By: Chris O’Brien
This next grouping is the teams that could make a Dark Horse run to the Final Four. They are a little further off the radar but have the potential to take over the No. 1 or No. 2 seed’s path and carve their way to a Regional Championship.
But, unlike the first two groupings, these are very risky picks. A two, three, four-game run is possible; but so is a first-round exit. So proceed with caution.
Dark Horse Picks
22. NC State
23. Texas Tech
I didn’t feel right holding out until my next post, grouping them in with my “Don’t Call us Cinderella” group of mid-majors. Gonzaga’s not really a mid-major anymore.
But then it felt kind of weird to put them with North Carolina and Kentucky. Are they really a Kentucky/UNC type of program?
Gonzaga is 30-4 with their only losses coming to Florida (neutral site), Villanova (neutral site), @ San Diego State, and St. Mary’s. Their good wins include Ohio State, Texas, Creighton. The Bulldogs rank 9th in points per game, 7th in field goal percentage, 12th in total rebounds. They’re also a Top 50 team in Assists and Turnovers.
This team is by no means as loaded as last year’s national runner-up. But they do have enough talent that would have finished Top Four in any major conference.
Johnathan Williams, a transfer from Mizzou, is a senior inside capable of 15 and 10. Josh Perkins you might remember from last year’s team, solid senior guard. Killian Tillie is another 6’10 big. Zach Norvell Jr. is having a really good freshman season, he’s a 6’5” guard. Norvell is an example of the talent Gonzaga gets now as an established college basketball power.
It feels like Mark Few is a safe pick for the Sweet 16. And this year, he’s got that Final Four monkey off his back. The Zags could make a run back to the Final Four this year, maybe a sneaky rematch against UNC in the Elite Eight.
Arkansas has the highest scoring duo in the SEC with Barford and Macon who both score about 17/18 a game. A team led by two guards who can both go off for 30 points is a great recipe for the tournament.
Other positives: Top 25 in ppg, Top 15 in 3pt shooting. Tons of athleticism. Fast-paced. Gave North Carolina a run for their money in last year’s tourney.
Downside: Low free throw percentage and not great rebounding. Also 3-7 on the road.
Really good defensively. Beat Arkansas. Beat Wichita State twice. Cincinnati once. Two points away from winning the American conference tournament.
And their main dude (point guard Gray) has the confidence to wear a man-bun. That’s good for at least one win, if not more.
Every year, I have one team that slowly grows on me throughout the season, becomes my second favorite squad (a distant second, to be fair) behind my beloved Jayhawks. This year it’s the Crimson Tide. I want to roll with this team to the Sweet 16, maybe further.
Why? Alabama won me over when they almost beat Minnesota playing 3-on-5. Which was really Sexton going one on five.
Why you should believe in this team: They have five six Top 25 wins, or at least these teams were ranked Top 25 when they beat them (Texas A&M, Auburn (2x), Oklahoma, Florida, Tennessee).
And they are crazy young. Their four best players–Sexton/Jones/Ingram/Petty–that’s three freshmen and a junior. Donta Hall, their leading rebounder, is the ultimate hustle guy. And he wears two different color shoes. And throws down absurd dunks like this.
When I was watching their game against Kentucky, I know both teams have had their ups and downs this season, the overall record not great, but there is so much raw talent and NBA athleticism on the court. And, unlike say Duke, this young team has bought into defense from the very beginning. No. 34 in defensive efficiency, No. 29 in field goal percentage defense.
If it all clicks in March for all these young guys (which it did a little bit in the SEC tournament), watch out.
So then why hesitate? A lot of it is the record. 19-15, 8-10 in the SEC. They’re No. 13 in Strength of Schedule, which helps explain that mark, but I’d like to see them go on a little run here to end the season to feel more confident.
Also 294th in 3-pt percentage. No. 170 in scoring and offensive efficiency. But one thing that’s nice about Alabama versus, say Oklahoma with Trae Young, if you shutdown Sexton they still have three or four guys that can get 20.
Villanova seems to be in the easiest region, but don’t overlook this potential second round matchup.
I’m at a tough spot with the PAC 12. I could have sworn Washington and Arizona State looked like really solid teams when they beat my Kansas Jayhawks. But they combined to go 18-18 in conference play. And the Pac 12 might only get in three teams.
WHICH MEANS, either the Jayhawks really sucked at that point in the season (entirely possible), aren’t that great right now (hopefully not), or the PAC 12 is extremely underrated and was just as tough as the Big 12, SEC, or Big 10 (that’s what I’m hoping).
