The fact that four different schools got first-place votes in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll, compared to just two last year, is the latest indication that we should be in for a fun and unpredictable season of college basketball.
According to Caesars Sportsbook, North Carolina and Kentucky are the co-favorites to win the 2023 NCAA Tournament at +900. Then it’s Gonzaga and Houston at +1000, UCLA at +1200, Arkansas at +1500, Baylor at +1600, and Duke at +1800.
Any of those schools — or several others like Arizona, Creighton, Tennessee or Kansas — could reasonably win it all this season, which is reflected in our staff’s picks to make the 2023 Final Four and cut nets on the first Monday night in April. Broadly speaking, we agree on which teams will likely operate at the top of the sport, but our picks to finish there are a bit of a mixed bag — and I dig it.
Variety is fun.
So this season should be a blast — thanks in part to all of the established stars who returned to school and provided the sport with familiar faces. Below, you’ll find our staff’s picks to make the Final Four and win the national title. Starting Monday, we’ll spend the next five months watching games and traveling down a path to see who’s ultimately proven right and wrong.
2023 Final Four predictions
Gonzaga Bulldogs: Yes, once again, I’m picking Gonzaga to win the national championship. I’ve now done it three years in a row. So I understand if you’re rolling your eyes considering the Zags are still looking for their first title. But it’s important to remember that Mark Few’s program has undeniably been good enough to do it, and in some cases very close to doing it, in each of the past six seasons. The Zags have played in two of the past five championship games, finished No. 1 at KenPom.com in three of the past six seasons, in the top two in five of the past six seasons, and in the top 10 in each of the past six seasons. That’s consistent excellence — and now Few has another roster that is good enough on paper to once again compete for that elusive championship. Are there questions in the backcourt? Sure. Was that exhibition loss to Tennessee concerning? A little, I guess. But I ultimately believe Gonzaga will prove to be one of the very best teams in the country just like always, and, this time, I’m going to assume the Zags will finish the job by winning six games in the NCAA Tournament and holding the trophy everyone is trying to get. — Gary Parrish (also picked by Jerry Palm)
Kentucky Wildcats: Having Oscar Tshiebwe back is going to be paramount to getting this done. I’m trusting that his recent knee scope was simple and won’t impact his NPOY candidacy. With Tshiebwe in the middle, Jacob Toppin set up for a breakout senior season and Sahvir Wheeler likely growing into being one of the steadiest point guards in the country, that’s a strong 1-2-3. Add in CJ Frederick’s 3-point shooting, Daimion Collins’ athleticism, Antonio Reeves’ scoring. We’re cooking with gas now. And that’s before getting to future NBA picks in freshmen clothing: Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston. This roster doesn’t look top-five in terms of overall talent at UK since John Calipari got there, but I like the pieces and their potential to fit. Elite defensive outfit that will have enough ways to shoot and score to play with, and defeat, any team. And after losing to Saint Peter’s, the motivation quotient is overwhelming. — Matt Norlander (also picked by Kyle Boone)
UCLA Bruins: UCLA has improved each season under fourth-year coach Mick Cronin, and all signs point to another step forward following last season’s 27-8 campaign that ended in the Sweet 16. It starts with point guard Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr. Campbell is back for his fourth season as the starting point guard, and Jaquez is also a senior and preseason All-American who brings excellent versatility. Veteran leadership? Check. Then, there are five-star freshmen Amari Bailey and Adem Bona along with top-50 prospect Dylan Andrews. Infusion of elite young talent? Check. With Jaylen Clark poised for a breakout junior season and plenty of good depth pieces surrounding the core, this roster is built to withstand whatever challenges the season brings. Cronin is 7-2 in the NCAA Tournament in two seasons at UCLA and poised for his deepest run yet. — David Cobb
Predicted Final Four
Houston Cougars: Doubt the Cougars at your own peril. That’s the takeaway from the last five years, during which Kelvin Sampson has turned the Cougars into one of the nation’s most consistent programs. Although some staples of last season’s Elite Eight run are gone, the Cougars have AAC Preseason Player of the Year Marcus Sasser locked and loaded for a big year and welcome the program’s highest-rated freshman of the 247Sports era in Jarace Walker. Between those two and veterans like Tramon Mark and Jamal Shead, this core is strong. Sampson has more than enough on this roster to mold the program’s second Final Four team of the past three seasons. — Cobb (also selected by Parrish, Boone and Palm)
North Carolina Tar Heels: UNC is returning four starters from a team that played in the title game of the 2022 NCAA Tournament, among them All-American candidates Armando Bacot and Caleb Love, and thus should be on everyone’s short list of legit title contenders. They’re talented and experienced. That’s a great combination and why I don’t think Hubert Davis will endure the ups and downs that he encountered last season before everything finally clicked in late February. This team should be great from the jump. So as long as UNC stays healthy, and as long as Northwestern transfer Pete Nance adequately fills the role vacated by Brady Manek, the Tar Heels will be in a position to make the Final Four in Davis’ second year just like they did in his first . — Parrish
Baylor Bears: I think Scott Drew knows he has a team with a ceiling close to his 2021 national championship squad. We could see Baylor boast the best backcourt in the sport: Adam Flagler, LJ Cryer and Keyonte George. I think this team will win the Big 12 and recover beautifully from losing Jeremy Sochan, James Akinjo, Matthew Mayer and Kendall Brown. After not getting to play last season, Langston Love’s a secret waiting to be discovered. If Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua can come back from his knee injury by conference play — and be a factor — Baylor will have a chance to be the best defensive team nationally. Drew has validated his status as one of the game’s best coaches; that reputation will be reinforced by late March. — Norlander (also selected by Cobb)
Creighton Bluejays: I’ve been aggressively above the market on Creighton this preseason for myriad reasons. Chief among them: it returns five of its top seven scorers from a Bluejays team that last season won 23 games, including 10 of its last 14 games and pushed Kansas – the eventual national champion – to the brink in the second round. Getting most of its core group back should push them to a new level. But with South Dakota State transfer Baylor Scheierman joining that bunch I think this team can really soar to new heights as the class of the Big East and one of the best teams in the sport. — Boone
Texas Longhorns: No one wants to totally go there – to rank Texas ahead of Kansas and in the same tier as Baylor – but that’s one of the preseason takes I actually believe in. Chris Beard’s debut season at Texas in which UT finished 22-12 threw everyone off the scent of just how good Beard really is and just how high a ceiling this Longhorns team has. I’m not selling my stock though. He brings back Timmy Allen and Marcus Carr, adds two five-star freshmen and he scooped an elite talent – Tyrese Hunter – from Iowa State out of the transfer portal. If this team can mesh and buy in like most of Beard’s teams do then its ceiling, as Michael Jordan might say, is the roof. — Boone
Kansas Jayhawks: KU lost a lot from last season’s national championship team, but the Jayhawks do return Dajuan Harris and Jalen Wilson and welcome the fourth ranked recruiting class according to 247Sports. That means there may be some growing pains, especially with coach Bill Self suspended for the first four games, but history tells us that when tournament time rolls around, Kansas will be a threat to make a deep run. — Palm