Sleepers To Make the Sweet 16 (March Madness 2022)

Mar 15, 2022 - 4:46 PM

It’s every sports fan’s favorite storyline of the college basketball season: the Cinderella team that goes deeper into the NCAA tournament than their seed suggests they should.

Mid-major upsets have been a part of March Madness for decades, but they truly burst onto the scene in 2006 when George Mason went from an 11-seed all the way to the Final Four, defeating the top-seeded UConn Huskies along the way. And remember Florida Gulf Coast, perhaps better known as Dunk City, in 2013? The 15th-seeded Eagles jammed and slammed their way to the Sweet 16 just weeks after most college basketball fans learned they even had a Division 1 program.

Of course, just last year, 15-seed Oral Roberts upset Ohio State and Florida before narrowly falling to Arkansas in the Sweet 16. But is there an Oral Roberts of the 2022 Tournament? There’s bound to be, and here are the top three sleeper candidates to get it done.

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South Dakota State Jackrabbits

The Jacks, as they’re known in South Dakota, are a lethal offensive bunch, and all they do is win. Literally. They went an undefeated 18-0 in conference play, and that wasn’t just in any run-of-the-mill conference. They flat-out dominated what many consider the best mid-major conference in college basketball – the Summit League. The Jackrabbits went 3-0 in the conference tournament as well, winning by an average margin of 12.3 points per game. It shouldn’t be that easy on the season’s toughest stage.

As mentioned, South Dakota State can score the basketball. In fact, only one other team in the entire country averaged more points than the Jacks, who averaged an astounding 86.7 per game. They shoot an unbelievable 52.5% from the floor, 75.9% from the line, and they’re unselfish as well. Their 15.2 assists per game were two full helpers more than any other team in the conference.

The Jackrabbits are also an experienced bunch and played the schedule of a team expecting to be here in March. They scored 88 points on Alabama in a loss, they beat Nevada by 27 and took down Washington State just before conference play began. And remember the Oral Roberts team I mentioned in the open? They also play in the Summit League. This conference is no joke, and they’re no stranger to making noise in the NCAA Tournament.

South Dakota State has a favorable matchup against an overrated Providence team in round one, and they’ve got a real chance to build momentum to make a deep run in the dance.

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Murray State Racers

It might sound crazy, but this Murray State team may be better than the Murray State team that featured Ja Morant, who is staking his claim as one of the best players in the NBA right now.

The Racers, like the aforementioned Jackrabbits, didn’t lose a conference game this year. And like the Jacks, the Racers play in a really strong mid-major league – the Ohio Valley Conference – but the OVC is extremely top-heavy with the likes of Murray State, Belmont, and Morehead State. Belmont only lost three times in conference play; two were to the Racers. Morehead State only lost five times in conference play, and three times were at the hands of Murray State. This is a 30-win team whose only losses came to East Tennessee State and an Auburn team who just happens to be a two seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Speaking of their schedule, Murray State beat some strong opponents along the way to earn their 30-2 mark. They beat Bellarmine, who won the Atlantic Sun, they topped Memphis, who is a nine-seed in the dance, and they edged Chattanooga by 11, a team who is also poised to make a Cinderella run in the NCAA Tournament (spoiler alert). The Racers are battle-tested, and they’re confident.

Murray State’s team stats back up their impressive record. They not only averaged the most points in the OVC (79.3), they also allowed the fewest (62.3). The Racers generate offense both inside and beyond the arc and have a .489 field goal percentage to prove it, but their ability to defend the three-point line is what makes them dangerous. Their conference-best .303 opponent three-point percentage is a real neutralizer and will go a long way to preventing momentum swings against them.

Chattanooga Mocs

The Mocs don’t have the undefeated conference record or the 30-win season that South Dakota State and Murray State have, but they’ve got a ton of momentum and a bunch of teams around them in the South Region who are incredibly beatable.

Let’s start with the engine that makes this team go – Malachi Smith. Smith averages 20.1 points and 3.1 assists per game, both pacing this Chattanooga bunch, and he pitches in 6.7 rebounds per game to boot. He’s the complete package, and despite being just a sophomore in a mid-major conference, he plays a team-high 35.4 minutes per game. Smith swipes nearly two steals per game on the defensive end too, and when he gets the ball in his hands, it’s off to the races. He shoots 50.5% from the floor, 41.5% from three, and perhaps most importantly, he sinks 83.2% of his foul shots. This is a player the Mocs can count on in pressure situations.

And let’s not forget David Jean-Baptiste, the man who made this potential tournament run possible with his buzzer-beater in the conference championship game to down Furman. Jean-Baptiste isn’t just a one-hit-wonder either – he plays 33.2 minutes per night and averages 14.7 points per game himself. Let’s also not downplay the importance of that buzzer-beater. Of course, it sent Chattanooga to the tournament, but it’s sure to give them the confidence that they’re never out of a game, and confidence is one of the most important factors in March.

Finally, this team is deep. They’ve got 10 players who played in at least 20 games, 10 who play at least 10 minutes a night, and eight players who average at least five points per game. It’s not just their two-headed backcourt monster that fuels this team. It’s everyone, and that’s huge come tournament time.

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