Sports

Coaches ID college basketball’s top sleeper teams for 2021-22 season

At this time last year, there was minimal buzz about Michigan, Ohio State or Purdue in the Big Ten title race. The three programs were all picked middle-of-the-pack in most preseason rankings, some distance behind the likes of Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin at the top. Three months later, Michigan won the regular-season title, Ohio State earned a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament and Purdue finished just two games back of the Wolverines.

Alabama and Arkansas were picked fifth and sixth in the SEC, respectively. The Crimson Tide ended up running roughshod over the rest of the league, finishing 16-2 and winning the regular-season title, while Arkansas went 13-4 and ultimately made a run to the Elite Eight.

It was a similar story in the ACC with Georgia Tech, Clemson and Virginia Tech. They were Nos. 9, 10 and 11 in the preseason ACC poll, unlikely to be much of a factor in the league race. By the end of the season, Virginia Tech finished in third, Georgia Tech won the ACC tournament and all three teams made the NCAA tournament.

There are examples in every league — Colorado was picked seventh in the Pac-12 but earned a 5-seed in the NCAA tournament, while Wichita State won the AAC despite a seventh-place preseason projection — and we will undoubtedly have similar stories this season.

To try to get out ahead of the surprises, I reached out to a handful of coaches in each of the top seven leagues to get their picks for the biggest sleepers and underrated teams entering the season.


ACC

Miami could surprise this season, according to the coaches contacted.

The Hurricanes once again struggled with injuries last season, finishing 10-17 overall after a six-game losing streak in February officially sunk their season. They’re going on three consecutive sub-.500 seasons and haven’t appeared in an NCAA tournament since 2018. But on paper, there’s enough talent to compete for a top-half ACC finish — and a trip back to the dance.

“They are finally healthy, and Isaiah Wong is as good as any guard in the country,” one coach said. “He can go win you a game single-handedly. Wooga Poplar should be a dark horse for ACC Freshman of the Year.”

Jim Larranaga’s group should be loaded on the perimeter. Wong returns, as do starters Kameron McGusty and Harlond Beverly. DePaul transfer Charlie Moore has been productive for several years in college, and George Mason transfer Jordan Miller brings size and versatility. Poplar is part of a three-man perimeter group entering the program, with ESPN 100 prospects Bensley Joseph and Jakai Robinson.

The keys for the Hurricanes will be health and frontcourt production, but their perimeter group will be enough to make them competitive.

“They have great guard play and they’re experienced,” another coach said.

One coach mentioned Syracuse, which made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 but lost four of its top six players. Buddy Boeheim should be among the nation’s top scorers, and the Orange brought in plenty of size and shooting.

Wake Forest also received some attention from league coaches, with one pointing to the Demon Deacons’ schedule as a place for them to develop some momentum. Outside of the Emerald Coast Classic (where LSU and Oregon State are in the field), they should be favored in every nonconference game, and they get to face Florida State, Duke and North Carolina in Winston-Salem in January. The Deacs could garner some bubble buzz early in ACC play. “They have talented freshmen, some impact transfers,” one coach said. “They have a legit frontcourt and return their two best players from a year ago in [Daivien] Williamson and [Isaiah] Mucius. They’ll be old, they’ll be experienced, with size and athleticism.”


American

The AAC should be improved this season, with Memphis looking like a legitimate preseason top-10 team and Houston coming off a Final Four appearance — with a couple other teams positioning themselves for NCAA tournament bids.

There was only one team to get three votes from league coaches as a potential sleeper, though, and that was UCF.

The Knights opened last season with wins over Auburn, Florida State and Cincinnati in their first four games, but the wheels fell off shortly after that stretch. A four-game winning streak to end the regular season could give Johnny Dawkins’ team some positive momentum for this season.

“They finished middle of the pack last year with a losing record but had new guys and battled injuries and COVID,” one coach said. “Last year’s new additions have the year under their belt, they added the big guy from UNLV [Cheikh Mbacke Diong], and they don’t lose anyone from last year’s team. If they stay healthy and chemistry is good, they could contend for a championship.”

The top nine scorers from last season’s team are returning, including guards Darius Perry and Brandon Mahan — who initially entered the transfer portal before deciding to return. Former Oregon transfer C.J. Walker played his best basketball toward the end of the season, and Diong should fortify the interior.

“UCF returns a lot,” another coach said. “Walker and [Jamille] Reynolds were young last year but were impressive to end the season.”

Temple received a couple mentions, as the Owls have one of the best duos in the league in Khalif Battle and Damian Dunn, while SMU’s talent should be enough to get the Mustangs back to the NCAA tournament this season. Another team to keep an eye on should be Cincinnati, led by new coach Wes Miller.

“I think Cincinnati is ready to make a jump,” one league assistant said. “They’ve done a good job working the transfer portal with some proven contributors. With the core they’re bringing back, these new pieces they’re adding and Coach Miller’s track record, they should be a sleeper.”


