The Horned Frogs aren’t just dominating on the gridiron this season. While the football program clinched a spot in the College Football Playoff, TCU’s basketball team is building upon a strong NCAA tournament showing a year ago. Much of the same roster which took last year’s West Region No. 1 seed Arizona Wildcats to the brink remains the same. In fact, the top six scorers from last year returned to try and capture a Big 12 crown.
That includes leading scorer Mike Miles Jr. who has improved as a decision maker and scorer. Additionally, Florida transfer Damion Baugh has been a coup for Jamie Dixon’s club. The 2023 Horned Frogs have yet to be defeated when Baugh suits up to play.
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Following back-to-back disappointing tournament performances, Illinois underwent some massive roster changes this past offseason. With last year’s top five scorers all gone (including Kofi Cockburn, Alfonso Plummer, and Andre Curbelo), the Fighting Illini were tasked with replacing a fair amount of firepower. Filling in for those departing pieces are a trio of transfers including former Texas Tech wing Terrence Shannon Jr. and a pair of Baylor transfer in Matthew Mayer and Dain Dainja.
Adding experienced veterans has already paid off for the Fighting Illini, who picked up an early-season win over a title favorite in the UCLA Bruins. Shannon Jr. showcased his talent in that game while registering 29 points and 10 rebounds in the win.
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No matter what’s going on in East Lansing, it’s never a good idea to count Tom Izzo out. The longtime Sparty coach is 23 years removed from his last National Championship, but always seems to find his way into the mix with eight Final Four appearances in his career. This might not be his most talented group, but it’s led by a ton of upperclassmen who have been able to successfully navigate through a treacherous start to the schedule.
The most promising outcome of the early season has been the development of three veteran Spartans — Joey Hauser, Tyson Walker and AJ Hoggard. All of whom are having their best seasons with Michigan State to date. Hauser is the team’s leading scorer and an absolute marksman from beyond the arc. A career 40-percent shooter, Hauser is knocking down triples at a scorching-hot 46-percent clip in ’23.
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Last year, the Hurricanes took everybody by surprise making it all the way to the Elite Eight. While they were easily dispatched by the eventual champion Kansas Jayhawks, the season was the most successful in the program’s history and something to build upon moving forward. Jim Larranaga is in his 12th year with the team and is equipped with one of his most complete rosters to date.
After flirting with a jump to the NBA, last year’s tournament star Isaiah Wong returned for his senior season. The decision is already paying off as Wong already looks to be a vastly improved outside shooter and playmaker. Miami has already taken down the ACC’s top team — the Virginia Cavaliers — which could figure massively down the stretch for tiebreakers as the two teams do not face each other again this season.
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In their first NCAA tournament appearance under coach Anfernee Hardaway, the Memphis Tigers gave the No. 1 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs all they could handle. While Memphis ultimately came up short 82-78, it showed that the Tigers were ready to compete with higher-caliber teams across the nation. That’s proven true early, as Memphis already notched a win against a ranked Auburn team and came up just three points short of toppling a top-10 team (Alabama) just three days later.
Hardaway has had no trouble herding talent to Memphis since taking over, but this team is not a group of one-and-done’s. In fact, the top nine scorers on this team are seniors. Freshman Jonathan Lawson is the only non-senior to score a point for the Tigers this season.
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In what could end up being a down year for the Big East as a whole, the Golden Eagles of Marquette are quietly emerging as the top threat to defeat UConn. In just two years with the program, Shaka Smart has transformed this team into a supercharged version of what he coached at VCU. As you may remember, Smart famously guided VCU to its only Final Four appearance in school history in 2011.
Sophomore wing Kameron Jones is the team’s leading scorer and is blossoming into a star. This team is built around forcing turnovers (top-30 in steals) and converting those opportunities into easy baskets (top-10 in both assists per game and two-point field goal percentage).
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After breaking a five-year NCAA Tournament drought a season ago, the Hoosiers are looking to make it two in a row in ’23. Mike Woodson’s team certainly has the pieces to complete in a wide-open Big Ten. Indiana started off hot with seven wins to begin the year — including a convincing victory over last year’s title runner-up North Carolina.
Preseason All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis is surrounded by the best roster of Woodson’s tenure. Indiana’s entire rotation is capable of scoring, while also being of some use on the defensive end. The team starts four seniors plus freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino. The Montverde guard was a top-20 recruit in the nation and boasts the size (6-foot-6) and athletic tools to develop into a star.
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Several outlets marked the North Carolina Tar Heels as an early favorite to win the 2023 title. It’s easy to see why many came to that conclusion. North Carolina is coming off a memorable run in March which saw them topple Coach K and the Blue Devils (twice) en route to making it to the title game. Though the Tar Heels came up short versus Kansas, they were set to return a majority of their core. That returning group includes their best player (Armando Bacot), starting point guard (RJ Davis) and tournament star (Caleb Love).
The start of the year for the Tar Heels has been rocky, to say the least. We saw Hubert Davis’ club endure a four-game losing streak to Iowa State, Alabama, Indiana, and Virginia Tech. And, the team didn’t look particularly good in the games which preceded the four-game skid. There’s still plenty of time to turn it around (remember, this group went on a run as an 8-seed in the tournament), but they don’t currently have the look of a title-contender just yet.
