More than any other sport, college basketball is notorious for its surprises.
From Florida in 2005-06 to Butler in 2009-10, each year teams seemingly come from nowhere to burst onto the national stage. Preseason rankings or even high seeds are no longer a prerequisite for success once the tournament rolls around in March.
While the bracket will not be released for several more months, it is never too early to start preparing.
This list takes a look at five teams who have been flying under the radar so far but possess the talent level, coaching expertise and intangibles to reach the Final Four.
This name may be surprising, especially after Colorado was taken to two overtimes by a lowly Texas Southern team last night, but the Buffaloes contain many of the core pieces usually found in Final Four contenders.
They have a dynamic backcourt, featuring go-to guy Askia Booker and the efficient Spencer Dinwiddie, to go along with a tough front line of Andre Roberson and freshman Josh Scott.
This inside-out combination allows the Buffaloes to matchup well against any opponent as they can score in a variety of manners and create mismatches for defenses.
They also have a nice blend of veteran experience and youthful exuberance.
Booker, Dinwiddie and Roberson all played influential roles in Colorado’s improbable Pac-12 Tournament run last season and should be able to mentor the young Josh Scott and fellow freshman Xavier Johnson.
However, the one flaw that Colorado will have to work to minimize throughout the season is their lack of depth. The four players mentioned above all play close to 30 minutes a night, with Booker playing over 35 minutes per contest himself.
In an NCAA Tournament where you have to win seven straight games and two games per weekend, relying on so few players to achieve success can sometimes be a risky endeavor.
Despite this issue, Colorado’s talented core group of players will make the Buffaloes one of the toughest outs in postseason action.
UCLA may be off to a rocky start with losses to Georgetown and Cal Poly, but this Bruins team should not be overlooked or forgotten this early. I had the luxury of watching them play in person against Georgia at the Legends Classic, and it is safe to say they have as much talent as any team in the land.
In his brief career, Shabazz Muhammad, has lived up to lofty expectations, scoring at a clip of 17.0 points per game. Using his quick first step, accurate mid-range jump shot and ability to get to the rim, Muhammad has been able to score on every opponent UCLA has faced thus far.
As fantastic as Muhammad has been, it is his supporting cast that gives UCLA National Championship potential.
Kyle Anderson may not be the scorer fans expected, but he is one of the most well-rounded guards in all of college basketball; Jordan Adams has shown high-scoring capability and is not a bad second option to have alongside Muhammad; Larry Drew looks a lot better in a UCLA uniform than he ever did at North Carolina; and lastly the combination of the Wear twins and Joshua Smith upfront gives the Bruins consistent production from their big men.
Due to its inexperience UCLA might have a rocky regular season, but if the entire team buys into Ben Howland’s system, UCLA could be one of the most dangerous teams in a wide-open NCAA Tournament field.
Since Jamie Dixon took over the Pittsburgh basketball program in 2003-04, the Panthers have served as the standard for consistency in the Big East, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in the coach’s first eight seasons.
However, a midseason eight game losing streak derailed the team’s 2011-12 campaign, and Pittsburgh has largely been absent from the national spotlight ever since.
Without much preseason hype, Dixon has his group back playing their traditionally great defense and ready to contend in 2012-13. Led by veteran guard Travon Woodall, the physicality of Talib Zanna and the ultra-talented freshman Steven Adams of New Zealand, Pittsburgh is anxious to re-establish itself amongst the nation’s elite before its move to the ACC next season.
The Panthers have ran through their competition so far, winning five of their first seven games by 20 or more points. These wins may be impressive, but the real indication that Pittsburgh is ready to contend came in their only loss to No. 3 Michigan at the NIT Season Tip-off. In this matchup the Panthers only lost by five and actually held a lead at the half.
The X factor for Pittsburgh going forward will be how center Steven Adams develops over the course of the season. Adams is immensely talented, coming into the year as the country’s No. 6 recruit according to ESPN, and should be a top selection if he chooses to enter the draft come June. However, Adams is still fairly raw and has only played a limited role in the Panthers success to this point.
If Adams can continuously improve throughout the season and live up to his potential, he could be the difference between an early tournament exit for the Panthers and the team becoming national contenders.
While Pittsburgh currently remains unranked, they should steadily climb the polls throughout the season. The team’s depth makes them built for the long-haul of a rough Big East schedule, and if Adams can come remotely close to living up to his hype, they will be a formidable opponent for any team come March.
Marcus Smart may not have been the most highly touted freshman in the country in 2012-13, but thus far he has made a strong case for being the most complete freshman of his class.
In his first five career games Smart has filled up the stat sheet, scoring 13.4 points per game, grabbing 7.0 rebounds per game, dishing out 5.8 assists per game, swiping 2.4 steals per game and blocking 1.4 shots per game.
On both ends of the floor, Smart has been a game-changing catalyst for the Cowboys, immediately elevating them to Big 12 contenders and a No. 15 ranking.
Yet to attribute the Cowboys' success solely to Smart would be a foolish mistake. While Smart may be the key piece in taking Oklahoma State to the next level, wing man Le'Bryan Nash and junior guard Markel Brown are two of the best players in the Big 12 as well.
Scoring at a rate of 19.2 points per game, Nash is establishing himself as one of the country’s best scorers, and Brown is averaging a career high of his own at 14.6 points per contest.
The lethal combination of having these three explosive players on the floor at the same time has posed serious problems for opposing defenses and makes Oklahoma State a nightmare matchup for any team in the NCAA Tournament (just ask NC State).
Often overshadowed by the nearby No. 4 ranked Ohio State, who happened to defeat them in last year's NCAA Tournament, No. 17 Cincinnati's slow development into a national contender may come to fruition this season.
After reaching the Round of 32 two seasons ago and the Sweet Sixteen last year, the Cincinnati Bearcats may have the talent and makeup to take the next step and advance to the Elite Eight or Final Four in 2012-13.
Led by the versatile Sean Kilpatrick, who has emerged as one of the Big East’s premier players, the Bearcats have jumped out to a 6-0 start.
While they might not have a signature win thus far, Cincinnati has defeated two dangerous opponents in Iowa State and Oregon. It is the way Cincinnati has been winning, however, that makes the Bearcats a legitimate Final Four possibility.
Keeping true to their reputation as one of the most physical teams in the country, Cincinnati is leading the nation in rebounding at 49.2 boards per game. But it is their improvement on offense that gives fans reason to believe Cincinnati should be considered amongst the country’s best.
In its first six games Cincinnati has averaged 86.8 points per game, over 16 more points per game than last year. This number will undoubtedly shrink when Cincinnati enters their Big East schedule, but the improved scoring of Kilpatrick and senior Cashmere Wright is evidence that relative offensive improvement will persist throughout the season.
However, there is one slight caveat with this Cincinnati team. They rely far too heavily on their three-point shooting for offensive production, launching a remarkable 134 shots from behind the arc in only six games. They have shot 40 percent from long range so far, but in any given game, if they were to go cold, look out for an upset.
On the other hand if Cincinnati’s shooters heat up, do not be totally surprised if they make an improbable run at a National Title.