Dark Horses with Potential to Win Major NCAA Basketball Conferences in 2014-15
Every year, there are a few dark horses who end up winning regular-season championships in the major conferences of college basketball.
I mean, come on, how many people had Virginia beating Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse to win the ACC last year? And I don't seem to recall anyone picking Villanova to win the Big East while we were busy handing the title to Marquette on a silver platter.
The teams on this list aren't the favorites or the top challengers to the favorites. In most cases, these teams aren't even expected to finish in the top three in their respective conferences.
But that doesn't mean it can't or won't happen.
I wouldn't go betting the farm on any of these teams to claim 2014-15 regular-season titles, but you just might find yourself with a dozen farms if you happen to bet on the right one.
ACC Dark Horse: Louisville Cardinals
In any other conference, Louisville would be, at worst, the second-most likely team to take home the regular-season crown. The Cardinals will probably open the season ranked in the Top 10, and have to be considered a candidate to win the national championship.
But as they adjust to their new home in the ACC, Duke and North Carolina are unquestionably the favorites, and Virginia will join Louisville somewhere near No. 10 in the country when the season begins.
Between those external factors and the potential inner turmoil of life without Russ Smith and Luke Hancock, the Cardinals qualify as a dark horse.
Explaining why they actually are a candidate to win the conference shouldn't take nearly as much convincing.
Montrezl Harrell might be the best big man in the entire country.
Terry Rozier—rated by 247Sports.com as the fifth-best point guard in the 2013 class—is ready to explode as a sophomore now that Smith is out of the picture.
Chris Jones returns as an above-average scorer and distributor who served as one of the best defenders in the nation last season. Jones averaged 3.5 steals per 40 minutes.
They have an excellent incoming freshman in Shaqquan Aaron, but he may not even start because Wayne Blackshear has shown so much improvement this summer.
Louisville might not have a Freshman of the Year candidate like Duke's Jahlil Okafor. It may not have a Player of the Year candidate like North Carolina's Marcus Paige. But there's no weakness on this Cardinals roster.
American Dark Horse: Memphis Tigers
As far as four-man backcourts go, Memphis had one of the best last season.
Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Michael Dixon Jr. and Geron Johnson combined to play more than 113 minutes per game last year. They were responsible for 92.9 percent of the team's three-point attempts.
One other noteworthy nugget of information is that all four of those guards were seniors. Add graduating small forward David Pellom to the list, and the Tigers are losing five of the seven players who logged at least 400 minutes last season.
They also lost one of their five ESPN 100 recruits from last season when big man Dominic Woodson decided to transfer to Tennessee.
But more important than the loss of Woodson is the retention of those other four players who were among the best in the 2013 class.
Austin Nichols was already a big part of the team as a freshman (9.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG) and should only get better in his second year alongside Shaq Goodwin in the post.
Kuran Iverson and Nick King both ranked in the top 11 in what was a ridiculously stacked class of small forwards, but there wasn't much room for the two freshman small forwards on a roster with four senior guards. They should each have a substantially increased role this season.
Throw in Calvin Godfrey transferring in from Southern, and Josh Pastner's team is beyond equipped in the frontcourt.
Whether the Tigers can finish ahead of Connecticut and Southern Methodist in this conference, however, will depend on guards who have yet to play a collegiate game.
Rashawn "Pookie" Powell and Markel Crawford both received redshirts last season as freshmen. Dominic Magee is Memphis' top incoming recruit this year. All three will compete for starting jobs on what is now an extremely young roster.
Big 12 Dark Horse: Kansas State Wildcats
For a second consecutive season, the Big 12 will be the gold standard against which all other conferences are judged.
Kansas is going for an 11th straight Big 12 title thanks to one of the best recruiting classes in the nation. Texas is expected to be the biggest challenger to the Jayhawks because of one of the deepest and most talented rotations in the country.
