Favorites, beware these 10 darkhorses the field of 68

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The 2012 NCAA Tournament may end up being on of the most competitive fields in recent memory. While there are five to 10 elite teams this year, the quality of the entire field is incredibly high. Because of that, and because of what we’ve seen in the past, it is entirely possible that a dark-horse emerges from the field, such as VCU did a season ago.

Even if a darkhorse doesn’t make it to New Orleans, a successful run to the Sweet-16 or Elite Eight is enough to advance the program for seasons to come. Consider this the list of teams that you think could make a run, but aren’t positive enough to vocalize it.

(Note: Our list contains no teams seeded higher than a No. 7-seed)

Florida (No. 7 West):
In the dark: The Gators played in the shadows of Kentucky all season long, and when they had their chance against the Wildcats, they came up short. The SEC was pretty weak outside of Kentucky, so people wrote this team off as a legitimate contender.
Why they can make a run: Billy Donovan is a solid tournament coach, and they have a bunch of guards that can score a bunch of points. If they can feed Patric Young on a consistent basis, this is a team that can do some damage.
Tourney distance: A potential third round match-up with Missouri would be interesting and entertaining considering that both teams are very similar. It would not be a monumental surprise to see this team advance to the Elite Eight or further, but it would be a bit of a shock.

Creighton (No. 8 Midwest):
In the dark: Wichita State stole its thunder late in the season, and even a MVC tournament Championship couldn’t boost the Bluejays tournament seeding.
Why they can make a run: Doug McDermott. That’s why. This team does not play a lot of defense but Doug Mcdermott is an All-American capable of scoring 30 points night in and night out. Antoine Young can make clutch shots and Gregotry Echenique is a force down low.
Tourney distance: If, and that’s a big “if”, they can beat North Carolina in the third round, this team could go all the way. But their lack of defense will hurt them against North Carolina. That being said, it would not be a surprise to see this team advance past the third round.

Iowa State (No. 8 South)
In the Dark: Hoop junkies know how good of a job Fred Hoiberg has done as coach this year, and they know about Royce White. But this would be a perfect time for the casual fans to get introduced to “The Royce White Expressway”.
Why they can make a run: Royce White. The 6-9 forward is a match-up nightmare. He’s the type of player who can put the entire team on his back. But he does have help. Scott Christopherson is a phenomenal shooter, and Melvin Ejim can do a bit of everything. This team was right outside of the Big-XII’s big-3 of Kansas, Baylor and Missouri. Being just outside of that group isn’t too shabby for a team chalk-full of transfers coached by a second-year head coach.
Tourney distance: UConn is a difficult second round match-up, but talented teams that lack cohesiveness don’t usually fare well in March. If Iowa State beats the Huskies they can legitimately give Kentucky a run for their money in the third round. If they can knock-off the overall No.1-seed, sky is the limit.

Kansas State (No. 8 East):
In the dark: The Wildcats have no superstars like in previous years, and play in the shadows on the Kansas Jayhawks. They beat good teams but lost to teams they shouldn’t have.
Why they can make a run: The Wildcats are as tough as they come. They beat up on teams with more size and more talent. They are an extremely good offensive rebounding team and have solid guard play.
Tourney distance: It is possible that they could defeat Syracuse in the third round. The Orange are a poor rebounding tram, and as mentioned, Kansas State is surprisingly good. A berth in the Sweet-16 is possible, but that’s probably their limit. Nonetheless, that would be a significant accomplishment for a team that entered the season with limited expectations.

West Virginia (No. 10 East):
In the dark: The Mountaineers were just 9-9 in Big East play and have a roster with nine freshman on it.
Why they can make a run: Kevin Jones is a force down low. He is a tremendous rebounder, has great hands and can shot from outside. Truck Bryant is a capable point guard who can score in volume when he is responsible with the ball.
Tourney distance: Beating Gonzaga in the first round is very possible. A second round match-up with Ohio State is made less daunting because of Kevin Jones, who can go toe-to-toe with Jared Sullinger.