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The Bears did not enter the year as a prohibitive favorite, but perhaps we underrated this group entering the season. Scott Drew led the Bears to a national title just two seasons ago, and his team has secured a No. 1 seed in each of the past two NCAA Tournaments. Through the early season, Baylor boasts one of the best pair of wins in the country with victories over UCLA and Gonzaga (both on neutral courts).
It’s another veteran group led by names you’ve heard of before (Adam Flagler, LJ Cryer, Flo Thamba). However, the obvious the difference between this team and last year’s club is the addition of freshman Keyonte George. A likely lottery pick in the NBA Draft, George is a talented guard who can score from all three levels.
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The theme for Duke this season is ‘change’. With Mike Krzyzewski finally calling it quits, it’s now up to new head coach Jon Scheyer to lead the program into a new era. Of course, it’s going to be difficult shoes to fill. But, Scheyer has gained invaluable experience both playing and working under Krzyzewski for a number of years. At the very least, the 35-year-old Scheyer could spark new and innovative concepts on both sides of the ball for one of college basketball’s most storied programs.
Perhaps we won’t know the true extent of Duke’s potential until later in the season. The Blue Devils entered the year with a number of question marks as top freshman Dariq Whitehead and Dereck Lively (No. 1 and 2 prospects according to ESPN) got banged up early. As Duke has tried to implement the touted freshmen, the play on both ends has left something to be desired. They remain a favorite in the ACC and will likely only improve as the season goes on.
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Alabama is one of the top teams in a suddenly deep and competitive SEC. Nate Oats is no stranger to fielding intelligent and tough clubs. While at Buffalo, Oats led the Bulls to three NCAA tourney appearances in just four years (Buffalo had reached the tournament just once in its prior 46 seasons). Since taking over at Bama in 2019, Oats has led the Crimson Tide to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearance including an Elite Eight berth two seasons ago.
This year’s Crimson Tide team has a ton of depth. A former top-30 recruit in Jahvon Quinerly is just eighth on the team in minutes. And, Alabama may have the SEC’s best player in freshman Brandon Miller. A 6-foot-9 wing who can shoot the lights out, Miller is going to be a massive problem for SEC teams to deal with all year long.
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Somehow, someway, Tony Bennett manages to field contenders in Charlottesville despite working with a massive talent disparity. The Cavaliers don’t bring in the same caliber of prospects as some of their conference rivals do. However, Bennett is a mastermind strategist and the Cavaliers are adept at uncovering diamonds in the rough.
Following a down year last season, Virginia looks to once again be one of the top teams in the ACC. The roster isn’t terribly different from last season, but it’s a veteran group whose top six scorers are all upperclassmen. That includes heady point guard Kihei Clark — the last remaining member of the 2019 title-winning team.
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Eric Musselman has been a revelation for the Razorbacks. Since being hired in 2019, Musselman has done one of the best jobs in the country in rebuilding a program towards national relevance. The Razorbacks have made back-to-back Elite Eight appearance, and yet the 2023 club might be the most talented bunch Musselman has gathered to date.
Arkansas has an eclectic mix of newcomers and upperclassmen. Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh are top-20 recruits who have made immediate impacts. Ricky Council IV is a bonafide scorer who is among the leaders in PPG in the SEC. However, the team’s fate could ultimately be decided by freshman Nick Smith who was the No. 1 prospect in 2022 according to 247sports. Smith has dealt with a number of injuries through the early season, and keeping him healthy would greatly increase Arkansas’ title odds.
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This isn’t quite the same Gonzaga Bulldogs team we’ve seen in years past. Their guard play has slipped, and they haven’t been quite as fundamentally sound on both ends of the ball. It’s led to some early season struggles through a rigorous start to the schedule. The Bulldogs have already suffered defeats to three ranked clubs in Baylor, Purdue and Texas — and they weren’t particularly competitive against the latter two.
Still, this team boasts arguably the country’s best big man in Drew Timme and a steady outside shooter in Julian Strawther. Coach Mark Few likely expected a bigger jump out of sophomores Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis, but we haven’t seen that come to fruition for either of the former top recruits just yet. Gonzaga will once again run roughshod through the WCC, but its season will ultimately be graded on how it fares in the NCAA tournament.
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Closing out 2022, the best offense in the country belongs to the Arizona Wildcats. And, it may come to a shock for some after Arizona bid adieu to three of its top players from a season ago. Despite losing Benedict Mathurin, Dalen Terry, and Christian Koloko to the NBA, Tommy Lloyd’s team has found a way to be even more efficient than the team which secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament last year.
Big man Oumar Ballo has stepped into a larger role and flourished as a rim protector who converts on 70-percent of his field goal attempts. Additionally, Pelle Larsson — who won Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year last season — was moved into the starting lineup and has provided excellent playmaking and defense. There might not be as much star power as last season, but the Wildcats are a legit threat out West.
