NCAA Tournament Sleeper Pick: Clemson
by Matt Severance - 03/17/2009
When asked to write a story about a potential sleeper team in this year's NCAA Tournament, I had to set some ground rules. Since this site is geared toward bettors and not just the average college hoops fan, I'm not going to waste time picking some mid-major to reach the Elite Eight or Final Four.
It was a great story when Davidson made its run last year and ditto when George Mason did the unthinkable in 2006, but a mid-major is just not going to reach the Final Four 99 times out of 100. So when I say "sleeper" here, I mean a team below No. 5 that has good betting value (at least +1000), with odds courtesy of WagerWeb. And I will base that value on winning the region, not the national championship.
So after considering teams such as UCLA (hey, they are a No. 6), West Virginia and Arizona, I'm going to go with No. 7 Clemson in the South, with the Tigers getting +1400 on WagerWeb.
I won't lie to you, the Tigers could very easily go down in Round 1 to a Michigan team that has beaten UCLA and Duke this year and has two very good players Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims. But the fact that the Wolverines are new to this - it's UM's first bid since 1998 - should be the difference in the opening game; the Tigers, who lost in the first round of last year's NCAA Tournament, are five-point favorites over Michigan for Thursday's game in Kansas City.
For what it's worth, the Tigers are 0-2 against Michigan all-time but have five straight wins against Big Ten teams, including beating Illinois this season. I also like this parallel: This year's Tigers lost four of their final five games, including in the first round of the ACC Tournament. In 1997, Clemson entered the NCAA Tournament with four losses in its final five games, including a first-round loss in the ACC Tournament. Clemson went on to the Sweet 16 by winning two games in Kansas City.
Clemson is also 14-0 in non-conference games this season and has a very solid 10 wins away from home (6-5 ATS), including at tournament teams the Illini and Boston College. And the ACC had the No. 1 RPI mark in the country.
I also like that Clemson coach Oliver Purnell called a team meeting at 10 p.m. the night of the first-round ACC loss. It seemed to get everyone on the same page.
"It was how to get through to the team," Clemson guard Terrence Oglesby said to reporters. "We actually got a lot out of that. The next day we had to make promises about what we have to do. The next thing you know, we're making all these promises and we practice after the two-and-a-half-, three-hour bus ride home. We've had great practices since then, and they've been very productive."
Assuming the Tigers beat UM, Oklahoma no doubt will be up next. Clemson will need a huge game from behind the arc from Oglesby and Co. to upset Blake Griffin's Sooners. Oglesby ranks second in the ACC in three-point shooting and three-point goals per game, and Clemson led the conference in three-pointers.
In addition, OU hasn't exactly been on fire down the stretch, with Griffin's injury throwing them off course a bit. Clemson's pressure defense (which forced 17 turnovers a game) could rattle Sooners freshman point guard Willie Warren and keep the ball out of Griffin's hands as much as possible. Playing Oklahoma in nearby Kansas City won't help much, however.
If things go according to form, Clemson would face Syracuse, which might still be tired from the Big East Tournament and was very inconsistent much of the year, and then North Carolina in the South Region final. The Tigers obviously know Carolina well, but at least the game won't be in Chapel Hill, where Clemson is 0-54 all-time. Plus, maybe UNC star Ty Lawson isn't playing by then with that sore toe (or is limited) or maybe the Heels don't make the Elite Eight.
Overall, my betting advice is to not wager on a No. 6 or lower seed to win a regional, but I see Clemson having as good a chance as anyone that falls in that category. And at +1400 on WagerWeb, the payout might be worth it to put a few bucks down.