Xavier (No. 10 South):
In the dark: There might not ever be a downward spiral as big as the one the Musketeers fell into following the Crosstown Brawl. Luckily for Xavier, they had been so dominant prior to the incident, that they were buoyed enough to limp in the tournament.
Why they can make a run: They have a very easy draw, and if they can discover their moxie again, this team is dangerous. Tu Holloway hasn’t had a great season, but we all know what he’s capable of in the tournament.
Tourney distance: They are more talented than Notre Dame, but they will have to be more disciplined. If they can be, and Duke gets upset by Lehigh, which is very possible, a Sweet-Sixteen run isn’t out of the realm of possibillity. A Final-Four appearance probably is however.

Texas (No. 11 East):
In the dark: Only J’Covan Brown, Alexis Wangmene and Dean Melchonni return from last year’s squad. Plus, the ‘Horns finished in the middle of the Big-XII pack at 9-9.
Why they can make a run: They ran with a bunch of the top teams in the Big-XII despite having so much youth on their roster. Plus, their Nashville pod is rather weak.
Tourney distance: A berth in the Sweet-16 would be a tremendous success and would not be too farfetched. Cincinnati is a beatible first round opponent, as is either Florida State or St. Bonaventure’s.

Long Beach State (No. 12 West):
In the dark: Actually, this team is probably one of the sexiest lower-seed picks in the tournament. The 49ers’ monstrous non-conference schedule provided some exposure to the public, but still, they play in the Big West Conference. Not enough people know about Casper Ware.
Why they can make a run: They are loaded with experience. Not tournament experience per se, but all five starters are seniors, and their brutal non-conference schedule has given them confidence to hang with the big-boys. Casper Ware is one of the best point guards in the country, and this team plays a brand of basketball that not may teams want to deal with.
Tourney distance: A Sweet-16 appearance wouldn’t be a huge surprise, but they would have to beat Louisville, a team they already lost to, in order to get there.

New Mexico State (No. 13 South):
In the dark: The Aggies play in the WAC. The only reason you know about the WAC is because of conference realignment. They only played one BCS-conference team (Arizona) and lost 83-76.
Why they can make a run: They’ve won 12 of their last 14 games and all of their key players are upperclassmen. Guard Hernst LaRoche and forward Wendell McKines make up one of the ebst one-two punches out west. They are both capable of 30-point performances, and are both quality shooters. The Aggies aren’t terribly deep, but they have size and strength.
Tourney distance: 6-foot-11 senior Hamidu Rahman will have his hands full with Indiana’s Cody Zeller in the second round, but the Aggies backcourt may actually be better than the Hooisers, so if they can control the talented freshman, they can steal the victory. With Wichita State and VCU facing off in the other match-up, a berth in the Sweet-16 is possible. That’s about as far as this team can go.

Detroit (No. 15 Midwest)
In the dark: The Titans’ early season struggles killed all the preseason hype that was attached to this team. Playing in a Horizon League known primarily for Butler didn’t help either.
Why they can make a run: They have a surprisingly big and athletic team for the mid-major ranks. Ray McCallum Jr. is a five-star guard and Eli Hohlman is a dominant big-man that should be able to give Thomas Robinson some trouble. They also have two athletic forwards in LaMarcus Lowe and Doug Anderson.
Tourney distance: They are a No.15-seed, so earning one win would be considered a success. earning that one win against Kansas would have to be considered an even bigger success. Plus, Kansas hsa a penchant for losing to mid-major teams. Maybe the titans can summon some Horizon League magic and become “the new Butler”.

Troy Machir is the managing editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @TroyMachir.

NTSB cites mechanical issue in Michigan plane incident

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YPSILANTI TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) A preliminary investigation into the runway accident involving a plane carrying the Michigan men’s basketball team cites a mechanical problem.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday issued an update about the March 8 crash at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti Township, near the Ann Arbor school. The aborted takeoff caused extensive damage to the aircraft but only one minor injury during evacuation.

The report does not list a likely cause of the incident, but it says flight data recorder shows the right elevator – the primary mechanism controlling an airplane’s pitch – didn’t move during the attempted takeoff.

The plane carrying 109 passengers and seven crew members skidded 1,000 feet past the runway. The team was headed to Washington, D.C., for the Big Ten Tournament. They flew the next day and won the tournament and are now in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

Butler, Purdue use true grit to get programs into Sweet 16

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Coach Matt Painter kept believing in his team even as he watched Purdue fritter away a 19-point lead.

He did, after all, recruit these players to excel in tough times. And he did spend two years using the lessons from consecutive overtime losses in the NCAA Tournament to show his team what it took to survive in March.

