College Basketball: 7 Dark Horses to Watch in This Year's Conference Tournaments

In a season where no one has separated from the field, you can expect surprises in some of the major conference tournaments. Which lower-seeded teams should you be keeping your eye on?

While several conferences have already finished their conference tournaments, there are still many conferences that have not yet had their champion decided.

With 22 conference tournaments yet to finish, we are almost guaranteed to see a few underdogs steal their conference’s automatic bid. Now that some of the major conference tournaments are just getting started, here’s a look of some dark horses to watch in each of the major conference tournaments.

American -- Houston (3 seed)

This week is very crucial for the Houston Cougars as they attempt to move from the bubble and into the field of 68. Our numbers currently have Houston with a 37.56% chance of getting into the NCAA tournament, so a deep run in the American tournament would do wonders for their chances. Houston would probably need to secure the American’s automatic bid to guarantee their appearance in this year’s tournament. The Cougars should be well-equipped to make such a run, as they are the most experienced team in the AAC this season.

ACC -- Louisville (4 seed)

The ACC is so deep this season that Louisville, ranked 8th in our nERD power rankings, is the 4 seed in this year’s ACC tournament. As usual, Rick Pitino’s team does a fantastic job on the defensive end, ranking sixth in the nation in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. We have Louisville projected as a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, so they're not really an underdog in the ACC tourney in any way other than their seed. Louisville has played the second-hardest schedule this season, based off our strength of schedule rankings, with wins over 4 of the top 14 teams in our nERD rankings.

Winning the ACC tournament won't be an easy feat for Louisville as they will potentially face Duke in the quarterfinals and North Carolina in the semifinals just to reach the ACC title game.

Big East -- Providence (3 seed)

Providence enters the Big East tournament as the hottest team in the conference, winning six straight games. During that time period, the Friars went from a likely NIT team to a projected 10 seed in our bracketology projections thanks to wins over four probable NCAA tournament teams. Despite ranking just 55th in our power rankings, Providence has accumulated several major wins this season, and they will look to continue building on that resume in the Big East tournament.

The Friars will begin their Big East tourney against Creighton, who has been reeling since they lost star point guard Mo Watson for the season to a knee injury. Providence’s road to a potential deep run is also made easier by the fact that they are on the opposite side of the bracket from Villanova.

Big Ten -- Michigan (8 seed)

Michigan is not your usual 8 seed in a conference tournament because the Wolverines are actually the Big Ten's second-best team, per KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin. This was due largely in part to the fact that they possess the conference’s most efficient offense, scoring 1.16 points per possessions during conference play. Unfortunately for Michigan, they have a tough matchup versus Purdue, 13th in our nERD power rankings, looming in the quarterfinals if they are able to defeat Illinois in their first contest.

Currently, we have Michigan projected to play in a First Four matchup against Vanderbilt, so a couple wins in the Big Ten tournament -- particularly a win over Purdue -- would help the Wolverines get off the bubble.

Big XII -- Oklahoma State (5 seed)

If you have never heard of Oklahoma State sophomore point guard Jawun Evans, you are sure to learn his name soon. Evans leads one of the nation’s most efficient offense, which ranks 5th in our offensive efficiency rankings. They are in the nation’s top 10 for three-point percentage, free throw percentage, and offensive rebounding percentage. The Cowboys will rely on their prolific offense to power them on a run in the Big XII tournament.

The Cowboys start the tournament with a tough matchup against Iowa State, who they lost to twice in the regular season. However, our nERD metric thinks Oklahoma State should be a slight favorite on a neutral floor against the Cyclones.

Pac-12 -- Southern California (6 seed)

After a blazing 14-0 start to the season, Southern Cal cooled off considerably, finishing the regular season 23-8. Despite their record, USC is firmly on the bubble, and the Trojans will need an impressive showing in the Pac-12 tourney to solidify their tournament odds. The question for the Trojans is what team will show up in the Pac 12 tournament. Is it the team that beat Southern Methodist and UCLA, or will it be the team that lost four straight in February, including a 32-point loss to UCLA?

USC is one of the three teams to beat UCLA this season, and they are primed to meet their crosstown rivals in the quarterfinals, provided they do not suffer an upset loss to Washington in their first-round matchup.

SEC -- Arkansas (3 seed)

Similar to most of the teams on this list, Arkansas enters the SEC tournament on a hot streak, winning six of their last seven games. They’ve done this behind the firepower of their offense, as they have scored at least 1.04 points per possession in each of those wins. The key for Arkansas will be whether they can stop their opponents from scoring. According to our metrics, their defensive rating is 197 spots lower (225th) than their offensive rating (28th).

Most likely, Arkansas will have to rely on their offense to carry them. The Razorbacks do not turn over the basketball, and they can get hot from behind the arc, which are two ingredients for a deep run in a tournament.