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January 6, 2013
Smarter After Saturday
Eight Dark Horses

by John Gasaway

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The top of the polls have been notably stable for the past month or so, with heavyweights like Duke, Michigan, Arizona, Louisville, Indiana, Kansas, and Syracuse all locked more or less securely in place. You won't raise a lot of hackles by picking any of the above to win the national championship. (Though Sean Miller's Wildcats haven't exactly looked like an unstoppable juggernaut over their past two games. See below -- "teams to worry about" -- for my thoughts on UA.)

But what about the teams outside that charmed circle of seven? In terms of per-possession performance, there are at least eight additional teams to watch. Call them "dark horses" if you wish, these eight teams are contenders in their own right. Of course the very fact that they're regarded as second-tier teams means they likely won't receive an NCAA tournament seed as high as the teams named above -- and that does indeed impact their national title chances. Nevertheless, viewed purely on their own merits the following teams are worthy of inclusion alongside the best of the best.

Kentucky (9-4, unranked)
I know what you're thinking. Calling the defending national champions -- a team that has reached the Elite Eight in each of the past three seasons -- a "dark horse" is an abuse of the term. Hey, I don't make the rules, I just play by them. And at this writing UK is still, incredibly, unranked. (I thought surely that would change after the Wildcats played Louisville into the 40th minute at the KFC Yum! Center a week ago. I was mistaken.) John Calipari's team is clearly a work in progress on offense, but the one thing that hasn't changed since last season is interior defense. It's still more or less impossible to make a two against this team. And I'm not embarrassed to say I'm old enough to remember 2011-12, when I watched Kansas ride a sputtering offense (meaning it sputtered during the tournament) and incredible D all the way to the national championship game. Just saying.

Gonzaga (15-1, No. 10 AP)
The point has often been made that the Bulldogs really should face Kansas in a Big 12 championship game, because Mark Few's team already has wins this season over Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Baylor, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. In addition to running the Big 12 table, however, the Zags have also been impressive across the board. This might be the best offense in the country, and Kelly Olynyk's performance on that side of the ball bears comparison to what Cody Zeller has done for Indiana. (Zeller's advantage in this comparison, and it's decisive, is that he's much less foul-prone and therefore logs more minutes.) Don't be fooled by winning by "just" seven on the road against Santa Clara, an opponent that's much better than people realize. This is the best team Few has had since Austin Daye was still in residence in Spokane.

Minnesota (13-1, No, 9 AP)
I can't wait for the game this Wednesday between the Gophers and Illinois in Champaign. I know that a team whose only loss came to Duke is clearly a formidable outfit, but I'll still feel more secure in my analytic grasp of Tubby Smith's team once they have a few Big Ten games under their belt. That being said, I'm pretty impressed already. Minnesota has managed to bring together outstanding shot blocking with a low foul rate (like vintage Connecticut teams back in the day), and their fearsome reputation on the offensive glass is well deserved. If Trevor Mbakwe cuts down on his turnovers, he has a case to make for Big Ten player of the year -- and in a conference with Trey Burke, Cody Zeller, Deshaun Thomas, and Brandon Paul, that's saying something.

Florida (9-2, No. 13 AP)
The Gators effectively dropped off of many observers' radar after losing two games in seven days (at Arizona, 65-64, and against Kansas State in Kansas City, 67-61). But UF projects to battle similarly underrated Kentucky for this season's SEC title. Florida received a good deal of grief last season for perceived defensive lapses, but don't expect that criticism to resurface over the next few weeks. Billy Donovan has his team playing much better D, and Patric Young in particular has rather quietly become a shot blocker to reckon with. That, plus the same old excellent Florida offense, will put the Gators in position to face any neutral-floor opponent on more or less equal terms come March.

