and Ohio State could deploy their stingy defense to make a run in the tournament. (Michael Hickey/Getty)
When a regular-season conference champion stampedes through the NCAA tournament brackets, it is no surprise. There are no guarantees at all, but high-level success over an 18-game schedule is a good indicator of success during the tournament's six-game stretch. Still, it's possible that someone from the pack is equally equipped.
So who are the possible NCAA tournament sleeper teams from multi-bid conferences – the ones a step or two outside the spotlight but capable of crashing in? Here's a look:
AAC: Connecticut. Any team this guard-oriented has a certain feast-or-famine vibe to it, even as Shabazz Napier (17.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists per game) has been consistent in his All-American caliber season. But trying circumstances will be nothing new. The Huskies have a win over Florida and Cincinnati and two victories over Memphis. And they have a seasoned, clutch performer to guide them. Per ESPN, in the last five minutes of the second half or overtime with the score within five points, Napier averages 1.13 points per play.
Atlantic-10: Massachusetts. The shine of a fast start has dissipated, but the Minutemen still rank a respectable 43rd nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency per kenpom.com and have wins over Nebraska, New Mexico, Clemson, BYU, Providence and VCU. (Everyone sees the Rams coming at this stage, so it's hard to view them as a sleeper even if they don't win the league.) A senior point guard, Chaz Williams, drives the operation.
ACC: North Carolina. How is it possible, you might ask, that a team on a 12-game win streak toward the top of the league standings is a sleeper? For one, there are just four locks for the 68-team field from the ACC. But the Tar Heels' defensive revival is also under-promoted. As of Wednesday morning, North Carolina was No. 17 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing 93.7 points per 100 possessions. Only Virginia asphyxiates offenses more effectively among tournament-bound ACC teams. No one really talks about North Carolina as a Final Four contender just yet, but maybe it's worth a discussion.
Big 12: Oklahoma. The Sooners have just two bad losses the entire season and just one in the rugged Big 12 – a Dec. 30 overtime home loss to Louisiana Tech and a Feb. 12 home loss to Texas Tech. Otherwise they've beaten every Big 12 contender they've played twice, besides Kansas, and they'll be very difficult to prepare for on short notice. The Sooners are eighth in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, averaging 117.2 points per 100 possessions. Five players average in double figures. Defense will be a major concern. But opponents will have stop the Sooners, too.
Big East: Xavier/Providence. It's a tie. The problem here is that some deep sleeper candidates – St. John's and Georgetown – might not even make the NCAA tournament. Both the Friars and Musketeers have imperfections but also boast top-30 strength of schedule figures and combustible lead guards (Semaj Christon for Xavier and Bryce Cotton for Providence). Xavier has the better defense while Providence has the shot-makers. Both have beaten Creighton and neither have beaten Villanova. Both are capable of early implosions as well as surprising into the second weekend.
Big Ten: Ohio State. Maybe no team will be picked against more in the first and second rounds, because few teams with as much talent have such a difficult time scoring as the Buckeyes do. But a defense ranking second nationally with 89 points allowed per 100 possessions, per kenpom.com, can startle some teams. Maybe Big Ten clubs are all too familiar with Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott by now and therefore are equipped to withstand the defensive activity levels. A few steals and a few easy run-outs against more unsuspecting foes may help Ohio State rediscover its rhythm.
Pac-12: Arizona State. Plenty about the Sun Devils can give pause, especially the four straight road losses after a defeat at Oregon on Tuesday night. But there is the lead guard (Jahii Carson with 18.7 points per game) and the rim protector (Jordan Bachynski with 4.3 blocks per game) and that win over Arizona on the resume. Three regulars – Carson, Jermaine Marshall and Jonathan Gilling – shoot 40 percent or better from three-point range. The defense is ranked No. 22 nationally per kenpom.com. The parts are in place to make the Sun Devils dangerous.
In order for the SEC to have a sleeper, some team other than Florida or Kentucky actually needs to make the tournament. While Arkansas seems to have an invite sewn up, and while Missouri and Tennessee might not even make it, let's talk about the Volunteers
. The Volunteers have balance, with a No. 17 adjusted offense and a No. 46 adjusted defense, and they have a productive scorer in Jordan McRae
(19.3 points per game). The problem is a lack of real quality wins besides the outlier result of throttling Virginia on Dec. 30. But then that can be said for every other SEC team on the bubble.