Big East

There was a clear clubhouse leader for potential surprise team in the Big East this season: Seton Hall.

The Pirates missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 2015 — a late-season four-game losing streak stopped them from hearing their name on Selection Sunday. Kevin Willard’s team lost Sandro Mamukelashvili but returns three starters, brings in three impact transfers and also has several rotation players back.

“They picked up a huge transfer in Kadary Richmond (Syracuse). Getting Myles Cale back on a COVID year is huge as well,” one head coach said. “They will be one of the biggest teams in the country and should be elite defensively. I think they will be good. Defensively elite. Long and real size.”

Villanova is the heavy favorite in the Big East, but the rest of the league is fairly wide open. UConn and Xavier are getting most of the hype as the next two behind the Wildcats, but Seton Hall should fight with St. John’s for a top-four finish.

Cale and Jared Rhoden are going to be staples for Willard this season, but a return to health for former Harvard transfer Bryce Aiken could determine Seton Hall’s fate this season. Aiken played seven games back in 2019-20 and then was hampered by injuries last season at Seton Hall.

“Rhoden, Cale, Aiken, [Ike] Obiagu and [Tyrese] Samuel make up a really solid returning core,” another coach said. “Aiken is much better than his injuries allowed him to show last season. To me, they are the fourth team in the top tier of our league.”

The other team to generate some early buzz was Providence. The Friars had wins over Villanova, Creighton and UConn last season, but were inconsistent and finished 13-13. David Duke is off to the NBA, but Ed Cooley brings back five guys who started at least 11 games last season and shored up his depth with two high-major transfers in Al Durham and Justin Minaya.

Nate Watson will average close to 20 and 10, Al Durham is a proven veteran that has played at the highest level for four years,” one coach said. “A.J. Reeves will bounce back after having a down year, and Noah Horchler came on strong toward the end of the season. They have a good core of guys in the rotation with Minaya, [Jared] Bynum and [Alyn] Breed. Plus Cooley can coach his ass off.”


Big Ten

The Big Ten might not have the dominance at the top of the national rankings like it did last season, but Joe Lunardi has nine teams projected to make the NCAA tournament once again. Of the five teams who missed the dance last season, two received multiple votes to be a potential sleeper this season.

Northwestern looked like a surprise team nationally in late December last season, following consecutive wins over Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State to open Big Ten play. The Wildcats promptly lost their next 13 games. But most of the key players for Chris Collins’ team return, with the exception of Miller Kopp, who transferred to league-rival Indiana.

“Nobody is talking about or even considering them,” one Big Ten assistant said. “They return six of their top seven scorers and they won six games in the Big Ten. I’m not saying they are going to be in the top three, but I do think they can win 10-ish [conference] games — which could get them to be a borderline tourney team.”

“They’re returning a majority of their production,” another coach said. “They had momentum last year; if they can find that same team, they have a shot.”

Indiana also received multiple votes, and there’s optimism in Bloomington surrounding new head coach Mike Woodson. Woodson convinced a few key players to remove their names from the transfer portal, got Trayce Jackson-Davis back for another season, then went out and landed four potential impact transfers and a top-25 recruit in Tamar Bates.

“They picked up two key transfers in Miller Kopp and Xavier Johnson (Pittsburgh), while also getting Trayce Jackson-Davis to return,” one Big Ten coach said of the Hoosiers. “They have an experienced head coach in Mike Woodson. Indiana could surprise some people.”

Nebraska, which brings back double-figure scorer Trey McGowens and welcomes two ESPN 100 recruits and high-scoring Arizona State transfer Alonzo Verge, also received a vote. As did Wisconsin, which lost four starters but has missed the NCAA tournament just once since 1998. One interesting mention was Maryland, which started out the preseason in the national top 10 but is hovering at the back end of most preseason top 25s now.

“They keep dropping,” one coach said. “They got deeper with Aaron Wiggins leaving. No one talks about Hakim Hart. Xavier Green, James Graham, Ian Martinez. They’re going to be deep.”


Big 12

Having 70% of the league receive top-eight seeds in the NCAA tournament last season leaves very little room for true sleepers, even if the middle of the pack of the league might not be as loaded as it was last season.

But multiple Big 12 coaches like one non-NCAA tournament team in particular: Kansas State. The Wildcats really struggled last season, finishing 9-20 overall — including a 13-game losing streak that spanned all of January and most of February. Over the past two seasons, Kansas State is just 7-29 in conference play.

Here’s an interesting nugget, though: Only 11 teams in the country were less experienced than Kansas State last season, and only Duke and Auburn were less experienced among power-conference teams.

“They return the majority of what was one of the youngest high-major rosters in the country,” one Big 12 head coach said. “They were the youngest team in our league. Bruce Weber’s teams are always strong defensively and with continuity, he has proven he can build a winning team. Barry Brown, Dean Wade and company took lumps as freshmen and eventually won a Big 12 championship.”

