The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament promises to be the most unpredictable and open-ended version of March Madness in recent memory. Simply put, there seem to be a lot of good teams this year, but not great ones. Every Division I team in the six biggest conferences has at least five losses and Houston has three, so no one is invincible. That means there’s unlikely to be a favorite to cut the nets in Houston when the bracket is revealed.
Someone has to win it, of course, and given the struggles of several of the sport’s blue blood programs and the high number of teams capable of getting hot at the right time, there’s a good chance a first champion will be crowned at the conclusion of the tournament. Three of the field’s No. 1 seeds have never won a national title.
If either breaks through, it would continue a recent trend of newcomers joining the Champions Club like Virginia did in 2019 and Baylor did two years later. Prior to those two, however, the club hadn’t gained any new members since Florida won its first consecutive title in 2006.
But if a new champion emerges, here are the most likely candidates.
Purdue (#1 seed in the East)
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Came the closest: The Boilermakers have appeared in two Final Fours, most recently in 1980. But perhaps their best title shot was in 2019 when they lost in overtime to eventual champion Virginia in a classic Elite Eight.
Reasons to believe: Literally, Zach Edey presents the most significant case that this Purdue team has the ability to stay in the tournament. If you didn’t see him become the most dominant post player in the game early in the season, don’t worry, you’re not alone. The freshman backcourt tandem of Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer also developed faster than expected, and Mason Gillis provided another perimeter scoring threat off the bench.
Reasons to doubt: Teams that can apply consistent ball pressure have given the Boilermakers problems. They could also eventually run into an opponent with enough big body to overtake Edey to limit his easy points, but that probably won’t happen until at least the Sweet 16. Of course, there’s also that little matter of overcoming the recent history of premature march. exits. It’s a conference-wide problem, as a Big Ten representative hasn’t won everything since Michigan State in 2000.*
* Yes, we know Maryland won it in 2002, but the Terrapins were still in the ACC at the time.
REGIONAL DISTRIBUTION: East | South | Midwest | West
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Houston (#1 seed in the Midwest)
Came the closest: The Cougars went to the championship game two years in a row, but fell victim to the magic of North Carolina State in 1983 and the power of Patrick Ewing and Georgetown a year later. Kelvin Sampson brought Houston back to the Final Four two years ago and the Elite Eight last season.
Reasons to believe: Houston’s stifling defensive style that has served the team well in the past playoffs should do it again. This year’s group also has a bit more punchy pop.
Reasons to doubt: But even so, Cougars can be susceptible to long offensive droughts. Marcus Sasser’s health is a big concern after an injury at the American Athletic tournament. If he’s playing and he’s out, finding an option when the team badly needs a bucket can be tough.
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Alabama (#1 seed in the south)
Came the closest: Basketball is not the flagship sport of the Crimson Tide. Their longest tournament stint came in 2004, an unlikely run to the Elite Eight as the No. 8 seed before falling to eventual champion Connecticut.
Reasons to believe: Coach Nate Oats preaches easy layups and open treys, and when everything clicks, offense is a wonder to behold. Brandon Miller and Mark Sears are the main long-range snipers, but any of the top eight contributors in the regular rotation are capable of warming up.
Reasons to doubt: Defense isn’t Tide’s forte, and they think they’ll come up against another team with multiple scoring options that can keep up with them. A more defense-focused team that can slow the pace could also spell trouble for Alabama.
Texas (#2 seed in the Midwest)
Came closest: The Longhorns reached the semifinals twice in the early years of the much smaller NCAA tournament. But after 1947, they wouldn’t reach another Final Four until 2003, when they lost to eventual champion Syracuse.
Reasons to believe: The Big 12 is on a bit of a mini run with back-to-back championships, so its collection of viable contenders has as much of a chance as anyone to claim a first flag. We’ll start with the Longhorns, who overcame coaching turmoil to grab a spot near the top of the standings in the incredibly competitive league. Marcus Carr leads a balanced lineup that gets production from many different places.