Iowa State is reloading again with great transfers and could be the highest scoring offense in the nation. And Oklahoma is a threat that will become even more serious if TaShawn Thomas is ruled eligible to play this year.
But let's make sure Kansas State doesn't get lost in that shuffle, because the Wildcats have the talent to win this conference.
First and foremost, there's Marcus Foster. The freshman has come out of nowhere to become one of the best combo guards in the country.
And last summer, many were expecting Jevon Thomas to play that role for Bruce Weber's team. He was ruled ineligible for the first seven weeks of the season and couldn't shoot worth a lick (24.6 percent from the field) when he finally was allowed to play. But he did average 6.4 assists per 40 minutes, and he should serve as an excellent complement to Foster in the backcourt.
The Wildcats are also adding a talented shooting guard in the form of Justin Edwards, who will join the team after transferring from Maine and sitting out last season.
The frontcourt will be anchored by Thomas Gipson (11.7 PPG, 6.5 RPG last year) and JUCO transfer Stephen Hurt. The 6'10", 275-pound center is rated by 247Sports.com as the fifth-best JUCO transfer in the country. The big man has some shooting touch, too, as he shot 8-of-18 from three-point range and 80.2 percent from the free-throw line last year.
Throw in Nino Williams, Wesley Iwundu, Nigel Johnson and D.J. Johnson, and the Wildcats have a nine-man rotation that can do some damage.
Big East Dark Horse: Seton Hall Pirates
Seton Hall has become synonymous with "mediocre" over the past couple decades.
The Pirates have at least 10 wins and at least 10 losses in 21 consecutive years. In just four of those seasons did they have a winning percentage better than .600 or worse than .400.
It certainly doesn't seem to matter who's coaching, either. Louis Orr won 53.7 percent of his games with Seton Hall from 2001-06. Bobby Gonzalez won 52.8 percent of games in the four years after replacing Orr. Kevin Willard is dead even at 66-66 over the past four seasons.
Picking the Pirates to rise up and win the Big East wouldn't be quite as shocking as it was to see the Pittsburgh Pirates make the playoffs last year after 20 consecutive seasons below .500, but it's certainly close—particularly considering how much Seton Hall lost this summer.
Four players averaged better than 10.0 PPG last season, but three of those players graduated.
Yet, there's a reasonable expectation for improvement.
According to Willard, Brandon Mobley has gained 20 pounds this summer and should now have the strength to be an anchor in the paint alongside incoming freshman Angel Delgado. Jaren Sina was the team's top recruit last season and should be ready for an increased role in the backcourt alongside Sterling Gibbs (13.2 PPG and 4.2 APG last season).
There's also the matter of Isaiah Whitehead, who will likely be one of the best freshmen in the entire country.
Whitehead alone is causing a lot of people to be optimistic about the Pirates this season, but he isn't alone on this roster.
Villanova is certainly the favorite to win the Big East, but don't be shocked when Seton Hall rivals Georgetown and St. John's for second place in the conference.
Big Ten Dark Horse: Minnesota Golden Gophers
Picking a dark horse in the Big Ten was nearly impossible.
First off, Wisconsin is so far and away the favorite to win this conference that it's not even funny. And the biggest challengers to the Badgers (Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State) can't even remotely be considered dark horses with all the success they've had in recent years.
Nebraska could maybe qualify as a dark horse, but so many people are picking the Cornhuskers to finish in the top three this year that I'm not sure they'd surprise anyone by flirting with a Big Ten title.
Take out the really deep sleepers (Indiana, Illinois and Maryland), and we're left with the Golden Gophers as the best bet among the unlikely candidates.
Richard Pitino's squad really couldn't seem to decide whether it was good or bad last year. Minnesota won home games against Ohio State and Wisconsin and nearly scored victories over Michigan and Michigan State. Minnesota also lost at home to Northwestern and Illinois and was hardly immune to getting blown out on the road.
The Golden Gophers won the NIT, but that only means they were the best underachieving team in the country.