The Wildcats won four of five toward the end of the season, including a victory over Oklahoma, and Weber has four of his top five scorers back, plus three transfers who should make an immediate impact.

“Their roster has, for the most part, stayed intact and toward the end of last season, they got better,” another coach said. “They have good talent and now they’re a more experienced team.”

Among the teams that reached last season’s NCAA tournament, Oklahoma State received some positive buzz from coaches in the league. The Cowboys aren’t a consensus top-25 team following the loss of No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham, but they return nearly every other key piece from the rotation and also landed four high-major transfers — including former five-star recruits Moussa Cisse (Memphis) and Bryce Thompson (Kansas). Mike Boynton’s team has been a borderline top-25 team in our Way-Too-Early rankings, and it might be deeper and more balanced than last season.

“I think they are the sleeper team,” one coach said. “They have a great core back and they’ve added some talent, plus they’re more experienced.”


Pac-12

After surpassing its NCAA tournament expectations and sending one team to the Final Four and three teams to the Elite Eight, the Pac-12 might find itself with newfound respect entering this campaign. And after talking to several coaches in the league, there are multiple teams ready to move up and push for an NCAA tournament bid.

Washington State received multiple mentions from opposing coaches. The Cougars won seven Pac-12 games last season, which doesn’t seem impressive on the surface, but they haven’t won more than seven conference games since 2011. Finishing 14-13 was also their first above-.500 campaign since 2012. Can Kyle Smith’s group take the next step?

“Washington State is going to be better than people think. They have good players returning, and I know they feel good about their talent,” one Pac-12 assistant said. “Noah Williams is a wild card. They can beat anyone in the league on any night.”

Leading scorer Isaac Bonton is gone, but explosive scorer Williams is back and Smith added high-scoring transfers Michael Flowers (South Alabama) and Tyrell Roberts (UC-San Diego). Freshman Mouhamed Gueye is considered by some to be the highest-ranked recruit in school history.

“They have good talent, and dude can coach,” another coach added.

Arizona State, one of last season’s biggest disappointments, reloaded via the transfer portal, and potential first-round pick Marcus Bagley also surprisingly returned to Tempe for his sophomore season. The Sun Devils received one vote as a sleeper. Colorado, which always seems to surpass expectations, also was mentioned by one coach. The Buffaloes won 23 games last season before falling in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Florida State, and while they lose McKinley Wright and two other starters, there’s plenty of preseason breakout hype surrounding Jabari Walker.

Another school to receive a vote was Stanford, which didn’t play a true home game until February due to COVID-19 protocols and then lost its final five games of the season to end any chances of an NCAA tournament appearance. Departures of Oscar da Silva and lottery pick Ziaire Williams will hurt, but coach Jerod Haase welcomes two ESPN 100 recruits in Harrison Ingram and Isa Silva.

“They return the league’s Most Improved Player, they bring in a McDonald’s All-American [Ingram], they have a point guard who led all freshmen in assists and steals [Michael O’Connell], and they have a junior [Spencer Jones] who has made a ton of 3s. They’re all pretty solid,” one coach said. “Harrison Ingram, Jaiden Delaire, Spencer Jones and Michael O’Connell is a pretty good core, and they have some good pieces around them too.”


SEC

The SEC should feature as tight a title race as any of the big leagues this season, with five preseason top-25 teams all loaded with on-paper talent but also facing uncertainty surrounding the impact of their newcomers.

One team threatening all offseason to join that group is Mississippi State — and the Bulldogs received all but one vote from the league’s coaches as the team to watch in the SEC this season.

Ben Howland’s team reached the NIT Championship game last season before falling to Memphis, and brought back Iverson Molinar and Tolu Smith. Much of the optimism surrounds the incoming transfer class that includes D.J. Jeffries (Memphis), Garrison Brooks (North Carolina), Rocket Watts (Michigan State) and Shakeel Moore (NC State).

“They’re loaded with talent, they have great transfers with high-level experience who will bring the leadership they need,” one SEC coach said. “And Ben is one of the best coaches in our league.”

One coach who picked Mississippi State does have concerns about the Bulldogs’ roster construction — unless Watts can return to his high school form and be the aggressive, scoring point guard he showed only flashes of becoming in East Lansing.

“Ben Howland has been to a Final Four. They did a great job in the transfer portal with guys like Garrison Brooks and D.J. Jeffries,” he said. “But they might have too many bigs and not enough guards. Rocket Watts is a downgrade from [second-team All-SEC guard] D.J. Stewart.”

The other team to get a vote besides Mississippi State was LSU. The Tigers were playing as well as anyone in the country down the stretch last season before losing to 1-seed Michigan in the NCAA tournament, but the losses of Cameron Thomas, Trendon Watford and Javonte Smart have quieted expectations in Baton Rouge. Four ESPN 100 recruits and impact transfers Xavier Pinson and Adam Miller should help fill the gaps.

“I would go with LSU,” one coach said. “They have a very high-powered offense with bona fide veteran players. They’ll be really good offensively.”

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