College basketball tiers: TCU, New Mexico among top sleeper teams
When it comes to college basketball terminology, or really, any sport for that matter, a “sleeper” is known as an under-the-radar player or team that has the potential to outperform its more established counterparts.
When thinking back to some of the greatest sleeper teams in recent memory, the likes of Saint Peters (2021-22) and Loyola-Chicago (2017-18) come to mind. Could there be a sleeper team that takes the college basketball universe by storm again this season?
Here is a look at teams that are being slept on so far this season. Some of the teams on this list are ranked in the AP Top 25. But that shouldn’t matter to you. They still get no love. Now is the time to shine some light on them.
Here are my college basketball sleeper team tiers.
Tier 1: The leaders
Miami, Fla.: The Hurricanes reached the Elite Eight last season and were given little consideration for a return. Yes, they are ranked (currently No. 14), but this squad has every reason to believe it could do it again. Isaiah Wong is a star, averaging 17.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game, and the Canes already have wins over Providence, NC State and No. 13 Virginia.
TCU: The Horned Frogs have had injury issues this season, but Jamie Dixon’s group has persevered to be a real threat to finish in the top three of the Big 12. TCU will be tested throughout the month of January, with six games against teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25.
New Mexico: Richard Pitino has combined the transfers and a second-year comfort level into a top-25 team and an undefeated start. Jaelen House, Morris Udeze and Jamal Mashburn Jr. have formed quite an impressive trio, and all three began their collegiate careers at other schools. The Pit is back rocking, and you love to see it.
Xavier: Sean Miller 2.0 is working out quite well. The Musketeers are 11-3, and those three loses came to a trio of college basketball powerhouse programs in Indiana, Duke and Gonzaga. They are off to a 3-0 start in the Big East and are probably the biggest threat to UConn.
Tier 2: Next in line
Mississippi State: Chris Jans has this squad defending and in the hunt to be one of the surprise teams in the SEC. The Bulldogs are holding opponents to just 54.5 points per contest, which ranks sixth in the nation. An upcoming matchup against No. 7 Tennessee should be an epic defensive battle.
Missouri: The Tigers beat up on Illinois and Kentucky. Sure, they lost to Kansas, but that’s the only blemish on their résumé up to this point. It will be interesting to see if this Mizzou group can compete with the likes of Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee in the SEC. Take this team seriously.
LSU: The Tigers have former Murray State head coach Matt McMahon at the helm, and he brought his best player along with him in KJ Williams, who is thriving in Baton Rouge. LSU also added Illinois transfer Adam Miller, who is averaging 13 points per contest. This squad is legit.
Penn State: Jalen Pickett is a star. The 6-foot-4 guard ranks in the top eight in the Big Ten in scoring, rebounding and assists. The Nittany Lions are poised to make an NCAA Tournament run under Micah Shrewsberry. The team’s win at Illinois was the marker that they are for real.
Tier 3: Hard to keep them this far down
Memphis: The win over Auburn was a signal that the Tigers are a real threat to be a title contender in the American Conference. They also played Alabama exceptionally well on the road.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights had Ohio State beat on the road but lost on a controversial buzzer-beater. However, wins over Indiana and Wake Forest are signals that Rutgers is back to being NCAA Tournament-bound. They are getting it done with outstanding defense, holding opponents to just 54.3 points per game, which ranks fifth in the country.
Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons have two of the better wins this season of any ACC team with a home victory over Duke and a road win at Wisconsin. While the ACC isn’t as top-heavy as in past years, this is a deep conference with plenty of teams that can beat you on any given night. This Wake Forest group is certainly one of those teams.
Providence: The Friars have a star in Kentucky transfer Bryce Hopkins, who is putting up 16.7 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. Ed Cooley’s team is off to a 3-0 start in the Big East, which should send notice to the rest of the league.
Tier 4: Moving up
Marquette: Shaka Smart has the Golden Eagles off to a 10-4 start and a 2-1 mark in Big East play. This team is starting to play his style of basketball, and it’s clearly working. Victories over Baylor, Notre Dame and Creighton are proof.
USC: Andy Enfield’s crew never seems to get the respect they deserve. Ever. And yet here they are again, sitting at 10-3 overall and a top-three team in the Pac-12. It’s time to start giving this program the proper respect it deserves.
West Virginia: The Mountaineers weren’t ready for prime time in Portland, but they have finally found their footing. Bob Huggins’ team has won six of their last seven games, including an impressive 84-55 victory over Florida. This looks like a team that can get back to the NCAA Tournament.
San Francisco: Chris Gerlufsen took over for Todd Golden and the Dons haven’t missed a beat. The 97-60 blowout win over Arizona State should have been an indicator that USF should be in contention for a top-three finish in the WCC again.
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Andy Katz is a longtime college basketball writer, analyst and host. He can be seen on the Big Ten Network, as well as March Madness and NCAA.com, and he hosts the podcast “March Madness 365.” Katz worked at ESPN for nearly two decades and, prior to that, in newspapers for nine years.
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