So when the Boilermakers steadied themselves, retook the lead and reached their first Sweet 16 in seven years, Painter wasn’t surprised. He simply knew the Boilermakers, finally, were tough enough.

“No question, having that grit back after not having it for a couple of years helps,” Painter said. “We put a lot of skill on the court, but we also have guys who are competitive.”

Painter, after all, grew up a fan of former Hoosiers coach Bob Knight, went on to play for Gene Keady and then served on Keady’s staff briefly before succeeding his former coach.

Experience has taught Painter just how delicate it can be to find the proper balance.

After finishing last in the Big Ten in 2013-14 with guys who were content to rely more on their athleticism than mental toughness, Painter changed course.

He brought in gritty overachievers who embraced old-school principles built on effort and led Purdue to its first outright conference title since 1996. Nothing reinforced those beliefs more than last weekend’s comeback against Iowa State.

“Leads are blown throughout March Madness, which is all about close games. I always tell the guys, `If it’s not a blowout, then it is a close game,”‘ junior forward Vince Edwards said Monday. “We have learned to be able to take a run – like Iowa State’s – and be able to withstand it.”

The best teams always do, which is why fourth-seeded Purdue will now face top-seeded Kansas (30-4) in one of Thursday night’s Midwest Regional semifinal games .

Finding players who are the right fit is a challenge for every coach and program.

At Butler, it’s a tradition that has been passed down through nearly a half-dozen coaches over a span of two decades. Former coach and current athletic director Barry Collier started the process by turning the Bulldogs from perennial also-ran into a regular conference contender and NCAA Tourney hopeful.

Thad Matta and Todd Lickliter kept the momentum going before taking other jobs, and Brad Stevens perfected the script as the Bulldogs posted consecutive national runner-up finishes.

Things didn’t always go smoothly. Fans still remember watching the Bulldogs blow an upset against Florida in the 2000 tourney and the inexplicable 2002 tourney snub.

Eventually, though, those painful moments gave way to a litany of program-defining memories.

Against Louisville in the 2003 tourney, a teammate handed his dry shoes to the late Joel Cornette so Cornette could help close out an upset against Louisville in 2003. In the 2010 title game, junior center Matt Howard had the foresight to set a pick and give Gordon Hayward a clean look on his half-court heave that just missed.

The next year, Howard managed to draw a foul in the waning seconds against Pittsburgh to keep Butler’s postseason run alive.

“The stories are unbelievable,” point guard Tyler Lewis said. “That was a special group because they really made the community believe Butler was not just some small school. Butler was a school you didn’t mess around with.”

Stevens and his predecessors moved the school up the pecking order by recruiting late-bloomers or players who were often overlooked by bigger schools. They asked them to play selflessly, a style that defines The Butler Way.

While that philosophy worked well in the Horizon League and the Atlantic 10, Chris Holtmann needed to make some adjustments to thrive in the stronger Big East. Holtmann has recruited better athletes and is looking for more physical players, but the same basic philosophy hasn’t changed.

“I think it (toughness) has been valued here at a really high level, from those who came before me,” Holtmann said. “I just hope I’m doing my job to carry it on.”

The good news is he hasn’t had do too much.

Here, players like leading scorer Kelan Martin don’t complain about coming off the bench if asked. Grad transfers like Avery Woodson and Kethan Savage are both happy to help any way they can in their first and only NCAA appearance.

And it will be that way again when fourth-seeded Butler (25-8) tries to upset top-seeded North Carolina (29-7) in the South Region on Friday night.

“What makes us so tough is that we believe in each other,” said Lewis, who started his career at North Carolina State. “It’s an honor putting on this Butler uniform because it reminds us of what the guys did that came before us.”

Sweet 16 Preview: Thursday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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The Sweet 16 kicks off on Thursday night, and the games are going to be terrific.

Oregon-Michigan should be thrilling, Gonzaga-West Virginia is a fascinating contrast of styles and Kansas-Purdue features arguably the two best players in college basketball.

Oh, and then there’s Arizona-Xavier, with Sean Miller and Chris Mack doing battle.

For an in-depth look at each region, check these out:

SWEET 16 PREVIEW: Midwest | West | South | East

No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 7 Michigan (-1.5), 7:09 p.m. (CBS): So this run that Michigan on, is it a fluke?

