College Hoops Mailbag: Potential sleepers, under-the-radar stars, and more

Potential NCAA Tournament sleepers highlights this week’s College Hoops Mailbag.

Welcome into another College Hoops Mailbag, where we answer all your biggest questions from around the college basketball world — and whatever else — from the past week!

I noticed this week that your questions are turning much more towards the NCAA Tournament, which is a good thing! We’re roughly a month away from the Big Dance and every game is of heightened importance.

In this week’s mailbag, we’ll look ahead to some potential sleepers teams in the NCAA Tournament, players who could become breakout stars on the big stage, and much more.

Let’s dive into it!

We post these mailbags every Wednesday throughout the course of the season, so make sure you join the conversation on Twitter at @brauf33. Thanks as always to those who contributed this week.

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There are a number of sleepers I like who I’ve touched on in past mailbags and Rauf Reports. I still think Winthrop can win a game if it can get a good matchup. Saint Louis really isn’t in the “sleeper” territory just yet (though it might be with a few more losses) but the Billikens are a mid-major that I could see in the Sweet 16.

Outside of that, I have the most confidence in Western Kentucky making a run. This is the same Hilltoppers team that beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa, beat Memphis, and went to -to toe with West Virginia on a neutral court. WKU has high-level talent all over the place, led by Charles Bassey inside. They’re a team no one will want to face should they make the NCAA Tournament.

So I don’t think any No. 10 seed is going to make the Final Four like we saw from Syracuse in 2016, but if I had to say the team most likely to, I’m going with Seton Hall. (I wanted to say Rutgers but I think it will end up with too high of a seed to quality.)

Sandro Mamukelashvili is one of the most versatile players in the nation at 6-11 and poses matchup problems against anyone. The Pirates have a talented, experienced supporting cast but have gotten inconsistent offensive production from their backcourt. Bryce Aiken has been able to provide that in flashes when healthy. Is it possible he gets going at the right time and turns Seton Hall into a different team? Absolutely. So, we’ll go with that.

There is no Stephen Curry/Kemba Walker/Shabazz Napier-type player who is going to completely take over the tournament, and Loyola-Chicago’s Cameron Krutwig somewhat made his mark during their Final Four run a few seasons ago.

But if you’re looking for mid-major breakout stars, I’m looking at a pair of similar players in Winthrop’s Chandler Vaudrin and Belmont’s Grayson Murphy. Neither is a dynamic scorer yet both are triple-double threats every night, tremendous defensive players, and are the smartest players on the court.

Normally this falls on role players being much better at home than on the road but for this to go on throughout Richard Pitino’s entire tenure, you must acknowledge coaching playing a role. A combination of things cause this — coaching, player variance, tough Big Ten schedule, some bad luck — but it’s literally Pitino’s job to figure this out and he hasn’t. He has been great at finding and developing one or two stars per every couple of seasons it seems but hasn’t been able to develop the rest of the roster. That plays a role as well.

No one is “tilting the machine” right now, though that may change come conference tournament time. Everyone wants to play.

I’ll defer to Evan Miyakawa, friend of the program, regarding the effect of COVID pauses. Per his data at EvanMiya.com, teams coming off pauses are at a 2.3-point disadvantage on average, with longer pauses having harsher effects.

I honestly don’t know enough about Division II hoops to be able to comment intelligently on this unfortunately. However, I would love to see Carleton be eligible to play in the NCAA. If you’re unfamiliar, Carleton is the best men’s program in Canada and routinely challenges — and beats — American teams in preseason exhibitions. It would be fun to watch.

Brian Rauf
Brian Rauf

Heat Check CBB Lead National Writer