Incredible College Football Playoff, congratulations to Georgia. But now it’s time to switch gears and focus on the hardwood.
If you’ve been an avid college hoops fan all season, consider this your chance to refresh and see our adjusted expectations for teams and players over the next two months. If you haven’t followed much, you’re jumping in at the perfect time — and we’re here to catch you up on everything 2022-23 men’s college basketball.
First, the basics. Every team in the country has a loss. There’s no clear favorite. Sixteen of the teams ranked in last week’s AP top 25 have suffered at least one loss in the past seven days. Several of the blue bloods don’t look like blue bloods at all.
Who are the stars? We’ll get to those in a little while, but it’s the breakout returnees and veteran stalwarts garnering most of the headlines, not the lottery-pick freshmen.
And what about the coaches? Jon Scheyer and Kyle Neptune have hit several speedbumps replacing Mike Krzyzewski and Jay Wright, respectively. John Calipari is under as much heat as he has ever felt since moving to Lexington. Texas just fired Chris Beard following his arrest last month.
So yes, it has been a topsy-turvy first half of the season. But conference play is just starting to heat up, and all the talk of the bubbles and brackets is right around the corner. It’s the perfect time for ESPN’s Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway, Joe Lunardi and John Gasaway to dive in and revisit their preseason predictions and picks.
What has defined the 2022-23 season so far for you?
Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson combine for 64 points in Kansas State’s win over No. 6 Texas.
Borzello: For me, it’s the revolving door at the top of the rankings and the ever-changing group of “championship favorites.” Nothing exemplifies this more than three of the top four teams in the preseason poll: North Carolina, Gonzaga and Kentucky. All three have combined to lose 12 games. There are zero unbeaten teams left. Houston looked the part and then lost to Alabama at home. UConn lost two in a row after starting 14-0. Purdue lost to Rutgers at home. It’s not just limited to AP No. 1 teams, either. Tennessee (Colorado) and Arizona (Utah) have surprising losses, Virginia lost three of five, and Texas also allowed Kansas State to score a million points in its loss. It should make for a fascinating and wide-open NCAA tournament.
Medcalf: Probably the realization that the transfer portal will likely redefine our definition of a blue blood. The one-and-done era stacked talent for a handful of programs every year. Only five or six schools had access to those players, though. The transfer portal, however, is a free-for-all that has diversified the talent pool and expanded the number of programs that can become contenders, if they land the right veterans. Tristen Newton (East Carolina) has given UConn a boost. There’s Tyrese Hunter (Iowa State) at Texas, Sean McNeil (West Virginia) at Ohio State, Mark Sears (Ohio) at Alabama. The list of teams that have the goods to win the national championship each season will grow. The monopoly on elite talent for a small pool of schools in college basketball is over now.
Gasaway: Are we about to see the men’s NCAA tournament expand? As someone who spends a fair amount of time bubble watching annually, the answer hits close to home. The NCAA greeted the new year with its transformation committee recommending that championship fields be increased in a number of Division I sports. Taking such a step in hoops would mark the first time the March Madness bracket has expanded since the field went to 68 teams in 2011. The major conferences are leading this push, though there’s no shortage of traditionalists who want to keep the field as-is. What happens now?
Lunardi: We are in for an incredible three months of college basketball. There is no clear-cut favorite, the major conference races are wide open, and the NCAA tournament promises to be as unpredictable as ever. I am surprised by the relative struggles of North Carolina and especially Kentucky, but fascinated by the likes of Purdue, UConn and a small handful of SEC teams as legitimate national championship contenders. While the infrastructure of the sport is shifting dramatically, the on-court product remains thrilling and compelling. Every night something goes into our Bracketology database that is unexpected, and that should bring a smile to all of our faces.
Which team has surprised you (in a good way)? Why?
Rutgers hands No. 1 Purdue its first loss of the season with a stunning 65-64 upset.
Borzello: With UConn losing two straight last week, my pick is Purdue, despite the Boilermakers’ fall from No. 1 this week. Matt Painter lost lottery pick Jaden Ivey, all-conference big man Trevion Williams and two more players who started more than half the team’s games last season. He didn’t have a guy on his roster who had played point guard at the college level. They weren’t included in the preseason top 25. And yet, Purdue started 13-0 and looks like a legitimate title contender. Zach Edey is the favorite to win the Wooden Award, and Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer have developed into one of the premier all-freshman backcourt duos in the country. Painter has the Boilermakers poised for a top-five seed in March for the seventh straight NCAA tournament.