Reason to doubt: Caretaker coach Rodney Terry has done a terrific job since taking charge, but he’s an unknown factor when it comes to managing the tournament’s pressure cooker. From what we’ve seen so far, he’ll be up to the task, but how much the team will have left in the tank after negotiating the tough conference campaign could also be a concern.
Gonzaga (#3 seed in the West)
Came the closest: A Sweet 16 game for years, Gonzaga broke the Final Four barrier in 2017 before losing a competitive title match to North Carolina. The Bulldogs returned to the NCAA Finals in 2021 but were outplayed by Baylor in the championship round to end their bid for an undefeated campaign.
Reasons to believe: This Bulldogs squad may not be as complete as the Final Four squads, but their tough non-conference schedule will prepare them for the high level of competition. Drew Timme is a seasoned veteran who knows how to find points near the basket, and Julian Strawther is capable of warming up from the arc.
Reasons to doubt: The defense has improved over the year, but often Gonzaga has to score big to win. A physical opponent with interior depth will again be a tough game for the Zags.
Xavier (#3 seed in the Midwest)
Came closest: The Musketeers own a pair of NIT titles, including last year’s, but in 28 NCAA tournament appearances, they’ve never made it past the Elite Eight. Of their three regional finals, they came closest to winning the first time in 2004 but were beaten 66-63 by Duke.
Reasons to believe: Xavier brought in Sean Miller who is looking to return to the Big East’s top tier. He did so through a combination of newcomers and veterans of the 2022 NIT champion squad. Forward Jack Nunge and full-back Colby Jones are the main returning players, but the biggest addition has been full-back Souley Baum.
Reason to doubt: With Big East Villanova’s usual power in a down year, it’s unclear how the league will fare in March. The Musketeers have a few decent but unremarkable non-conference wins, but an ungainly league loss to DePaul might indicate that a quick demise is just as likely as a long stay.
Kansas State (#3 in the East)
Came the closest: K-State played for the title in 1951 against another group of Wildcats, but Kentucky prevailed 68-58. The Manhattan Wildcats haven’t made the Final Four since 1964.
Reasons to believe: First-year coach Jerome Tang worked wonders in the Little Apple, reloading the roster into a top-10 team seemingly overnight. The inside-out combo of Keyontae Johnson and Markquis Nowell is the driving force.
Reasons to doubt: Stepping into the big dance with a high seed will be uncharted territory for these Wildcats. The talent is in place to meet expectations, but will they have the composure?
Tennessee (#4 seed in the East)
Came the closest: The guys weren’t as successful as the Lady Vols and their eight NCAA titles won under the late legend Pat Summitt. The men’s team came close to even reaching a Final Four in 2010 when the Volunteers trailed Michigan State by one point in the Elite Eight.
Reasons to believe: The Vols have been statistically among the best defensive teams in the nation for most of the season. These are games that don’t always look good, but they are unlikely to be blown up.
Reasons to doubt: The execution on the attacking side, on the other hand, is not always good and losing point guard Zakai Zeigler for the season raises serious concerns. Questionable shot selection often leads to long scoreless streaks. There’s also a historic pattern of nagging coach of playoff underperformance, Rick Barnes, whose long career includes only one Final Four appearance since his tenure at Texas.
Saint Mary’s (seeded #5 in the West)
Came the closest: Although the Gaels have challenged Gonzaga for West Coast Conference supremacy in recent years, they haven’t quite enjoyed the same playoff success. Their only appearance in the Sweet 16 of the 64-team era was in 2010.
Reasons to believe: Saint Mary’s would be far enough to lead the table, but after acquitting themselves well in a close fight with Houston in early December and beating Gonzaga, it’s fair to say the Gaels won’t be intimidated by anyone. They play outstanding team defense, and freshman sensation Aidan Mahaney has already made a bunch of big hits in his young career.
Reasons to doubt: Coach Randy Bennett updated the Gaels’ non-league schedule this season, but it still wasn’t as tough as Gonzaga usually does. They received a No. 5 seed and face a tough road in their home region with Connecticut lurking.