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Who Will Be This Year’s Power Conference Sleeper?

An extremely scientific investigation to find which modestly seeded major league squad will make headlines this March

Jevon Carter, Trae Young, John Calipari, Keita Bates-Diop, and Michael Porter Jr.
Jevon Carter, Trae Young, John Calipari, Keita Bates-Diop, and Michael Porter Jr.
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The best three weeks of the year (non–World Cup division) are upon us. March Madness has arrived, and with it come brackets, office pools (for fun, of course—definitely not as vehicles for illegal, low-stakes gambling), and a constant sense of dread brought on by the fact that Kentucky is putting it all together at the right time. But more than that, the NCAA tournament brings uncertainty and excitement: Will a 5-seed lose to a 12? Could this be the year a 1-seed finally falls to a lowly 16? And how about [insert Atlantic 10 school of choice]? Are they this year’s Butler?

For as much focus as we like to give to the mid-majors—the upstart Cinderellas like George Mason or Wichita State that are deified in tournament promos and “One Shining Moment” montages—the Big Dance is defined by power-conference schools. Blue bloods like Duke and North Carolina have dominated the Big Dance since its inception. Each year, they enter the tournament on one of the top few lines, and any loss they suffer is considered an upset. But even in years when the favorites falter, some teams from power conferences still manage to rise above the field.

This year, 37 of the 68 teams called on Selection Sunday play in what can be considered a major basketball conference (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, or Pac-12), and most are not headliners. Random mid-major teams make deep runs every few years, but every Dance has a well-known but underseeded team that busts the lion’s share of brackets. In 2005 and 2010, Michigan State made the Final Four as a 5-seed. In 2014, eighth-seeded Kentucky nearly won the title but was thwarted by seventh-seeded UConn. In 2016, Syracuse reached the Final Four as a 10-seed before falling to North Carolina. There will certainly be a Power Conference Spoiler this year, but which team will it be?

For the purposes of this exercise, I’m defining a Power Conference Sleeper as any team from the previously listed conferences seeded fifth or lower. Though other conferences like the American Athletic Conference and the Mountain West field great squads—the former even claiming multiple national championships—the gap in KenPom Adjusted Efficiency Margin between the top six conferences and the next-strongest league is too large to ignore. Sorry, AAC, there’s always next year.

Eliminating the top-four seeds removes Virginia, Villanova, Xavier, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, Purdue, Texas Tech, Tennessee, Michigan, Michigan State, Auburn, and Arizona from our field. That leaves us with a pool of 24 teams that will be reduced by a series of empirical, definitely not-arbitrary rules. Winnowing the remaining group of teams down to one Power Conference Sleeper won’t be easy, but it must be done. For science.

Power Conference Sleepers Must Have Gone at Least .500 In-Conference

Right off the bat, we lose some of the most compelling Power Conference Sleeper candidates. Gone are the likes of Alabama, Arizona State, Texas, Oklahoma, and Syracuse. As we’ve already established, most of the bracket is populated by power conference members. And the only way to prove you can beat other power conference teams is by, well, beating power conference teams. So having a losing record against such teams across an 18-game sample isn’t a great look.

Funnily enough, it’s the Orange that inspired this rule. In 2016, before rattling off four straight wins in the NCAA tournament, Syracuse finished 9-9 in the ACC. An even .500. And while they benefited from some luck (shouts to Middle Tennessee State!), Jim Boeheim’s squad reached the Final Four honestly, using a brutal zone defense to suffocate Gonzaga and Virginia in back-to-back games. Playing zone might be for cowards, but it’s sure as hell better than losing.

Sorry Collin Sexton, Mo Bamba, and Trae Young. We’ll see you at the draft. As for the 19 remaining teams ...

Power Conference Sleepers Need a Go-To Playmaker

What horrible luck. Three of the five schools eliminated in the last cut have exactly that. Sexton and Young are both elite scorers, and while Bamba can’t finish as consistently Marvin Bagley III in the half-court set, he can still function as a reliable post-scorer.

Practically, this standard makes sense. Every team that makes a deep tournament run finds itself in a do-or-die scenario with time winding down. In those moments, it’s essential to have a player who can make something out of nothing. Players like West Virginia’s Jevon Carter and UCLA’s Aaron Holiday are good enough to carry their teams when the game is tight.

The go-to guy doesn’t need to be the team’s highest scorer. Florida’s Jalen Hudson gets more buckets than any of his teammates, but everybody knows that in a tight spot, Chris Chiozza is going to be the last Gator to touch the ball.

Unfortunately, this eliminates Texas A&M, Providence, TCU, Florida State, Missouri, and NC State from contention. A&M likely has two future NBA forwards in Robert Williams and DJ Hogg, but to borrow a line from my Ringer colleague Shea Serrano, neither of them can be counted on in a crisis. The same goes for NC State’s Allerik Freeman, any of Florida State’s wings, and the entirety of Providence or TCU’s rosters. And while Michael Porter Jr. may add another dimension to Missouri’s offense, his lackluster display in the SEC tournament didn’t prove that he was ready to carry the Tigers. If he shakes off the rust, this prediction will look foolish. But that’s a big ask. Thirteen teams are left.

