Men’s NCAA Bracket Predictions 2023: Sleeper Teams That Could Make Deep Runs
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Camren Wynter (left) and Andrew Funk (right) of Penn StateMichael Reaves/Getty Images
Identifying a few first-round upsets will earn some pats on the back. Identifying which sleepers will make a deep tournament run will win a tournament pool, some money and sweet, sweet bragging rights.
It isn’t just about identifying that plucky No. 14 seed that can get hot and knock off one of college basketball’s best teams. It’s about finding teams that have the makeup to outperform their seed beyond the first round.
More specifically, to qualify for this list, a team must be a sixth seed or lower with the ability to get to at least the Sweet 16.
College basketball has been marked by remarkable parity this season, so multiple teams could be dangerous regardless of their seeding.
These teams are capable of getting hot and destroying some brackets along the way.
Make your picks: Play the NCAA March Madness Men’s Bracket Challenge and Tournament Run.
Iowa Hawkeyes (Midwest/No. 8 Seed)
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Kris Murray of IowaMichael Reaves/Getty Images
Net Ranking: 39
First Opponent: No. 9 Auburn
No one is going to accuse Iowa of being consistent, but no one is going to accuse them of being boring, either.
The Hawkeyes can score points in bunches and have one of the most efficient offenses in the country. They are third in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency, though they pair it with a defense that ranks 167th.
The thing that makes them interesting as a sleeper is their ability to light up the scoreboard and push the pace. If they can get past Auburn in the first round, they will see the Houston Cougars in a stylistic clash that could give you whiplash.
Houston has built a No. 1 seed-level resume but is coming off a loss in the AAC Championship Game to Memphis. The Cougs like to slow down the game (343rd in KenPom’s adjusted tempo) and rely on a defense that ranks fourth in efficiency.
If Iowa can hit shots early and put some pressure on Houston to keep up, things could get really interesting, and the Midwest Region could be in for a shock.
Missouri Tigers (South/No. 7 Seed)
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Missouri’s Kobe BrownCarly Mackler/Getty Images
Net Ranking: 42
First Opponent: No. 10 Utah State
Pressure doesn’t just burst pipes, it breaks brackets. The Missouri Tigers haven’t been a picture of consistency this season, but they do know how to put pressure on opposing teams.
Dennis Gates has turned Missouri into a tournament team after just one season. An aggressive defensive mindset that creates turnovers with the best in the nation is a big reason why.
Missouri boasts a turnover percentage of 24.1 that ranks fifth in the nation, per Bart Torvik. Their ability to handle pressure is also evident in their 9-1 record in games decided by six points or fewer.
Kobe Brown and D’Moi Hodge create a formidable duo for defenses to deal with. Brown is a powerful force at 6’8″, 249 pounds but also connects on 45.3 percent of his three-point shots. Hodge is a senior guard who can pace the offense while also averaging 2.6 steals per game.
This isn’t a team that the No. 2 seed Arizona Wildcats can afford to take lightly if Mizzou gets past Utah State.
Oral Roberts Golden Eagles (East/No. 12 Seed)
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Connor Vanover of Oral RobertsSam Wasson/Getty Images
Net Ranking: 36
First Opponent: No. 5 Duke
You don’t have to go back very far to find evidence that a team like Oral Roberts can make a surprisingly deep run in the tournament. The Golden Eagles made it to the Sweet 16 in 2021 as a 15th seed.
That year’s team wasn’t really good until the postseason rolled around. They were just 13-10 before their conference tournament.
The 2023 squad is much different. This team has 30 wins and an offense that is 24th in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency.
It also helps that the coach (Paul Mills) and top scorer (Max Abmas) are both still in place. This year’s run will also depend on good play from Connor Vanover. The 7’5″ Arkansas transfer will help them compete on the boards and protect the rim (3.3 blocks per game) as they attempt to pull off a string of upsets en route to another Sweet 16 appearance.
This isn’t the double-digit seed you want to see in the tournament this year.
Penn State Nittany Lions (Midwest/No. 10 Seed)
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Jalen Pickett of Penn StateMichael Reaves/Getty Images
Net Ranking: 49
First Opponent: No. 7 Texas A&M
Confidence is a dangerous thing, and the Nittany Lions will head into the tournament with plenty of it after their incredible Big Ten Tournament run.
Penn State has proved it can be a tournament-wrecker in Chicago. They got hot at the right time and ripped off wins against Illinois, Northwestern and Indiana as the No. 10 seed before losing the final to a strong Purdue team.
The Nittany Lions have a dangerous combination of a star power and three-point shooting. It all starts with Jalen Pickett, one of the most complete players in the country. Pickett averages 17.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game.
His ability to get to his spot on the court opens up the possibility of a barrage of three-pointers. As a team, Penn State shoot 38.9 percent from downtown and have five players who have made at least 30 three-pointers.
