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Five Dark-Horse Teams That Could Crash the Men’s Final Four

Odds are, someone seeded No. 4 or lower will make it to New Orleans.

The last time the men’s Final Four was composed entirely of teams from the top-three seed lines was way back in 2009. While overall, 74% of Final Four teams since 1985 have been a No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 seed, (per BracketOdds), that still means more than a quarter come from elsewhere. Figuring out who that’s going to be every year (often, it’s just one of the four teams) can be like finding a needle in a haystack—after all, who saw No. 11–seed UCLA coming a year ago? Or No. 11 Loyola Chicago in 2018? Still, we’re going to give it our best shot. Here are five teams seeded No. 4 or lower who could make the trip to New Orleans, plus three more we considered.

Iowa (No. 5 seed, Midwest Region)

This is a pretty obvious sleeper pick after Iowa won the Big Ten tournament, but anyone paying a close eye over the last month could have already seen the dark-horse label coming. In a rare reversal of how Fran McCaffery’s Hawkeyes teams have historically tended to fade down the stretch, this one has only gotten stronger. Iowa has lost just twice since the calendar hit February, and its offense is operating at a ridiculously high level right now. According to T-Rank’s power rating, the Hawkeyes have been the No. 2 team in the country since Feb. 1, behind only Gonzaga.

Iowa has a legitimate top-tier star in Keegan Murray—the kind of player who can take over an NCAA tournament game or win it when you put the ball in his hands late. Murray, his brother Kris and sixth-year senior Jordan Bohannon are all sharpshooters from three, and collectively the Hawkeyes take excellent care of the ball. But before you jump aboard this train, consider two points: 1) McCaffery has never even reached the Sweet 16 in his career; and 2) as is typical, the Hawkeyes’ defense is not their strong suit. For the year, the D ranks 77th in KenPom, and even during this torrid 14-game run, T-Rank has it at 51st nationally—better, but still not ideal. If it can replicate its recent defensive improvements in the Big Dance, Iowa should have a puncher’s chance at winning the Midwest Region.

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UCLA (No. 4 seed, East Region)

Picking the Bruins for this exercise almost feels like cheating. Few March Madness fans need an introduction to this group after what it did in 2021, going from the First Four to the Final Four and nearly taking down Gonzaga. All the familiar names are back, including Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell. That kind of tournament experience is invaluable.

The initial path for UCLA lines up pretty well; it would be favored in any game until at least the Sweet 16, and Baylor could be the most vulnerable No. 1 seed given its injuries. No. 2 Kentucky might be the toughest obstacle in the region, and Myles Johnson and Cody Riley would have their hands full with Oscar Tshiebwe (or Zach Edey and Trevion Williams, if UCLA sees Purdue). But the Bruins are underseeded according to the metrics and one of just four teams in the top 15 of both offense and defense in KenPom. Jaquez has rounded back into form after an injury, and Juzang has fully proven how clutch he can be on the big stage. Would anyone be shocked if they run it back?

Houston’s Kyler Edwards celebrates vs Memphis

Houston could be a threat again one year after it went to the Final Four.

Houston (No. 5 seed, South Region)

The Cougars are a bizarre bracket case. Their placement on the committee’s overall seed list was 18th. Yet almost every predictive metric loves Kelvin Sampson’s team—even after it lost leading scorer Marcus Sasser and key guard Tramon Mark to season-ending injuries in mid-December. If those two were healthy, we’d likely be talking about this team as a title contender. Most analytics sites view it that way, anyway: Houston is No. 3 in the NET, No. 4 in KenPom and No. 2 in T-Rank and ESPN’s BPI. Those numbers typically suggest a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, but here are the Cougars, on the No. 5 line.

Why? Here’s the big problem: Houston has just one Quad 1 win all season, which came on Sunday vs. Memphis, and it’s 1–4 overall against Q1. No other team in the top 20 of the NET has fewer than four Q1 wins. What it has done is gone 28–1 against Quads 2, 3 and 4, putting a beatdown on plenty of opponents. There’s no doubt this is a solid team, led by Texas Tech transfer Kyler Edwards and big man Fabian White Jr., but with little track record against elite opponents, it’s hard to trust too much. Still, you could do a lot worse than taking a flier on a team with metrics as high as the Cougars’. Sampson has done an incredible job with this program, including, of course, breaking through to last year’s Final Four. Houston is going to play hard, it’s going to defend and it’s going to crash the offensive glass more than nearly anyone. It’s not an improbable path to New Orleans.

Colorado State (No. 6 seed, South Region)

If you’re looking for a mid-major dark horse, the Rams are an intriguing bet. They came in second in the Mountain West gantlet and have a pair of stars in forward David Roddy and point guard Isaiah Stevens. Where San Diego State and Boise State make their bones defensively, Colorado State shines brightest on the offensive end. The Rams are excellent in the half court and make 67% of their shots at the rim, which is 14th nationally. They also take care of the ball and make their free throws, two important factors in an NCAA tournament setting.

Full disclosure: CSU’s path won’t be easy. Not only is first-round opponent Michigan actually favored in the betting line by SI Sportsbook despite being the seeding underdog, but potential second-round opponent Tennessee is playing its best basketball right now. Overall, the South Region feels like it has great chaos potential, and if they can escape the first weekend and things open up, the Rams could be in great position to pounce and make a stunning run to New Orleans.

Virginia Tech (No. 11 seed, East Region)

A team seeded No. 7 or lower has made the men’s Final Four in seven of the last eight tournaments, so who could that be this year? The Hokies are riding high after storming the ACC tournament and earning a bid, and while momentum isn’t everything, they should be brimming with confidence. Texas, their first-round opponent, has had an up-and-down season and comes in having lost four of six. And should it meet Purdue in the second round, Virginia Tech’s strong perimeter shooting (third nationally) could help it exploit a porous Boilermakers defense. Hot shooting would likely need to continue for the Hokies to have any shot at winning the region, but stranger things have happened. Despite its seeding, this team isn’t far off metics-wise from teams traditionally in consideration for a sleeper designation—23rd in KenPom, 21st in T-Rank and 19th in ESPN BPI.

Honorable Mentions

No. 4 Arkansas/No. 5 UConn: I like both of these teams a lot, but they’re in a tough spot. Their first-round opponents are no slouches, and if an Arkansas-UConn matchup comes to pass, that game feels like a coin flip—so you’d better be sure which one you’re higher on. Win that, and they get the award of playing Gonzaga. A lot needs to go right.

No. 5 Saint Mary’s: The Gaels have a win over Gonzaga on their résumé and are viewed favorably analytically, at 16th on KenPom and 19th in the NET. They also have size inside, limit opposing three-pointers better than anyone in the field and play at a plodding pace that could muck things up. But does Saint Mary’s have enough offense to win four tournament games? It’ll be tough.

No. 9 Memphis: Over the last month and a half, the Tigers have been trending better than most of the field. Since Emoni Bates was sidelined in late January, Memphis has been a top-10 team on T-Rank, having figured things out on both ends. But the early-season résumé damage was significant, and it finds itself in a loaded first-weekend pod with defensively staunch Boise State and juggernaut Gonzaga. 

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