College Basketball Sleepers: 10 teams that could return to the NCAA Tourney

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Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon hopes the Panthers end a one-year Tourney drought.

<p> College Basketball Sleepers: 10 teams that could return to the NCAA Tourney<br />  </p>

In 2012, 30 of 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament field missed out a bid a season earlier.

The tally included eight from the six major conferences, including returns to prominence for Indiana and NC State. A quarter of the Sweet 16 -- the Hoosiers, Wolfpack, Baylor and Ohio -- was comprised of teams that a year earlier were either in consolation tournaments or missed the postseason altogether.

In 2012-13, Tournament droughts undoubtedly will end with a handful of teams capable of reaching the second weekend.

As Athlon begins to preview the upcoming season, we’ll take a look at some of the sleeper teams capable of emerging into Tournament contenders.

One key note: We are not including Arizona in this list of “sleeper” teams. Despite playing in the NIT last season, the Wildcats likely will begin the season among the top two in the Pac-12 and potential national top 10 thanks to a strong crop of newcomers. In short, Arizona is hardly a true “sleeper” team.

2012 SLEEPER TEAMS THAT COULD CRASH THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
Arkansas
2011-12 Postseason: None (18-14, 6-10 SEC)
The Razorbacks have missed the NCAA Tournament in each of the last four seasons, but the drought may come to an end as the program enters the second season under Mike Anderson. Despite being named a coaches’ second-team All-SEC selection, guard B.J. Young was one of the most overlooked players in the SEC. Young averaged 15.3 points and 2.3 assists as a freshman -- in a league full of impressive rookies. The key for the Hogs, however, will be the return of Marshawn Powell, who averaged 10.8 points and 4.5 rebounds in 2010-11. He played only two games last season before sustaining a torn ACL. He’ll add size and experience to a team thin on both.
Related: SEC coach rankings

Iowa
2011-12 Postseason: NIT second round (18-17, 8-10 Big Ten)
Last season had a handful of high points for Iowa: Rare wins in the Big Ten Tournament (over Illinois) and the NIT (over Dayton), but the signature moments were during the Big Ten season. The Hawkeyes swept the season series with Wisconsin and defeated NCAA participants Indiana and Michigan. Leading scorer Matt Gatens is gone for the Hawkeyes, but Iowa’s next five leading scorers were freshmen and sophomores last season. The Big Ten will be competitive, but the Hawkeyes should threaten to reach their first NCAA Tournament since 2006.
Related: Midwest Region questions: Are Minnesota, Iowa on the rebound?

Delaware
2011-12 Postseason: College Basketball Invitational first round (18-14, 12-6 Colonial)
The last coach to take the Blue Hens to the NCAA Tournament was Mike Brey in 1998 and ’99. In 2011-12, coach Monte Ross led Delaware to its first winning record in a decade. The departure of VCU to the Atlantic 10 and roster turnover at George Mason and Old Dominion may open the door for Delaware to end its Tournament drought, but the CAA likely will be a one-bid league for the fourth time in five seasons. Junior Devon Saddler (18.8 ppg) and senior Jamelle Hagins (12.4 ppg, 11.1 rpg) are back on a team that returns its top five scorers.

Marshall
2011-12 Postseason: NIT first round (21-14, 9-7 Conference USA)
Marshall received a major boost when Dennis Tinnon (10.2 ppg, 10 rpg) received an extra year of eligibility. He’ll team with DeAndre Kane (16.5 ppg, 3.5 apg, 1.4 spg) for one of the top duos in the league. One of the key questions will be how the Thundering Herd replaces senior point guard Damier Pitts. Marshall also will need to prove itself against C-USA favorite Memphis. The Tigers swept the regular season series and defeated the Thundering Herd 83-57 in the conference tournament final.

