College Basketball tips off in November, however, it does not typically garner the attention of the casual fan until the culmination of Football season. If you are said casual fan looking to once again fully immerse yourself for the next month, you are in luck, I am here to catch you up. In the following paragraphs we will go over the big dogs that have are the favorites to make it to Houston, the disappointments that you may have expected to see upon bringing your attention back to the hardwood, the sleepers who could make deep runs, and the bracket busters you will want to be aware of come selection Sunday.
Let's start at the top. This season has lacked a true dominant team that sits atop the rankings wire to wire. There have only been 4 teams this year to claim the top spot in the AP poll (including preseason #1 UNC, more on them later) but the other 9 teams behind the #1 spot have seen constant movement over the past 15 weeks. The closest thing to a dominant team this season has been Houston, a fixture in the top 3 all season with only two losses, one of which came at the hands of current number 1 Alabama. The Cougars are the current odds on favorite to take home the crown sitting at around +600, as the should be. Kelvin Sampson's squad has everything you could want in a Final Four contender. A veteran backcourt in Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead with NCAA tournament experience, a Final Four and Elite Eight the past two seasons (Sasser missed last years tournament). A 5 star freshman potential lottery pick on the wing in Jarace Walker, and veteran roll players in both the front and back court who can all defend rebound and score when called upon. The thing keeping Houston from being respected as a true top dog is the fact that they play in the American conference and likely will have to wait until a potential regional semifinal to face another top 15 team.
The other two non preseason AP Poll top ranked teams this season, who have hung around the top 5 ever since the completion of the non conference MTE's (Multi team events, it's a term used by people in the industry, trust me I know ball), have been the Purdue Boilermakers and the current number one at the time of this posting (although I bet, both literally and figuratively, they will have lost at Tennessee by the time you read this) Alabama Crimson Tide.
The Boilermakers are constructed around POY favorite and literal mountain of a man Zach Edey. The man in the middle for Purdue has averaged over 22 points and 13 rebounds per game this season, his heliocentric nature as the focal point of the offense has allowed Matt Painter to surround him with shooters and high IQ role players who would be considered limited on most contenders but fit perfectly in West Lafayette around Edey. The major flaws for Painter's squad are the fact that they lack a true number two option who can take over stretches if Edey were to get into foul trouble (Edey averages less than 2 fouls per game but you never know what can happen come March), and the fact that you can speed them up. Purdue has looked uncomfortable against the press this season, no matter what the metrics say, and that is despite not playing any teams that use a press as part of a game plan rather than just out of necessity. Purdue is also in the 300s in pace, further proving they wanna play a slower Edey-centric game where they dictate tempo. If you can put some pressure on their young backcourt and get Edey running up and down chances of getting him in foul trouble, and thus exposing their other weakness, increase as do your chances to knock them off.
The latter half of those two teams to sit at number one in the AP outside of Houston is the Crimson Tide of Alabama. Nate Oats' squad has the most talented freshman in the country in sure fire lottery pick Brandon Miller. With an almost young Paul George like game, Miller makes his hay from the perimeter shooting a cool 43% from the land of good and plenty despite his 6'9' frame. Despite being Bama's most talented player, Miller is not the focal point of their offense, that honor would belong to their guards, veterans Mark Sears and Jahvon Quinerly and their freshman running mates Jaden Bradley and Rylan Griffen. This quartet uses their speed to get down hill and streaky shooting to take over games and blow out teams with an avalanche like pace. However, as we have seen at times this season, and specifically from Quinerly in the past, their high variance style of play and cold streaks could doom the Tide come tourney time. That is where Oats' team could come apart at the seems and fall short of their potential. Their high variance style of play relies on those 4 guards, none of which shoot 40% or higher from 3 despite a combined 13 attempts a game, to make shots. The rotation is also made up of nearly all freshman outside of first year MAC transfer Sears and Quinerly, who's aforementioned style of play is not conducive to being a veteran presence. These two factors make Bama a team who could very realistically miss out on a Regional Final despite their strong play all season.
We've hit on 3 of the 4 teams that have held down the number one spot so far this season, which may leave you wondering what about North Carolina, well the pre-season number one Tar Heels are a perfect segway into the discussion of disappointing teams. Hubert Davis' bunch received the poll position prior to the season's tip off largely based upon them returning four of five starters from last years national title runner ups. The issue that everyone neglected at the time, was that the national champion runner ups came into that tournament as an under performing eight seed and their talented, but flawed, roster was able to pull themselves together for 2.5 weekends in order to make said improbable run. The Heels team that showed up back on campus for this 22'-23' season was far more similar to the one from last years regular season except this time they were attempting to substitute the Brady Mannek in the recipe for Pete Nance, while also throwing in two fistfuls of entitlement (one for the four returning starters and an extra one for Caleb Love's shot selection). The team has taken a steep fall since that initial ranking, first from the one spot to out of the top 15, all the way down to where they are now, on the bubble in real danger of missing the big dance.
