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.

Wednesday’s Three Things To Know: No. 8 Texas Tech, No. 19 Seton Hall get dropped on the road

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The nights where there aren’t any marquee games are always the nights where college basketball goes absolutely batty.

Wednesday night was no different.

Here are the three things you need to know.

1. TEXAS TECH BLEW THE ADVANTAGE THEY HAD IN THE BIG 12 RACE

It’s a talking point that never really caught on, but prior to Wednesday night’s trip to Austin, No. 8 Texas Tech had the inside lane in the race for the Big 12 regular season title.

There is a clear-cut top four in the conference: Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma and the Red Raiders. The way to win the league was simple: Beat the teams outside of the top four and protect your home court against the other three contenders. Entering Wednesday, Texas Tech and Kansas were sitting one game ahead of West Virginia, who had lost at home to Kansas, and Oklahoma, had lost on the road to Kansas State. Texas Tech already had a leg up on the Jayhawks as well, as they won in Phog Allen Fieldhouse earlier this year.

I would hesitate to call anyone a favorite in the Big 12 that isn’t named Kansas, but the Red Raiders had certainly put themselves in a position where they had the easiest path.

And then the Texas game happened.

Mo Bamba went for 15 points, 11 boards and five blocks and Kerwin Roach poured in 20 in a return to the lineup as Texas beat No. 8 Texas Tech, 67-58. We knew losses were likely coming for the Red Raiders – no one is going to make it through this league without taking some lumps – but it has to be frustrating that those losses came when the program had a chance to keep pace with Kansas.

Credit to Texas. Their defense played as well as it has in weeks, they showed some toughness to get the win against a physical Tech team and they landed a résumé win that should age well.

Texas Tech also did a really cool thing for Andrew Jones prior to the game.

2. SETON HALL GOT BLOWN OUT ON THE ROAD AND DESI RODRIGUEZ GOT BENCHED

Twice in the last eight days, No. 19 Seton Hall has lost by at least 17 points on the road after they fell, 80-63, at Creighton on Wednesday night.

Creighton is a good team. They were playing at home in an arena that routinely puts 17,000 butts in seats. When they get it going they are tough to beat, so there really isn’t all that much to be concerned about here in a vacuum.

But we’re not in a vacuum.

Creighton lost by 20 points at Marquette last Tuesday. Marquette is not as good as Creighton and they do not play in as tough of an atmosphere as there is in Omaha.

What’s worse, however, is that Desi Rodriguez – the guy that has probably been Seton Hall’s Player of the Year – played just six minutes. Here is Kevin Willard’s explanation:

“He had that look in his face where he just didn’t want to be out there. When he gets that way, you just got to let him regroup and refocus. And it just never happened.”

That’s probably a cover for something else, but the concern for Seton Hall fans was that Rodriguez was hurt.

Getting benched isn’t ideal. But it’s better than getting hurt.

3. ALABAMA ENDED NO. 17 AUBURN’S 14-GAME WINNING STREAK

But what is more impressive is that they did it without Collin Sexton, who was sitting out with an injury.

That is a massive win for the Crimson Tide’s NCAA tournament hopes, which our Scott Phillips detailed here.

No. 24 TCU snaps 3-game skid with 96-73 over Iowa State

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Vladimir Brodziansky had 26 points and No. 24 TCU snapped a three-game losing streak with a 96-73 win over Iowa State on Wednesday night, when the Horned Frogs played for the first time without injured starting point guard Jaylen Fisher.

Alex Robinson, who started at point guard, scored eight points and had a school-record 17 assists for the Horned Frogs (14-4, 2-4 Big 12), who never trailed and shot 60 percent from the field. He had only one turnover in 38 minutes.

Brodziansky shot 11 of 13 for his third 20-point game in five games. JD Miller added 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting with five 3-pointers. Kouat Noi scored 16 points and Kenrich Williams had his eighth double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

Donovan Jackson had 19 points for Iowa State (10-6, 1-5). Cameron Lard and Lindell Wigginton each had 16.

