Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament - Championship

Five Final Four darkhorses

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Despite the thinking for much of the year that the NCAA tournament would be as wide-open as the regular season, many have gone with traditional powers such as Louisville, Indiana and Duke when filling out their brackets. With this college basketball season being as “unpredictable” as it has been, is there an opening for a darkhorse of sorts to get hot and get to Atlanta? Here are five candidates to keep an eye on (seed and region in parentheses).

1. Saint Louis (4-Midwest)

The Billikens, regular season and tournament champions of the Atlantic 10, are well-known by this point in the season. Armed with veterans such as guards Jordair Jett and Kwamain Mitchell and forwards Cody Ellis and Dwayne Evans Jr., interim head coach Jim Crews has the pieces needed to win multiple games in the tournament. Despite landing in the brutal Midwest region, SLU’s attention to detail and its status as one of the best defensive teams in the country (7th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, 10th in points allowed/possession) make them a tough out.

2. Wisconsin (5-West) 

Bo Ryan’s team wasn’t at it’s best down the stretch in their loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game on Sunday afternoon. But with that being said, the Badgers are capable of making a run in the West region. From an efficiency standpoint Wisconsin is similar to Saint Louis: ranked in the fifties offensively but one of the best in the nation defensively. With Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans the Badgers don’t lack for depth in the front court, and point guards Traevon Jackson and George Marshall have improved as the season’s worn on.

3. Syracuse (4-East)

Lacking confidence entering the Big East tournament, Syracuse tallied three wins in New York later and took steps towards the level of play that helped the Orange win 18 of its first 19 games. Of the five teams on this list Syracuse is the only one that ranks in the top 25 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Plenty of teams play zone at some point or another during the year, but how many can do so with the length that Syracuse possesses? And with veterans such as C.J. Fair, James Southerland and Brandon Triche, Syracuse will be formidable in the East.

4. VCU (5-South)

Like Syracuse, VCU offers up a defensive system that will be difficult for opponents to prepare for. “Havoc” is the name of the game for Shaka Smart’s team, with the Rams being the best team in the nation when it comes to forcing turnovers. Opponents have a turnover rate of 28% and average 19.9 turnovers per game. VCU has a deep rotation with guards Darius Theus and Briante Weber spearheading their full-court pressure, and Treveon Graham leads four players in double figures with an average of 15.5 points per game.

5. Arizona (6-West)

Those three McDonald’s All-American big men haven’t played to the level many expected of them before the season began and the Wildcats struggled at time in Pac-12 play. But Sean Miller’s team doesn’t lack for talent, and in senior wings Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom and senior point guard Mark Lyons the Wildcats have tournament experience. The keys for Arizona: defending the three-pointer better than they have for much of the season (opponents shoot 36% from three) and getting consistent production from the trio of Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski.

Others to consider: Oklahoma State (5-Midwest); Butler (6-East). 

Tempo-neutral stats from kenpom.com

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Gonzaga’s NCAA tournament chances take a major blow in loss to No. 16 SMU

SMU guard Nic Moore (11) shoots over Gonzaga forward Kyle Wiltjer (33) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)
(AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)
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Nic Moore scored 18 of his 25 points in the second half and added 11 assists as No. 16 SMU knocked off Gonzaga in Moody Coliseum on Saturday night, 69-60.

The Zags got 20 points and 16 boards from Domantas Sabonis, but Kyle Wiltjer scored just four points and shot 2-for-17 from the floor.

It wasn’t pretty.

And it may have been the end of Gonzaga’s NCAA tournament hopes.

Entering Saturday, the Zags had an RPI in the mid-60s, enough to keep them in the bubble conversation but not enough to make them anything more than a team that will be projected to end up on the cut-line.

The issue is a complete lack of quality wins on their résumé. Gonzaga beat UConn in the Bahamas. That’s a borderline top 50 win. They beat Washington, another borderline top 50 win. Beyond that? They swept Pepperdine, beat Tennessee and own a win over Montana. None of those are top 100 wins, and that’s why the SMU game was such a big deal. The Mustangs are a top 25 team. This was a road game. This win was the kind of thing that the Zags could pin at the top of their profile.

But Wiltjer didn’t show up, the Zags had no answer for Moore and they’ll head back to Spokane needing, in all likelihood, to win the WCC’s automatic bid if they want to dance.

POSTERIZED: Cal’s Jaylen Brown has his dunk contest entry

California's Jaylen Brown lays up a shot against Oregon State in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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Cal picked up a big win over Oregon State in Haas Pavilion on Saturday night, and the exclamation point was this emphatic dunk from Jaylen Brown: