Road to the Final Four: 10 Dark Horses That Can Make Some Noise in March
In 2003, Syracuse began the season unranked but later went on to cut down the nets in New Orleans.
With the 'Cuse in mind, here are 10 teams outside my preseason Top 25 that could have some staying power during March Madness.
Last season: 24-15, lost to Penn State in the NIT Finals
Key Additions: SG Nolan Dennis, PG A.J. Walton, PF Corey Jefferson, SG Mark McLaughlin, SF Givon Crump, C Ekpe Udoh
Key Losses: Curtis Jerrells (16.3 ppg, 4.9 apg), Kevin Rogers (12.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg), Henry Dugat (9.4 ppg)
Why the Bears are a Dark Horse: Baylor has recently been one of the most athletic and offensive-minded teams in the country and typically gives opponents matchup nightmares. The Bears have a deep stable of guards once again and finally have a reliable, deep frontcourt. LaceDarius Dunn could wind up on an All-American team, as he'll have a starring role in 2010 as opposed to the supporting one he owned in 2008-09.
Why the Bears could be a dud: Scott Drew teams haven't exactly figured out how to play defense. Baylor's defensive efficiency has really been terrible for a major conference team. Most of the core players from past bad defensive teams are gone, so the team may improve its greatest weakness.
Games that should define Baylor: The Old Spice Classic field is practically an NCAA Tournament field. Baylor will have chances to beat Michigan, Florida State, Creighton, Marquette, and Xavier. The Bears will also travel to Columbia to tip off with South Carolina, another team likely to make the NCAA Tournament.
Last Season: 25-8, lost to Texas A&M in first round of NCAA Tournament
Key Additions: SG Tyler Haws, C Nate Austin, C Ian Harward, PF Brandon Davies
Key Losses: Lee Cummard (16.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg)
Why the Cougars are a Dark Horse: BYU returns every major contributor except its leading scorer from a 25-win team that made the NCAA Tournament. Jimmer Fredette and Jonathan Tavernari are two of the best players in the Mountain West Conference and make for a deadly tandem from beyond the arc. The Cougars' four-player recruiting class should give them even more depth.
Why the Cougars could be a dud: BYU has had no postseason success during the past six years. They've gone one-and-done every time they've made a postseason tournament since 2004. The Cougars are also a little weak in the interior, which will eventually be exploited in March.
Games that should define BYU: Arizona and Arizona State. Both Arizona squads will be having down years compared to last season but will present challenges for the Cougars. BYU will be looking for revenge against ASU for a last-second loss last season.
Last Season: 25-10, lost to Wisconsin in first round of NCAA Tournament
Key Additions: SG Michael Snaer, PF Terrence Shannon
Key Losses: Toney Douglas (21.5 ppg) and Uche Echefu (8.1 ppg)
Why the Seminoles are a Dark Horse: Florida State has a potential breakout player in 7'1" center Solomon Alabi. The sophomore has shown glimpses of greatness and should be a top option in Leonard Hamilton's offense. The Seminoles also have one of the best freshman shooting guards in the country. Michael Snaer should provide the scoring punch FSU might lack due to the departure of leading scorer Toney Douglas.
Why the Seminoles could be a dud: Florida State had trouble scoring last season, and without leading scorer Douglas, putting the ball in the hoop may become even more difficult. FSU is also lacking depth in the backcourt, which could spell doom during league play.
Games that should define Florida State: The Seminoles are also taking part in the Old Spice Classic, giving them a chance at Baylor or Alabama, and then either Michigan, Xavier, Creighton, or Marquette. FSU will also play Ohio State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Last Season: 24-10, lost to Western Kentucky in the first round of NCAA Tournament
Key Additions: D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey, Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand
Key Losses: Trent Meacham (10.2 ppg), Chester Frazier (5.7 ppg, 5.3 apg), Calvin Brock (5.3 ppg)
Why the Illini are a Dark Horse: Illinois brings back one of the best trios in the Big Ten with guard Demetri McCamey, power forward Mike Davis, and center Mike Tisdale. The Illini are also always a very scrappy defensive squad and ranked fourth in the country in 2009 in defensive efficiency.
Why the Illini could be a dud: Illinois, like Florida State, has had trouble scoring the past few years and lost table-setter Chester Frazier. Illinois will likely also have to rely on freshmen to have any kind of backcourt depth.
Games that should define Illinois: The Illini will have to head out of state to face Clemson in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and to St. Louis to face rival Missouri. Illinois will also get a much-improved Vanderbilt team at home.
Last season: 22-12, lost to San Diego State in the NIT
Key Additions: Wallace Judge, Jordan Henriquez, Rodney McGruder, Nick Russell, Martavious Irving
Key Losses: Darren Kent (9 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
Why the Wildcats are a Dark Horse: Just like Syracuse in 2003, Kansas State has a freshman forward capable of dominating every game. Wallace Judge will follow in the footsteps of KSU great Michael Beasley and try to get the Wildcats back to the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats also have stud guards Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen.
Why the Wildcats could be a dud: After Clemente, Pullen, and Judge, there isn't a whole lot of talent on this Kansas State squad. KSU will be relying on freshman Jordan Henriquez as well as Judge.
Games that should define Kansas State: The Puerto Rico Tip-Off will provide Kansas State with a chance to play likely NCAA Tournament teams Dayton, Villanova, and Georgia Tech. The Wildcats will also get Atlantic 10 stalwart Xavier at home.
