Every NCAA Tournament, everyone is looking for that prime Final Four pick that no one else has on their bracket.
If you get that one surprise team that no one saw coming, you are the odds on favorite to win your bracket challenge, tournament pool, etc.
Identifying that team is easier said than done. When it gets down to the nitty gritty, it is hard to pick against the No. 1 or No. 2 seeds in the region. That is especially the case this season.
But as history has shown us, there will be one team not with a one or a two next to their name when there are only four teams remaining and the calendar turns to April.
Outside of the No. 1 seeds, of course No. 2 Duke, No. 2 North Carolina, No. 3 Michigan State, No. 4 Gonzaga are all going to get some support. But that is easy, that is not going to win a bracket pool. You have to think out of the box and hope that someone carries the weight.
Look at the past handful of national champions and the Final Four teams with them. There are a couple of things they have in common: a talented backcourt and a multi-dimensional defense. The teams listed below, that no one is talking about all fall into these two categories.
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Darkhorse NCAA Tournament Teams to Make the Final Four
No. 7 Rhode Island Rams (25-7, 15-3 Atlantic 10)
Notable Wins: Seton Hall, Providence, St. Bonaventure
Player to Watch: Jared Terrell (17.2 ppg, 44 FG%, 42 3pt FG%)
Final Four Path: Midwest; No. 10 Oklahoma, No. 2 Duke, No. 3 Michigan State, No. 1 Kansas
Looking at the Rams’ Final Four path, the committee did not give the Atlantic 10 regular season champions any favors. The Midwest Region as a whole is a brute and the team that gets out will either be gassed or primed to finish the journey.
For Rhode Island, they tout what John Rothestein has tabbed the best backcourt in the entire country. Their top four guards could easily play and start on any high-major program, and one actually did. Senior Stanford Robinson played two years at Indiana before moving to Rhode Island. And he is not even their best option at the guard position.
Seniors Jared Terrell and E.C. Matthews are the go-to scorers and together score 30 points a contest. Point guard Jeff Dowtin has 10 points a contest himself, while averaging 5.5 assists per game.
Almost the entire Rams roster has been here before. Last season they were two minutes away from a Sweet 16 appearance. The only guy who wasn’t, freshman Fatts Russell (best name of the tournament) brings a fire off of the bench.
This year they went a stretch where they won 16 games in a row. Their defense, which can play man-to-man, matchup zone, and a two-three zone quite effectively, kept teams to under 68 points throughout the season.
Before an end of season rut against the best teams in the Atlantic 10, they were in line for a No. 5, borderline No. 4 seed. Losing three of their last five dropped them down a peg. They have a tough path, but if there is anyone that can get through that gauntlet it’s the Rhody Rams.
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No. 3 Texas Tech Red Raiders (24-9, 11-7 Big 12)
Notable Wins: @ Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma
Player to Watch: Keenan Evans (17.5 ppg, 48 FG%)
Final Four Path: East; No. 14 Stephen F. Austin, No. 6 Florida, No. 2 Purdue, No. 1 Villanova
As a No. 3 seed, it is hard to label Texas Tech as a ‘darkhorse’ to make the Final Four, but it will be rare to see many picking them to get out of this region.
Partly this is due to a four game losing streak two weeks before the regular season was about to end. It dropped the Red Raiders from a contender in the Big 12, and borderline No. 1 seed, to a No. 3, and in some people’s minds should have dropped a little further.
This season they established themselves in arguably the best conference of all of college basketball. A program defining win at the Allen Fieldhouse showed how good this team can really be. However, with a rough Big 12 schedule there is only so much you can withstand as they tailed off toward the end of the year.
They have a great mix of veteran seniors and exuberant, talented youth. Often, that is a recipe for success for the blue bloods that are playing on the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Seniors Keenan Evans and Zach Smith were both on the Red Raiders when they got bounced in the first round of the tournament in 2016. Back again, the guard-forward, one-two punch can roll through any team that has to rely on man-to-man defense. With freshman guards Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver, who together shoot 41 percent from three-point land starting alongside them, it is a tough team to matchup against.
Another defensive group that can rotate out of man, they held teams to 65 points per game on the season.
With a favorable portion of the draw, the Red Raiders are in a cake-walk to the Sweet 16. Throw-in an upset or two and they are in the Final Four.
No. 5 West Virginia (24-10, 11-7 Big 12)
Notable Wins: Virginia, Texas Tech, TCU
Player to Watch: Jevon Carter (17.0 ppg, 6.6 apg, 2.9 spg)
Final Four Path: East; No. 12 Murray State, No. 4 Wichita State, No. 1 Villanova, No. 2 Purdue
A Bob Huggins team that has a great defense and outstanding guards, sound familiar? Every year, the Mountaineers are a tricky team to figure out how far they will go in the big dance. They haven’t been to the Final Four since 2010, but in two of the last three seasons they made it to the Elite Eight.
Led by a player that feels like is on his seventh season with the team, Jevon Carter, it has been quite the up-and-down rollercoaster for West Virginia.
On one hand, the Mountaineers were one of two teams to beat Virginia throughout the entire college basketball season. West Virginia finished third in the uber-competitive Big 12 and was never really blown out a contest all year.
On the other hand, the Mountaineers picked up 10 losses in the 2017-18 season. Nine of those ten losses were to teams playing in the tournament.
This season they held opponents to 69 points a game with their tight-knit two-three zone. Good enough to match the Cavaliers’ historic group. They force teams to 16 turnovers, one of the best marks in the NCAA
Like the Red Raiders they have a good balance of veterans and youth. All of their starters though were on the Elite Eight team that lost to Gonzaga a season ago.
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No. 6 Houston (26-7, 14-4 AAC)
Notable Wins: Providence, Wichita State (twice)
Player to Watch: Rob Gray (18.5 ppg, 4.5 apg, 45 FG%)
Final Four Path: West; No. 11 San Diego State, No. 3 Michigan, No. 2 North Carolina, No. 1 Xavier
Of the four teams on this list, Houston is the wildcard. They are playing in the wide-open West Region and have not fully proven how good they can be in 2018.
This is their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2010, their second since 1992.
Experience for the Cougars come from back-to-back NIT first round exits. Their starting line-up consists of two seniors and three juniors. They have a deep bench with a pair of seniors as well.
They typically start the game with a three guard, two forward set but quickly turn to their bench and spread out defenses with four guards. Four players average 10 points a game, all behind redshirt senior Rob Gray with 18.5.
Their scoring defense is 65 points a game, another group near the top of all of college basketball. They hold opponents to 40 percent shooting from the field and pride themselves on steals and blocks.
There are two questionable losses on their schedule, losing to Drexel in the first week and falling to Tulane in the middle of conference play. However, they are one of the hottest teams in the country winning 10 of their last 12. Falling to Cincinnati on the second-to-last possession of the AAC Championship, the Cougars have moved themselves from the bubble to a Sweet 16 favorite. Their one road block is North Carolina, which it does not appear they match-up well against. They will probably need one upset to go their way from other teams in their region.
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