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.

No. 6 Wichita State survives Cal, advances to Maui semis

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With 16 minutes left in their Maui Invitational opener against Cal, No. 6 Wichita State – who I, for some reason, touted as potentially the best team in the country not once, but twice in the last week – finally decided to show up to the Lahaina Civic Center.

The Shockers would outscore the Golden Bears 52-24 down the stretch, as their defensive intensity sped Cal up and their size on the interior wore them down. Shaq Morris led the way with 25 points, seven boards and four blocks while Landry Shamet chipped in with 23 points of his own.

Cal’s lead was in large part due to a first half offensive explosion from the diminutive Don Coleman. He scored 26 of his 35 points in the first 20 minutes and his activity in their press helped keep the Shockers from establishing any kind of a rhythm.

But eventually, Gregg Marshall’s club imposed their will.

And in the end, that’s what really matters, right?

Wichita State was dead in the water early in the second half. Shamet was on the bench in foul trouble while Connor Frankamp was firing up 28-footers that never had a chance, even on Maui’s soft rims, and it looked like Wyking Jones was on his way towards getting the first statement win of his tenure. That slowly but surely changed. The Shockers got the ball into the paint, their defense ratcheted up and they do what they normally do: Grind you down to a pulp.

Is it concerning that Wichita State let it get to that point?

Absolutely. Cal is not all that good. They lost their opener to UC Riverside. If they had held on to win this game, there’s an argument to make that it could end up being the most surprising outcome of the season. They should not have been in that spot.

But they were.

And they got out of it with a win.

If I’m Gregg Marshall, I chalk that up to jet lag, tired legs and a team that spent too much time enjoying the islands. Burn the first half tape, show them the second half and get ready for Marquette, who is basically the same team as Cal, only much, much better.

Me?

I’m not quite ready to move off of the idea that Wichita State could be the best team in the country.

I just won’t be saying it publicly for a while.

Marquette opens Maui Invitational with 94-83 win over VCU

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LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — Markus Howard gathered the ball, gave a head fake, quickly moved his right foot forward to make the defender think he would drive to the basket. That one little jab step was enough to get the defender leaning and Howard stepped back for a 3-pointer that swished through.

After a rare poor-shooting half, the nation’s best 3-point shooter had found his rhythm.

Howard scored 18 of his 22 points in the second half, Andrew Rowsey added 20 and Marquette opened the Maui Invitational with a 94-83 victory over Virginia Commonwealth on Monday.

“I missed a couple shots and I can’t really even think about it. I have to move on to the next play,” Howard said. “The second half it’s like a start-over, hit your restart button, so I was looking at it that way.

Marquette (2-1) started slow, but got rolling behind Rowsey, who had 15 points in the first half. Howard, the nation’s top 3-point shooter as a freshman last season, struggled in the first half before catching fire. He made 4 of 9 from the arc in the second half and finished with seven assists, leading the Golden Eagles into the Maui semifinals against No. 6 Wichita State or California.

Sam Hauser added 20 points and Marquette hit 13 of 36 from the arc overall.

“I thought we took some really quick, ill-advised shots in the first half,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “The second half, I thought we had much greater poise on the offensive end.”

VCU (2-2) caused some problems with its pressure defense — 17 Marquette turnovers — but had trouble slowing the Golden Eagles shooters, particularly after offensive rebounds.

Marquette had 15 offensive rebounds that led to 22 second-chance points.

Malik Crowfield led the Rams with 17 points.

“They were tough today, they did a great job of getting more opportunities that I think it really cost us,” VCU coach Mike Rhoades said. “Put ourselves in a tough position, giving really good shooters extra shots over and over again.”

Rhoades was an assistant under Shaka Smart on the 2011 Final Four team and took over this season when Will Wade left for LSU. New coach, but the Rams still play that always-in-your-face “Havoc” defense that drives teams crazy and into mistakes.

VCU opened the season with wins over Grambling State and North Florida before losing to Virginia on Friday.

The Golden Eagles are coming off their first NCAA Tournament appearance under Wojciechowski, but lost two senior starters and two key reserves from that team.

Marquette beat Mount Saint Mary’s in its opener, but lost by 15 to No. 19 Purdue last Tuesday.

Both teams were creating a bit of havoc in a first half filled with runs. VCU went on an early run, Marquette scored 12 straight points during a 20-5 spurt to go up eight and the Rams rallied back.

