2019 NCAA Tournament: Eight Potential Dark Horse Teams

By: Chris O’Brien

Dark horse teams are a little bit off the radar. If you take one of these squads to the Final Four, your friends say, “Oh wow, bold choice.”

If you pick them to win the entire tournament, your friends pat you on the back and say, “I think you need to get some more sleep.”

24. Washington

The PAC 12 had a down year. Barely got two teams into the tournament.

But think about the way we treat other 2-bid leagues. Like if Washington was named Belmont or Murray State, how much differently would we view a resume that included:

  • Regular season conference champs
  • A win at Oregon
  • A two-point loss against Gonzaga
  • No. 2 in the country in blocked shots
  • Top 50 field goal percentage defense
  • Top 30 scoring defense

I’d be thinking man, this is a great upset pick!

When you view Washington as a major conference team: not that impressive. But as a “mid-major” it’s actually a decent resume. It’s a stretch but if you’re absolutely determined to take one 8/9 over a No. 1 seed, the Utah State/Washington over North Carolina is an intriguing high-risk option.

And yes, 90 percent of that view is because of my Kansas Jayhawks bias, wanting an easier Sweet 16 matchup.

23. Syracuse

That dreaded 2-3 zone. Always gives Syracuse a chance in the tournament.

Biggest win of the season: @ Duke

They finished the season 4-7, but that was in the ACC. Four of those losses were to No. 1 seeds. One of those was to Florida State who’s playing like a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.

22. Auburn

Auburn enters the tournament on an eight-game winning streak. Two wins over Tennessee in that span including a 20-pt beatdown in the SEC Championship. They also played Duke close early in the season.

21. Wisconsin 

I like their path. Up until the Pac 12 Tournament, Oregon wasn’t even in the NCAA tournament field. Second round they’d either see Kansas State without Dean Wade or No. 13 seed UC Irvine.

In the Sweet 16, it’d be Virginia and oh man, get ready for some low-scoring basketball. These two met earlier in the season and played a brutal 53-46 game (Wisconsin lost).

Wisconsin is No. 12 in KenPom (computer rankings). They don’t turn the ball over. And I’d like their chances against Tennessee, Purdue, or Villanova in an Elite 8 game. If they play Cincinnati, the two teams might combine to score 50 points.

20. Kansas

Every year, I pick Kansas to win the entire tournament. And it’s worked… one time in my life.

But–at least for the last 14 years–it’s been a plausible pick.

This year? Not so much.

My try-to-be-non-biased opinion – Yes, the Jayhawks are vulnerable against Northeastern (Vegas only has KU as a 7-pt favorite). Northeastern is an elite 3-pt shooting team and Kansas 3-pt defense has been questionable (see their most recent loss against Iowa State or last year’s Final Four display against Villanova).

Yes, Auburn would be favored. And New Mexico State only lost by three points in Allen Fieldhouse, when Vick was still on the team.

I don’t see how we’d beat North Carolina. Or Houston. Or Iowa State. Or Kentucky who beat us up pretty good during the regular season. I wouldn’t even love our chances against Wofford!

But… having said all of that… (uh oh)

Kansas is starting four freshmen. Our big man, David McCormack, didn’t really figure things out until the last five games. We didn’t even have a set starting lineup until the final week of the season.

Dedric Lawson is always solid, 19 points, 10 rebounds a game. Has a chance to be named 2nd team All American.

Quentin Grimes is starting to play like the Top 10 freshman recruit he entered the season as. Point guard Devon Dotson is the fastest guy on the court. Marcus Garrett is one of the nation’s top defenders, he can guard all five positions. Agbaji is solid on defense and has the potential to go for 20.

All the adversity this team faced with the Adidas headlines at the beginning of the season, Doke’s injury, the “will he/won’t he” be reinstated questions about De Sousa, Vick taking a leave of absence, all of that and they still almost stretched the streak to 15 and were one win away from a Big 12 Conference Tournament Championship.

I just feel like we’ll come in loose, be the underdogs, no pressure, our freshmen starting to peak at the right time. We get to Kansas City, then it’s like two home games…

Maybe it’s not that crazy to take KU all the way…

Nope. It’s totally crazy. End of the day, this team hasn’t proven to be great at any aspect of the game. KU is below average in 3-pt shooting. The offense isn’t great. Defense is good, but not great. Rebounding. Assist/Turnover. Depth. All are just ok. Taking this Kansas team to the Sweet 16 is not a bad move, but any further than that is going to require a bit of a miracle.

So you’re saying there’s a chance…

19. Mississippi State

This is a strange reference that might not make any sense. But Mississippi State reminds me of David Pumpkins.

You look at other No. 5 seeds and it’s like, “Ok, I understand why these teams are here. I understand why they’re supposed to be scary. Marquette has Markus Howard. Auburn just won the SEC tournament. Wisconsin is always hard to score on. But Mississippi State? What’s their thing?”

When I started my research I thought, ok, SEC, maybe they have wins over Tennessee and/or Kentucky. Nope. 0-4 against both of those teams. Maybe a big win against LSU? Nope. Did they sweep Auburn? Nope, split that series 1-1. Maybe they beat Kansas or Texas Tech in the Big 12 vs. SEC Challenge? They didn’t even PLAY in the Big 12 SEC Challenge?

Why are they a No. 5 seed?! What don’t I know??

Kept digging. Top defense? Nope. Not in the Top 50 for scoring or field goal defense. Elite offense? Negative. 64th in points per game. 34th in 3-point percentage. 149th in total rebounds.

Who is this team?! David Pumpkins might as well be wearing a Mississippi State jersey.

But there’s something the selection committee must know that I don’t. And that’s what makes Mississippi State scary. In the words of Kenan Thompson from that SNL sketch:

“The scariest thing to the mind is the unknown.”

18. Villanova 

Watch out for Villanova. The defending champs lost Brunson, Bridges, DiVincenzo, and Spellman from last year’s team. That’s 61 points of offense.

It took a while this season, and understandably so, for senior guard Phil Booth to step up as the new No. 1 on the team. Paschall went from being the No. 6 guy last year to No. 2 this year. The rest of the team had to figure things out as well.

Villanova is peaking at the right time and their region looks pretty manageable. A relaxed Jay Wright with guys who have been there before should bring some fear to the top teams in that part of the bracket.

17. Marquette

Here’s a snapshot of Marquette on Monday, February 25th.

23-4 overall

Top 10 in the country.

Wins over Louisville, Kansas State, Wisconsin, Buffalo, Villanova.

Late February, they were on a campaign for a No. 3 seed, possibly even a No. 2.

But then things fell apart. They closed the season 1-5, two of those losses coming to non-tournament teams.

However, they still have Markus Howard who scores 25 ppg. He’s dropped 50 before. Think Steph Curry / Trae Young type of guy.

He’s surrounded by really good shooters. Marquette is 9th in 3-pt percentage.

If they catch fire and play like they were earlier in the season, there’s a real path to the Final Four.

But it’s incredibly high risk to roll with Marquette because almost equally likely as a deep tournament run is a first-round upset to the one, the only, Ja Morant.

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