Brian Rauf takes a look at five college basketball sleeper teams you need to monitor during the 2021-22 season.
Unpredictability is sewn into the fabric of college basketball. The unknown is one of the sport’s core pillars and one of the many reasons for its excitement. It’s why a 15-seed can make a run to the Sweet 16, how the Pac-12 can suddenly look unbeatable in the NCAA Tournament, and how, well, most of the sport’s most memorable moments happen.
This plays out annually in the form of preseason expectations. We always think we know how exactly the season ahead is going to play out and, without fail, it never happens. There are always those that underachieve — such as Duke and Kentucky missing the NCAA Tournament last year after preseason top-10 rankings — and those that overachieve.
This season, there are a handful of sleeper teams that are being undervalued and are set to outperform their respective preseason expectations once games actually begin.
Here are those five sleepers and why you should get to know them now:
Colorado State Rams
How can you outperform expectations when you’re picked to win your conference? You become a top 25 team that is relevant nationally. Colorado State is poised to do so in head coach Niko Medved’s fourth season at the helm.
The Rams return over 95 percent of their production (per BartTorvik) from a team that went 20-8 a year ago, though four of those losses came in the team’s final seven games, including two in the NIT. Had it been able to play a normal non-conference schedule, Colorado State likely would’ve returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.
That drought should end this season.
The Rams are led by two preseason first-team All-Mountain West selections in guard Isaiah Stevens (15.3 ppg, 5.4 apg, 4.5 rpg in 2020-21) and forward David Roddy (15.9 ppg, 9.4 rpg), both of whom are capable of playing with anyone in the country. That duo spearheads one of the nation’s most entertaining offenses that utilizes spacing, Princeton-style cutting principles, and 3-point shooting.
Of course, you need quality guards to run this system, and the Rams have reliable players alongside Stevens on the perimeter in Kendle Moore, Adam Thistlewood (the defensive stopper of the group), and D-II All-American transfer Chandler Jacobs.
That said, Roddy is the guy who makes everything go. He’s undersized as a 6-5 power forward, but he has the versatility to take bigger defenders out on the perimeter, the passing and vision that make him a tremendous secondary playmaker, and the strength and toughness to play small-ball center.
Roddy also epitomizes Colorado State’s lack of size — ranking 317th in average height last season — but Medved’s offense doesn’t put a premium on it anyways. Roddy’s rebounding and “playing-bigger-than-he-is” style allow CSU to thrive despite the smaller statures.
This can hurt the Rams defensively on the interior because they lack rim protection, yet this program has made significant defensive leaps each season under Medved’s leadership. They went from 261st nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency in his first season to 172nd in year two to 72nd last season. This is where having an experienced roster really comes into play, but this group is also designed to excel in Medved’s system’s main principle: defend the three at a high rate.
If you’re looking for any one reason why Colorado State made a huge defensive improvement a year ago, this is it. The Rams went from 247th in 3-point defense in 2019-20 to 37th last season.
Given the roster continuity, high-level coaching, and the areas in which it excels, expect Colorado State to have a big year in 2021-22.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Typically, talks about an improved SEC team with key returners and a handful of impact transfers center around Kentucky (and for good reason). But Mississippi State also falls into that category and is being overlooked, undervalued, or both headed into the new season.
Two of those key returners are guard Iverson Molinar and big man Tolu Smith. Smith was a double-double machine in the middle for the Bulldogs while Molinar served as a majority of the offense. This was an area where Mississippi State struggled last season, particularly in the halfcourt.
Sets broke down too often (or were non-existent) and the team relied on Molinar — along with the departed DJ Stewart — to create for themselves. When Molinar can get downhill, whether that be in transition or in a pick-and-roll, he’s extremely tough to defend.
The offensive burden won’t be solely his to carry this season, however, thanks to the transfer additions of Rocket Watts (Michigan State), DJ Jeffries (Memphis), Shakeel Moore (NC State), and Garrison Brooks (North Carolina). Each of the four was something of a castoff at their respective former schools but should fill a nice role in Starkville.
Watts is not the superstar or the point guard that Michigan State wanted him to be, but he’s still a great athlete who can be a secondary scoring option.
Jeffries was a solid secondary scorer and shooting threat on the wing at Memphis, along with being a reliable defender. He’ll play the same role in Mississippi State’s starting lineup.
Moore is a bit of a wild card as he got inconsistent minutes during his freshman season with the Wolfpack, though he is a streaky shooter and was an excellent pressure defender, ranking 16th nationally in steal rate.
Brooks — let’s face it — should not have been the Preseason ACC Player of the Year last season. He was essentially awarded it by default because there were no other obvious candidates. That put unfair expectations on him to be a star when he was never going to be that type of player. Instead, he really excelled in his role as a rebounder who could score, but not someone who would get this name called offensively. Brooks will be back in that role with the Bulldogs alongside Smith, who will miss the start of the season following foot surgery.
Those two, along with Javian Davis and freshman Keshawn Murphy, give Mississippi State one of the most physically imposing frontcourts in the country — one that should rank in the top 10 in offensive rebounding rate for the third consecutive year.
A lack of shooting is a very legitimate concern for this team, but don’t let that overshadow what they figure to do well. The Bulldogs will rebound and play defense at a high level, and they have more legitimate offensive options than they’ve had in some time. Expect this to be the best team Mississippi State has had under Ben Howland.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Cade Cunningham ain’t walking back through that door. While his departure caused many to turn away from this program, Oklahoma State remains poised to build on last season’s breakout.