Gasaway: My surprise team is apparently so startling that it still isn’t receiving any votes in the AP poll. It’s Rutgers, the group that handed Purdue its only defeat. The pollsters might be wary of a team with four losses, but heading into last weekend, the Scarlet Knights were looking down on the AP top 10 likes of Gonzaga at KenPom. The only loss Steve Pikiell’s team has suffered in Big Ten play came on a blown call at the end of the game at Ohio State. In this “year of the big,” Clifford Omoruyi is one of the Big Ten’s best. Rutgers appears to be on a glide path for the program’s best NCAA tournament seed since 1979 — or possibly ever.
Medcalf: I’ll take Marquette here. Shaka Smart’s squad was picked to finish ninth in the Big East, over Georgetown (10th) and DePaul (11th), in the preseason poll. The Golden Eagles lost their top two scorers from last season (Darryl Morsell and Justin Lewis) after reaching the NCAA tournament in Smart’s first season. In his second, they’re off to a 5-1 start in Big East play, with two of their four overall losses (Providence, Wisconsin) unfolding in overtime. They also have a five-point road loss to Purdue. But, Marquette has just one loss since Dec. 3. In a crowded conference, it’s easy to overlook its success thus far. But this team is playing good, entertaining basketball — sixth in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom — right now.
Lunardi: Believe it or not, last week ended with an unranked team tied for the lead of the best conference in America. Anyone who had Kansas State undefeated in the Big 12 — with wins at Texas and Baylor, no less — is probably lying. New head coach Jerome Tang has had zero learning curve moving over from Baylor, and the Wildcats reach the regular-season halfway mark at 14-1, losing only at Butler. The combination of Tang excelling in his first head-coaching opportunity and Florida transfer Keyontae Johnson playing at all, much less leading K-State in scoring, is storybook stuff. This team is Sweet 16 good.
Which team has underperformed (or has been a disappointment or worries you the most)? Why?
The Crimson Tide hold the Wildcats to .288 field goal shooting overall (21-of-73) and to 25% from 3-point range (5-of-20) in an impressive 78-52 win.
Medcalf: I think it’s Kentucky. It has to be. The Wildcats aren’t the only squad falling short of expectations. But they’re doing it with the reigning Wooden Award winner, Oscar Tshiebwe, with a projected lottery pick (Cason Wallace), and with a bunch of veterans in Sahvir Wheeler and Jacob Toppin. The lopsided 78-52 loss to Alabama on Saturday showcased the serious challenges Kentucky is trying to overcome. Its offense is sloppy and limited. Its defensive performance is listed as “average” on Synergy Sports. It’s also inconsistent. You could make the case Kentucky enters the week without an NCAA tournament guarantee. The Wildcats are 1-4 against Quad I and Quad II opponents this season. And their best win — against Michigan in London — looks worse by the day as the Wolverines continue to struggle (2-3 in their past five games). The truth is, Kentucky is just not a good team right now, and John Calipari’s squad is playing below its potential.
Lunardi: My top three disappointments, in order, are Kentucky, Kentucky and Kentucky. The Wildcats have been stunningly average on the court and the sidelines, and it’s hard to envision a major turnaround given the level of competition in the SEC. The ‘Cats are halfway through the season and haven’t beaten a single team that’s in any projected NCAA field, which should be impossible. Kentucky’s best performance of the year was probably in its overtime loss to Michigan State at the Champions Classic. Nothing else comes close to moving the needle, which more than explains the heightened distress in Lexington and throughout the Commonwealth.
Gasaway: If you had told the October version of me that Louisville would be 2-13 and ranked in the 260s (!) at KenPom right now, I would have said, “Here is your team that has underperformed the most by a mile!” And I would have had a case. Coming into the season, no one expected Kenny Payne’s team to win a national title, but this did appear to be a respectable, national top-100, maybe even near-.500 kind of ACC team. Instead, the Cardinals are at the bottom of Division I for turnover percentage and 0-8 against major-conference opponents.
Borzello: The easy answer is North Carolina, and the Tar Heels are obviously a disappointment. But my pick is Villanova, primarily because I think Carolina can still compete for an ACC title and make a deep run in March. Villanova isn’t even a top-five team in the Big East. It’s not really the Wildcats’ fault, to be honest. They had to replace Jay Wright after the legendary coach’s sudden retirement last April, star guard Justin Moore is still sidelined, and projected lottery pick Cam Whitmore missed the first month of the season and has struggled since returning to the floor. Kyle Neptune simply doesn’t have the talent Villanova has had in the past, and that’s not changing in the next two months.
What are you watching most closely going forward? Why?
Gasaway: Is the college game separating, for lack of a better term, from the NBA style? It’s more than just highly decorated bigs like Oscar Tshiebwe, Armando Bacot, Drew Timme and Trayce Jackson-Davis staying in school. Now, as Jordan Sperber has noted, we’re seeing college teams with two bigs thriving on offense. The prototype here is Arizona, which sits at or near the top of the national leaderboard for offensive efficiency while Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo combine for about one 3-point attempt per outing. Maybe the college game as a whole, like every game analyst in the last minute ever, is saying you don’t need a 3 here.
