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Surprise Final Four contenders

1/21/2013

Predicting that there will be a surprise team in the Final Four is not exactly going out on a limb. After all, since 2006, the college basketball world has seen the George Mason Patriots, Virginia Commonwealth Rams and Butler Bulldogs get there -- and Brad Stevens' team actually appeared in the championship game in back-to-back seasons. I fully expect that it can happen again in 2013.

So how does a surprise team get there this year, and who could that team be?

First of all, there is no one great team this year in college basketball. And while there is a top tier of roughly eight teams that are considered elite, any one of them is beatable in a one-and-done NCAA tournament situation. In fact, the Temple Owls, who lost to both St. Bonaventure and Canisius, have already beaten No. 4 Syracuse and had No. 2 Kansas on the ropes at Allen Fieldhouse before succumbing. Butler, no longer anyone's surprise, already has wins over three top-10 teams. So the possibility of advancing past a highly ranked team is real.

Secondly, there is no transcendent player in college basketball to carry a team through six wins in the NCAA tournament like Anthony Davis or Kevin Durant had the potential to do. In fact, ask any NBA scout to tell you who the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft will be and you may get up to eight different answers. The challenge of getting past a team with a great player this year is minimized.

There's also a larger proportion of great players coming from outside the power conferences than in any year that I can remember. Creighton Bluejays forward Doug McDermott, Murray State Racers guard Isaiah Canaan and Wichita State Shockers forward Carl Hall are among the players who could lead teams to deep runs in the NCAA tournament.

While there are a number of Cinderellas (I'm not including Butler and VCU anymore) that have the capability to crash the party, there are some teams in the power conferences that will be knocked around in league play who will be battle-tested come March.

Here are four potential Final Four surprise teams:

1. Minnesota Golden Gophers

The Gophers are coming off back-to-back losses to top-five teams Indiana and Michigan, and they will surely lose a few more games before the end of the Big Ten season. Still, Tubby Smith's team has a lot of qualities that give them a chance to get to Atlanta once the NCAA tournament starts. This is an experienced team that advanced to the NIT Finals a year ago despite not being at full strength.

Minnesota's size inside manifests itself in the way it attacks the offensive boards and gets to the foul line. The Gophers lead the nation in Offensive Rebounding Percentage, retrieving 48 percent of their own missed shots, and they are converting 70 percent of the 25 free throws they are shooting a game. And seniors Trevor Mbakwe, back from last season's knee surgery, and Rodney Williams have the size and athleticism to challenge opponents' shots at the rim.

The Gophers have four players scoring in double figures, including Mbakwe. Sophomore guard Andre Hollins has been on a scoring tear since the end of last season, and junior guard Austin Hollins -- no relation -- is coming off a career-high 21 points against Michigan. He's been on fire behind the arc in conference play. Cutting down on turnovers would create more efficient offense as they are giving the ball away at a 22 percent rate.

Think about this: Once the Gophers run the gantlet of the Big Ten Conference, there should be few, if any, teams that will intimidate them once they get to the NCAA tournament.

2. Colorado State Rams

The Mountain West has a number of teams that, given the right set of circumstances, could get to the Final Four. This is the deepest the conference has ever been with quality teams and I have a sneaky suspicion that Larry Eustachy's team could be a difficult team to knock off in March. Even without senior guard Jesse Carr, who was lost for the season with a knee injury, this is an experienced squad. In fact, the Rams' senior class accounts for 77 percent of the team's scoring.

Not surprisingly, Colorado State has bought into the Eustachy philosophy of rebounding both backboards and giving up few transition baskets. The Rams are currently the No. 2 offensive rebounding team in the country and the No. 1 defensive rebounding team in the country, according to kenpom.com. Seniors Pierce Hornung, Greg Smith and Colton Iverson are demons on the offensive glass. And the 6-foot-10, 260 pound Iverson, a Minnesota transfer, may be playing himself into an NBA draft pick. He already has seven double-doubles this season.

While the Rams are not shooting the ball at a 40 percent rate behind the arc like they did last season, they are more than capable of catching fire. Combine that with the experience and rebounding prowess and it might be them, rather than the UNLV Rebels, San Diego State Aztecs or New Mexico Lobos, that surprise in March.

3. Miami Hurricanes

The Hurricanes have played without their arguably best player, Reggie Johnson, since December. Yet they have not missed a beat. Since dropping games to the Arizona Wildcats and Indiana State Sycamores at the Diamondhead Classic, Jim Larranaga's team has run off five wins in a row, including its first four in the ACC.

While Johnson is still likely a month away from returning, Miami has relied upon the perimeter play of unsung sophomore point guard Shane Larkin and enigmatic senior scoring guard Durand Scott. Kenny Kadji, at 6-10, can stretch defenses with his shooting, and 6-8 Julian Gamble is holding down the fort inside until Johnson's return. There are a host of veterans who give Larranaga solid depth.

Ultimately, the Hurricanes have a not-so-secret weapon: Larranaga's coaching. The highly respected mentor plays a grind-it-out-style on both ends of the court. In less than two short seasons, his team has bought in. Seven years ago, the coach and his George Mason Patriots shocked the college basketball world. A Hurricane appearance in this year's Final Four would be a surprise, but not a shocker.

4. Oregon Ducks

Maybe because I have been staying up late and have watched a lot of Pac-12 basketball lately, I've noticed how well Oregon is playing. Given that Dana Altman has been at the helm for three years now, this is not a surprise. The Ducks are currently 16-2 and have already beaten the Arizona Wildcats at home and the UCLA Bruins on the road. And Altman is doing it with a freshman backcourt.

Highly regarded 6-1 guard Dominic Artis has been adept, for the most part, at running the Ducks' offense. But 6-5 Houstonian Damyean Dotson has been a major revelation, averaging 12 points a game and shooting a ridiculous 76 percent at the rim, according to hoop-math.com. While Oregon's best basketball is certainly ahead of them, they have already shown great poise this season.

Up front, transfers Tony Woods, Arsalan Kazemi and Waverly Austin have given Altman a terrific presence on the glass. Their defensive rebounding contributed to making the Ducks one of the 20 or so most efficient defenses in the country.

Senior E.J. Singler is the team's "connector." While his offensive numbers are down from a year ago, in part because of a battle with severe tendinitis, he is the Pac-12's active scoring leader and the conference's reigning free throw percentage leader. If he continues to make winning plays, the guards continue to mature and Altman's defense continues to dominate, the Ducks could possibly make that cross-country trip to Atlanta in April.