In almost poetic fashion, the team that they find accompanying them there is Kentucky. Pre season number 4 in the polls, the Wildcats had the first returning Wooden Award winner since Psycho T came back to win a National Championship in 2009, in Oscar Tshiebwe. They also brought back point guard Sahvir Wheeler and added five stars Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston as well as a few highly coveted transfers. The issue for Cal's guys? The team does not fit at all. They are built around a big man who cannot shoot or pass (0 true 3 point attempts this season and less than one assist per game), yet they brought back a point guard who shoots sub 30% from behind the line and needs space to attack. Neither of their five star freshman shoot the ball particularly well, and once again thrive on space. The only shooting they did add, Reeves and Frederick out of the portal, do not defend or create off the dribble nearly well enough to garner major minutes on a Calipari coached team. These two teams seem destined for a colossal matchup in Dayton, Ohio for the right to an 11 seed the second Tuesday in March. Inevitably, the winner of that game will probably find their way to a regional final on the backs of some hot shooting and a nice draw.
That is the roundup on the powerhouses both current and former. I would now like to turn your attention to a few potential dark horse contenders who could find their way to Houston come April 1st. The first team that falls into this category is the Creighton Blue Jays. They returned the core group from a team that pushed eventual National Champion Kansas to the brink in the second round last year and added 2022 Summit League Player of the Year Baylor Scheierman to it. The Jays started the year with a second place finish in Maui but injuries and poor shooting led to them dropping six straight games heading into conference play. The Jays have gotten healthy of late and have returned to their November form, winning 8 of 9 with their only loss coming in overtime at the arena formerly known as the Dunk. The Jays have arguably the best lead guard in the country in sophomore Ryan Nembhard, the aforementioned sharpshooter Scheierman, and a dominant post presence in Ryan Kalkbrenner. These 3 stars along with the rest of McDermott's crew have the chops to make a run to Houston despite not being in line to receive a top 3 seed.
A team with a similar tale to Creighton is the team that the Jays ousted from the dance in the first round last year, the San Diego State Aztecs. The Aztecs sit just one spot away from the Jays in Ken Pom, and also saw some success in Maui prior to the start of the conference season. The Aztecs are largely built around returning star guard Matt Bradley, but what makes this team different than Brian Dutcher's past squads is the depth of scoring they have both in the starting lineup and off the bench. The likes of transfers Darrion Trammell (Seattle), Micah Parrish (Oakland), and Jaedon Ledee (TCU/OSU), have brought a punch to their lineup that complements their signature lock down defense perfectly. Dutcher's group has the requisite depth, defense, and star power necessary to be considered a dark horse to win a region come March.
The last dark horse is a name that is far more familiar to casual fans than the likes of the Blue Jays and Aztecs. The Indiana Hoosiers will probably end up on the 3 or 4 line depending on how they finish out the Big Ten season, however, one thing they have that no other team in the country does is the best player in America. Trayce Jackson Davis may not have the size of rival Zach Edey, but what he lacks in height he makes up for in athleticism and skill level. The Hoosiers big man uses his speed and ability to put the ball on the floor to his advantage to the tune of 20 points 11 boards and 4 assists a night despite a limited supporting cast. He was able to put up 25 and 7 along with 5 blocks in Assembly Hall when Edey and the Boilermakers came to town, and did not stop there as he followed it up with 20 &18 and 28 &11 as a part of their 3 game win streak. TJD is the linchpin to this offense and team as a whole, but the X factor that will determine how far this Hoosiers bunch makes it in the NCAA tournament will be freshman guard Jalen Hood Schifino. JHS has put up a solid 13, 4, and 4 so far this season but has shown potential for much more in 20+ point efforts against the likes of Ohio State, Iowa, Northwestern, and Michigan in addition to his clutch 16 point performance in the win against number 1 Purdue. If Hood Schifino can parlay a few of these high level scoring games together in order to compliment TJD and allow their role players to fall into place Mike Woodson may be looking at a potential final four team in Bloomington.
The last thing to quickly catch up on prior to entering the world of college hoops ready for March is which teams could potentially bust your brackets in the first weekend. Liberty, Kent State, Drake and Oral Roberts (they're better than the 2021 team) all look like potential 12/13 seeds with the stars necessary (Darius McGhee, Sin Carry, Tucker DeVries and Max Abmas respectfully) to carry them past the first weekend and into the hearts of America. Teams like Furman, Bradley, Akron and FAU boast more balanced attacks, yet still should not be trifled with if they can get into the dance. All these teams should be heavily considered when it comes time for you to enter that office bracket pool if you're angling to take home the top prize.
There you have it, we have gone over the favorite (Houston), the contenders (Alabama and Purdue), the disappointments (UNC and Kentucky), the dark horses (Creighton, San Diego State, and Indiana), and the potential Cinderella's (Liberty, Kent State, Drake and Oral Roberts amongst others). Now you are ready to jump into the college basketball season full throttle and hang on for the ride until a champion is crowned April 3rd.