Five (plus two) tourney darkhorses you shouldn’t overlook

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True mid-/low-major darkhorses are fun to lay claim to, but after making my initial pass through the bracket, I’ve identified five known commodities in college basketball that, despite average or below average regular season, possess the make-up and favorable draw that could have them celebrating into the second weekend of the tournament. Don’t come calling for me if they falter out in the first round, but you must at least give these five programs (plus two more) a good hard look before advancing their opponent on to the next round.

No. 7 Washington – Still riding the wave of emotions that was the Pac 10 Conference Tournament finals, Washington has found ways to lose despite boasting a bevy of talented and athletic players. With that, I’m still high on these guys. Last season, the Huskies possessed a 24-9 (10-7) record heading into the tournament. They made the Sweet 16 with ease.  Coincidentally enough they stand at 23-10 (10-7)  right now, and can no doubt match-up against UNC and Syracuse en route to a regional final. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but just roll with me here, I rarely speak highly of programs out west.

No. 10 Michigan State -Whine all you want about these guys, but empirical data suggests you can’t discount the Spartans based on the regular season. Michigan State’s early round opponents are spotty at best – just like them! – so it is very possible for this team to reach a fourth consecutive Sweet 16, assuming this team’s three best players can give their all collectively.

No. 11 Gonzaga – Coming into the season, Elias Harris was a trendy lottery pick and Steven Gray was one of the most under appreciated guards in the entire country. Now, the Bulldogs were just happy to secure an automatic bid as the WCC’s only representative in the tournament. Despite a rocky season, Mark Few’s club should feel comfortable in this role considering their first round and potential subsequent opponents: St. John’s, down a D.J. Kennedy after the tore in ACL in the Big East Conference Tournament; BYU, down a big man Brandon Davies because he broke an honor code; and then a likely Florida/Michigan State/UCLA Sweet 16 game – a trio of teams habitually inconsistent. It hasn’t been the best of times for these Bulldogs, but they’ve fallen into a favorable situation in the Southeastern bracket.

No. 11 Marquette – It’s oh so difficult to pick against my Xavier Musketeers, but there’s plenty of talent and mismatches to feed on here. If Marquette advances, a Big East foe awaits, and the Golden Eagles held home court against Syracuse back in January. Offensively, Buzz Williams’ top top five scorers all shoot above 45 percent. They’re also fearless and physical, meaning a potential Sweet 16 game against UNC shouldn’t be too daunting a task.

No. 11 Missouri – For starters, Cincinnati may be the most underwhelming No. 6 seed on record. That, paired with Missouri’s savvy and deep backcourt bodes well for a likely first round victory, and then the looming second and third round opponents. If they get past the Bearcats, the Tigers have the guards to (try) and get past Kemba & Co, and while San Diego State is a cute story, it’s hard to deem them as favorites, even as a No. 2 seed. Mike Anderson’s club did under perform on the whole this season, but the parts are there. Even if they do exit early, the Tigers have a lot to look forward to in 2011-2012.

And a real darkhorse(s)

The casual fan loves them, so we have to endorse a true Cinderella in this year’s tournament. Our pick? Let’s hedge a bit here and run with either No. 12 Utah State or No. 13 Belmont out of the Southeast Region. Why the two? Both have the attributes and make-up to knock off their first round opponent (Kansas State and Wisconsin, respectively) meaning there’s a decent chance they’ll square off for a trip to the Sweet 16. Utah State carries a bit more national relevance, with a rabid student section and infrequent hits in this season’s top 25. Belmont is superb offensively and will stay at least within range of the Badgers due in large part to their efficient shooting.  The Aggies actually boast a better KenPom ranking than the Wildcats, so for those of you I’ve put on #nerdalert, the lower seeded team winning may not be an upset at all!

Nick Fasulo is the manager of Searching for Billy Edelin. Follow him on Twitter @billyedelin.