williams made two free throws with 2:47 to play cut Tennessee’s lead to 40-38. Santiago Vescovi hit his first 3-pointer of the game and got a four-point play out of it for a 44-38 lead. A 3-pointer by Wendell Green Jr. cut the advantage to 44-41 with 30 seconds left.

A turnover on the inbounds play gave Auburn the ball with 23 seconds to play. Broome got a tip-in to make it a one-point game, and Zakai Zeigler made two free throws.

Green’s last-second 3-point to tie clanked out.

“At the end, Wendell Green got the shot off and got fouled,” said Pearl. “Nothing got called.”

Auburn scored eight straight points to start the game. Tennessee followed with a six-point run and an eight-point spurt early in the second half. Those were the longest runs of the game.


Tennessee was in the No. 2 spot in the poll for two days before falling at Florida. Under Barnes, the Vols now have 25 wins over teams ranked in the Top 25. . Auburn had been clinging to the elite at No. 25 this week. The Tigers have been ranked as high as No. 11, coming in the fifth week of the season.


Since statistics started being kept in 1999-2000, Tennessee is on pace to be the all-time leader in field-goal percentage defense (.348; Stanford, 1999-2000, is second .352) and 3-point defense (.225; Norfolk State, 2004-05, is second .253). . Through 22 games, the similarities between last year’s Vols point guard Kennedy Chandler (now with the Memphis Grizzlies) and this year’s Ziegler are striking (points per game: Chandler 13.5, Ziegler 11.4; rebounds: 3.0, 3.0; assists: 4.95, 5.05).


Auburn: The Tigers will host Texas A&M on Tuesday night.

Tennessee: The Vols will tackle in-state rival Vanderbilt in Nashville on Wednesday.

Pedulla’s 22 points lift Virginia Tech past No. 6 Virginia

Lee Luther Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

BLACKSBURG, Va. – Sean Pedulla scored 22 points and Virginia Tech beat No. 6 Virginia 74-68 on Saturday, snapping the Cavaliers’ seven-game winning streak.

Pedulla made 6 of 13 from the floor as the Hokies (14-10, 4-8 Atlantic Coast Conference) posted their biggest win of the season. He added 8 of 9 from the free-throw line. Justin Mutts added 17 points.

Virginia Tech never trailed and shot 50% from the floor for the fourth straight game.

“There was no pouting (after the Miami loss). Just back to practice the next day,” Virginia Tech coach Mike Young said of his team, which lost 92-83 to No. 23 Miami on Tuesday. “Yeah, we’ve got Virginia coming in. Yes, in-state and all of that stuff. We’ve got another opportunity to play another really good opponent. We’ve got a chance to play Virginia Tech basketball and fight and compete and adhere to the things that are important to us – and we did that by and large on both ends of the floor.”

Jayden Gardner’s 20 points led Virginia (17-4, 9-3), which saw its usually stingy defense struggle. Kihei Clark finished with 17 points for the Cavaliers, while Reece Beekman had 15. Armaan Franklin, who had scored in double figures in 10 straight games, had six.

The Cavaliers tied the game at 38 on Gardner’s basket with 15:09 remaining, but the Hokies outscored Virginia 17-7 over the next seven minutes and never looked back.

Mutts hit 7 of 11 from the floor and added eight assists and four rebounds. Grant Basile had 14 points and Hunter Cattoor scored all 10 of his points in the second half for the Hokies.

“The heart was there, but to win in this setting against a team that’s playing good basketball, and Tech is, and they’ve got the players, you’ve got to be hard and smart,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “You can’t just be all hard. We were (hard and smart) for stretches, and they made us make some adjustments that helped a little bit, but they made the big shots.”


Virginia: The Cavaliers suffered a rare poor outing on the defensive end, and it cost them. They led the ACC in scoring defense (60.2 ppg) going in, but allowed the Hokies to score 74 points and shoot 50.9% (27 of 53) from the floor. The Hokies became just the third team this season to shoot better than 50% against Virginia and scored 40 points in the paint.

“They run a lot of action, whether it’s dribble handoffs, fakes, they keep you on your toes, and it takes an incredible, and I think disciplined (effort) to keep them in front and keep them out of the paint,” Bennett said.

Virginia Tech: After losing eight of their previous 10 games, the Hokies needed a big win to help their thin NCAA Tournament resume. Registering 19 assists and turning the ball over just eight times were keys.

“Obviously, we keep up with stuff throughout the year, like `Oh, this would be a huge win on our resume,”‘ Pedulla said. “We do think about (the NCAA Tournament), and we obviously want to get there again. We know our team’s capable of it. We’re focused on it and we’re just trying to stack those wins on top of each other. I think this win definitely helps us.”


The Cavaliers were one-point underdogs going into the game, so they shouldn’t drop more than a few spots in Monday’s poll.


Virginia: Hosts N.C. State on Tuesday.

Virginia Tech: Takes on Boston College in Blacksburg on Wednesday.