The committee didn’t reward the Nittany Lions with an easy path, pitting them against another potential sleeper in Texas A&M in their first game. Still, the winner is going to give Texas a real challenge in the next round.
TCU Horned Frogs (West/No. 6 Seed)
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Mike Miles of TCUMatthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Net Ranking: 28
First Opponent: No. 11 Arizona State/Nevada
The TCU Horned Frogs should be excited about their draw in the tournament. The Frogs had an up-and-down season, but victories over Kansas, Texas and Kansas State (twice) are included among their eight wins over Quad 1 teams.
That’s two more than No. 3 seed Gonzaga has on the season (albeit in 10 more games), setting up a really interesting matchup between the Bulldogs and Jamie Dixon’s teams.
Gonzaga’s defense could leave the susceptible to an early upset. They are No. 1 in KenPom’s offensive efficiency but are also 76th in defense.
Dixon’s teams are usually good on the defensive end of the floor, and this Horned Frogs team is no exception. They are 20th in defensive efficiency and have a star guard in Mike Miles, who can create his own shot in a close game.
Don’t be surprised if Dixon gets to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009 when he was at Pitt.
Texas A&M Aggies (Midwest/No. 7 Seed)
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Wade Taylor IV of Texas A&MBryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Net Ranking: 18
First Opponent: No. 10 Penn State
Texas A&M couldn’t knock off Alabama in the SEC tournament final, but that doesn’t mean the teams in the Midwest region should relax if they draw a matchup with the Aggies. Buzz Williams’ team is still going to be a tough out.
A&M is balanced and plays with good efficiency on both ends of the floor. They are just outside the Top 25 in KenPom’s offensive (26th) and defensive efficiency (35th).
Creating second-chance opportunities and extra possessions through offensive rebounds can be key in winning tournament games. The Aggies are aggressive in cleaning the boards with a 36.6 offensive rebounding percentage, per Bart Torvik.
It also helps their case to make an extended run because of their ability to get to the line. The Aggies don’t take a ton of threes, but they have the second-highest free-throw rate in the country and make them at a 75.7 percent clip.
Their ability to get the opposing team in foul trouble and get consistent offense by attacking the basket is a recipe for a nice couple of weekends.
The committee robbed us of two potential sleepers making a deep run by pairing the SEC Tournament runner-up against the Big Ten runner-up in Penn State.
Utah State Aggies (South/No. 10 Seed)
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Taylor Funk of Utah StateDavid Becker/Getty Images
Net Ranking: 19
First Opponent: No. 7 Missouri
Much like Saint Mary’s, Utah State is going to get dinged for its inability to beat the top team in their league. While the Gaels at least beat Gonzaga once, the Aggies went 0-3 against the Aztecs.
If you can look past that, you can see a team that ticks a lot of the boxes for a surprise run in the tournament. The Aggies are a great passing team. They are 10th in the nation in assist rate and have a respectable 17.4 percent turnover rate, per Bart Torvik.
Their ability to find the open man is a reason why they are one of the best shooting teams in the country. They are in the top 36 nationally in two-point, three-point and free-throw shooting.
That shot-making ability helped them score two Quad 1 wins over Boise State in the span of a week. They beat the Broncos to close out the regular season and in the semifinals of the Mountain West tournament.
It’s unfortunate that the Aggies drew a matchup against another potential sleeper in Missouri. The winner is going to be a problem for No. 2 seed Arizona.
West Virginia Mountaineers (South/No. 9 Seed)
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Erik Stevenson of West VirginiaScott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Net Ranking: 24
First Opponent: No. 8 Maryland
Good coaching and efficiency can take a team much further in the tournament than their seeding would suggest. At least, that’s the case for the West Virginia Mountaineers to crash the Sweet 16 and beyond.
Bob Huggins is 34-25 as a head coach in the tournament. This will be his 11th trip since taking over at West Virginia, and the Mountaineers were only bounced in the first round on three occasions. They’ve at least been to the Sweet 16 on five occasions.
This year, they haven’t looked the part, but the advanced metrics love them. They are ranked 17th in KenPom’s rankings including an offense that ranks 15th in efficiency and a defense that is just outside of the top 50 at 53.
This team has started to show signs of making the metrics look smart, though. They entered the Big 12 Tournament winning three of their last four including an 89-81 win over Texas Tech.
Huggins’ team is especially good at getting to the line and hitting the offensive glass. According to Bart Torvik, they are 20th in the country in free throw rate and boast an offensive rebound percentage of 33.7.
Both are skills that can come in handy come tournament time. Slaying the No. 1 overall seed in Alabama is a tall task but getting them in foul trouble and keeping the Tide off the glass could make that Round of 32 game interesting.
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