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Don’t wait till March to find sleepers

There is a grand tradition among casual sports fans the day after Selection Sunday of scrambling to find information on college basketball’s smaller conference teams in an effort to decide which upsets to predict in NCAA Tournament games.

Sports bettors who wait that long to find the hidden gems could be missing out on terrific wagering opportunities throughout the season.

There are plenty of candidates outside the top conferences. Sure, everyone knows about teams such as Gonzaga, Wichita State and Virginia Commonwealth. In fact, the Bulldogs might be one of the five best teams in the country, and the Shockers and Rams aren’t far behind.

The key is to look deeper, and the best place to start might be with Wichita State’s biggest threat in the Missouri Valley.

The Shockers breezed through the league last season, as Creighton’s departure cleared the path to an undefeated run through conference play.

It might not be so easy this season.

Northern Iowa is for real. The Panthers return all five starters from a team that went 10-6 in the Valley last season.

It all starts with first-team all-conference forward Seth Tuttle. He averaged 15.0 points and 8.0 rebounds last season and also is a skilled passer from the post.

Tuttle had plenty of talent around him last season, but the Panthers struggled with inconsistency.

Now everyone has a full season of experience, and the results are already showing.

Northern Iowa ended the nation’s second-longest home-court winning streak with an overtime win Tuesday at Stephen F. Austin.

Deon Mitchell and Wes Washpun share point guard duties, and both have shown dramatically improved ability to get to the basket and put pressure on the defense during Northern Iowa’s 3-0 start.

The Panthers will cause problems for the big boys come March and very well could help pad bettors’ bankrolls until then.

Though this is far from a complete list of potential sleepers, here are some other teams in a similar situation:

■ Georgia State: The Panthers had a breakout season last year, winning 25 games and finishing 17-1 in the Sun Belt. They might be better this season, despite a disappointing performance in a loss at Iowa State.

It begins and ends in the backcourt with Georgia State. R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow are the league’s best players and form one of the best guard tandems in the nation.

They also have a new running mate in Louisville transfer Kevin Ware, who is best remembered for the horrific leg injury he suffered in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Ware is a very good player, particularly at this level.

Georgia State will win — and cover — a lot of games.

■ Louisiana Tech: Conference USA was considered a major league a few years ago, but the defection of several of the power programs has taken a toll.

The Bulldogs will look to take advantage of that in search of their first tournament appearance since 1991. Louisiana Tech has the talent to do it.

The Bulldogs return four starters, including dynamic point guard Kenneth “Speedy” Smith, from a 29-win team. Don’t let an early-season loss to Temple dampen your opinion on this team.

■ Toledo and Western Michigan: The Mid-American Conference is not just about Akron and Kent anymore in basketball. Toledo and Western Michigan return a lot from teams that were very good last season.

Toledo lost at Virginia Commonwealth, but the Rockets covered, and with one of the more explosive offenses in the country, should be a force throughout the season.

The defending MAC Tournament champion Broncos became a true threat to repeat in the summer when star guard David Brown got a sixth year of eligibility.

■ Wofford: The Terriers love to grind out victories with an efficient offense and suffocating defense, but that doesn’t mean they are lacking in athleticism.

Wofford proved it could get up and down the floor in an 86-73 win Tuesday over a very good and offensive-minded Iona team. The Terriers will need to win some of those games in a new-look Southern Conference that figures to be high scoring this season.

Wofford is at its best when controlling the tempo, however, and it doesn’t mind running the shot clock all the way down and allowing guard Karl Cochran an opportunity to score.

■ Green Bay: The Phoenix failed to win or cover as a 16-point underdog to No. 3 Wisconsin on Wednesday.

But Green Bay will be just fine as long as point guard Keifer Sykes is running the show. The returning Horizon League player of the year had 20 points against the Badgers and can score from anywhere on the floor.

■ North Carolina Central: Fans should have become quite familiar with the Eagles last season, when they won 28 games and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

Somehow, the class of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference is still flying under the radar.

Though the Eagles lost three good starters, they added plenty of talent and will win a lot of games. Not all of N.C. Central’s games are on the board, but there should be good betting opportunities whenever there is a number.

■ Sacramento State: The Hornets are a trendy pick to win the Big Sky this season. That may be ambitious for a program that has been absolutely dreadful for so long.

Still, bettors must take note of what’s going on in California’s capital city. No longer is it a wise move to bet on whoever Sacramento State is playing.

Mikh McKinney is a legitimate threat to win the league’s player of the year award for a program that has never finished with a winning record.

Contact reporter Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.

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