NCAA

March Madness 2018: Darkhorse picks to make the Final Four

March Madness 2018: Darkhorse picks to make the Final Four

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.

READ ALSO: NINE MOST LIKELY FIRST ROUND UPSETS

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.  

RELATED: FULL FIRST ROUND TV SCHEDULE

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.

MORE: COMPETE FOR PRIZES IN OUR BRACKET CHALLENGE

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.

RELATED: NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP ODDS

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.

 

Click here to join NBC Sports Washington’s NCAA Tournament Bracket Challenge and compete against Tony Massenburg and Walt Williams for a chance to win big.

Grand Prize: f you have the highest-scoring bracket in the NBC Sports Washington Bracket Challenge, you will win four (4) lower Wizards tickets to the 4/10 Celtics @ Wizards game, an autographed Bradley Beal jersey and a 60” 4K TV!

Secondary Prize: If your bracket scores higher than both Tony Massenburg and Walt Williams, you'll get a coupon code for a free regular Jersey Mike's sub!

WANT MORE COLLEGE HOOPS? Join @TroyMachir for the March Only podcast, a month-long podcast with some of the best and brightest minds in college basketball. Subscribe on iTunes and listen below.

Navy-Notre Dame to move 2020 matchup from Ireland

Navy-Notre Dame to move 2020 matchup from Ireland

Navy and Notre Dame will no longer hold the 94th edition of their rivalry in Dublin, Ireland this year. 

Navy football announced the location change on Tuesday. The game will ideally be played at the Midshipmen's home stadium, the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md, the release stated.  

Moving the game is due to concerns surrounding travel during the coronavirus pandemic. The Naval Academy, Notre Dame and the Irish government determined postponing their game at Aviva Stadium would be the best interests of all parties. 

The historic game will still be played this year, likely on Labor Day weekend and broadcast on ESPN or ABC. 

"We are obviously disappointed not to be traveling to Ireland this August," Naval Academy Director of Athletics Chet Gladchuk said.  "But, as expected, our priority must be ensuring the health and safety of all involved.  I am expecting that we will still be able to play Notre Dame as our season opener, but there is still much to be determined by health officials and those that govern college football at large.  Once we have a definitive plan in place, we will announce the specifics pertaining to the game." 

"I am extremely grateful to all that were involved in the planning of our game in Aviva Stadium, especially John Anthony and Padraic O'Kane who created what would have been another extraordinary event in Dublin.  I realize many are disappointed and were looking forward to the spectacle of this event and a visit to the Emerald Isle, but I do know there is a complete understanding of why it's in our best interests to make every effort to relocate the game," he added.

This was set to be the third time that the longest continuous intersectional rivalry was to play in Ireland. Notre Dame won both previous contests in 1996 and 2012, although the Fighting Irish vacated their 2012 victory. The two programs look to return to Ireland in the coming years.

Notre Dame has won the rivalry game each of the past three seasons. The Fighting Irish hold a 77–13–1 lead in the all-time series.

Stay connected to the Capitals and Wizards with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.

MORE NCAA NEWS:

Maryland among top five for Utah transfer Both Gach, if he withdraws from NBA Draft

Maryland among top five for Utah transfer Both Gach, if he withdraws from NBA Draft

Maryland basketball is among Utah transfer Both Gach's final five schools, he announced via Twitter on Tuesday.

Creighton, Iowa State, Auburn and Minnesota are the other four teams on his list. Gach, who entered his name into the transfer portal in May after his sophomore season at Utah, averaged 10.7 points and 3.6 rebounds during the 2019-20 season. 

Should Gach choose Maryland, the 6-foot-7 guard could immediately help a Terps roster that has lost a majority of its primary ball handlers and missed out on several transfers and recruits. Additionally, his size would allow him to potentially play the three or four as well, that is if he is granted immediate eligibility. 

However, the Terps aren't just competing with four other college programs for Gach, but the NBA as well. Gach had entered his name into the NBA Draft in early April. Typically by this time, players would either withdraw and maintain eligibility or continue on to the pros. Due to the coronavirus pandemic pausing the NBA season, things are a little different for 2020. The deadline for players to withdraw is undetermined at this time and will likely be influenced by the league's date of resumption.

Until that happens, it could be a waiting game between Gach, the Terps and other teams involved in his final decision.

Stay connected to the Capitals and Wizards with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.

MORE NCAA NEWS: