NCAA Basketball Rankings: Dark-Horse Final Four Contenders from AP Top 25

Scott PolacekFeatured ColumnistMarch 9, 2014

Michigan guard Caris LeVert (23) and guard Nik Stauskas (11) stand with teammates on the court waiting for an awards ceremony, after an NCAA college basketball game against Indiana at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, March 8, 2014. Michigan won 84-80, and celebrated their outright Big Ten regular season championship. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
Tony Ding/Associated Press

Selection Sunday is one week away, and while we still have to wait for the official seeding to come out, the Associated Press Top 25 Poll provides a form of foreshadowing.

Here is a look at the rankings as they stand now:

Week 18 Associated Press Top 25
RankTeam (First-Place Votes)RecordVotes
1Florida (46)29-21606
2Wichita State (14)34-01555
3Arizona (5)28-31514
4Duke24-71364
5Virginia25-61304
6Villanova28-31292
7Syracuse27-41240
8Kansas23-81200
9Wisconsin25-51075
10San Diego State27-3995
11Louisville26-5959
12Michigan23-7899
13Creighton24-6892
14North Carolina23-8755
15Cincinnati26-5737
16Iowa State23-7613
17Saint Louis26-5539
18SMU23-8427
19Connecticut24-7423
20Memphis23-8364
21New Mexico24-6338
22Michigan State23-8322
23Oklahoma23-8183
24Iowa20-1194
25Kentucky22-992
AP.org

It is easy to point to the likes of Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Duke, Wichita State and even Michigan State as legitimate national title contenders, but what about some of the lesser-discussed squads? 

With that in mind, let’s dig into a discussion about some dark-horse Final Four contenders from the list of ranked teams.

 

Villanova

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Has there ever been a team that stayed in the Top 10 of the rankings for so long without even being talked about more so than this year’s Villanova squad?

The Wildcats currently sit at No. 6, but with Duke and Arizona both suffering losses this past week, they figure to move even higher.

Perhaps Villanova hasn’t been discussed alongside the game’s heavyweights because the Big East lost so many teams in the offseason, but it has beaten everyone in the new-look league except for the Creighton Bluejays.

More impressively though was the Wildcats’ performance in the nonconference portion of their schedule. They knocked off USC, Kansas and Iowa on consecutive days back in November and hung with Syracuse in the Carrier Dome for a while before losing by 16. 

The Wildcats have lost only three times this season because of the threats they have on the inside and outside. James Bell, Darrun Hilliard II, JayVaughn Pinkston and Ryan Arcidiacono all score in double-digit figures a game and should carry Villanova far in the Big Dance.

 

Cincinnati

Al Behrman/Associated Press

For as much grief as the American Athletic Conference received during the football season for being the weak link in the BCS, it has impressed on the hardwood.

Cincinnati and Louisville tied for the league title, but the Bearcats’ coach Mick Cronin didn’t really care if it was a co-title or an outright championship in comments to Associated Press reporters that were passed along by ESPN.com:

I am really proud of the guys. To be able to grind out a regular-season championship, 15-3 in this league is pretty strong. In my mind, we won a championship no matter what. Whether it is shared or not, you're conference champs.

The Bearcats knocked off the likes of Louisville, Memphis and Connecticut during the season and boast one of the strongest defenses in the country. Ken Pomeroy has Cincinnati ranked No. 7 in his pace-adjusted defensive efficiency ratings (as of Sunday).

The saying defense wins championships exists for a reason. 

Look for the Bearcats to remain in any game they play by stifling the opposing offense. That could certainly land them in the Final Four, depending on the matchups, especially with Sean Kilpatrick pacing the way on the offensive end.

 

Michigan

It may seem strange to call the Big Ten regular-season champion a dark horse, but after Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. left for the NBA and then Mitch McGary was lost for the season with back issues, many people simply overlooked Michigan.

All the Wolverines have done in response is run rampant through a treacherous Big Ten.

Tony Ding/Associated Press

They count victories over the likes of Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State to their resume, and they have one of the more dangerous trios of offensive weapons in the entire nation.

Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Caris LeVert each average better than 13 points a night, with Stauskas setting the pace at 17.4. Stauskas was something of an afterthought on last year’s squad, but he has assumed the leadership role in an impressive manner during the 2013-14 campaign.

Throw in role players like Derrick Walton Jr., Jordan Morgan, Zak Irvin and Jon Horford, and the Wolverines have a number of players who can score and defend at any given time.

Tony Gerdeman of The-Ozone.net thinks Michigan could see its in-state rival in the final stages of the tournament:

With a Big Ten championship already in tow, don’t be surprised if Michigan is cutting down the nets on the way to the Final Four in the NCAA tournament.

 

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