NCAA Basketball: 5 Dark Horse National Championship Contenders
North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio State, UConn, Syracuse and Duke. Those are the favorites to win the 2012 NCAA tournament.
ESPN and other media outlets have made us well aware of that.
Yet the college basketball season is always filled with surprises. Maybe none of the top six teams will even reach the championship game.
Here are five dark horses who could win the 2012 NCAA tournament.
California Golden Bears
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Jorge Gutierrez is one of the best defensive guards in the country. After averaging 1.6 steals per game as a junior, he's already recorded 1.7 swipes through three games.
Gutierrez is also a very capable offensive player, as evidenced by his 14.6 points and 4.5 assists per game from last year.
While Gutierrez is the Golden Bears' leader, sophomore guard Allen Crabbe looks to be having a breakout season. He's off to a good start, leading Cal in scoring with 16.7 points per game.
The Golden Bears have one of the best backcourts on the West Coast, but they also have a nice mixture of height.
Harper Kamp averaged 14.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game in 2010-11, and Richard Solomon and David Kravish have combined for 13.6 rebounds in Cal's first three games.
The Golden Bears are a very good team—Arizona coach Sean Miller said that Cal should be favored to win the Pac-12—and you can expect them to have a chance at a tournament run.
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We'll have a better grasp on Gonzaga's dark horse potential by the time conference play rolls around—the Bulldogs will face a handful of talented teams, including ranked opponents Arizona and Xavier.
For now, though, Gonzaga seems to be a decent bet at 41:1 odds.
We already knew a determined Robert Sacre and a lighter Elias Harris would comprise one of the most formidable mid-major frontcourts. However, we didn't know how the Bulldogs would respond to losing Steven Gray to graduation and Demetri Goodson to football.
The only veteran in the backcourt—Marquise Carter—hasn't even played well, scoring 9.5 points per game, but shooting 20 percent from the floor and turning the ball over 3.5 times.
Instead, freshmen Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell have anchored the backcourt thus far. The duo combined for 47 points in Gonzaga's 89-81 victory over Washington State.
They're not going to pour in such a productive offensive output every single night, but with Harris and Sacre, they probably won't need to.
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Xavier couldn't advance past the first round in the 2011 NCAA tournament, but the Musketeers return their top three scorers—including Naismith Player of the Year candidate Tu Holloway.
After serving a one-game suspension during the season opener, Holloway started 2011-12 in typical fashion, scoring 24 points and adding five assists, six rebounds and two steals.
While he was out, though, Mark Lyons scored 22 points. He averaged 13.6 points as a sophomore and could have a breakout 2011-12 season.
In addition to Holloway, Lyons and Kenny Frease, head coach Chris Mack has two ESPNU Top 100 recruits ready to contribute.
Dezmine Wells is averaging 14 points and 5.5 rebounds, while Justin Martin has scored 6.5 points through the first two games.
The Musketeers only have a couple of easy games before A-10 play begins, so we should know by the new year if they should have championship aspirations.
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Let's not kid ourselves. Kennesaw State and Colgate don't suffocate opponents on defense. But Jordan Taylor has a ludicrous 11:1 assist-to-turnover ratio after his Wisconsin Badgers trounced both the Owls and the Raiders.
Taylor hasn't even scored much yet. That will come.
But his assist-to-turnover ratio shouldn't be too surprising. After all, he led the NCAA in that department last year.
Critics questioned how Wisconsin would handle losing two of their top three scorers—Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil—but the Badgers have responded well so far.
Last year, only three players averaged more than six points per game. Six Badgers are above that mark through two games in 2011-12.
According to Ken Pomeroy, Wisconsin ranked No. 2 in offensive efficiency last season. The Badgers, with Taylor running the show, should once again have one of the most efficient offenses in college basketball.
They're off to the right start, ranking No. 4.
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So Vanderbilt lost to Cleveland State last weekend. Your point?
If you think that one loss seals Vanderbilt's fate for yet another first-round upset in March, you're mistaken.
First of all, the Commodores were without Festus Ezeli, their most dominant post player on both ends of the floor. Ezeli will still be sidelined for a few weeks with a knee injury, but Vanderbilt will be a different team with him available.
Three games into the season, the Commodores are averaging four blocks per game. In their loss to Cleveland State, the Vikings out-rebounded them by two.
The senior center averaged 13 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 2010-11.
Do you think those numbers—and, consequentially, the games' margins—would be more in Vanderbilt's favor with a healthy Ezeli?
Yes, Vanderbilt also turned the ball over 20 times against Cleveland State, but in their other two games, the Commodores have a combined 13 turnovers. Don't be too worried about ball control.
Also, if you're concerned because Vanderbilt followed up their loss with a seemingly meager 12-point win over Bucknell, don't be. John Jenkins, who is averaging 20.5 points through his first two games, missed the contest with a sprained ankle.
No Jenkins, no Ezeli, but a 12-point win? Not bad.
Vanderbilt has a lot of talent. The top seven scorers from last season's team are back, and ESPNU Top 100 recruits Kedren Johnson and Dai-Jon Parker have already contributed.
Don't sleep on this team.