NCAA Football

College basketball expert roundtable: Who will win the 2023 national championship?

— The Athletics’ Eamonn Brennan, Seth Davis, Brian Hamilton, Brendan Marks and Justin Williams contributed to this story.

With men’s college basketball seven weeks away from the start of the NCAA Tournament, Athletics takes stock of the 2022-23 season and predicts what’s to come. With that in mind, a panel of five experts will debate various topics throughout the week. Next is the most important question of the season – and one with many possible answers.

Who is your pick to win the national championship?

Eamonn Brennan: I really have no idea. It is a good thing. We’ve gone into the last two tournaments with very clear ideas about who the best one or two teams in the country were. Gonzaga was usually involved. This year is much more opaque right now; there are eight or nine (or maybe even a little more?) very high-level teams, all with flaws, all of whom could conceivably win, and choosing between them feels like you’re just throwing darts at the board.

Houston has been the most obvious standard-bearer for a while now, but the home loss to Temple Sunday hinted at the concerns there — that every now and then Houston’s offense can just fizzle out. (Getting tons of offensive rebounds is great, but if nobody ever makes shots, all those extra possessions only go so far.) The same problem (with arguably greater extremity) is what keeps us from going all in on Tennessee. I’m going a little crazy after the Arizona loss and picking UCLA, where they boast key players with deep tournament experience, a great veteran point guard, a sprinkling of freshman talent and elite team defense. But again: arrows at the board.

GO DEEPER

Which men’s basketball coach will be the next to be fired or retire?

Seth Davis: I have Purdue as my #1 team, so right now they are my pick. Sometimes we get too hung up on convention and history, and in Purdue’s case, both of those things make me feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick that field goal with Lucy in hand. (Or Brett Maher trying to kick a PAT. Too early?) One of those conventions is that you have to have good guard play to win a national championship. Well guess what – Purdue has it. And I’m not just talking about fearless freshmen Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer. I’m talking about the Big Maple itself. He’s not a playmaking point guard, but Zach Edey is an expert at recognizing and exiting double teams. You simply cannot guard this man one-on-one, but he is so good at reading the defensive help that he almost always makes the right pass. And of course it’s easier for him because he always passes smaller defenders.

As a team, Purdue is making just 32.6 percent from 3, and while that seems very low, Smith is a 44.6 percent 3-point shooter and three other Boilermakers are 35 percent or higher. They don’t need to be good at this part of the game. They just have to be good enough, which they clearly are.

The other factor in my prediction is Purdue’s defense. Yes, everyone wants to force Edey to defend ball screens, but the Boilermakers are 16th in the county in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom, so they must be doing something right. That ranking has increased over the course of the season, and combined with their No. 4 ranking in offensive efficiency, we clearly have a championship-caliber team.

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GO DEEPER

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Brian Hamilton: Picked Houston before the season started and stuck with the Cougars at this point. The temple loss was…suspicious. I just can’t get past the idea that the entire operation is based on defense and rebounding off missed shots on the other end … and now Houston’s offense is efficient enough that there’s just less variety involved. It doesn’t need a second chance to simply survive. It’s a top 15 offense that also rebounds upwards of 40 percent of its misses. I should probably know myself well enough to know that my prediction skills are garbage and therefore the Houston pick is doomed, so I should just take UCLA here. Which I almost did. But I don’t know, guys. Maybe this time Lucy won’t pull the football back.

Justin Williams: After a season where Alabama’s football-mad fans were apoplectic over a two-loss non-playoff campaign and nursing a straight Georgia title, I love the irony of Nate Oats and the Crimson Tide winning the program’s first men’s basketball championship. Bama has a horde of exciting freshmen, led by Brandon Miller, an experienced fifth-year senior in Jahvon Quinerly, and an electrifying in-state transfer point guard in Mark Sears. The Tide went after that in nonconference, beating Houston, Michigan State, North Carolina and Memphis with their only two losses coming against UConn and Gonzaga. They are currently undefeated in SEC play, though they still have Auburn twice and Tennessee on the road. This team will be untested in March, but with enough easier matchups in conference play (thanks, South Carolina) to avoid running out of gas.

Brendan Marks: I’m obviously the wrong guy to ask; I took North Carolina in the preseason, which … has aged like unchilled milk. Technically it’s still possible, but I’ll take a mulligan and pick again. Purdue is still probably the best team I’ve seen live this season — topping Alabama, UConn, Xavier, Texas and Virginia before the collapse — but I just can’t bring myself to trust a brand new backcourt that wins six games in March , even together with such a uniquely unique as Edey.

So give me… Arizona? The Wildcats have wins over their biggest competition in the Pac-12, UCLA — which also deserves consideration here — and have one of the best resumes in the country. Azuolas Tubelis is playing like an All-American, Oumar Ballo and Kerr Kriisa are ideal complementary players, and as evidenced by a recent lineup change, Tommy Lloyd is still figuring out how to get the most out of his team. Am I a little worried about Arizona’s defense and the fact that it’s not a great defensive rebounding or turnover-forcing team despite its size? Absolutely I am. But I also think you can pick 15 different answers to this question and Zona is a valid one.

(Photo of Arizona’s Pelle Larrson and UCLA’s Tyger Campbell: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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