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College Basketball: 10 Darkhorse NCAA Title Contenders

Avi Wolfman-ArentCorrespondent IIFebruary 26, 2013

College Basketball: 10 Darkhorse NCAA Title Contenders

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    The winds of change blew hard across the college basketball landscape this season, but even they couldn't keep the proverbial dust from settling as we head into March Madness.

    Indiana, for example, collected 64 of 65 first-place votes in the most recent AP poll, marking the Hoosiers fourth straight at No. 1. Elsewhere—in places like Ann Arbor, Gainesville, Spokane and Coral Gables—a veritable collection of Final Four favorites has taken shape.

    But who outside that group has a chance to play its way to Atlanta?

    We'll take a swing at that question in the slides ahead.

    Note: All statistics courtesy of KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.

Who Counts as a Dark Horse?

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    Basically, we're looking to preclude teams that have been in the Final Four conversation at some advanced point during the season.

    There's no science behind it, but I settled only the following guidelines:

    — The team can't have been ranked in the AP Top Five at any time after New Year's;

    — The team can't have been ranked in the AP Top 10 for consecutive weeks any time after New Year's;

    — The team can't have been ranked No. 1 at any point during the regular season.

    One final note before we proceed.

    There are tons of great computer rankings out there. For this exercise, we limited our scope to four: RPI, BPI, Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin.

    So the category "highest current computer ranking" refers to whichever metric of the above four ranks that given team the highest.

Wisconsin

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    Highest AP Ranking: 17th (2/25)

    Highest Current Computer Ranking: 5th (Ken Pomeroy)

    Record: 19-8, 10-4 (Big Ten)

    Wisconsin has wins against every team in the top half of the Big Ten besides Michigan State, and even Sparty only beat the Badgers by two back on January 22.

    Bo Ryan's team ranks third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, and Wisconsin's offense—while slow—is a robust 32nd in adjusted offensive efficiency. The Badgers don't play a particularly exciting brand of basketball, but they take care of the basketball and play lockdown perimeter D.

New Mexico

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    Highest AP Ranking: 14th (2/25)

    Highest Current Computer Ranking: 3rd (RPI)

    Record: 23-4, 10-2 (Mountain West)

    With a victory at Colorado State on Saturday, New Mexico took control of the deep and vastly underrated Mountain West Conference.

    The Lobos' calling card is defense, an area where they are No. 10 overall in adjusted efficiency and 12th in two-point field-goal percentage against. And while Steve Alford's team hasn't beaten a frontline foe, that gaudy RPI number speaks to an impressive overall schedule strength. 

    On the season, New Mexico has wins over Davidson, Connecticut, Indiana State, Cincinnati, UNLV and Colorado State.

Oklahoma State

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    Highest AP Ranking: 14th (2/18)

    Highest Current Computer Ranking: 10th (BPI)

    Record: 20-6, 10-4 (Big 12)

    Freshman point guard Marcus Smart is the star, but Oklahoma State has athletes all over the floor. When Smart had to sit with early foul trouble in the Cowboys' Saturday game at West Virginia, Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash picked up the slack with 16 each en route to a 73-57 win.

    And on defense, Travis Ford's team is a nightmare. Led by Smart's smothering perimeter presence, the Cowboys have been among the nation's top 10 teams in defensive efficiency from the nonconference season on.

Pittsburgh

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    Highest AP Ranking: 16th (2/11)

    Highest Current Computer Ranking: 7th (Ken Pomeroy)

    Record: 21-7, 9-6 (Big East)

    It's often hard to embrace teams with relatively even scoring distribution, and Pittsburgh presents just such a case. The Panthers don't have a go-to scorer, relying instead on a rotation that runs 10 men deep.

    What they do have is a suffocating man-to-man defense that turns opponents over at an alarming rate and an active front line that grabs 40.4 percent of the team's misses, good for fourth in the nation.

Marquette

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    Highest AP Rank: 17th (2/18)

    Highest Current Computer Rank: 14th (RPI)

    Record: 20-7, 11-4 (Big East)

    Buzz Williams' Golden Eagles don't rank particularly high in any of our four computer rankings, but all the metrics agree that Marquette is second weekend-worthy. And that kind of consensus is rare among teams outside the Top 10.

    When evaluating Marquette, it's important to remember tempo. The Golden Eagles play at one of Division I's slower paces, but their offense is a model of efficiency, and it starts with getting to the free-throw line.