Fisher was scheduled to have surgery Thursday, two days after injuring his right knee during practice. The sophomore guard missed the team’s trip to Australia in August after tearing meniscus in his left knee during practice then, but was back for the start of the season after surgery.

Robinson’s 12th assist, surpassing his previous career high of 11, was on pass to Brodziansky for a slam dunk that made it 70-53 with 11:36 left before an Iowa State timeout. That was among many plays applauded by Fisher, who sat in a chair near the TCU bench.

TCU jumped out to a 14-4 lead in the game’s first 5 minutes, and led by as many as 17 in the first half.

BIG PICTURE

Iowa St.: Even while they shot 51 percent from the field (30 of 59), the Cyclones couldn’t gain any momentum coming off their first Big 12 victory Saturday against Baylor. Wigginton, the freshman who was the Big 12 newcomer of the week after games with 30 and 27 points last week, had only two points at halftime after he got two fouls in the first 9 minutes.

TCU: After so many close games, including consecutive overtime losses on the road last week, the Frogs finally had a game in which they didn’t have to press in the closing minutes. Their four Big 12 losses are by a combined 11 points, and their only previous conference win was by three points in overtime.

UP NEXT

Iowa St.: Another ranked opponent for the Cyclones, who host No. 8 Texas Tech on Saturday.

TCU: The Horned Frogs play three of their next four games on the road. They are at Kansas State (13-5, 3-3) on Saturday.

No. 14 Arizona overcomes slow start, runs past Cal 79-58

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BERKELEY, Calif. — Deandre Ayton had 20 points and 11 rebounds, and No. 14 Arizona overcame a slow, sloppy start to beat California 79-58 on Wednesday night.

Parker Jackson-Cartwright scored 14 points with three 3-pointers during a decisive stretch spanning halftime as the Wildcats won their third straight since losing at Colorado on Jan. 6.

Dylan Smith made all four of his 3s and added 14 points and Allonzo Trier scored 15 as Arizona (15-4, 5-1 Pac-12) played without sophomore guard Rawle Alkins, held out as a precaution with what the school said was mild right foot soreness.

Justice Sueing scored 19 points to lead Cal (7-12, 1-5) but missed all six of his 3-point attempts for the cold-shooting Golden Bears, held to 35.3 percent and outrebounded 36-22. Don Coleman had 11 points but shot just 3 of 13.

Ayton made 9 of 11 shots and Arizona shot 62 percent, going 11 for 19 from deep.

Arizona connected on six straight 3-pointers from the 9:20 mark until 2:32 left before halftime to take control, three by Parker Jackson-Cartwright, then seven in all spanning halftime. Cal got within single digits, down by nine, for all of 17 seconds in the second half.

The Wildcats went four possessions until getting their first shot off while committing three quick turnovers and falling behind 6-0. They had turnovers on six of their initial nine possessions and 21 overall but still wound up shooting 70 percent in the opening half.

Arizona won its fourth straight in the series.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona: The Pac-12’s top team from the free throw line, the Wildcats followed up a 34-of-37 showing at the line against Oregon last Saturday — the program’s first time at 90 percent or higher with at least 35 attempts since going 38 of 40 (.950) vs. Washington on Jan. 27, 2005, a span of 454 games — by shooting just 13 free throws and making six. Arizona came in shooting 85.3 percent at the line. … The Wildcats are 18-11 in Pac-12 road games played in the state of California under Sean Miller since 2009. Miller also is 12-4 vs. Cal.

Cal: Kingsley Okoroh, a 7-foot-1 center, scored 10 points to post his first game in double figures scoring since Nov. 16 against Wofford. … Cal has beaten ranked Arizona teams 11 times, including No. 1 four years ago at Haas Pavilion. While the Bears averaged 54.5 points over their recent road trip to Washington and Washington State last weekend, they hurt their chances with a 1-for-13 shooting performance from 3-point range but made 21 of 30 free throws.