Marquette led 45-44 after a first half filled with 21 combined turnovers.

Howard, who hit 54 percent of his 3-pointers last season, missed all four of his attempts in the first half.

He kept firing, as good shooters do, and the shots that were missing before started dropping, helping the Golden Eagles build a 73-64 lead midway through the second half.

The Rams tried to claw their way back, but the Golden Eagles had an answer every time they got close.

“We have a lot of fight and we can score the ball, but we’ve got to guard,” Rhoades said.

THE TAKEAWAY

Marquette took better care of the ball against VCU’s pressure in the second half and proved it can be a handful when its perimeter shooters are knocking down shots.

The Rams created some problems defensively, but allowed too many good perimeter looks against a strong outside-shooting team.

MARQUETTE IN MAUI

The Golden Eagles like it in Maui. The win on Tuesday improved them to 5-2 at the Maui Invitational. One of their losses: To Duke in the 2007 title game, when Wojciechowski was a Blue Devils assistant coach.

VANN-LESS RAMS

Isaac Vann had been a big contributor for VCU after transferring from Maine, averaging 18 points and 6.5 rebounds off the bench this season. The sophomore swingman didn’t have much of an impact against Marquette, finishing with seven points and no rebounds.

UP NEXT

Marquette faces the winner between No. 6 Wichita State and California in the semifinals on Tuesday.

VCU gets the Wichita State-Cal loser on Tuesday.

Michael Porter, Jr. missing Monday’s game to see “specialist”

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The mysterious leg injury that has kept Michael Porter, Jr. off the floor to start his collegiate career took a potentially serious turn Monday.

The Missouri freshman will miss the Tigers’ game Monday against Emporia State in order to see a specialist regarding the injury, according to multiple reports.

Porter, Jr., one of the favorites to be the top pick in June’s NBA draft, has missed the last two Missouri games after playing just 2 minutes in the team’s opener against Iowa State. The 6-foot-10 wing did not watch the Tigers’ win last week over Wagner from the bench, opting instead to watching from the locker room. He did not travel with the team to Utah, who toppled the Tigers, 77-59.

The Tigers haven’t offered much clarity or specificity on what exactly the injury is or what the timetable Porter, Jr. may be facing.

Missouri heads to Orlando later this week for the AdvoCare Invitational, and it’s uncertain whether or not Porter, Jr. will make the trip. Given his draft potential, it’s probably safe to assume that Porter, Jr. will be abundantly cautious with his health in order to prevent whatever the injury is from worsening.

For the Tigers, it deprives them of one of the country’s – presumably – most dynamic players in coach Cuonzo Martin’s first season in Columbia. Missouri has other young talent, namely Porter, Jr.’s brother, Jontay, and Jeremiah Tilmon, but their ceiling will be lowered considerably if Porter, Jr. continues to be sidelined.

Five-star center Bol Bol commits to Oregon

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Oregon received a commitment from one of the best players in the 2018 class and one of the more intriguing stories in basketball.

Bol Bol, son of former 7-foot-7 NBA center Manute Bol, announced his commitment and signing with the Ducks on Monday.

“I didn’t know much about the school until I started getting recruited by Oregon’s assistant coach, Tony Stubblefield,” Bol wrote in The Players Tribune. “And then later by coach (Dana) Altman. Before that, I knew they had a lot of jerseys, a lot of different shoe combinations, but that was about it. But it was really those first few meetings with coach Stubblefield that impressed me the most. He was accessible. He got to know me. He was really real with me.

And he was honest about the fact that Oregon has never really gotten a top recruit when it was between the Kentuckys and Dukes. He didn’t shy away from that. What he did was lay out the vision they had for me.”

The 7-foot-2 Bol averaged 22.0 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.9 blocks while shooting 63.2 percent from the field last summer in the EYBL. He is finishing his high school career at Findlay Prep in Nevada. He’s a consensus top-five player in his class.

“We are really excited to welcome Bol Bol to our program,” Altman said in a statement. “Obviously he is a very unique player with a special basketball history and a great basketball family.”

Manute Bol played in over 600 NBA games and lead the league in blocked shots twice. He died in 2010 at the age of 47.

“I know my dad would want me to represent my family well,” the younger Bol wrote. “I know he would want me to pursue my interests outside of basketball, like music, fashion and eventually, the humanitarian work that he began in Sudan.

“Most of all, I know he’d want me to be my own person.”