Last Season: 31-6, lost to Michigan State in Regional Finals
Key Additions: PG Peyton Silva, PF Rakeem Buckle, SG Mike Marra, PF Stephan Van Treese
Key Losses: Earl Clark (14.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Terrence Williams (12.5 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 5.0 apg), Andre McGee (5.3 ppg, .373 three-point %)
Why the Cardinals are a Dark Horse: There are some very talented pieces on this Louisville team. Samardo Samuels will likely become an All-Big East First or Second Team performer. Rick Pitino also has a handful of guards that can knock down the long ball but also crank up the defensive pressure. This Louisville team isn't as athletic and long as last year, but the Cards will still be one of the best defensive teams in the country.
Why the Cardinals could be a dud: The obvious reason is Pitino's offseason escapades will be too much of a distraction and set the program back a few years. The more practical reason is the loss of Terrence Williams and Earl Clark. While the two could be inconsistent at times, they were two of the best game-changers in the Big East, and Louisville will really miss their unique skill sets.
Games that should define Louisville: The Cardinals will face Bluegrass State rivals Kentucky. If both squads can get past their head coach controversies, the game should be a telling contest for both. Louisville will also face a gauntlet of games in the Big East, which always prepares clubs for March.
Last Season: 17-15, lost to Syracuse in the second round of the Big East Tournament
Key Additions: SG Keon Lawrence, PF Herb Pope, G Jeff Robinson, SF Ferrakohn Hall
Key Losses: Paul Gause (7.8 ppg) Mike Davis (2.6 ppg) Brandon Walters (1.9 ppg)
Why the Pirates are a Dark Horse: Seton Hall returns a solid nucleus of players that includes Big East star scorer Jeremy Hazell. Five of the top six members of last year's rotation are back on top of two impact transfers. Herb Pope and Keon Lawrence are arguably the best tandem of transfers in the country. The Hall had little trouble scoring last year, and with the additions of Pope and Lawrence, Bobby Gonzalez will have a handful of weapons on his roster.
Why the Pirates could be a dud: Defense has been an optional part of basketball for Seton Hall recently. Paul Gause, the one key player Hall loses, was its best defender. The Pirates are also one of the smallest teams in terms of height in the Big East. The conference is loaded with trees, meaning SHU could get pushed around quite a bit beneath the basket.
Games that should define Seton Hall: The Pirates will travel to Cancun to play Virginia Tech. It will be a nationally televised game that will allow the Pirates to gain national visibility. Like Louisville, Seton Hall will have a tough Big East schedule to prepare them for March.
Last Season: 21-10, lost to Davidson in the first round of the NIT
Key Additions: SG Lakeem Jackson, SG Ramon Galloway, SG Steve Spinella, PF Jhondre Jefferson
Key Losses: Zam Fredrick (15.5 ppg)
Why the Gamecocks are a Dark Horse: Devan Downey can sometimes be downright unstoppable. Downey doesn't have another game-changer by his side, but rather has a group of role players that all have a specific role, and they do them well. Freshman guard Lakeem Jackson has received high praise as a gutty guard who can put the ball in the hoop. Second-year coach Darrin Horn made significant progress to move this program forward last season and will likely take another major step forward in 2010.
Why the Gamecocks could be a dud: Only having one stud player can have its downfalls as well. Without Zam Fredrick, Downey might have to do too much, which can sometimes be quite counterproductive. USC's recruiting class will likely provide the team with solid players down the road, but only Jackson will be a real impact player for this Gamecock club.
Games that should define South Carolina: The Gamecocks have put together a very challenging non-conference schedule after years of cupcakes. USC will host Baylor, Western Kentucky, and Richmond, who all might be headed to the NCAA Tournament this season. The Gamecocks will also take a few road trips down to Clemson to tip-off with their rivals and up to Boston to play Boston College.
Last Season: 24-10, lost to Connecticut in the Round of 32 in NCAA Tournament
Key Additions: SG Naji Hibbert, SF Khris Middleton, PF Kourtney Roberson, SG Jeremy Adams
Key Losses: Josh Carter (13.8 ppg), Chinemelu Elonu (9.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg)
Why the Aggies are a Dark Horse: Texas A&M has a variety of solid upperclassmen and emerging talented underclassmen. Donald Sloan and Bryan Davis are capable leaders and a tough inside-outside combination to stop. Sophomores David Loubeau and Dash Harris were highly hyped headed into their freshman seasons and should provide some spark off the bench in 2009-10. This year's recruiting class should provide Texas A&M with more than enough depth.
Why the Aggies could be a dud: Texas A&M struggled defensively at times last year and could get burned in Big 12 play, as the league is loaded with offensive talent. Also, losing Josh Carter and Chinemelu Elonu really hurts, as Carter was the team's best three-point shooter and Elonu was the team's best rebounder.
Games that should define Texas A&M: The 76 Classic will provide the Aggies with a chance to play Clemson, West Virginia, and potentially UCLA, Butler, or Minnesota. TAMU also has a date with one of the Pac-10 favorites, Washington.
Last Season: 19-12, lost to Alabama in first round of SEC Tournament
Key Additions: SG John Jenkins
Key Losses: George Drake (5.4 ppg)
Why the Commodores are a Dark Horse: Kevin Stallings' club returns its top four scorers, including dominant big man A.J. Ogilvy. Vandy also brings in one of the top freshmen in the country, John Jenkins. The freshman two-guard is one of the most prolific scorers in his class, giving the Commodores a fifth scoring option. Vandy used up to a dozen players in its rotation last year; almost all those players return, allowing coach Stallings to once again have tremendous depth.
Why the Commodores could be a dud: Vanderbilt was only an average defensive squad last season. Also, despite having four double-digit scorers return, the team's offensive efficiency was also a bit below average for an SEC team.
Games that should define Vanderbilt: Vandy is in an always loaded Maui Invitational field. The school's opening round game is against a much-improved Cincinnati team, and they could play Maryland in the second round. The Commodores also will play Missouri at home and travel to Champaign to face Illinois.
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