6 dark horse Final Four contenders no one is talking about
The most highly anticipated playoff tournament is coming quickly. In less than a month, March Madness begins, and America enters a college basketball frenzy.
Despite the new year with an overall weakened level of competition, many of the same schools have heard their names thrown around for Final Four contention. Duke, Gonzaga, Kentucky, Kansas, and Villanova are all in the conversation, year after year.
This college basketball season, however, is one of the craziest we’ve ever seen. Anyone can win it all this year, so there are many schools in the mix who’ve been overlooked. Six specifically caught our eye.
6. Seton Hall Pirates
This might be the most obvious one on here, but due to their recent struggles (two straight home losses and two consecutive losses before beating No. 21 Butler at the horn on Wednesday), the Hall isn’t being tossed around as much anymore. Seton Hall has the size and star power to make a deep run. Preseason All-American and Big East Player of the Year Myles Powell finally has enough supporting cast around him that he can occasionally take a load off. Romaro Gill, the front runner for Big East Most Improved Player, has become one of the scariest big men in the country, and Quincy McKnight has locked down the best players in the country game in and game out. They are second in the country in Quad 1 wins with nine, and look like a different team from the beginning of the season. This year could bring the Pirates’ first Final Four appearance since 1989.
5. Dayton Flyers
Obi Toppin has carried Dayton, an Atlantic 10 program, to a No. 6 national ranking. The A-10 is not particularly powerful this year, but the Flyers are steamrolling their way through conference play, and should win their conference tournament handily. Toppin is one of the best players in the country, and, as he has done throughout the season, can put his team on his back into the Final Four. Not to disparage the rest of the team, specifically Jalen Crutcher, who is averaging 15.0 ppg and 4.9 apg, but Toppin is the man who will take Dayton the distance if they make it there.
4. Oregon Ducks
The Oregon Ducks are no team to scoff at. They currently have six Quad 1 wins and are No. 14 in the country, after dropping from as high as No. 4 back in January, and the shine has further been taken off them following a Thursday night loss to ASU. National Player of the Year contender Payton Pritchard is averaging 19.4 ppg and 5.6 apg. Both are team highs. Shakur Juiston is a big forward to fear, and Chris Duarte is a consistent all-around player. The Ducks have multiple pieces that are strong enough to take them all the way to Atlanta this year.
3. Xavier Musketeers
Likely the most improbable team on the list, Xavier was projected to finish third in the Big East in the preseason, but currently sit at seventh in the standings. AP had the Musketeers as 19 in the preseason, but the most recent poll has them receiving no votes. However, this team is as unpredictable is you can get. They started 2-6 in conference play, but in the past six games, they’ve gone 4-2, including a road win against No. 10 Seton Hall at the Prudential Center. Naji Marshall and Tyrique Jones are stat-padders and are dependable for double-digit points every game. The team has the tools to go deep, but do they have the consistency?
2. Auburn Tigers
Auburn started the season ranked 24th despite their Final Four appearance last season, and rose all the way to No. 4 as recently as Jan. 13. However, a recent skid has seen the Tigers drop to 13, and they’ll drop even further after Wednesday’s loss to Georgia. The country has seen what kind of team this squad can be, though. They began the season on a 15-game winning streak, and were one of the last undefeated teams remaining in the country. With four guys averaging over 10 ppg, including point-getter Samir Doughty, if this team can return to form, they are a legitimate Final Four contender.
1. Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State was always thought to be dangerous coming into this season, but no one knew they would be ranked in the top 10 in the AP Poll as late as February. Despite being in the Big 10, one of the deepest conferences in college basketball, the Nittany Lions find themselves high in the Big 10 conference standings, second only to No. 7 Maryland. With a 10-5 conference record and seven Quad 1 wins, Penn State has one of the quietest, yet most impressive resumes in the country. Lamar Stevens and Myreon Jones (who should return from an illness by Madness time) can score, and Mike Watkins’ 6-9 frame can bring down boards by the dozen. Penn State is one of the most overlooked threats in college basketball.
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