Frankly, I don’t think that it is. Derrick Walton has been awesome for the better part of two months while Michigan’s perimeter shooters have always been shooters and the duo of D.J. Wilson and Mo Wagner are legit. I honestly do not believe that the Wolverines are a team of destiny after the plane crash. They are just really good and a perfect roster for John Beilein to tinker with.

That’s why they’re favored on Thursday night. But here’s the thing … Oregon is pretty good themselves. Dillon Brooks is going to be guarded by a big man, which should be a matchup that Brooks can take advantage of, and Tyler Dorsey has been playing terrific basketball since the start of the Pac-12 tournament.

If you like small-ball, spread-the-court basketball, you’ll love this game.

PREDICTION: Michigan (-1.5)

No. 1 Gonzaga (-3) vs. No. 4 West Virginia, 7:39 p.m. (TBS): On paper, I think Gonzaga should win this game. They have a good back court in Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins, a pair of talented point guards that have won a lot of games in their career. Gonzaga is also the best defensive team in the country. So if they don’t turn the ball over against West Virginia’s press and they make it difficult for West Virginia to score in the half court and get into their press, they should be able to win this thing, right?

Well, maybe not.

My concern with Gonzaga is game-pressure. They didn’t handle it well down the stretch against BYU in their one loss of the season, and I’m not convinced that they win that second round game against Northwestern if the officials don’t blow the goaltending call. How are they going to handle an endless wave of Mountaineers in their face?

PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-3)

No. 1 Kansas (-5) vs. No. 4 Purdue, 9:39 p.m. (CBS): More than any other game this weekend, I’m fascinated to see how these two teams decide to try and play each other. Kansas has, essentially, one big man that Bill Self can trust, and he’s going up against a Player of the Year candidate in Caleb Swanigan and one of the best big men in the country at drawing fouls in Isaac Haas. Will Self double-team Swanigan knowing that Purdue may be more effective offensively when Swanigan can find shooters out of the double-team, or will he risk Lucas getting in foul trouble by trying to guard Swanigan one-on-one?

Then, at the other end of the floor, how will Purdue deal with the Kansas back court? Frank Mason III, the NBC Sports National Player of the Year, and Devonte’ Graham are a nightmare for anyone to deal with, let alone a team that struggles against penetrating guards and that lacks rim protection. It should be a fascinating coaching battle.

PREDICTION: Kansas (-5)

No. 2 Arizona (-7.5) vs. No. 11 Xavier, 10:09 p.m. (TBS): On paper, Arizona should be able to handle a Xavier team that doesn’t have Edmond Sumner or Myles Davis. That said, as we all know, Chris Mack and Sean Miller are very close and used to work together. Mack knows everything that Miller is going to do and vice versa. I think this game will be a low-scoring, grind-it-out affair that comes down to the final minutes.

PREDICTION: Xavier (+7.5)

Shayok and Reuter transferring from Virginia

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Virginia announced the departure of two players Wednesday.

Marial Shayok and Jarred Reuter will both transfer out of the program, the school said.

“Marial and Jarred informed me today that they are leaving the Virginia basketball program and are looking to transfer to other schools,” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said in a statement released by the school. “I thank Marial and Jarred for their hard work and contributions to our program, and wish them success in the future.”

Shayok, a a 6-foot-5 junior, played 20.9 minutes per game last season for the Cavaliers, averaging 8.9 points and 2.4 rebounds per game while shooting 44.5 percent from the floor. The Ottawa native started 23 games in three seasons with Virginia.

Reuter played a minimal role for the Cavaliers, averaging just 10.8 minutes and 3.8 rebounds per game.

Wake’s Collins declares for NBA draft without hiring agent

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) Wake Forest’s John Collins is entering the NBA draft but will not hire an agent and is keeping open the option of returning to school for his junior season.

In a statement Wednesday announcing the decision, Collins said he wants “to make an informed decision about what is best for my future.”

Collins is a 6-foot-10 forward who as a sophomore blossomed into one of the best big men in the Atlantic Coast Conference and was voted to the Associated Press all-ACC team.

He averaged 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds, putting together a string of 12 consecutive 20-point games late in the season.

His progression was a big reason why the Demon Deacons earned their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010. Kansas State beat Wake Forest in the First Four.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org