– The Athletic’s Eamonn Brennan, Seth Davis, Brian Hamilton, Brendan Marks and Justin Williams contributed to this story.
With men’s college basketball seven weeks into the NCAA tournament, the athlete takes stock of the 2022/23 season and forecasts what is to come. Against this background, a panel of five experts will discuss various topics throughout the week. Next comes the most important question of the season – and one with many possible answers.
Who is your pick to win the national championship?
Eamon Brennan: I really have no idea. That is a good thing. We went into the last two tournaments with very clear ideas about who were the top one or two teams in the country. Gonzaga was usually involved. This year is much more opaque at the moment; There are eight or nine (or maybe even a little more?) high quality teams, all with mistakes that could all win the thing, and choosing between them feels like just throwing darts at the board.
Houston has been the most obvious flag-bearer for some time, but the home loss to Temple Sunday hinted at concerns there – that Houston’s offense can just get lost every now and then. (Getting tons of offensive rebounds is great, but if nobody ever shoots, all those extra possessions only go so far.) The same problem (with arguably greater extremity) keeps us from going all-in in Tennessee. After losing in Arizona, I’m going a little crazy and picking UCLA, where they boast key players with extensive tournament experience, a great veteran point guard, a splash of top freshman and an elite team defense. But again: darts on the board.
Which men’s college basketball coach will be fired or retired next?
Seth Davis: I have Purdue as my #1 team so they are my pick for now. Sometimes we get too caught up in convention and history, and in Purdue’s case, those two things make me feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick that field goal while Lucy saves. (Or Brett Maher is trying to kick a PAT. Too early?) One of those conventions is that you have to have great defensive play to win a national championship. Well guess what – Purdue has that. And I’m not just talking about those fearless newcomers Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer. I’m talking about the Big Maple himself. He’s not a playmaking point guard, but Zach Edey is an expert at spotting doubles and folding. You just can’t guard this man one-on-one, but he can read the defense so well that he almost always hits the right pass. And of course he has it easier because he always overtakes smaller defenders.
As a team, Purdue is only 32.6 percent from 3, and while that seems very low, Smith is a 44.6 percent 3-point shooter and three other Boilermakers are 35 percent or higher. You don’t have to be great in this part of the game. They just have to be good enough at what they clearly are.
The other factor in my prediction is Purdue’s defense. Yes, everyone wants to force Edey to defend ball screens, but the Boilermakers are 16th in the county for adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom, so they must be doing something right. That ranking has increased throughout the season, and combined with their #4 ranking in Offense Efficiency, we clearly have a championship-caliber team.
How freshman No. 196 became a Final Four contender’s floor general
Brian Hamilton: I picked Houston before the start of the season and am staying with the Cougars at this moment. The Temple loss was… suspicious. I just can’t get over the idea that the entire operation relies on defending and rebounding misses at the other end… and now Houston’s offense is efficient enough if it’s just about less variability. It doesn’t take a second chance just to survive. It’s a top 15 attack that also rebounds more than 40 percent of its misses. I should probably know myself well enough to know that my predictive skills suck, and that’s why the Houston election is doomed, so I should just pick UCLA here. Which I almost did. But I don’t know folks. Maybe Lucy won’t retire from football this time.
Justin Williams: After a season in which Alabama’s soccer fans were apoplectic after two losses, no playoffs and a second straight title in Georgia, I love the irony of Nate Oats and the Crimson Tide winning the program’s first men’s basketball championship. Bama has a horde of exciting newcomers led by Brandon Miller, a veteran fifth-grader in Jahvon Quinerly, and an electrifying transfer point guard in Mark Sears. The Tide prevailed without conference, beating Houston, Michigan State, North Carolina and Memphis with their only two losses to UConn and Gonzaga. They are currently undefeated in the SEC game, although they still have two Auburn and Tennessee on the road. This team will be more than battle-hardened next March, but with enough easier matchups in conference play (thanks, South Carolina) to avoid running out of gas.
Brendan brands: I seem to be the wrong person to ask; I took North Carolina preseason, which…aged like unrefrigerated milk. Technically it’s still possible, but I’ll mulligan and reselect. Purdue is still probably the best team I’ve seen live this season – beating Alabama, pre-collapse UConn, Xavier, Texas and Virginia – but I just can’t bring myself to trust a backseat of freshmen, who won six games in March , even alongside someone as uniquely one of a kind as Edey.
So give me well… Arizona? The Wildcats win their biggest competitor in the Pac-12, UCLA – which also deserves attention here – and have one of the best resumes in the country. Azuolas Tubelis is playing like an All-American, Oumar Ballo and Kerr Kriisa are ideal backup players, and as a recent line-up change proves, Tommy Lloyd is still figuring out how to get the best out of his team. Am I concerned about Arizona’s defense and the fact that despite their size, they’re not a great defensive rebounding or turnover-pushing team? Absolutely I am. But I also think you could probably pick 15 different answers to this question, and Zona is a valid one.
(Photo by Arizona’s Pelle Larrson and UCLA’s Tyger Campbell: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)