NCAA Tournament: 5 Potential Sleepers Based on Consistency
Suppose we are rolling dice and you need your pair to beat mine.
Now say that I make you a deal that somehow assures you to roll a pair of threes. Would you do it? It might seem like a decent idea -- until I reveal that my dice are actually weighted so I roll at least an eight.
Knowing that bit of information, you would certainly reject my deal since your six would not be good enough to beat my eight. A regular roll of the dice is less reliable than a guaranteed six, but given the odds, reliability is not very useful in this case.
Obviously, college basketball is not as simple nor as random as a dice roll, but we can still use this logic when looking at what potential upsets to pick. The most attractive sleepers tend to be those with a wide range of outcomes, because if an underdog just plays at its baseline level, that almost surely would not be good enough to beat a favorite. If, instead, this team has a high ceiling and low floor, a blowout loss is in the cards, but there is also a better chance of a win.
Inconsistency Percentile: 93rd
numberFire Rank: 45th
San Diego State certainly fits the bill as a team with the potential to both beat and lose to almost anyone. The 11 seed Aztecs are one of four teams to beat Gonzaga this season and also have a pair of wins against Nevada, the 23rd-best team in our ratings. One of those victories came by 17 points in the West Coast Conference Tournament, which coach Brian Dutcher’s team needed to win to get into the field.
One of the key factors that makes the Aztecs so inconsistent is their perimeter defense -- or lack thereof. A whopping 40.8% of the field goals they have allowed this season have come from beyond the arc, putting them the 20th percentile nationally. Three-point shooting tends to be random, and the most reliable way to defend the arc is to prevent three-point attempts in the first place.
Three-point variation has played a role in San Diego State’s extreme performances at both ends of the spectrum. In their win over Gonzaga, the Aztecs allowed almost as many three-point attempts as two-point attempts, but the Bulldogs only shot 31.0% from deep. Nevada only made 8 of its 24 three-point attempts in its first loss to San Diego State and was 7 for 29 from deep in their conference tournament matchup.
On the flip side, Wyoming took 29 of its 59 shots from deep in its win over the Aztecs and made 12 of them (41.4%). Washington State was 13 for 28 on its threes against San Diego State, and they took only 34 shots inside the arc.
San Diego State’s first-round opponent is Houston, which is in the middle of the pack in terms of three-point attempt rate on offense. Given the Aztecs' defense, though, that rate could be higher, introducing more unpredictability into the matchup.
numberFire Rank: 28th
Butler does not necessarily profile as an inconsistent team based solely on its stats. The Bulldogs are roughly average in terms of three-point attempt rate on both offense and defense and also play at about a neutral pace.
What makes the Bulldogs an attractive sleeper pick frankly has less to do with their inconsistency than the fact they are probably underseeded as a 10, and they actually have a slightly higher nERD rating than first-round opponent Arkansas (a 7 seed which is 29th in our ratings).
numberFire Rank: 52nd
Unlike Butler, it is exceedingly obvious why Davidson is so high in terms of inconsistency: the Wildcats let it fly from beyond the arc and let their opponents do the same.
Only five teams can best their 48.6% three-point attempt rate on offense, while they rank 310th on defense (42.5%). This has generally served them well, as Davidson has made 39.1% of its shots from beyond the arc, while its opposition has connected on 35.2% of them (right around the national average).
This profile does leave them particularly vulnerable to cold-shooting nights and hot ones from the other side, as was the case when the Wildcats lost to Appalachian State (210th in our ratings).
Still, this increased variation will be a feature rather than a bug when they face 5 seed Kentucky, which is 306th in three-point attempt rate. Davidson also introduces further unpredictability by playing at a glacial pace, reducing the numbers of possessions in a game, another thing that leads to greater variance.
numberFire Rank: 42nd
Trae Young might be the ultimate wild card in this year’s tournament, making it impossible to ignore the 10 seed Sooners.
Young began the season by destroying everything in his path and even drew comparisons to Stephen Curry, as he connected on over 40% of his three-point attempts in his first 13 games and helped Oklahoma to a 12-1 start.
The Sooners then lost 12 of their next 18 games, as Young’s three-point percentage slumped to 33.5% over this span.
As he showed over the start of the season, though, when Young is on, he can carry a team like no one else in college basketball. For this reason, Oklahoma’s ceiling is among the highest in the nation, even if we haven’t seen them play at that level in some time.
numberFire Rank: 72nd
The Jackrabbits love to rack up three pointers and rank just outside the top 50 in terms of three-point attempt rate (43.0%) while making over 40% of their attempts from distance. They have four starters who have made over 38% of their shots from long range, including 6-9 center Mike Daum, who has been one of the most valuable players in the nation.
Daum and company should have the opportunity to bomb away against 5 seed Ohio State, which is in the 29th percentile in terms of three-point attempt rate allowed (39.6%).