This tweet from the beginning of NBA season really stands out to me for how much it contrasts the current state of CBB
Gonzaga, Arizona, and now Xavier are all top 10 offenses thriving while playing 2 “spacing eating bigs” together. It’s a feature, not of a bug, of their schemes https://t.co/Ht3SnumJPw
— Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) December 31, 2022
Lunardi: I’m always watching for the non-Power 5/Big East at-large bids. At this point, the top contender and most likely success story is Saint Mary’s, which boasts a No. 8 NET as this is written. There should be multiple at-larges from the Mountain West among the likes of New Mexico, Utah State, Nevada, Boise State and UNLV. And we’ll all be waiting to see if mid-majors such as Florida Atlantic (NET 15), Iona (NET 36) and Charleston (NET 50) can stay afloat long enough to warrant extended consideration from the selection committee.
Medcalf: I’d like to see which teams can salvage their seasons. Kentucky will get multiple opportunities for quality wins in the SEC, and the sense of urgency is real right now. Duke has dealt with a multitude of injuries, but the ACC isn’t insurmountable this season. There’s also a lot of pressure on Indiana, which announced Saturday that veteran Race Thompson will be out indefinitely because of injury. Can the Hoosiers live up to the preseason hype in Big Ten action without a talented starter? North Carolina will also try to have another thrilling second half after another rocky November and December under Hubert Davis.
Borzello: The Big 12. Right now, all 10 teams in the league have a great chance to hear their names on Selection Sunday. All 10 are in the top 40 of both the BPI and KenPom, and all 10 have nine or more wins. It seems far-fetched to think the entire league will get a bid two months from now, but there’s going to need to be some separation along the way. Kansas State, picked 10th in the preseason, scored 116 points at Texas. West Virginia, picked ninth in the preseason, is fourth in the league at KenPom and in the BPI. You get the point. The league has been incredible through two months, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how the pecking order sorts itself out in league play.
Knowing what you know now, give us one more bold prediction for the rest of the season.
Medcalf: John Calipari will leave Kentucky. The longtime Wildcats head coach has a lifetime deal with the school, which would owe him nearly $50 million if it fires him this year. He also has a top-ranked recruiting class coming next season, a group that features D.J. Wagner, the No. 1 recruit in the 2023 class. But the rift between Calipari and the fan base is growing. Also, during his summer spat with football coach Mark Stoops, Mitch Barnhart, the athletic director, seemed to side with Stoops. A historically bad 2020-21 season and a first-round loss to Saint Peter’s in the NCAA tournament last year could be followed by another disappointing postseason finish this year. Whether he chases a gig with an NBA front office, the Texas job or a stint in TV, it’s not out of this world to think Calipari might decide a divorce from the school where he won a national title in 2012 might be best for everyone involved.
Borzello: Zero ACC teams advance past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. This season has provided a little bit of déjà vu to last season, when the ACC struggled mightily for the majority of the season, but ultimately received five bids to the dance, had three teams in the Elite Eight and two in the Final Four. That could certainly happen again, especially with UNC’s experience, Duke’s talent and Virginia’s system. But the league seems so competitive from top-to-bottom this season, with every team (besides Louisville) showing it’s capable of winning games on a given night. That could hurt seedings on Selection Sunday and potentially result in not-so-advantageous matchups come tournament time.
Gasaway: The NCAA announces it is reducing the number of timeouts for 2023-24. Last week in the closing moments of an otherwise excellent game between Purdue and Ohio State, there were six timeouts called by Matt Painter and Chris Holtmann in 103 seconds of game clock. Dr. Naismith is spinning in his grave. No one wants to spend their precious leisure time watching inert players on the sidelines listening to their coaches. If that were the case, there would be lucrative rights deals to televise practice. Speaking of practice, prepare your team and let’s see who wins.
Lunardi: Houston wins the national championship in its hometown. Why not? The newly top-ranked Cougars are first in NET and first in KenPom, and seem to have left their lone loss (to Alabama) in the dust. Houston’s three most recent NCAA tournaments have resulted in Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Four Four appearances. There’s only one thing left for Kelvin Sampson’s crew.
2023 FINAL FOUR PICKS (* denotes your pick for the national champion)
Medcalf: Houston*, UCLA, Purdue, Kansas
I’ve definitely made some changes from my preseason picks. I’ll swap North Carolina, which I had winning it all, and Kentucky out for Kansas and Purdue. Zach Edey is the best player in the country, and Purdue has been dominant in its wins. And Jalen Wilson leads a versatile Kansas group that’s one of America’s most balanced teams.
