With a new NCAA basketball season on the horizon, several teams have been installed as the preseason favorites to reach the Final Four next March. Kentucky leads the way at 4-1 thanks to the presence of draft lottery locks Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein, while Duke (7-1) and Kansas (8-1) are next in line.
Here's a look at three teams that come into the season as darkhorses for the NCAA championship (odds courtesy LVH):
Oklahoma State Cowboys (40-1)
Led by standout point guard Marcus Smart, the Cowboys could potentially boast one of the deepest and most dangerous lineups in the Big 12. Smart was sensational as a freshman with Oklahoma State, averaging 15.4 points to go along with 4.2 assists and three steals. He, along with guard Markel Brown and swingman Le'Bryan Nash, make up one of the top backcourt units in the nation. Shooting was an issue for Oklahoma State last season, but if Smart and others can improve on last year's totals, the Cowboys could make a run at the Final Four.
VCU Rams (40-1)
Virginia Commonwealth is in good shape heading into the season despite being without standout seniors Darius Theus and Troy Daniels. The Rams' decision to implement a press-at-all-times defence (appropriately named "HAVOC") has met its share of detractors - and moments of defensive collapse - but with a team full of young, athletic players at all positions, VCU is in its best shape ever to force turnovers by the boatload. If the Rams can figure out how to adjust HAVOC to suit all adversaries - particularly those with speedy guards - it could be a long season for opposing teams.
Iowa Hawkeyes (100-1)
The Hawkeyes find themselves in a loaded Big Ten, matched up against powerhouses Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan. But Iowa may find itself right in the mix thanks to a nationally renowned defense. The Hawkeyes played seven games against ranked opponents a season ago and lost five of them by single digits - a key run here or there, and Iowa may have found itself marching to a Final Four appearance rather than settling for a loss to Baylor in the NIT title game. With a softer schedule and a year of seasoning for the team's core players, things should be different this year.