Every year at this time, we reveal "dark horse" teams that are somewhat unknown or can outpace expectations. And despite the fact that we have far more advanced systems of technology, we also divulge teams that are "under the radar" and cannot be detected except by our genius. A dark horse is a horse racing term about an equine that is little known to gamblers, who are supposed to know everything about the ponies.
Essentially, we are telling you to "keep an eye on" these teams so that we can tell you "I told you so" about them at the end of the season. Of course, I am far too kind and benevolent to say I told you so (I will simply tweet out a link to this article should any of these teams pay off in March). My last warning is not to "sleep" on these teams, in your near-narcoleptic, sleep-deprived condition.
Sure, teams like Missouri (with an outstanding collection of transfer talent), Duke (bouncing back from an early exit in the NCAA tournament), Michigan State (with a healthy Branden Dawson), and Colorado (with rebounding savant Andre Roberson) will be on many of our lists, but they are too close to the radar to me.
My list has five true, "under-the-radar, dark-horse teams to keep an eye on" (so don't sleep on them) for the 2012-13 season:
It seems as if Mark Few's Zags are in this position often. Gonzaga has won in the West Coast Conference like UCLA did in the John Wooden era, yet it has not been able to crack the Elite Eight barrier since 1999. Gonzaga has been good enough but has always seemed to come up against the toughest draws and seeds, not to mention a couple of tough game locations.
This year, I like Few's crew and the Zags' chances to be special. Young guards Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell and David Stockton are gamers, and Pangos and Bell each hit more than 50 3-point field goals last season. Elias Harris is the best player, rebounder and scorer, and he had a really nice performance at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas. Lefty Sam Dower has improved every year, and bigs Kelly Olynyk and Przemek Karnowski provide size and skill. Remember, this team pounded West Virginia and played Ohio State tough in the NCAA tournament with a young backcourt last season.
The Bluejays return four starters and get a newcomer who can really shoot it. Last season, Creighton was one of the best offensive teams in the country and featured one of the best all-around players in Doug McDermott. Creighton had a top-five offense and averaged 79 points per game, outstanding in the rugged Missouri Valley Conference, and shot better than 50 percent from the floor as a team.
The challenge for this year's Jays will be to improve a defense that ranked outside the top 100 in defensive efficiency last season and find a way to limit the easy scores. McDermott is a complete player who can step away, post and play an efficient game that is a joy to watch. Former Rutgers big man Gregory Echenique and former Gonzaga guard Grant Gibbs provide outstanding support to McDermott, and shooters Ethan Wragge and newcomer Isaiah Zierden can stretch the floor with excellent range and 3-point accuracy.
The Cardinal suffered from the overall lack of respect earned by the Pac-12 last season, yet they finished the year winning 26 games and the NIT championship. With a painfully young team, Stanford was very solid on the defensive end but not as proficient as coach Johnny Dawkins would have liked on the offensive end. However, the offense will come.
What sells me on Stanford is the defense was there all last year. Sophomore guard Chasson Randle is the real thing and is capable of being an All-Pac 12 performer this season. He can get by people, and his already effective perimeter shot has been tightened and improved. Aaron Bright, Dwight Powell and Anthony Brown are all a year older, and all of them should be significantly better. The key for Stanford, in addition to being more experienced, is to limit turnovers. The young Cardinal turned the ball over more than they assisted last season and almost as much as their opponents. Clean that up, and Stanford is an NCAA tournament team that can compete with anyone.
The Rebels lost point guard Oscar Bellfield and top scorer Chace Stanback, but they return some excellent talent and promising newcomers such that coach Dave Rice could have a very special season if everyone stays healthy.
Mike Moser is the Rebels' best player. The UCLA transfer is an elite rebounder who pursues the ball out of his area and is a lock for a double-double nightly. Anthony Marshall shot more free throws than any Rebel last year, and Justin Hawkins is a good defender who needs to improve his offensive efficiency. The key will be freshman Anthony Bennett and transfers Roscoe Smith, Khem Birch and Bryce Jones. Bennett is a McDonald's All-American who can rebound and score inside and step out and make a play. Smith is an athletic forward with potential. Jones is a versatile shooting guard who played well at USC, but his tenure with the Trojans ended badly. Birch transferred from Pittsburgh without really giving it a chance, but he is an outstanding rebounder and shot-blocker who will be eligible to play after the fall semester.
UNLV ran out of gas at the end of the season last year and needs to be able to knock down free throws and play games at a slower tempo and still win. I will not be surprised if this team is able to do that.
The Aztecs were a bit of a surprise last season after losing Kawhi Leonard, racing to 26 wins and another NCAA tournament spot. Steve Fisher returns his top four scorers and adds St. John's transfer Dwayne Polee Jr. and freshman Winston Shepard. Jamaal Franklin was among the top players in the West last year, averaging more than 17 points per game, just fewer than eight rebounds and shooting almost 200 free throws throughout the season.
Franklin needs to cut down his turnovers, but he is productive and versatile. Chase Tapley and Xavier Thames are very good guards, and Thames led the team in assists last year. Polee provides another quality athlete and scorer, and Shepard is a 6-foot-8 rebounder who can really run the floor. The Aztecs are deep and talented and now expect to win.