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Last year didn’t end well for John Calipari’s team. After making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2019, the Wildcats were unceremoniously ousted in their first game against the No. 15 seed St. Peters Peacocks. Instead of scrapping everything and starting from scratch, Calipari brought back a majority of last year’s team with a few fresh additions.
Starting guard Cason Wallace is the team’s highly-touted freshman, but also look out for wing Chris Livingston earning more minutes as the season goes on. Of course, preseason All-American Oscar Tshiebwe will man the middle and do everything he can to protect the paint and snag every loose ball. Calipari once again used the transfer portal to solidify his group, adding Illinois State sharpshooter Antonio Reeves into the fold.
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There have been moments this season where Purdue looks to be the unquestioned title favorite. The Boilermakers are borderline elite offensively and defensively. Unlike some of the other top teams, Purdue is capable of winning a high-scoring shootout or grinding out a defensive battle. That’s the type of versatility a championship team needs to succeed deep into March.
Much of Purdue’s success can be attributed to the brilliance of Zach Edey. Looking to be an early favorite for the Player of the Year, the 7-foot-4 Edey is the most dominant force in college basketball. He’s made immense strides since his first year on campus, and now can legitimately influence the outcome of games on both ends of the floor.
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This season was supposed to be the turnaround Texas’ basketball program so desperately needed. The Longhorns entered the year as a borderline top-10 team and proceeded to sprint out of the gates. Texas notched statement wins over Gonzaga and Creighton, and were just narrowly outlasted in an overtime battle versus Illinois. Talent is certainly not an issue for this team which features a slew of playmakers and a top-5 defense.
Unfortunately, the troubling suspension of head coach Chris Beard looms large on this program. With Beard likely gone for good, the Longhorns’ players are tasked with moving forward without their disgraced coach.
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Tennessee has a savvy club led by a respectable coach in Rick Barnes. The top-half of the team is a group of seniors who have been with Barnes for a number of years. This includes Santiago Vescovi, Olivier Nkamhoua and Josiah-Jordan James. In terms of newcomers, freshman Julian Phillips is a potential lottery pick with intriguing athletic tools.
While the Volunteers have already dropped early games to a pair of Pac-12 schools (Colorado and Arizona), we aren’t too worried about their long-term outlook. This is a Tennessee team that will defend at a high level each and every night, giving them a chance against any opponent. If their offense can even be average, the Vols will be a viable contender as the season progresses.
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The defending champions entered the offseason with a handful of questions to answer. Of course, Bill Self’s team securing their first title since 2008 was something worth celebrating, but massive roster overhaul awaited them. Thus far, the Jayhawks have done a fine job of filling in vacancies while continuing to look like a dominant force in the Big 12.
With Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun gone, much of the offensive workload has fallen on junior forward Jalen Wilson. Wilson has doubled his scoring output from a year ago and is an early favorite for Big 12 Player of the Year. Aside from Wilson, the Jayhawks are going to rely heavily on freshman Gradey Dick. Dick has improved his draft stock as much as any player in the country thus far. The Wichita native is a great athlete who is an absolute sniper from all spots on the floor.
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Mick Cronin has done wonders for this program since taking over in 2019. In his second season, Cronin led the Bruins on an improbable run to the Final Four — and was one shot away from reaching the title game. Last year, the Bruins nearly toppled eventual East regional winner North Carolina in a frenzied matchup. This year, UCLA enters as a favorite in the Pac-12 and one of the most well-rounded teams in the country.
From the looks of it, Cronin finally struck the right balance between upperclassman and first-year players. Needing to replace three starting spots, Cronin granted two of those spots to freshman Amari Bailey and Adem Bona — with the final spot going to two-way wing Jaylen Clark. It’s an athletic trio that fits perfectly with two of the best seniors in college basketball — Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell.
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UConn has raced off to a quick start in 2023 and have the look of a Final Four team. And, the Huskies are no stranger to playing deep into March. Since ’04, Connecticut has reached four Final Fours and have won three National Championships. Dan Hurley took over the program in 2019 and has brought them back to relevance. However, they’ve lost their first tournament game each of the past two years, and are looking to make it past the opening weekend for the first time since 2014.
This is the group that could potentially breakthrough and put UConn back on the college basketball map. Energizing big man Adama Sanogo is the team’s go-to scorer. He will finish everything near the rim, but also has the ability to step outside and knock down a couple of threes. Sophomore guard Jordan Hawkins has developed into one of the best shooters in the country. This team is deep and confident after sweeping its out of conference schedule. The Huskies are for real.
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What Kelvin Sampson has been able to accomplish during his time as Houston’s coach has been remarkable. The Cougars have been one of the American Athletic Conference’s top teams since 2016 — his second year with the club. Over the last two years, Houston has a Final Four and Elite Eight appearance. And, they have their eyes set on an even bigger prize this year.
Led by senior guard Marcus Sasser and first-year wing Jarace Walker, the Cougars look to be one of the favorites to lock up a 1-seed once the tournament begins. While the AAC does feature some tough squads, the Cougars should have no trouble navigating through conference play. This is an experienced group which features plenty of offensive firepower and perhaps the best defense in college basketball. Watch out for the Cougars in March.
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