College Basketball: Most Dangerous Dark-Horse Team in Every Power Conference
Picking the favorites in major conferences loaded with preseason Top 25 teams isn’t much of a challenge, but the depth of those conferences means that the underdogs have some serious bite, too. Just as Florida State (unranked in the preseason) stunned North Carolina and Duke to take the ACC title last year, there’s always a chance for some unheralded team to put together a great run—even in the biggest of conferences.
One of the most interesting races this year could be in the Pac-12, where the top two contenders (Arizona and UCLA) will be relying heavily on loaded freshman classes. Those two powerhouses may have an edge on talent, but don’t be surprised if the veteran California Golden Bears make a serious run behind Allen Crabbe and an experienced backcourt.
Herein, a closer look at Cal and the rest of the most promising unranked teams to watch in each of the nation’s top six conferences.
In a virtual replay of the 2011 offseason, Miami brings an experienced team with size and scoring punch that has every prospect of improving on its previous disappointing finish.
Of course, that didn’t work out so well last year, when what had been a 21-15 squad finished all of 20-13 and got routed in the second round of the NIT.
Still, it’s hard to argue with the Hurricanes’ potential, particularly in the gargantuan frontcourt of rising seniors Kenny Kadji (6’11”, 251 lbs) and Reggie Johnson (6’10”, 284 lbs).
Add in perimeter star Durand Scott—another rising senior who led the 'Canes with 12.9 points and 3.1 assists per game—and Jim Larranaga will have a scary team (provided his players can put it all together).
Big 12: Kansas State
If it weren’t for the graduation of low-post star Jamar Samuels, there’s a real chance Kansas State would have made the preseason Top 25 (along with the three Big 12 teams already there).
As it is, Bruce Weber’s debut squad in Manhattan may not look much like a Bruce Weber team, but it has a great chance to look like a winning one.
Rodney McGruder is a first-class shooting guard on both ends of the floor, scoring a team-high 15.8 points a night and using his physical 6’4” frame to anchor the perimeter defense.
The frontcourt isn’t likely to provide much scoring punch, but with 6’11” shot-blocking whiz Jordan Henriquez in the low post, K-State is going to be just as tough to score on as departed coach Frank Martin would’ve hoped for.
Big East: Cincinnati
In the rough-and-tumble Big East, it’s not surprising to see a team that lost its lone starting big man (Yancy Gates) drop out of the Top 25. Still, Cincinnati returns plenty of talent from a squad that made last year’s Sweet 16.
Senior-to-be Cashmere Wright is decidedly underappreciated at PG after averaging 4.6 assists and 2.0 steals a night a year ago.
He’s got lots of help returning around him, including leading scorer Sean Kilpatrick (14.3 points per game) and Gates’ promising understudy, 6’8” rising junior Justin Jackson.
Big Ten: Iowa
In a conference with six (!) teams in the preseason rankings, finding a worthwhile dark horse isn’t a trivial matter.
Iowa will have a tough time beating out the Indianas and Michigans of the world over a full conference season, but opponents who underestimate the Hawkeyes on any given night will regret it.
Standout PG Bryce Cartwright is gone, but swingman Roy Devyn Marble (11.5 points and 3.6 assists a game) should be able to keep the offense flowing.
The Hawkeyes’ biggest asset, though, is a bruising frontcourt highlighted by Freshman All-American Aaron White and prize recruit Adam Woodbury (a 6’11” center).
Dazzling freshman classes have UCLA and Arizona set to rule the Pac-12, but the conference’s most dangerous backcourt can be found in Berkeley.
Rising juniors Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs combined for 27.8 points and 7.1 assists a night in leading California to a surprising NCAA tournament berth last March.
Point guard Cobbs is also an improving defender, which will be a major factor in a conference with some inexperienced ballhandlers on major contenders (including the Wildcats and Bruins).
Add in a solid frontcourt led by 6’10”, 220-lb Richard Solomon (5.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game a year ago) and the Golden Bears will be a serious factor at the top of the conference standings.
With apologies to Vanderbilt’s outstanding 2011-12 season, the SEC has pretty much been a two-team race since John Calipari arrived at Kentucky to challenge Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators.
It’s been so hard for the rest of the conference to make a dent that even Tennessee, which tied for second place at 10-6 in SEC play, is a bona fide sleeper for next season.
That’s not to say, though, that a Vols team with four starters returning isn’t going to be a very tough opponent to take down.
Point guard Trae Golden will look to build on a brilliant sophomore campaign (13.6 points and 4.5 assists per game), and he’ll have plenty of help from a physical frontcourt led by Jeronne Maymon and Freshman All-American Jarnell Stokes (15.5 rebounds per contest between them).