UP NEXT

Arizona: At Stanford on Saturday afternoon.

Cal: Hosts Arizona State on Saturday night.

Holtmann makes Big Ten history as Ohio St. tops Northwestern

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ROSEMONT, Ill. — Chris Holtmann became the first coach in 95 years to win his first seven Big Ten games as No. 22 Ohio State defeated Northwestern 71-65 on Wednesday night.

C.J. Jackson had 12 points, eight assists and three steals, Micah Potter scored 13 points off the bench, Jae’Sean Tate added 12 and Keita Bates-Diop had 10 points and eight rebounds for the Buckeyes (16-4, 7-0), who won their sixth straight overall.

Holtmann is the third Big Ten coach to win his first seven conference games, joining Wisconsin’s Walter Meanwell (1911-12) and Iowa’s Sam Barry (1922-23). Holtmann replaced Thad Matta, the program’s all-time wins leader, this season.

Vic Law scored 14 points and Scottie Lindsey added 13 for Northwestern (11-9, 2-5) as the Wildcats suffered their second straight double-digit loss.

Picked to finish 11th in the Big Ten in a preseason media poll, the Buckeyes have been the story of the conference so far this season.

Coming off successive routs of then-No. 1 Michigan State, Maryland and Rutgers, Ohio State led Northwestern by as many as 15 in the second half before holding off a late Wildcats charge.

Northwestern got within three at 68-65 on a 3-pointer by Lindsey with 43 seconds left, but Jackson sealed the the victory from the foul line.

BIG PICTURE

Ohio State: The Buckeyes won on the road without a big game from Bates-Diop. The reigning two-time Big Ten Player of the Week, Bates-Dio entered the game leading the Big Ten in scoring (20.3) and third in rebounding (8.8).

Northwestern: With four starters back from the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance, the Wildcats have fallen far short of expectations and are going to have turn things around in a hurry to make a case for another invitation to the dance.

UP NEXT

Ohio State: The Buckeyes host Minnesota on Saturday.

Northwestern: The Wildcats host Penn State on Saturday.

Reserve Harrell leads Creighton past No. 19 Pirates 80-63

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OMAHA, Neb. — Marcus Foster scored 25 points and reserve Ronnie Harrell Jr. had a career-high 18, and Creighton never trailed in an 80-63 win over No. 19 Seton Hall on Wednesday night.

The Bluejays (15-4, 5-2 Big East) split the season series with the Pirates (15-4, 4-2), avenging a 90-84 road loss last month in which they blew a double-digit lead and failed to score the last 3 1/2 minutes.

Creighton led by 16 points early but saw the Pirates pull to 39-32 at half. Harrell scored seven points during a 17-9 run to open the second half that put Creighton up 58-43.

Harrell later brought the sellout crowd to its feet with a behind-the-back move as he drove to the basket, and Foster urged on the fans to make more noise when Angel Delgado elbowed Toby Hegner for a flagrant-1 foul on the other end. It was Delgado’s fourth personal, and Hegner made the free throws for a 67-47 lead with 8 minutes to play.

Delgado, who came into the game off seven straight double-doubles and had 18 points and 14 rebounds in the first meeting with Creighton, was in foul trouble all night. He was limited to four points and four rebounds in 20 minutes. Desi Rodriguez, the Pirates’ season scoring leader, did not play in the second half and finished with four points.

Myles Powell led the Pirates with 19 points.

Seton Hall shot a season-low 38.1 percent, committed 17 turnovers and scored its fewest points of the season.

Creighton shot 51.7 percent, making it the first Seton Hall opponent to hit more than half its shots.

BIG PICTURE

Seton Hall: This was a debacle from the beginning for the Pirates. Time to forget this one and get ready for the showdown with Xavier on Saturday.

Creighton: The Bluejays bounced back from a 22-point road loss to Xavier in resounding fashion.

UP NEXT

Seton Hall: hosts No. 11 Xavier on Saturday.

Creighton: visits Providence on Saturday.