Dark Horses to Watch in College Basketball Power Conference Tournaments

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMarch 8, 2017

Dark Horses to Watch in College Basketball Power Conference Tournaments

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    Oklahoma State guard Jawun Evans
    Oklahoma State guard Jawun EvansPeter G. Aiken/Getty Images

    Everyone knows the front-runners. Now it's time for the sleepers.

    For different reasons, every power-conference tournament carries some interest. Not all of them have in the equation what you might call a legitimate dark horse, but several of them do. 

    The following teams are dark horses because they are not widely expected to contend for the conference-tourney title but could do so anyway. That could be thanks to a late-season hot streak, a favorable draw, a weak conference or a combination of those factors.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

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    Jordan Murphy (right)
    Jordan Murphy (right)Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Regular season rundown: A five-game losing streak in late January appeared to 86 the Minnesota Golden Gophers' season. But the Gophers rose triumphantly from their burrows to win eight of their last nine and establish themselves as frisky contenders in the Big Ten context. 

    Recent form: Nate Mason, Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer pace the scoring, but a committee-based frontcourt is the real talent, getting easy baskets and pulling down a second-best-in-the-conference 40.1 rebounds per game. Yes, they lost 66-49 at Wisconsin to close the regular season, but if they can find and maintain a clear head, that loss will prove an aberration. 

    Title chances: The Gophers grabbed a No. 4 seed in the Big Ten tourney bracket. That means a double bye and a meeting with the winner between Michigan State and either Penn State or Nebraska. That's winnable.

    If chalk holds, they'll face top-seeded Purdue next. The Boilermakers are tough but they are not dominant, particularly for a team like Minnesota with a strong post presence. If it beats Purdue, all bets are off. Put the title chances at 30 percent.

Virginia Cavaliers

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    London Perrantes
    London PerrantesChet Strange/Getty Images

    Regular season rundown: The Virginia Cavaliers are always there, quietly piling up wins. The likes of Louisville and Notre Dame fell under UVA's rapier, or whatever that thing is called. But they struggled in big games, too, falling to Duke, Florida State and West Virginia, among others.

    Recent form: Left for dead after a late-season swoon, the Cavs recovered nicely with three straight wins, including a defensive gem against North Carolina. Entering the tourney, they haven't lost since Feb. 20.

    Title chances: The ACC tourney bracket has smiled on UVA. On Tuesday, Pitt knocked off a feisty-looking Georgia Tech, perhaps further paving the way for the Cavs. The top-seeded Tar Heels are on the other side of the bracket, while second-seeded but semi-struggling Florida State looks relatively beatable on the UVA side. Chance of a title: 20 percent.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Jawun Evans (right)
    Jawun Evans (right)Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Regular season rundown: On Jan. 18, the Oklahoma State Cowboys were 10-8 overall and 0-6 in the Big 12 Conference. That's not what you're looking for if you're a fan of that team. But then OSU rebounded with a run of 10-3. And those three losses were to Kansas, Baylor and Iowa State, all ranked in the top 25 at this moment.

    Recent form: This team can catch fire any time. OSU converts about 41 percent of its three-point attempts, and its 85.6 points per game are ninth nationally, per NCAA stats. And if that's not enough, the Cowboys are tops overall in KenPom's offensive-efficiency ratings

    Title chances: Oklahoma State lost twice this season to Iowa State. And fancy that, that's who Oklahoma State faces in its opening round of the tournament.

    Here's hypothesizing, though, that the team comes out motivated—and, honestly, it's hard to beat a good team three times in one season—and defeat the Cyclones, then upend top-ranked Kansas in the semifinals before closing out Baylor or West Virginia for the title. Chances of actually doing it: 30 percent.

Marquette Golden Eagles

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    Andrew Rosey (left) and Markus Howard
    Andrew Rosey (left) and Markus HowardDarren Hauck/Associated Press

    Regular season rundown: It hasn't been a season of great note for Marquette to this point. The Golden Eagles ended the regular season at 19-11 overall and 10-8 in the Big East Conference. That's the same conference that became a bit of a rock fight in the latter portion of the season. Marquette is right in the thick of it, finishing sixth of 10 teams.

    Recent form: The Golden Eagles are the winners of four of their last five, including two victories over a solid Xavier squad. Only Creighton scores more per game in the conference than the 82.7 of Marquette. The team also sits third in the conference with a 49 percent team shooting average.

    The jets have really been on of late, surpassing 90 in each of its past two games, both wins. The team has been so sharp, in fact, that it is now seventh in KenPom's offensive ratings. 

    Title chances: Everyone has to throw a Hail Mary, right? Here goes mine. I'd put the chances of this actually happening at only 10 percent or so, but we all must sometimes take risks in life.

    Marquette gets Seton Hall in its first game on the bracket then would have to upend mighty Villanova before moving on to, chalk assumed, Butler. Villanova is a high mountain for anyone to climb, but Marquette just might be able to shoot its way over it.