No Teams With Jokes in Their Names Relating to How They Run a Press

This one really hurts. Bob Huggins and West (Press) Virginia are consistently one of my favorite teams to root for. They never take a possession off, and their veteran core of Cater, Daxter Miles, and Sagaba Konate is among the best in the country. But this is the tournament: Defensive schemes almost always lead to trouble. There’s a blueprint in place for teams that make deep runs using gimmicky defenses: Don’t allow more possessions than you need to, and if in doubt, apply the zone.

West Virginia has made a handful of Sweet 16s under Huggins, and in 2010, they made it all the way to the Final Four before falling to eventual national champion Duke. But apart from that run, Huggins’s teams have never quite fulfilled their potential. Maybe this year will be different. Maybe the Mountaineers will break through once more and win their region. It’s more likely that they’ll run into Villanova in the Sweet 16 where point god Jalen Brunson will beat the press and send WVU home. The count is now 12.

Power Conference Sleepers Must Have More Than Just a Single Star

Ohio State (Keita Bates-Diop), Miami (Lonnie Walker IV), Butler (Kelan Martin), and UCLA (Aaron Holiday) are all one-star teams that leave us here. Fans of these squads will guffaw at the assumption that their rosters feature only one transcendent talent, but the truth is there isn’t much for these four squads to lean on beyond the names listed above. Bates-Diop’s evolution from highly touted recruit to injury-prone washout to NBA draft darling has been inspiring, and Ohio State wouldn’t be here without him. But the Buckeyes don’t have anyone else to turn to if he goes cold. The same goes for the Hurricanes and Bruins. Butler comes the closest to making this cut, but I’m not sure second-leading-scorer Kamar Baldwin has what it takes to become a tournament legend.

Eight teams remain.

No Big East Schools

You see that? It’s called a bait and switch. I told you the Big East was a major basketball conference, and then I took it back. This conference, in the year of our Mark Emmert 2018, is not really the Big East. Gone are the days when UConn or Syracuse or Louisville beefed up the roster. Gone are the selection shows that featured 11 of the conference’s 16 teams making the field. The old Big East is dead. Villanova is Villanova, and Xavier is one of the best teams in the country, but the Big East is a top-heavy league this year. This was all more fun when Butler and Creighton were true mid-majors. Six teams left.

Power Conference Sleepers Must Come From Schools With Storied Pasts

All of the most recent Power Conference Sleepers have had some sort of recent tournament legacy. Syracuse won the 2003 title and has made a handful of deep runs. Under Jim Calhoun in the mid-aughts, Connecticut was one of the most consistent programs in the country. And Kentucky’s run in 2014 came just two years after they cut down the nets as the top-overall seed.

This eliminates Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Kansas State. Between them, they have just four trips to the Elite Eight starting in 1980, and only one since 2000. None have ever won a title, and the Wildcats are the only team of the group to have made a Final Four—the last of which came in 1964.

Using past success as a barometer for future success can be tricky. College basketball programs are rising and falling more rapidly than ever, and the four-year windows that have classically defined an era of success for a program are shrinking. The presence of one-and-dones and the proliferation of transfers have made long-term team identities almost nonexistent. But the track record of former Power Conference Sleepers is undeniable. Teams with decorated pasts keep repeating history. And while including this criteria may go against what the common idea of a “sleeper” is—an under-the-radar team that unexpectedly succeeds—it’s essential to predicting which typical heavyweight will make a run.

After making this cut, the remaining three teams—Arkansas, Florida, and Kentucky—have each won at least one championship starting in 1990 and have combined for 16 Final Four appearances in that time.

I have a bad feeling about this.

Did Any Remaining Team Win Their Conference Tournament? Because That’s The Power Conference Sleeper.

It’s Kentucky. Of course it’s Kentucky. Was this ever going to end another way? The Wildcats are one of the most skilled teams in the country, a Voltron made up of Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PJ Washington, and a half-dozen other five-star recruits, like Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt. The Wildcats had a rough regular season but they’re putting everything together at the right time, just like they did in 2014 when Julius Randle, James Young, and the Harrison twins were running Big Blue Nation.

This year’s Kentucky squad won the SEC tournament as a 4-seed, powering through Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee en route to a conference crown. They have a top-25 offense and defense per KenPom, and are getting more second-chance opportunities this year than they did on their Elite Eight run last season. They’re better at defending the 3-point shot than nearly any team in the country—an essential tournament skill that can prevent opponents from going on long, dangerous scoring runs—and though they can shoot the deep ball at an above-average clip, they have other, more effective ways to score if the 3s aren’t falling.

Kentucky didn’t get an easy draw. To make the Elite Eight, it’ll have to go through Arizona—one of a handful of squads that can match Kentucky’s’ talent—and Virginia, which might be the best team in the country. But there isn’t a team in the nation that wants to play Kentucky in March. Four years ago, Wichita State entered the Big Dance 34-0. They exited in the second round. In 2011, Ohio State was 34-2 when it faced Kentucky in the Sweet 16. They were 34-3 afterward.

Maybe this tournament won’t suffer the same fate. Maybe Davidson or Arizona or Virginia—all conference champions in their own right—will stop Kentucky before it’s too late. But the most dangerous team in the bottom half of the region (Tennessee) just lost to the Wildcats. It’s not outrageous to think that Calipari’s boys might be headed back to the Final Four.

Sigh. This was a terrible idea. Congratulations to the Kentucky Wildcats, the 2018 NCAA tournament’s Power Conference Sleeper.