That roster loses some key pieces in Austin Hollins and Malik Smith, but it hangs onto a lot of important ones (Deandre Mathieu, Andre Hollins, Joey King, Elliott Eliason and Maurice Walker) while adding a good number of players (Josh Martin, Carlos Morris and Nate Mason) who should contribute immediately.
Unlike Michigan or Wisconsin, this is a team that might be great without a single viable candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year.
Minnesota is the quintessential "greater than the sum of its parts" team, made up almost entirely of 3-star players. Andre Hollins is the only player on the roster who earned more than three stars as a recruit, and the 4-star point guard was substantially closer to three stars than he was to five.
Expect him to lead the team in scoring once again this season as the Golden Gophers look to earn better than a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time in the 21st century.
Pac-12 Dark Horse: Colorado Buffaloes
A lot of people will have Utah listed as a dark horse to win the Pac-12, and that may have been the case five months ago. But no team in the country has gained as much offseason respect as the Utes. Several people (myself included) have even suggested that Delon Wright could be the best player in the entire country.
As such, the Colorado Buffaloes seem like the best candidate for the dark horse of the Pac-12.
Keeping them off the national radar is Spencer Dinwiddie’s decision to leave a year early for the NBA. Before tearing his ACL and missing the latter half of last season, Dinwiddie led the team in scoring at 14.7 PPG and assists with 3.8 APG.
With the way the Buffs struggled without him in the lineup over the final two months of the season, many are writing them off as a team that should make the tournament but probably won’t legitimately contend for the Pac-12 title.
That is a mistake.
The Buffaloes don’t gain much via recruits or transfers, but they still have Askia Booker (13.7 PPG, 3.3 APG), Josh Scott (14.1 PPG, 8.4 RPG), Xavier Johnson (12.0 PPG, 5.9 RPG), Wesley Gordon (5.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG) and Xavier Talton (4.9 PPG). Aside from a couple of seniors who almost never played, they bring back the entire roster that had to learn how to adjust to life without Dinwiddie.
There was certainly a learning curve—they went 9-9 and were blown out five times by Arizona and UCLA—but what can you expect from a team suddenly playing without its heart and soul?
Now that they’ve also had an entire offseason to work together, they’ll be ready to compete with the best teams the conference has to offer.
SEC Dark Horse: Ole Miss Rebels
If the 2014-15 season was played out 100 times, Kentucky would win the SEC 85 times, Florida would win 14 and "Other" would shock the world just once. Picking anyone other than one of those two blue bloods to win this conference would border on insanity.
But on the 1-in-100 chance that someone else wins the SEC, why not Ole Miss?
If Mike Anderson ever figures out how to win games on the road with any degree of consistency, you could make a pretty compelling case for Arkansas. Likewise for Auburn if Bruce Pearl's rebuilding process is expedited by the arrivals of Cinmeon Bowers, K.C. Ross-Miller and Antoine Mason.
However, it sure does feel like Ole Miss could be headed for a big season after landing even more key transfers than Auburn.
Marshall Henderson is gone. So are Demarco Cox and Derrick Millinghaus. But in their place, Andy Kennedy adds a quartet of impact players.
Ole Miss picks up two great JUCO shooting guards in Rod Lawrence and Stefan Moody. From the D-I ranks, the Rebels are getting two strong players from the Volunteer State. Terence Smith (14.6 PPG, 43.8 3P%) comes via Tennessee-Martin while M.J. Rhett (10.9 PPG, 9.1 RPG) will be taking his talents from Tennessee State to Mississippi.
The skill is undoubtedly there, but will there be enough team chemistry?
The Rebels return a number of key players—most notable among them Jarvis Summers—but adding four players who have already spent multiple years at other colleges could be more than a little tricky.
If they can pull it off and make the 2015 NCAA tournament, it should certainly add a few years to Kennedy's tenure at Ole Miss.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.