03/18/09 — Opinion -- NCAA has darkhorses that could spoil party

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Opinion -- NCAA has darkhorses that could spoil party

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on March 18, 2009 1:47 PM

A year ago, a tiny school from a sleepy town outside of Charlotte led by the son of a former NBA sharpshooter captured the heart of America with its run to the Elite Eight.

Davidson slayed Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin while coming ever-so-close to knocking off Kansas, which eventually won the national championship.

The Wildcats' Cinderella run should give hope to potential sleepers in this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament. Here's a look at a few dark horses capable of creating magical moments of their own:

Western Kentucky (24-8)

The Hilltoppers returned nine players from last season's team that advanced to the Sweet 16. The back-to-back Sun Belt Conference tournament champions have four players scoring in double figures and haven't lost in over a month.

WKU faces a fifth-seeded Illinois squad in the first round that averages over 12 turnovers a game and will be without the services of guard Chester Frazier. Frazier, the Illini's steals and assists leader has been out since the Big Ten tournament with a hand injury.

After failing to break the 60-point mark in five of its final seven losses Illinois will need to find production elsewhere. If 12th-seeded Western Kentucky and leading scorer A.J. Slaughter can exploit the Illini on the perimeter this could be an upset in the making.

Utah (24-9)

The Utes bring perhaps the most eye-catching resume of the tournament's lesser-known teams into the field of 65. Jim Boylen's club has recorded wins over tournament teams LSU, Gonzaga and BYU.

Utah possesses size on the interior, with three players listed at 6-foot-10 or taller, along with the consistent guard play needed to keep opponents off balance.

The Utes face an Arizona team in the first round that lost five of its final six games entering the tournament. With a winnable potential second round matchup against the Wake Forest-Cleveland State winner, Utah could find itself in the round of 16 or beyond.

VCU (24-9)

No strangers to tournament success, the Rams stunned Duke in the first round two years ago and won't be intimidated when they face UCLA on Thursday.

Eric Maynor, the 2008 Colonial Athletic Association player of the year, averages 22 points and over six assists a game. He lit up Duke for 22 points in the 2007 tournament. Sophomore forward Larry Sanders (6-foot-10, 220-pounds) contributes over 11 points and eight rebounds a contest, which gives the Rams a force on the interior.

The Bruins were just 9-6 in road and netural-site games this season, and will likely face a largely pro-VCU crowd in Philadelphia. UCLA has yet to develop a scoring presence on the interior after Kevin Love bolted for the NBA following last season's run to the final four.

Questionable losses to Washington State and USC during the last month of the season have proven the Bruins' ability to be vulnerable. If Maynor can once again deliver on college basketball's grandest stage VCU could make a return trip to the second round.