Borzello: Houston*, UCLA, Arizona, Alabama
I too had North Carolina winning it all. For me now, Houston has the highest floor of any team in the country. UCLA has great balance, Arizona is elite offensively and Alabama just has the wild-card factor. I might regret not including Kansas.
Gasaway: Houston*, Tennessee, UConn, Kansas
I’m keeping two of my preseason picks — the Cougars and the Volunteers — and adding two teams that have surprised me. The Huskies have been magnificent, and somehow Bill Self’s following up on a national championship with still another contender.
Lunardi: Houston*, Kansas, Alabama, UConn
I was never on the North Carolina bandwagon, but the absence of Kentucky here still strikes me as inconceivable. But, so be it. These are the four best teams I have seen and, until bracket matchups cause any change of heart, these are my picks for April basketball.
WOODEN AWARD (PLAYER OF THE YEAR)
Zach Edey makes it looks easy with putback dunk.
Medcalf: Zach Edey, Purdue
We all should have listened to Matt Painter! I just wasn’t convinced the 7-foot-4 center could handle a significantly heavier load this season. I worried about the extra minutes. But Edey has been the most impactful force in the sport so far, despite the jump from 19.0 minutes per game to 30.9 minutes per game.
Borzello: Zach Edey, Purdue
We should have all listened to Myron Medcalf! Edey is the clear front-runner right now, although his numbers have dropped a bit in the past few weeks — although, when 16 points and 11 boards is “dropping off,” maybe that’s a sure sign he’s the favorite. He has been dominant and efficient, and Purdue is winning.
Gasaway: Zach Edey, Purdue
In a way, we were all correct in the preseason when we picked Oscar Tshiebwe — it’s just a different dominant big coming back from a team that also lost to Saint Peter’s in the tournament. Slight mix-up.
Lunardi: Zach Edey, Purdue
Not much more to add here. Edey has been the best and most impactful player on a team that just last week was at the top of both polls.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR
Brandon Miller gathers the rock on the fast break and throws it down with authority to extend the Crimson Tide’s lead.
Lunardi: Brandon Miller, Alabama
Miller has elevated a very good Crimson Tide team to borderline great. If Alabama reaches the first Final Four in program history, Miller will have made the difference.
Borzello: Brandon Miller, Alabama
The preseason hype on Miller was real. A supremely talented prospect coming out of high school, he has answered the questions about his inconsistent motor in a convincing fashion. He’s averaging better than 19 points and eight boards, and shooting 44% from 3. He had 36 points against Gonzaga. Easy pick.
Medcalf: Brandon Miller, Alabama
He’s dangerous everywhere (see the stats above). Against a Kentucky team with the Wooden Award winner, Miller (19 points) was the best player on the floor Saturday in the 26-point win. He’s the real deal.
Gasaway: Brice Sensabaugh, Ohio State
Sensabaugh has posted a higher offensive rating than even Miller, while carrying a far heavier load on offense (albeit across fewer minutes). Not bad for a recruit ranked in the 40s coming into the season.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Gasaway: Kelvin Sampson, Houston
Just because he has been doing the impossible for almost a decade at a previously moribund program doesn’t make it any less remarkable. This year he could win it all.
Lunardi: Kelvin Sampson, Houston
The Cougars just keep getting better, this year adding standout freshmen and frequent explosiveness to their already potent arsenal.
Medcalf: Dan Hurley, UConn
I think my original pick (Mick Cronin, UCLA) could still compete for this award. But he’ll first have to outlast Tommy Lloyd (Arizona) for Pac-12 coach of the year. Hurley, meanwhile, coaches a team that was picked to finish fourth in the league’s preseason poll. And I think a multitude of coaches would tell you that’s the last team they want to see in the NCAA tournament.
Borzello: Matt Painter, Purdue
Rick Barnes wasn’t a bad pick in the preseason; Tennessee is very good, and will compete for an SEC title. But Purdue is arguably the biggest surprise team in the country, going from outside the preseason top 25 to the Big Ten favorite. Hurley should be in the conversation, too.
ALL-AMERICA TEAM PICKS
Marcus Sasser, Houston
Jordan Walker, UAB
Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Jalen Wilson, Kansas
Zach Edey, Purdue
Markquis Nowell, Kansas State
Jalen Wilson, Kansas
Azuolas Tubelis, Arizona
Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Zach Edey, Purdue
Jordan Walker, UAB
Adam Flagler, Baylor
Marcus Sasser, Houston
Jaime Jaquez Jr., UCLA
Zach Edey, Purdue
Zach Edey, Purdue
Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Jalen Wilson, Kansas
Marcus Sasser, Houston
Jalen Pickett, Penn State