It's the first Monday in November and you know what that means: Believe it or not, college hoops starts today!!!!
While we can debate the merits of opening night, wonder why it isn't bigger and there aren't better games, I'm going to decide to do the opposite instead - and simply embrace the sport.
And I'm going to do it by giving you my Final Four and national title picks.
The road to March starts today, and here is who I have winning it all:
Duke (National Champion)
Yes, for the Duke haters out there, I know it brings you great pain to see this. And I know some will whine "What has Jon Scheyer ever done."
I get it. I also know that Duke has the best combination of sheer talent, experience and depth of anyone in college basketball.
First off, as UConn taught us last year, there is - regardless of seeding - a baseline level of NBA talent you need to win in this sport. UConn wasn't the best team all regular season (although they were for a significant stretch in November and December) but come March, they simply overwhelmed teams, with a roster that three guys who ended up on NBA opening night rosters, and another two or three guys who will probably play in the league some day.
Well, Duke has that. To Scheyer's credit, he convinced a bunch of guys who were fringe second round NBA type talents like Kyle Filipowski, Tyrese Proctor and Mark Mitchell to all return this season. They will join Jeremy Roach, giving Duke four of its top five scorers back from a season ago.
And really that last part is key as well.
Another lesson we learned last year is that player retention and development matters. All four teams in the Final Four a year ago (and several others like Texas, Gonzaga etc. who made the Elite Eight) had a large part of their rosters back from a year before. Duke retained virtually every key player off last year's roster.
Add in key freshmen for depth and Duke to me is the best team on paper this year, by a pretty significant margin.
I'm taking the Blue Devils to cut down the nets in Arizona in April.
Creighton (national runner's up)
Now, this is where it starts to get interesting, as I have Creighton - not reigning national champion UConn, or reigning Big East champion Marquette - as my pick to make the deepest run of any Big East team.
Now, I know what some are saying: "Creighton? Torres, really?"
First off, this is a group that made the Elite Eight last year, and was a play or two from getting to the Final Four a year ago. And like Duke they return a bunch of key pieces from that squad, including a few who could arguably be on NBA rosters right now. Guard Trey Alexander spurned the NBA at the 11th hour even though he likely would've been drafted, and Ryan Kalkbrenner is one of the best bigs in college basketball. He too, likely would've been drafted had he declared. Baylor Schiereman is a do-it-all swiss army knife in the backcourt as well.
And while the Jays lost a few key players to the portal (Ryan Nembhard to Gonzaga, Arthur Kaluma, Kansas State) I believe it to be addition by subtraction, and they will be replaced with equally talented pieces who fit this team better. Guard Steven Ashworth comes over to run the point after leading Utah State to an NCAA Tournament last year, while Isaac Traudt will slide into the forward spot.
My only concern with this team is depth, as they really can't afford any big injuries.
But after knocking on the door of the Final Four a year ago, the Jays will get there this year.
Tennessee (Final Four)
Forgive me for being the 3,287th college basketball writer who is buying into the Tennessee Vols this year. But I truly believe this is Rick Barnes best and deepest team he's had.
Like the teams mentioned above, the Vols retained old, veteran talent this off-season. Santiago Vescovi, Josiah Jordan-James, Jahmai Mashack and others are back from last year's Sweet 16 team, and last year's starting point guard Zakai Ziegler will return as well. Ziegler missed the home stretch with an injury last season, but has been fully cleared.
This team will again play elite defense, but if we learned anything from the Vols exhibition win over Michigan State, it's that they now have scoring pop too. Dalton Knecht comes over from Northern Colorado after scoring 20 points per game last season, and immediately adds the shooting and backcourt scoring that this team lacked a year ago.
For all the talk about Rick Barnes in the tournament, he has made the second weekend in two of the last four NCAA Touranment's played, including last year where he did it without his starting point guard.
He returns to the Final Four for the first time since 2002, and the Vols the first time ever in 2023-2024.
North Carolina (Final Four)
Ok, yes, I have officially done it. I have bought back into the North Carolina Tar Heels heading into the 2023-2024 season.
Please send help.
The bottom line is that North Carolina returns a a couple of vets who were part of that magical Final Four run two years ago (Armando Bacot and RJ Davis) and surrounded them with a perfect supporting cast through the portal and high school ranks. Cormac Ryan, Harrison Ingram and Paxson Wojcik all add depth, shooting and experience to this squad, while Elliot Cadeau is the true pass first point guard, this program has been lacking for years.
In the end, I know people have their doubts on Hubert Davis, and they're fair. But I'd argue that if the program was falling apart, both Bacot and Davis could've left (either via transfer or pro).
They're bought into the program and coach and I am too.
I expect Carolina in the Final Four.
National Player of the Year - Armando Bacot (North Carolina)
It's easy to forget now, but it was just two years ago that Bacot had - quite literally - one of the greatest NCAA Tournament runs we've ever seen, with four straight 15+ rebound games and a 20-20 performance to send the Tar Heels to the Final Four.
Then he returned last year and wasn't fully healthy, all while playing with a "point guard" who cared more about padding his own stats than getting others involved (sorry Caleb Love, it's true).
Back, healthy, motivated and with a team more focused on running the offense through him, I think Bacot re-establishes himself as a star and the best player in college basketball.