Bol gives Altman one of the best recruiting classes in the country with fellow five-star prospect Louis King on board along with top-60 recruits Will Richardson and Miles Norris.

AP Poll: Duke consolidates top spot in Top 25 after Champions Classic

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Duke proved on a national stage at the Champions Classic last week why so many voters had the Blue Devils atop their Top 25 ballot before the season began.

Now, even more voters have them there.

The Blue Devils, who beat then-No. 2 Michigan State 88-81 in Chicago, pulled in 54 of 65 first-place votes from a national media panel in the AP Top 25 released Monday. That was an increase of 20 first-place votes over the first regular-season poll released last week.

Arizona was the only other team to receive a No. 1 nod, getting 11 first-place votes and taking the Spartans’ place at No. 2. Kansas moved up to third after topping then-No. 7 Kentucky in the other game at the Champions Classic, while Michigan State and Villanova rounded out the top 5.

Wichita State remained at No. 6, while Florida and Kentucky flip-flopped their spots. North Carolina was ninth and Southern California rounded out the top 10.

The Blue Devils got 37 points from Grayson Allen in knocking off the Spartans in the Champions Classic, an impressive performance against one of the toughest teams on their schedule. It certainly left a bigger impression on voters than a ragged 78-61 victory over Southern, arguably the weakest opponent on their schedule, that included 15 turnovers and 4-for-20 shooting from the arc.

“We’ve got to take every game seriously,” the Blue Devils’ Wendell Carter Jr. said.

Well, maybe not this week. Duke faces Furman on Monday night and Portland State on Thursday.

Arizona has won each of its first three games by at least 25 points, but gets a stiffer test against undefeated North Carolina State on Wednesday night, while the Jayhawks cruised to No. 3 thanks to their win over the Wildcats and a laugher over South Dakota State.

Kentucky continued is slow slide, but not so much because of its nip-and-tuck loss to Kansas on a neutral floor. Rather, the Wildcats sleepwalked through a 78-61 victory over East Tennessee State on Friday night in what was a 6-point game at halftime.

“I knew we would have a let-down after Kansas,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “But it just shows, they’re just — they’re not mature enough to figure all this out and that every game matters and you’re being evaluated personally and us as a team every game we play.”

BEST OF THE REST

Miami was No. 11, followed by Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Minnesota and Xavier — all of them staying right where they were last week. Texas A&M and Gonzaga were next, while Purdue and Louisville moved up one spot apiece and Seton Hall jumped to No. 20.

Saint Mary’s, Baylor, UCLA, West Virginia and newcomer Alabama rounded out the Top 25, while Northwestern was the only team to drop from the poll after getting trounced by Texas Tech.

ON THE DOCKET

Several major tournaments this week could produce some high-profile matchups and a reshaping of the Top 25. Villanova and Arizona could meet in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis, while Wichita State and Notre Dame could likewise at the Maui Invitational. UCLA and Baylor are in the Hall of Fame Classic, while Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State, Gonzaga and Florida are among the teams in the inaugural, two-bracket Phil Knight Invitational in Oregon.

ROLL TIDE

Alabama broke into the Top 25 after three wins over weak opposition, but the Tide will have to earn their spot now. They face BYU on Friday night in New York before getting No. 14 Minnesota in the premier Saturday matchup of the Barclays Center Classic.

ON THE DOORSTEP

Virginia was the top team outside the Top 25 to receive votes, appearing on 28 of 65 ballots, and Texas Tech moved just outside the rankings after its woodshed win over Northwestern. That gave the Red Raiders the title of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Tournament in Connecticut.

Here is the full AP Poll:

1. Duke (54 first-place votes)
2. Arizona (11)
3. Kansas
4. Michigan State
5. Villanova
6. Wichita State
7. Florida
8. Kentucky
9. North Carolina
10. USC
11. Miami
12. Cincinnati
13. Notre Dame
14. Minnesota
15. Xavier
16. Texas A&M
17. Gonzaga
18. Purdue
19. Louisville
20. Seton Hall
21. Saint Mary’s
22. Baylor
23. West Virginia
23. UCLA
25. Alabama

Others receiving votes: Virginia 93, Texas Tech 81, TCU 36, Northwestern 20, Nevada 19, Providence 11, Maryland 9, Michigan 9, Texas 7, Creighton 6, Oklahoma 5, Temple 4, Oregon 4, Arkansas 3, UT Arlington 2, Belmont 1, Rhode Island 1, Stephen F. Austin 1