In college basketball, there are no guarantees.
Win streaks are broken. #16 seeds can take down #1 seeds (it will happen again), and a single five-star recruit can change the entire trajectory of a program.
This year's group of preseason favorites should be extra wary of any hype and fanfare, as lurking right behind them are a host of rivals starving for a chance to take down everyone's conference-winning pick. After a topsy-turvy pandemic-impacted season, along with another round of the transfer portal carousel, who knows what to expect this year?
Below are six darkhorses that have what it takes to flip the script and hang a conference championship banner at the end of the regular season.
*All statistics courtesy of Sports Reference CBB
It was not a great 2020-21 season for Auburn and Bruce Pearl, as the team went 13-14 in the SEC. Still, fans shouldn't be too concerned. After a 2019 Final Four run and a promising 2020 season (the Tigers were 25-6 before March Madness was cancelled that year), a rebuild was inevitable.
After one busy offseason, it's safe to say Auburn has rebuilt. Five-star recruit Jabari Smith Jr. and North Carolina sophomore transfer Walker Kessler give Pearl two young big men to mold his team around, as both possess the ability to bang bodies down low or shoot from outside the paint. They'll be joined by a returning roster that contains some firepower, including talented junior guard Allen Flanigan, who was injured for a good portion of last season. The major question for Auburn: will they have enough three-point shooting to hang with the sharpshooters at Kentucky and Alabama? Stay tuned.
Big East: St. Johns
After a crucial win against #3 Villanova last season, St. Johns looked poised to make a return to the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately for the Red Storm, the team took a nosedive to end the year, going 3-5 against Big East rivals. To make matters worse, they'll welcome back just three returning players from last year's squad.
If the previous paragraph cast some doubt over St. John's chances of competing for the Big East this season, fear not. Of the three returnees, one is star forward Julian Champagnie, who averaged 19.8 PPG, 7.4 REB, and 38
Out west, USC also has some work to do fresh off an Elite Eight appearance. The departures of big man Evan Mobley, the #3 overall selection in the NBA Draft, and guard Tahj Eaddy leave USC without its two best scorers from a season ago, as well as a defensive anchor in the seven-foot Mobley.
Still, the next six highest scorers for Andy Enfield's crew will be back in 2021. Of all the returnees, Isaiah Mobley, Evan's brother, has the best chance at a breakout season, combining potentially potent offensive ability with a lanky shot-blocking frame. Other members of the supporting cast, such as Drew Peterson, Isaiah White, and Ethan Anderson, could all thrive with bigger roles in the Trojans offense. UCLA and Oregon deserve to be considered preseason favorites, but don't be surprised if USC's depth keeps them firmly in contention for the Pac-12 crown.
Big 12: West Virginia
Admittedly, taking down the defending champion Baylor Bears or the reloaded Kansas Jayhawks is a tall order for any other Big 12 member school. If anyone is up to the task, why not West Virginia? Bob Huggins always has his Press Virginia teams ready to play for big games, evidenced by the team's win over Kansas last February and a grueling OT loss versus Baylor in March.
The loss of leading scorers Miles McBride and Derek Culver has many prognosticators understandably pessimistic about WVU's chances to win their conference. What may be overlooked is the addition of Malik Curry at point guard; the Old Dominion transfer averaged just over 16 points a game. Sharpshooter Sean McNeill, who shot .388 on three-pointers while averaging 12.2 PPG, and sixth-man extraordinaire Taz Sherman headline the returnees for the Mountaineers. With a strong offensive trio, a difficult defensive scheme for opponents, and a veteran coach, West Virginia has what it takes to snag a Big 12 championship from Kansas and Baylor.
Big 10: Maryland
Overall, the 2020-21 season was a solid one for Maryland, who made the NCAA Tournament and took down UConn in the Round of 64 before falling to Alabama. Leading scorer Eric Ayala is back, along with several other important pieces from last year's group, such as sharpshooter Donta Scott and Hakim Hart.
While making up the production of Aaron Wiggins and Darryl Morsell is a challenge for head coach Mark Turgeon, those brought to College Park this offseason could be an improvement. Georgetown transfer Qudus Wahab and four-star prospect Julian Reese give the Terps an interior presence they were sorely missing last season, while Providence transfer Fatts Russell combines with Ayala to form what should be one of the highest-scoring guard duos in the nation. With a deep roster that can attack defenses from just about anywhere on the court, the rest of the Big 10 should look out for a Maryland team on the rise.
ACC: Virginia Tech
It would be a cop-out to go with Duke and North Carolina after subpar seasons; expect both Tobacco Road rivals to get back to their perennially winning ways in 2021. The real ACC darkhorse resides up north in Blacksburg, where Virginia Tech welcomes back four starters from an NCAA Tournament team. Each player averaged at least 8.5 points per game while forming the backbone of a defense that gave up an average of just 66 points per game during the regular season.
To bolster the offense at guard, head coach Mike Young now turns to graduate transfer Storm Murphy, who hit on a blistering .417