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Dream big: NCAA tournament sleeper selections

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Deputy Sports Editor

MARCH 16, 2023

Don’t sleep givens and guarantees are a no-go in March.

A top seed may reward a distinguished season, but high expectations can be a burden in the Big Dance. Underdogs characteristically lurk in the shadows and bust brackets all the same. Recall No. 15 FGC’s Sweet 16 run in 2013 and No. 11 Loyola Chicago’s Final Four feat in 2018. As madness is upon us, best beware of some sleeper selections to avoid a rude awakening.

No. 8 Arkansas

Entering the 2022-23 season, Arkansas set its aspirations high, armed with one of the top-ranked recruiting classes in the nation. Thereafter, a competitive schedule and ravenging injuries, including sophomore big-man Trevon Brazile’s season-ending ACL tear and NBA prospective combo-guard Nick Smith Jr’s persistent knee injury, clouded the Razorbacks’ vision. Nonetheless, Arkansas adjusted, and freshman guard Anthony Black took the spotlight, earning him recognition as NBA-lottery-pick caliber talent.

Now a No. 8 seed in the West Region, Arkansas is a true wildcard. Although the Razorbacks underperformed throughout the year, Eric Musselman’s program is exceptionally talented and deep. Embellishing its resume, Arkansas has collected notable wins over San Diego State and Texas A&M,and are battle-tested, losing a close contest against Alabama. In recent years, post-season success has evolved to reward sound guard play. As such, Arkansas relies on junior Ricky Council IV for explosive guard play, as the SEC’s third-leading scorer. 

Looking ahead, if Arkansas can take down the Fighting Illini in the opening round, defending champion Kansas would potentially await. The Jayhawks pose a major obstacle, but the Razorbacks’ talented personnel is capable of performing underdog duties. If Arkansas can glide past a team like Kansas on the big stage, then an Elite Eight run may not be out of reach.

No. 6 Creighton

North Carolina State is a tough first round matchup, with the likes of All-ACC First Team selection Terquavion Smith — who averages 17.3 points and 4.4 assists per game — in tandem with veteran talent Jarkel Joiner. Although the Wolfpack’s guard play is brilliant, Greg McDermott’s Creighton is solid and capable of making a splash in March. The Bluejays are slated as a six seed after an unexpected semifinal elimination from the Big East tournament, but enter March Madness with five players averaging double-figure scoring. 

Creighton’s 7’1” junior Ryan Kalkbrenner is not only a productive scorer, averaging 15.1 points per game and leading the nation in field goal percentage, shooting over 70%, but also a dominant force on the interior and an elite rim protector. Paired with senior guard Baylor Scheierman, Kalkbrenner elevated the Bluejays to a first place finish in defensive efficiency in their conference. 

Veteran tournament experience, defensive soundness and the ability to create opportunities to score in multiple ways might just be the recipe for a post-season title campaign. Creighton exacts this formula. Looking ahead, the Bluejays have potential to beat Baylor, a team that flounders in the defensive rebounding category, and can certainly breed a competitive matchup with Arizona. 

No. 7 Texas A&M

The NCAA selection committee is not always faultless, and so the 25-9 Aggies got royally screwed over. In its first tournament appearance since 2018, Texas A&M is positioned at the seventh seed, after finishing second in the SEC and taking down ranked opponents Alabama, Tennessee and Auburn. No. 10 Penn State will be a tough game in the first round, but the Aggies were able to hit a stride in one of the nation’s most athletic conferences, not to mention are extremely well coached. 

By the looks of it, the undervalued seeding may very well serve as the ammunition needed to propel the Aggies’ already physically and gritty style of play into overdrive. A potential matchup against rival No. 2 Texas in the second round? Daunting, yes. Yet, motivating nonetheless. Guided by head coach Buzz Williams, the Aggies trap aggressively, exerting relentless full-court pressure and penalizing errors in the passing lanes with their quick defensive rotation. 

Offensively, 6” point guard Wade Taylor IV, a first-team All-SEC selection, averages 16.5 points, 4.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game — a statline that poses him as a threat (remember how important solid guard play is in the tournament). In company with Tyrece Radford, the Aggies are armed with stellar playmaking in the backcourt. If Texas A&M’s quick, relentless and well-coached scheme could mount them over Alabama, there is no limit to where March could take the Aggies. 

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MARCH 16, 2023