Massachusetts
2011-12 Postseason: NIT semifinals (25-12, 9-7 Atlantic 10)
The Atlantic 10 is undergoing a changing of the guard of sorts. Butler and VCU are in, and Temple and Xavier are in stages of starting over. UMass could be poised to pounce. Thanks to the arrival of 5-9 point guard Chaz Williams from Hofstra, UMass had its first winning season under Derek Kellogg. The Minutemen’s core players were sophomores and juniors last season, including forward Sampson Carter, who averaged 8.6 points and and 3.9 rebounds in an injury-shortened season.
Related: Atlantic 10 coach rankings

Miami
2011-12 Postseason: NIT second round (20-13, 9-7 ACC)
Miami already enjoyed its first winning record in the ACC since joining the league in 2004-05. Now, the Hurricanes will set their sights on only their second NCAA appearance in the last decade. Kenny Kadji (11.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg) was a revelation after his transfer from Florida. He and center Reggie Johnson could form one of the league’s best frontcourts if Johnson stays healthy and improves his consistency. Malcolm Grant is gone, but guards Durand Scott, Shane Larkin, Rion Brown and Trey McKinney Jones all averaged at least seven points per game.
Related: East Region questions: Can Reggie Johnson lead Miami to signature season?

Minnesota
2011-12 Postseason: NIT runner up (23-15, 6-12 Big Ten)
Trevor Mbakwe played only the first seven games of the season, averaging 14 points and 9.1 rebounds, before missing the remainder of the season with a knee. Without their veteran forward, the Gophers never found their stride during the Big Ten regular season. That changed into the postseason when junior Rodney Williams and freshman point guard Andre Hollins broke out for hot streaks in the Big Ten Tournament and NIT. With Mbakwe healthy and Williams and Hollins playing as they did late last season, the Gophers won’t finish 6-12 in the conference for the third consecutive season.
Related: Big Ten coach rankings

Oklahoma State
2011-12 Postseason: None (15-18, 7-11 in the Big 12)
Oklahoma State missed the field the last two seasons, finishing with the program’s first losing record since 1987-88. Another losing record seems a long shot. Guard Marcus Smart is one of the nation’s elite freshmen. He and sophomore Le’Bryan Nash give the Cowboys two McDonald’s All-Americans. Before missing the final five games with an arm injury, Nash struggled with consistency last season but finished with 13.3 points and five rebounds. In addition, the Cowboys had only one senior last season, leading scorer Keiton Page.
Related: Big 12 coach rankings

Pittsburgh
2011-12 Postseason: Won College Basketball Invitational (22-17, 5-13 Big East)
Pittsburgh had been one of the nation’s most consistent programs under Jamie Dixon and Ben Howland, reaching 10 consecutive NCAA Tournaments. Little went right ford Dixon last season, though, as Pitt went 6-15 from Dec. 23 through the start of the CBI. The Panthers will miss Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson, but they add seven-foot center Steven Adams. Freshmen haven’t played a major role for Dixon, but he hasn’t signed many as highly touted as Adams. A handful of Panthers like Dante Taylor will need to take the next step, but it’s tough to count out a Dixon-coached team with a senior point guard like Tray Woodall.
Related: National coach rankings: Dixon checks in at No. 13

Stanford
2011-12 Postseason:
Won NIT (26-11, 10-8 Pac-12)
The Cardinal is in its best position to return to the NCAA Tournament since the arrival of Johnny Dawkins. The Cardinal has a young, if undersized, backcourt, in  6-1 Chasson Randle and 5-11 Aaron Bright. Forward Josh Owens is gone, but the Cardinal returns nearly everyone else and adds freshman forward Rosco Allen. Stanford started last season 5-1 in the Pac-12 and 15-3 overall before a midseason swoon eliminated the Cardinal from NCAA contention.
Related: West Region questions: Is the heat on Dawkins?

Tennessee
2011-12 Postseason:
NIT second round (19-15, 10-6 SEC)
The arrival of freshman Jarnell Stokes changed the complexion of Tennessee’s season once the Volunteers started SEC play. The team that lost to Austin Peay and Charleston in December without Stokes defeated Vanderbilt and Florida in February and March. Trae Golden (13.6 ppg, 4.5 apg) and Jeronne Maymon (12.7 ppg, 8.1 apg) are back as well, making the Vols a factor in the SEC race in their second season under Cuonzo Martin.
Related: South Region questions: What does a full season of Jarnell Stokes mean for UT?

-David Fox 

@DavidFox615

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