Virginia Commonwealth (12-3, unranked)
VCU eked out a 59-55 win at home over Lehigh on Saturday evening, a game in which the Mountain Hawks' C.J. McCollum left in the first half with a foot injury. That wasn't the Rams' most impressive outing, but make no mistake, Shaka Smart's team will be right there at the finish in the A-10 race. The "havoc" defense is wreaking its usual you-know-what and forcing a ton of turnovers, but keep in mind Smart also has a very good offense, one that takes care of the ball and crashes the offensive glass. And if you're looking for a national "breakout sophomore" poster child, you could do worse than Treveon Graham, who's suddenly transformed himself into a highly efficient featured scorer. The Rams even got a break from the schedule maker. The 16-team A-10's odd decision to retain a 16-game schedule means venue will be even more important than usual, and VCU will get Butler, Saint Joseph's, La Salle, and Dayton at home.

Michigan State (12-3, No. 18 AP)
Is it just me, or is the Big Ten a little too loaded this season? I've already roped off Michigan and Indiana as self-evidently mighty, I've singled out Minnesota as notably dangerous, I haven't even mentioned the top-15 likes of Ohio State or Illinois yet, and now here I am about to sell you on what Tom Izzo has to offer. The Spartans aren't going to cruise to a conference title in a league this strong, but my high preseason expectations for the MSU defense are looking eminently well founded. And with 6-4 freshman Gary Harris fully recovered from his shoulder injury and serving as a reliably effective featured scorer, I expect Izzo's offense to gradually catch up with the D.

Creighton (14-1, No. 16 AP)
If you were paying attention last season, you know the drill with the Bluejays. They have an amazing offense, one where Doug McDermott makes an uncanny percentage of his shots and, oh by the way, so do just about all of his teammates. And they have a suspect defense, one where they absolutely never force turnovers. Much of that is still true, but the part that needs revision is on D. Coach Greg McDermott's defense is much improved since last season (even though CU still flees in horror from any situation where they might record a takeaway). Thus far on the young (three-game) Missouri Valley season, Creighton's opponents have made just 44 percent of their twos.

Oklahoma State (10-3, No. 22 AP)
Praising a team coming off back-to-back losses is sure to put one in the minority, but you have to like what the Cowboys bring to the table even if they did just lose to Gonzaga at home (by one) and to Kansas State on the road (by six). As I detailed a few days ago, Travis Ford's team is getting the job done with defense. Add to that two likely 2013 first-round draft picks (Marcus Smart and Le'Bryan Nash) and a point guard who not only sprays assists but also gets to the line virtually at will, and you have a team the projects to be a tough out in March.

On the other hand, meet two teams to worry about....
This relationship between rankings and performance cuts both ways, of course. If it's possible for a team to be ranked lower than they should be, it's also conceivable that they can be ranked higher than they should be. Here are two possible examples of this latter phenomenon:

Ohio State (11-3, No. 8 AP)
Coming into the season I was sold on Ohio State. If Thad Matta could replace 2010 National Player of the Year Evan Turner and not miss a beat, I reasoned, he surely could replace Jared Sullinger and William Buford. But in their last two games against teams that can look them in the eye talent-wise (at home against Kansas and on the road at Illinois), the Buckeyes have looked not merely tentative but downright confused on offense, like they don't know how they're supposed to score. Deshaun Thomas is a known quantity, of course, but past that things get murky very quickly. In particular I've been surprised that Aaron Craft hasn't been more assertive and effective on offense, after he closed last season with such a strong finish on that side of the ball.

Arizona (14-0, No. 3 AP)
What a disturbing pair of home games for the Wildcats. The controversial overtime win over Colorado and the lackluster three-point victory over 8-6 Utah certainly did no favors for Arizona's reputation. Keep in mind UA entered those games already overrated, and the Wildcats' performance over those 85 minutes actually ratcheted expectations downward. Now the good news for Arizona. If Miller's team can win at Oregon on Thursday night, the schedule gives the Wildcats some breathing space where they could well pile up victories while picky observers like yours truly fret about how good this team "really" is -- in other words, a repeat of Arizona's season so far.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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