7 Dark Horses to Watch in This Year's Conference Tournaments
If the early returns are a leading indicator of what we can expect for the remainder of conference tournament week, top seeds beware.
As of Monday night, seven conference tournaments were completed, and only one automatic bid was won by the tournament's 1 seed.
In a season marked by more parity and upheaval than normal, chalky conference tournaments wouldn't really seem to fit in. So, as the major conference tournaments get going Tuesday and Wednesday, here are the dark horses lurking within the brackets that may be primed to cause a little early madness.
Butler (Big East)
While Butler is still on the bubble, our power rankings have the Bulldogs ranked 28th overall in nERD, with the 15th best offense in the country. Butler, the 5 seed in the Big East Tournament, will play Providence in their tourney opener on Thursday. While Butler's lost both times they've played Providence, nERD and KenPom's game projections both favor the Bulldogs in a game that Butler needs to win in order to secure an at large bid.
With a win, Butler would likely have to face top-seeded Villanova, but their above-average three-point shooting and excellent ball control should set up a close matchup with the Big East regular season champs.
Connecticut, Cincinnati, Temple, and Tulsa all find themselves on the bubble as they enter the conference tournament that could have the most to say about how things shake out on Selection Sunday. Further adding to the American's uncertainty is Houston, winners of 9 of their last 11. The Cougars climbed the crowded AAC to grab the 2 seed in this tournament, and while they're currently on the fringes of the bubble discussion, they're in position to make a late NCAA Tournament push if they can earn two or three wins before Selection Sunday.
Houston will be heavily favored in their first game and is evenly-ranked in nERD with Tulsa, their likely semifinal opponent. In a conference this wide open, it shouldn't be a huge shock to see a team ranked 11th in our Offensive Efficiency ratings get hot and make a run to the title game.
Iowa State (Big 12)
OK, so maybe the defending Big 12 Tournament champions shouldn't qualify as being a dark horse candidate, but the Cyclones are the 6 seed in this year's bracket and have to play Oklahoma right out of the gate (side note: the Big 12 is insane this year). If Kansas or Oklahoma isn't going to win the Big 12 Tournament, then the only team in America who has beaten both of them this season might be the next best choice.
While Iowa State has gone just 5-5 in their last 10, they're still sitting at 21st in our power rankings and inside the top 20 of KenPom's and ESPN's rankings. The Cyclones have a top-20 offense, per our Offensive Efficiency rankings, and the sixth-ranked Effective Field Goal Percentage, according to KenPom. Plus, Iowa State is on the opposite side of the bracket from Kansas, which certainly doesn't hurt their chances of making a deep run.
Notre Dame (ACC)
Notre Dame is another defending 2015 tournament champion but is easily lost in the ACC shuffle amidst the likes of North Carolina, Virginia, Miami, and Duke. As the 4 seed in the ACC Tournament, the Fighting Irish earned the last double bye. Their likely first opponent will be Duke, who's lost once to Notre Dame this season and is facing significant depth issues now that Amile Jefferson has been ruled out for the season.
If Duke faces a challenge from, say, Florida State in their first game, it's possible they may fall short of having the necessary firepower on back-to-back days to hang with Notre Dame's seventh-ranked offense. A win over Duke could set up a meeting with top-seeded North Carolina, who Notre Dame has also defeated this season.
Oregon State (Pac 12)
After starting 3-6 in Pac 12 play, Oregon State closed the regular season winning six of their last nine, including road wins at Stanford and UCLA. The 6 seed in the Pac 12's bracket, Oregon State still has some work to do to get off the bubble but should solidify their case with a win over Arizona State in their opener. From there come likely matchups with a young-but-talented California team, and Utah, both of whom Oregon State has defeated this season.
While the Beavers rank just 59th in our power rankings, they're battle tested, having played the eighth-toughest schedule in the nation.
Vanderbilt has been an advanced analytics darling, placing highly in our power rankings all year (19th currently) despite a resume lacking in substantive wins. The Commodores finally got rolling down the stretch, winning seven of their last nine and quickly rising the ranks in the bubble conversation. Vanderbilt, the 5 seed, will face the winner of Tennessee-Auburn before taking on LSU in the quarterfinals.
Our nERD metric would make Vandy a seven-point favorite against LSU. Texas A&M, who Vanderbilt split with in the regular season, would likely follow.
Wisconsin (Big Ten)
Wisconsin is one of the better stories in college basketball this season, having rebounded from a rocky start and the departure of legendary coach Bo Ryan to close the Big Ten schedule by winning 11 of 13. Wisconsin earned their interim head coach, Greg Gard, the full-time coaching job by climbing the Big Ten standings to finish as the 6 seed in the conference tournament. The Badgers will play the winner of Nebraska-Rutgers, followed by a likely pairing with Maryland, who Wisconsin just beat on the road by 13. Wisconsin has also defeated Michigan State, their likely semifinal opponent, and Indiana, the Big Ten's top seed.
Perhaps most in Wisconsin's favor for going on a run in the Big Ten tourney is their Pace, which ranks 299th according to our measure and 345th at KenPom. A slower tempo means fewer possessions, increasing the likelihood for upset wins by increasing variance.