Dark Horses: NCAA Sleepers in 2009

With so much parity in college basketball this year, it seems unlikely that the four number one seeds will reach the final four like they did last year. For anyone hoping to win their bracket this March, it will be immensely important to look beyond the highest seeds to find which teams have the talent, drive, and other intangibles that often produce a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Here are three teams, outside the top 10, that have what it takes to go all the way in the Big Dance. Let the bracket busting begin.

Marquette Golden Eagles (23-5): The Golden Eagles have been a force in the Big East all season long, due in large part to their tremendous trio at the guard position. Jerel McNeal averages 20.0 PPG, closely followed by Wesley Matthews 18.9 PPG. Both McNeal and Matthews have the ability to score from the perimeter and get into the lane. Dominic James rounds out the trio contributing an additional 11.7 PPG. The three guards also combine for over 13 assists per game. Just as important as their talent is their experience. All three are seniors, which give the Golden Eagles the poise needed to win on the road. Marquette has a 6-2 road record on the year, including quality wins at Big East rivals Providence and Georgetown.

On the inside for Marquette is Lazar Hayward, who averages 16 points and just under nine rebounds per game. One of Marquette’s greatest strengths is its efficiency. As a team, the Golden Eagles have a 1.4/1 Assist/Turnover ratio. They also average a staggering 47% from the field. Playing in the gauntlet that is this year’s Big East Conference, Marquette will be battle tested come tournament time, with as much experience against quality opponents as any team in the nation. They should be able to utilize their outstanding backcourt to make a deep run into the tournament.

Villanova Wildcats (22-5): The Wildcats have been on a tear of late. Led by the sensational play of Dante Cunningham (16.5 PPG and 7.1 RPG) on the inside and the steady hand of Scottie Reynolds (15.5 PPG) on the perimeter, Villanova has charged to a 10-4 Big East record. The Wildcats have won nine out of their last ten, a feat which is more impressive when considering the competition they faced. During this stretch, Villanova won games at home against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Syracuse and Marquette, and games on the road against Providence and Syracuse, all of whom are tournament bound teams. The only loss came at Connecticut in a close game.

Of all the teams ranked outside of the top ten in the nation, none have a more impressive collection of wins than Villanova. This proves that the Wildcats have the ability to compete with any team in the nation, not to mention a history of winning close games both at home and on the road. They will be an immensely difficult opponent in the tournament, even for the best teams in the country, and could make a serious run at the championship in March.

Washington Huskies (20-7): The Pac-10 Conference is nowhere near as good as it has been the last few years. UCLA was picked to be the odds on preseason favorite, but they have struggled to play consistently, leaving an opening for a team to take the Pac-10 regular season title. The Washington Huskies have stepped in to fill that void. The Dawgs struggled mightily to start the season, losing three of their first five games, before settling down on their way to posting an 11-4 conference record. Leading the charge for the upstart Huskies has been their freshman phenom point guard Isaiah Thomas, who is averaging 15.9 PPG. His ability to slash inside has opened the floor nicely for senior shooting guard Justin Dentmon who is averaging 15.8 PPG while shooting lights out from behind the 3-pt arc at 47% for the season.

This sensational guard play has been an excellent compliment to the inside play of John Brockman, who was last year’s Pac-10 player of the year. Brockman is averaging 14.6 PPG and 11.3 RPG, giving the Huskies a significant inside presence. Quincy Pondexter rounds out the well balanced offense, contributing 11.6 PPG and 5.6 RPG. His athleticism makes him Washington’s best defender and one of the catalysts on a team that has beaten conference opponents with its versatility and depth. Nine different Huskies have scored double figures in at least one game this season. While previous Washington teams have relied too heavily on outside shooting to be a consistent threat in the NCAA Tournament, this Huskies squad possesses the necessary balance to pose matchup problems for almost any team in college basketball. They play at a frenetic pace designed to utilize their depth and wear down their opponents. This Huskies team has the potential to make some serious noise come March.