There’s no denying what Cunningham brought to the table. The No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft led the Cowboys in a ton of important categories — scoring, usage rage, assist rate, 3-pointers made, and he led the nation in clutch scoring (by a lot). Oklahoma State will miss those things! But this group proved it was more than a one-man band last season.
Avery Anderson III is perhaps the biggest key to Oklahoma State maintaining its place as a top-25 program. He stepped up and became the team’s clear second option down the stretch as he averaged 16.6 points over the Cowboys’ last 10 games. His combination of athleticism, quickness, and shot-creation skills made him a tantalizing high school prospect, and it looks like he’s finally starting to realize that potential.
No performance was as great as the one he had against West Virginia when Cunningham was hurt in the regular-season finale. Anderson dropped 31 points on 11-of-14 shooting to lead Oklahoma State to a win over the top-10 Mountaineers in Morgantown.
That was the only game in which he was the focal point of Mike Boynton’s offense and he delivered in the role he will play in 2021-22.
Isaac Likekele, who has led the Cowboys in assists each of the last two seasons, will continue to play a significant role. Kalib Boone, Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe, Rondel Walker and Bryce Williams all thrived as high-level role players and should do so again.
Boynton also used the transfer portal to really strengthen this year’s roster. Bryce Thompson, a five-star freshman in the 2020 class, is now in Stillwater after spending his freshman season at Kansas. His role was inconsistent with the Jayhawks, but he was a dynamic and versatile scorer at the high school level. Oklahoma State is expecting him to add even more pop to their offense alongside Anderson.
The other is Memphis transfer Moussa Cisse, another five-star prospect from the 2020 class. The center was the anchor of Memphis’ top-ranked defense, finishing 22nd in the country in block rate. He also has the third-best defensive rating of all returning college basketball players and should help the Cowboys at least maintain their top-20 defense from a year ago, though Cisse will most likely improve it tremendously.
That defense should carry the day for Oklahoma State, and if Anderson continues to be the player he was down the stretch last season, the Cowboys will be a top-20 team.
Remember these guys?
Richmond was the popular breakout pick a year ago and through the first month of the season, the Spiders looked the part. Chris Mooney‘s squad knocked off Kentucky at Rupp Arena (before we knew that would be a common occurrence) and beat Loyola Chicago on a neutral court to start 6-1.
Then COVID hit the Spiders hard and they were never the same. Three separate pauses in A-10 play kept this group from getting or maintaining any sort of momentum, which played a big role in their 8-8 finish following that hot start. Late-season injuries to starters Blake Francis and Grant Golden didn’t help, either.
It feels as though those pandemic-driven struggles have caused many to look away from the Spiders going into 2021-22. And that would be a mistake considering Richmond is bringing everyone back (thanks to the NCAA granting everyone an extra year of eligibility) aside from Francis, who figures to be replaced in the starting lineup by Nick Sherod. Sherod is a solid player in his own right, having averaged 12.7 points and 5.4 rebounds per game in 2019-20 before missing all of last season due to an ACL tear.
It’s the same core that went 24-7 in that 2019-20 season, which is the primary reason why Richmond entered last year with so much hype. The excitement should be there this season as well because, when healthy, this group has proven to be top-25 worthy.
Generating offense has never been a problem for this core as they’ve ranked 53rd and 46th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency in the last two seasons. Quality shooting (eFG% of 53.4 and 53.1) and low turnover rates (top 20 each of the last two seasons) play a major role in that and should be strengths again.
But the biggest — and most publicized — reason for Richmond’s surge back to relevancy comes on the defensive end. Head coach Chris Mooney made the switch from playing almost exclusively zone to almost exclusively man during the 2019-20 season with this core, and Richmond’s defensive efficiency jumped from 287th in the country to 54th. That was the key to the turnaround and 24-7 record.
The COVID interruptions mentioned above made the Spiders more disjointed on that end last season (99th nationally in AdjD) and the results showed. I’d expect Richmond to look more like the 2019-20 version of themselves defensively, especially with Jacob Gilyard going for the NCAA’s career steals record (27 behind leader John Linehan).
And, if that’s the case, Richmond should be a fringe top-25 team capable of playing with anyone.
That team was loaded with seniors, and since the program isn’t exactly a hoops powerhouse (that team also picked up the first and only NCAA Tournament win in school history), head coach Johnny Dawkins knew there would be another small rebuilding period.
The past two seasons have been exactly that with the Knights posting a 27-26 combined record overall, including a 15-21 mark in AAC play. That rebuilding period looks like it will pay off in 2021-22, however.
UCF returns over 96 percent of its minutes and nearly 97 percent of its production from last season’s team, by far the most in the AAC and the 16th most in the country, according to BartTorvik. Keep in mind, this is the same group that still managed to beat both Auburn and Florida State during a COVID-shortened season.
Senior guards Brandon Mahan and Darius Perry were both third-team All-Conference selections last year with Isaiah Adams earning a spot on the All-Freshman team. Former five-star prospect CJ Walker also returns along with Darin Green Jr., who averaged 11.3 points per game last season.
The end result is an experienced, athletic team that has pieces that have produced at a high level. They’re extremely versatile with most of their projected rotation standing between 6-5 and 6-8, allowing them to play the aggressive, switching style of halfcourt pressure defense that worked so well in 2019.
Of course, part of the reason that worked was because Fall was blocking everything at the rim. Six-foot-11 UNLV transfer Cheikh Mbacke Diong will attempt to fill that role after being one of the Mountain West’s best rim protectors over the last four years. Walker, who ranked 57th nationally in block rate last year, will help, too.
The American will be a two-team race between Memphis and Houston at the top, but the conference is relatively wide open behind them. Expect UCF to capitalize on the experience and athleticism and reach the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team.