    Davante Gardner, the team's second-leading scorer, is 11th nationally in fouls drawn per 40 minutes. Once he gets to the charity stripe, he converts a sterling 85.6 percent of his attempts.

    The Virginia native's game was on full display in a Monday upset over Syracuse. Gardner sliced his way to a game-high 26 points on 13 free-throw attempts, 12 of which he made.

Georgetown

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    Highest AP Ranking: 7th (2/25)

    Highest Current Computer Ranking: 12th (Jeff Sagarin)

    Record: 21-4, 11-3 (Big East)

    We've probably violated the spirit of the law by including Georgetown on this list, but by letter, the Hoyas—who only entered the Top 10 for the first time this week—qualify as a dark-horse title contender.

    Georgetown's star attraction is forward Otto Porter, Jr., a versatile forward and future NBA lottery pick who has thrived since assuming control of John Thompson III's Princeton offense around midseason. Under Porter Jr.'s guidance the Hoyas have reeled off nine consecutive wins, all of them in Big East play.

    But Porter's role in keeping the offense afloat is only meaningful because the Hoyas play such fantastic defense. The Big East's second-best D on a points-per-possession basis also ranks among the nation's top 10 in adjusted efficiency (fifth) and effective field-goal percentage against (sixth).

North Carolina

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    Highest AP Rank: 9th (11/19)

    Highest Current Computer Rank: 18th (Jeff Sagarin)

    Record: 19-8, 9-5 (ACC)

    In a sport like college basketball—with relatively few games and so much year-to-year personnel movement—it's always useful to keep an eye on the talent.

    And boy, does UNC have talent.

    Few teams can match North Carolina athlete for athlete, and recent play suggests the Tar Heels might finally be developing some offensive continuity. Since switching to a smaller lineup two weeks ago against Duke, Roy Williams' team has been more effective at getting to the free-throw line and more efficient with its possessions.

    Right now, the computers are split on UNC, with KenPom.com and BPI slotting the 'Heels in the 30s while RPI and Jeff Sagarin place them among the nation's top 25.

    If, by the end of the year, all four ranking systems have Carolina in the low 20s or higher, it could be a sign that this team has finally put it all together.

Ohio State

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    Highest AP Rank: 3rd (11/19)

    Highest Current Computer Rank: 8th (Jeff Sagarin)

    Record: 20-7, 10-5 (Big Ten)

    Bloodied a bit during the heart of its Big Ten schedule, Ohio State has reemerged in recent weeks as a formidable foe.

    Deshaun Thomas is one of the nation's best volume scorers and headlines a No. 16 offense in adjusted efficiency. Point guard Aaron Craft is the team's defensive ace and an effective penetrator off the bounce.

    There's still some question as to what Thad Matta will get from the rest of this group. Lenzelle Smith, Jr., Sam Thompson, Shannon Scott and Evan Ravenel all have offensive efficiency ratings north of 104, but none of the four has assumed a major role yet in the offense.

    Thompson especially has athleticism to spare and could be a nuisance come tournament time.

San Diego State

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    Highest AP Rank: 15th (1/14)

    Highest Current Computer Rank: 20th (Ken Pomeroy)

    Current Record: 20-7, 8-5 (Mountain West)

    I gave the nod to San Diego State here, but this slide could just as well go to conference rival UNLV for many of the same reasons.

    Both teams play excellent defense—San Diego State is No. 19 in adjusted defensive efficiency, UNLV is No. 16—and both rely on NBA-bound wings to handle the scoring load.

    San Diego State's Jamal Franklin has hops to spare, and UNLV's Anthony Bennett is a man among boys when he gets into the paint. Either man is capable of taking his team to Atlanta.

VCU

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    Highest AP Rank: 19th (1/21)

    Highest Current Computer Rank: 22nd (Ken Pomeroy)

    VCU plays a high-risk/high-reward style of basketball, and when Shaka Smart's team gets rolling, it's capable of beating anybody.

    On defense, the Rams are the nation's most aggressive team, rotating through a bewildering series of press schemes that has resulted in the nation's highest turnover percentage. Offensively, VCU has attempted 652 threes, a number that puts it at No. 16 (per ESPN.com).

    When the Rams made their first ever Final Four in 2011, that combination helped key upsets of Georgetown, Purdue and Kansas.

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