The 2023 NCAA Tournament is so wide open the final answer will come down to a blue-blooded final that will come with two huge storylines.
Can Kansas repeat as national champion? The Jayhawks will have coach Bill Self back for the tournament after a scary heart procedure, but two losses to Texas in March have complicated the forecast for the Jayhawks. KU was bumped down from the No. 1 overall seed after a 76-56 loss to Texas in the Big 12 championship game. Kansas has the best starting five in the tournament, but Kevin McCullar and Dajuan Harris have battled injuries.
The Jayhawks will have a chance to avenge those two losses to Texas in one Final Four semifinal. The Longhorns are led by SN Coach of the Year Rodney Terry, and Texas will return to the Final Four for the first time since 2003.
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So what is the other storyline? It’s Duke surging to the Final Four under first-year coach Jon Scheyer, just like North Carolina did with Hubert Davis last season. The Blue Devils are arguably the hottest team in the nation, and that will show up against Alabama in the other Final Four semifinal. Who knew the Crimson Tide would make the Final Four instead of the College Football Playoff?
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From there, it’s Kansas vs. Duke in what is perceived as a wide-open tournament. What’s old is new again.
Here is a look at the bracket.
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1 Alabama over 16 Southeast Missouri State
9 West Virginia over 8 Maryland
5 Charleston over 12 San Diego State
4 Virginia over 13 Furman
6 Creighton over 11 NC State
3 Baylor over 14 UC-Santa Barbara
7 Missouri over 10 Utah State
2 Arizona over 15 Princeton
1 Alabama over 9 West Virginia
4 Virginia over 12 Charleston
3 Baylor over 6 Creighton
7 Missouri over 2 Arizona
1 Alabama over 4 Virginia
3 Baylor over 7 Missouri
1 Alabama over 3 Baylor
Brandon Miller is a superstar, and the Crimson Tide lead the nation with 31.7 rebounds per game. They won a deep SEC, and now the challenge is to prove they can survive what could be a physical second-round game against West Virginia and a tempo game against Virginia, an experienced tournament team, in the Sweet 16.
The Crimson Tide’s tournament road runs through Birmingham and Louisville, and that will help Nate Oats reach the Final Four in his fourth season.
The bottom half of the bracket is a confounding puzzle made more difficult with taking Missouri to the Sweet 16. The Tigers force 17.2 turnovers per game, and that gives them the opportunity to catch Arizona off guard in the second round. Baylor lost four of their last six games, which is going to make UC-Santa Barbara a popular first-round upset pick. We’re going to pick through it and take the Big 12-tested Bears to the Elite Eight.
1 Purdue over 16 Fairleigh Dickinson
8 Memphis over 9 Florida Atlantic
5 Duke over 12 Oral Roberts
13 Louisiana over 4 Tennessee
6 Kentucky over 11 Providence
3 Kansas State over 14 Montana State
7 Michigan State over 10 USC
2 Marquette over 15 Vermont
1 Purdue over 8 Memphis
5 Duke over 13 Louisiana
6 Kentucky over 3 Kansas State
2 Marquette over 7 Michigan State
5 Duke over 1 Purdue
2 Marquette over 6 Kentucky
5 Duke over 2 Marquette
This is Duke’s lowest seed in the NCAA tournament since 2016, but they feel like the team to beat around 7-footers Kyle Filipowski and Dereck Lively II. The Blue Devils are an elite rebounding team, and they make 76.8% of their free throws.
That is going to create one of two games that make-or-break your bracket in the second round. Purdue hasn’t made the Final Four since 1980, and Zach Edey will test that front line. Edey has the capability to carry a team like Boilermakers legend Glenn Robinson did in 1994, but ultimately Purdue will meet the same fate in an earlier round. The Blue Devils will beat the Boilermakers in a thriller.
The bottom half of the bracket features blue-bloods Kentucky and Michigan State, and we like both up-and-down teams to get through the first round. Marquette, however, is the team we trust most. Shaka Smart leads the Golden Eagles team to an Elite Eight run that includes victories against Michigan State and Kentucky before the Blue Devils close the door.
1 Houston over 16 Northern Kentucky
8 Iowa over 9 Auburn
5 Miami over 12 Drake
4 Indiana over 13 Kent State
6 Iowa State over 11 Pitt
3 Xavier over 14 Kennesaw State
7 Texas A&M over 10 Penn State
2 Texas over 15 Colgate
1 Houston over 9 Iowa
4 Indiana over 5 Miami
6 Iowa State over 3 Xavier
2 Texas over 7 Texas A&M
1 Houston over 4 Indiana
2 Texas over 6 Iowa State
2 Texas over 1 Houston
Marcus Sasser’s health is the biggest question for the Cougars. Miami also has a key injury with Norchad Ormier. Given how both teams responded in their respective conference tournaments without those players, it makes both teams tough to trust. Houston still limits teams to just 56.5 points, and that defense will help them weather the first weekend.
Indiana has not been to the Sweet 16 since 2016, so prepare for the bandwagon to fill up when Trayce Jackson-Davis leads a break-through run to the second weekend. Can the Hoosiers make an Elite Eight run? We think they fall just short.
Texas has some interesting tests on the first weekend. Colgate is a 3-point shooting threat, and a potential matchup with Texas A&M would be one of the most-heated games in the entire bracket. Iowa State and Xavier is a tough second-round game to pick, too.
We’re going to trust Texas’ depth, which includes five players who average eight points or more.
1 Kansas over 16 Howard
9 Illinois over 8 Arkansas
12 VCU over 5 Saint Mary’s
4 UConn over 13 Iona
6 TCU over 11 Arizona State
3 Gonzaga over 14 Grand Canyon
7 Northwestern over Boise State
2 UCLA over UNC-Asheville
1 Kansas over 9 Illinois
12 VCU over 4 UConn
3 Gonzaga over 6 TCU
2 UCLA over 7 Northwestern
1 Kansas over 12 VCU
3 Gonzaga over 2 UCLA
1 Kansas over 3 Gonzaga
Kansas should be able to recalibrate and burn through the first weekend, and in the Sweet 16 they will have a chance to meet an old demon. Remember the 2011 Elite Eight? The Jayhawks had a national championship team that was knocked off by VCU. The Rams are our double-digit Sweet 16 sleeper, but the Jayhawks’ fans will be ready for that one. Our favorite first-round game? No. 13 Iona, led by Rick Pitino, trying to knock off an old rival in No. 4 UConn.
UCLA will need to weather injuries to Jaylen Clark and Adem Bona, but defense will carry Mick Cronin’s team to the Sweet 16. Gonzaga scores 87.5 points per game and leads the nation with a 52.8% field goal percentage. It’s Drew Timme’s last run, and the pressure of not being unbeaten or a No. 1 seed does the Bulldogs good. We’re not worried about the blowout losses to Purdue or Texas. Gonzaga can beat anybody, and they win another classic with UCLA.
That sets up the other game that makes or breaks your bracket. It’s Kansas and Gonzaga in an instant classic, and the Jayhawks find a way when Jaylin Wilson delivers a memorable performance for the ages.