College Basketball Dark Horses To Keep An Eye On

By Geoff Magliocchetti
Big East Men's Basketball Tournament - 1st Round
Big East Men's Basketball Tournament - 1st Round / Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The ball is tipped...on Tuesday.

College basketball makes its return this week, and the usual suspects from Durham, Chapel Hill, East Lansing, and Lexington are up for preseason and postseason accolades alike. But don't sleep on these...well, the stronger conferences that could disrupt business as usual this season.

South Florida
Ever since their entry to the Artists Formerly Known As the Big East, the Bulls have yet to replicate the success they've had on the football field. But last season brought 24 wins, a program record, and their first winning season since their last NCAA Tournament run in 2012. They also took home the College Basketball Invitational postseason tournament with a three-game series win over DePaul. Ninety-two percent of second-year head coach Brian Gregory's scoring returns, and Ezacuras Dawson, a four-star transfer from Oklahoma State, arrives.

ACC: Virginia Tech
It's not often you see a recent Sweet 16 participant as a dark horse, but the Hokies took a bit of a beating in the offseason. Head coach Buzz Williams fled to Texas A&M and Kerry Backshear (14.9 PPG, 7.5 RPG) transferred to Florida. But the Hokies began life after Williams with the strong hire of Mike Young, who put Wofford on the college basketball map, and welcome in deep-shooting frosh Jalen Cone. VT will be hard-pressed to truly compete in the mighty ACC, but this year of transition could be better than people expect.

The small but mighty A10 side has had its share of success stories, and the Dukes are on their way to joining that group. It's a big year for head coach Keith Dambrot, who took over a 10-win team two years ago and has guided the Dukes to back-to-back non-losing seasons for the first time since 2011-12. Losing top scorer Eric Williams Jr. to Oregon hurts, but there's confidence in Sincere Carry after a strong freshman campaign (12.1 PPG). Adding to the Dukes' dark horse case? They haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 1977.

The Blue Demons' hellish Big East tenure might finally be looking up. A runner-up finish in the CBI was their first postseason action of any kind since 2007, and a decent recruiting class (including Michigan's Mr. Basketball Romeo Weems) took notice. Replacing their top three scorers will be difficult, but DePaul is intrigued by the potential of junior forward Paul Reed, who earned the conference's Most Improved Player award.