The next two weeks bring us college basketball's conference championships, setting the final pieces of this year's March Madness into motion. Many of the favorites have got their spots locked down meaning that a lot of the remaining drama surrounds the underdog teams that could get into the tournament.
So which teams are this year's dark horses that will go far in the tournament? Given the unpredictable nature of the tournament it's anybody's guess which team could be a Cinderella story this year. However surprise teams often start playing their best basketball at this point of the season, as they attempt to fit their foot into Cinderella's glass slipper.
I've identified 10 teams that could be dark horses in this year's tournament. My two criteria are that these teams are not currently ranked among the top 25 teams in the nation, and they also can't be one of the top four seeds in their section.
At 20-9, the Vanderbilt Commodores are currently third in the SEC. With the SEC being very competitive this season, Vanderbilt has been overshadowed by Kentucky and Florida. Yet it still looks like Vanderbilt should easily get into the tournament despite not being ranked inside the top 25.
Even among their nine losses, the Commodores don't really have anything to be ashamed of. Two of their losses came to the nation's top team, Kentucky, while they have also lost to ranked teams like Florida and Louisville. Many of their losses have been extremely close games with three of them going to overtime and seven of them being decided by less than 10 points.
One factor that gives Vanderbilt an advantage over their SEC competition is experience. This is helped by players like junior John Jenkins who leads the entire SEC in PPG. Having lost in the first round of the tournament three of the last four years, Vanderbilt will need to win at least one tournament game for this season to be considered successful.
Another team that knows a lot about being overshadowed is the Kansas State Wildcats. This year they are fifth in the Big 12 behind usual favorites like Baylor and their hated rivals, Kansas. With nine losses, they should get into the tournament and even be a little bit dangerous, considering how they've played the last couple of weeks.
Two of their last three games have been victories against against highly ranked teams. First they beat No.10 Baylor 57-56 and then they went on to beat No. 8 Missouri 78-68 to complete the season sweep of them. Since then the Wildcats have lost a close one to Iowa State but it still doesn't seem as though there's much reason for them to worry.
Despite the high-profile upsets, Kansas State's Big 12 performance has been a very pedestrian 8-8. Going far in the Big 12 tournament would certainly ease some uncertainty about this uncertain bunch.
The proud Memphis Tigers are having another good season as they currently sit atop Conference USA. At 21-8 overall and 11-3 in the conference, they have the kind of resume that should get them into the tournament. But winning the conference may not come easy with Southern Mississippi and Tulsa right behind them.
Memphis is among the best teams in the nation when it comes to field-goal percentage. They currently average .490 a game which puts them sixth in the nation. Their offense is dominated by sophomore guard Will Barton who has 532 points on the season and has averaged 18.3 per game.
What hurts Memphis a little bit is that they did not beat a ranked team during their out of conference stretch. Still even with the easier schedule, they have done a good job lighting up the easy opponents beating teams like East Carolina and Marshall by 20 or more points.
Here's the memorable Cinderella story from last year's March Madness. Last year VCU, a No. 11 seed, went all the way from the First Four to the Final Four in one of the most surprising tournament runs ever. Of course now they are no longer under the radar and must face the difficult prospect of having another great run, something a lot of March Madness underdogs have trouble doing.
But the good news for VCU is that barring a harsh snub or a Colonial tournament meltdown, they should be back in the tournament. At 25-6 they have had an excellent season and seem to be getting hot at the right time. They finished the season off winning 14 out of 15, including the final three games in a row.
VCU still trails Drexel in the Colonial League standings. With Drexel just one game better, the Colonial tournament should have a big say on whoever wins the conference. What remains obvious though is that this winner will have to fight through the tournament as a lowly ranked seed.
And since VCU did it once, maybe they could do it again.
For all you people looking to get a head start on March Madness brackets, here's a deep sleeper team. This unlikely team is first in the nation in points per game with 83.4 and also first in assists per game with 19.5. This is the Iona Gaels, a team with explosive offense and an overall record of 24-6.