For the sake of this post, I’m going with the hypothesis that the PAC 12 is quietly strong. UCLA’s road wins at USC and Arizona are significant. They swept the season series with USC. The Bruins also have that out-of-conference win over Kentucky.
UCLA is right around Top 25 in scoring and rebounding. And, honestly, they just pass the simple eye test. Those two big wins @ Arizona and @ USC I thought this team looked more the part of a No. 4 seed than Last Four In / Last Four Out range where they’re seated right now.
Love Aaron Holiday at the point scoring 20 a game dishing out five assists. I’m a big Thomas Welsh guy, he quietly averages a double-double. Good depth, eight guys play right around 30 minutes a night.
Plus they’ve got the Blue Blood factor. It just feels comfortable writing UCLA a few times on a bracket. But will I be comfortable enough to write it three or four times, even with a double-digit seed next to their name? Time will tell. (and Florida is quietly one of the most reliable teams in the tournament, I’ve gotta go with the Gators).
Big wins: Arizona, Duke, North Carolina. If you can beat those three teams, you can make a Final Four.
Point guard Markell Johnson missed seven games. He’s back, fully healthy, playing great. Freeman is another good guard (15.3 ppg) and Torin Dorn has a little bit of Lillard to his game (13.8 ppg). Beverly another good guard. Yurtseven is an improving big to help bring some rebounding with this four-guard attack.
Three of NC State’s ten losses came when Johnson was gone. The team with him is the team capable of knocking out No. 1 and 2 seeds. I don’t want to see NC State in the second round. Time to go buy some Seton Hall gear.
Point Guard Keenan Evans floats under the radar in the Big 12 behind Trae Young, Devonte Graham, and even Jevon Carter.
He should be right in the conversation for First Team all Big 12. Evans is at 18.7 ppg on the season, he had a seven game stretch before his injury where he was at 24.6. He dropped 38 on Texas, 31 on South Carolina.
He’s joined by two super talented freshmen who also fly under the radar in Jarrett Culver and Zhaire Smith. Both about 6’5”, both score over 10 a game. Norense Odiase is a beast down low, and here’s what’s crazy, he leads the team in rebounding but there are seven guys who play more minutes than he does.
Texas Tech’s strength is depth and coaching. Of course, as a Jayhawks fan, I overrate any win in Allen Fieldhouse, but what stood about that game was how well coached they were. Chris Beard is from the Bobby Knight coaching tree and has a similar style. Strict adherence to a gameplan, tough defense, emphasis on making as few mistakes as possible.
Against Kansas they never trailed, they came out and punched the Jayhawks in the mouth and then never let up. They outrebounded KU 44-29. Pulled down 18 offensive rebounds (to KU’s 8). Only turned the ball over 10 times.
Texas Tech is No. 6 in scoring defense, No. 8 in field goal percentage defense.
So what flaws do they have other than my irrational “I can’t pick Texas Tech because they’re not a name brand” reasoning?
They’re not great overall on offense. 98th in points per game, 135th in 3-pt percentage, 206th in free throw percentage. Only one real bad loss on the year when they got blown out at Iowa State. Keenan Evans is back to full health, expect to see the Texas Tech team from January/early February vs. the one that struggled down the stretch in late Feb/early March.
The Sooners remind me of Bitcoin. When they were climbing up the rankings, 14-2, top of the Big 12, Trae Young at the height of his powers, everyone was rushing out to buy a piece of the action.
Now that things are crashing, people are selling off, getting out while there’s still some worth left.
But what if you looked at it like the shares of Oklahoma are on a very generous sale. A month or two ago you had to pay $18,000 for the Sooner Bitcoin, but now you can pick it up for $5k. Why not go shopping, buy on discount?
I mean let’s not shortchange the bad aspects. Oklahoma has fallen well out of the Top 25. They’ve lost 11 of their last 15. And finished 8-10 overall in conference (same mark as Oklahoma State, who beat them twice. Let’s not get into it).
But here’s the thing, would I feel good as a No. 2 seed seeing Oklahoma on the No. 10 line. Duke, not a strong defensive team, only has one day to prepare since they don’t know if it’s going to be Rhode Island or Oklahoma. Always scary to be in a game when the other team has the best guard on the court.
Trae Young said it himself, no one in America is being guarded like he is. And that’s true. Oklahoma is being forced to learn how to deal with this over and over again against Top 50 RPI teams in the Big 12, all led by top coaches. The first round of the tournament will be nothing new.
Could Trae Young re-capture some of that early season magic and go on a Steph Curry type of run?