The main reason the Gaels aren't ranked or even getting voted to be ranked is that they play in the MAAC. This means they got multiple games a season against distinguished teams like the Marist Red Foxes and St. Peter's Peacocks. So their wins and maybe even their offensive statistics should be taken with a grain of salt.
Even outside of their conference schedule Iona hasn't played anyone too impressive. Their most notable victories have been against teams like Maryland and Purdue, both of whom they played early on in the season.
If they get into the tournament, Iona has a lot of potential to be one of those 12 or 13 seeds that pull off the first round upset. It's doubtful they'll advance much further but still bracket fans might want to keep this team on their radar.
Amazingly out of all the years that the NCAA tournament has been around, only one school from the Big Six conferences has yet to get an invite to the Big Dance. That would be Northwestern University, a team that has struggled in futility for nearly 80 years. They did win the national championship in 1931, but this was before the NCAA's current tournament format began.
Part of the reason for their struggles has been due to the fact that they are in the Big 10. Even this year with a tournament bid still possible, they are currently buried in seventh with a 7-9 conference record. The team has been so hapless over the years that they have only two finishes above fourth place since World War II and none since 1968.
Obviously we're looking at the kind of team that would simply be happy to play in the round of 64. Their resume is not all that impressive with the only victory that really stands out is an 81-74 victory over Michigan State back in January. But maybe if this team could just get in and break through that bubble, they'll go on a magical March Madness run that changes their program forever.
Neck in neck with VCU for the lead in the Colonial League, Drexel University is looking like they should be invited to the Big Dance this year. They are attempting to return to the tournament for their first appearance since 1996. This was the only year the Dragons won a tournament game as they beat Memphis to make their only appearance in the second round.
Critics could argue that Drexel's 16-2 conference record and 25-5 overall record is a product of an easy schedule and a weak conference. Both are valid points considering Drexel did not face a ranked opponent all season. Yet they have taken advantage of the weak competition winning their final 17 games, which that alone has to give them some tournament consideration.
Of course winning the Colonial League will not impress anyone so Drexel seems to be destined for a 13 or 14 seed. They will have to find a way to quickly adapt to playing against vastly superior competition once the tournament starts. If they can do that, this team could take down a few teams in the tournament.
Fifth in the Big Ten with a 9-7 conference record, Purdue seems to be squarely in the hunt for an at-large tournament spot. Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan all clearly have better shots at a Big Ten title. Purdue could get in although their resume has some glaring problems on it.
For the most part their record against ranked teams is awful as they are currently 1-7 when facing a ranked opponent. That one win came against No. 13 Michigan a few days ago and should help them considering it was Michigan's first home loss this year.
A figure who is very key to their postseason hopes is senior Robbie Hummel. Over the last three games he has averaged 23.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and two blocks. He will need to continue this high level of play for Purdue's dreams to come true in the tournament.
The South Florida Bulls are currently 18-11 making them more of a tournament longshot. They are 11-5 in the Big East though which is reason enough to give them some hope of making it to the tournament.
Like many other teams, their lack of a win over a solid opponent could hold them back. They have lost to every ranked team that they have faced so far during the season, putting extra importance on their game against Louisville tomorrow. A win against Louisville could be the type that puts them into the tournament.
It has been a long wait for South Florida to get back to the tournament. The last of their two tournament appearances was back in 1992 and it ended in a first round loss. Should they make the tournament, they will try to use their desperation to get their first tournament win ever.
The Nevada Wolf Pack are alone in first place for the WAC with a 11-1 record. They also have a 23-5 overall record but given their status as a mid major school, they are not included in the national rankings.
Winners of four of their last five, Nevada seems to be getting hot at the right time. They also had an easy schedule and no ranked opposition however for the most part they have taking care of beating their lower competition. Their last win against Fresno State came in triple overtime, showing that this team has plenty of heart.
Nevada could be a 14 or 15 seed in the tournament. It'll be tricky but they could pick up the first round upset and maybe even a second round one.