It really does feel strange to say, but college hoops is... BACK TONIGHT, PEOPLE!
That's right, it's been since April since we last got an on the court product, which was followed by six months of transfer, NBA Draft decision, extra year of eligibility and reclassification insanity.
But today, it all starts again, and doesn't really stop until championship night, in April, in Houston.
And as I do every year, I will make my preseason Final Four and national title picks before the games are played.
Here they are:
TCU Horned Frogs:
No, this is not a typo.
Yes, I like TCU to make a Final Four.
Not football (although that could happen too).
So, what could my logic be behind this? Well, it really goes back to last year. The Horned Frogs were a veteran team that never really jumped off the page all season, more so because the Big 12 was insanely good, than that TCU wasn't. However, they quietly got hot late and did their best damage in March. In a fun, historical fact that no one cares about, they were actually the last team to beat Kansas last season (who went on to win a national title), and took No. 1 seed Arizona down to the wire, before losing in overtime in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Well, basically that entire team, including the top six scorers on their roster are back.
And I believe they'll run it back in a big way. All the way to the Final Four.
Truthfully, this team has it all. They have an NBA-caliber veteran guard in Mike Miles, who was first team All-Big 12 last year while averaging 15 points and four assists, and very well could be an All-American last year. Scoring on the wing and size down low with Eddie Lampkin. And like most teams in the league they play elite defense.
More than anything though, they're a veteran team, in a veteran sport, with guys that know each other, the system and the Big 12. As a matter of fact, I spoke with someone around the program this summer, and that's what he emphasized to me.
His exact quote was, "Basically we don't have to install anything on offense or defense. We could play a game tonight if we had to."
Well, they haven't played yet, but did make a statement in an exhibition earlier this fall. They played a good Alabama team, and... beat them so bad that Alabama had to call a player's only meeting afterward.
A player's only meeting.
In the preseason.
This team is locked, loaded and ready to rip people's heads off.
I expect to see them in Houton at the Final Four.
I'll be honest, as rosters started to get finalized last spring and summer, I remember thinking to myself "Damn I like UCLA. Maybe to win the title."
Then the fall rolled around, and UCLA became everyone's trendy, "You know, don't sleep on UCLA" pick, so I decided to hedge my bets here.
No national title. But I will take them to make the second Final Four in three years under Mick Cronin.
And the reason why is straightforward: Every national champion in my life has had a few things in common, and UCLA basically checks all those boxes:
Veteran guard play? UCLA's got it with Tyger Campbell
Players with legitimate NBA upside? I believe Jamie Jacquez and freshmen Adem Bona and Amari Bailey could all be first round NBA Draft picks this year.
Glue guys that play hard, know their role and defend? If you don't know the name Jaylen Clark, learn it quickly.
In the end, there is just a lot to like about this team. Keep in mind that Jacquez averaged 14 and six last year basically playing on a bad ankle most of the year, and could emerge into an All-American type player. Bailey also feels like he's flying under the radar, after a Covid-ravaged junior season and injured plagued senior season.
Point being, I like this team.
National Runner's Up:
At this point, we all know the deal on Houston: They play insane defense. Make you insanely uncomfortable. And there's a legitimate that Kelvin Sampson might be the best basketball coach in college hoops.
In the last four NCAA Tournament's played, Houston was a buzzer beater away from the Sweet 16 in 2018, a near-buzzer beater away from the Elite Eight in 2019, made a Final Four in 2021 and made an Elite Eight last season.
This, at a school that had no relevant hoops moments in the 30 years before he arrived.
And the crazy part about last year was, as has been well-documented, they did it in a season where their two best players - Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark - were out with injuries from December on.
Well, both of those guys are healthy and back, which takes the Cougars from another "really good team" to one that can make the Final Four.
For those who haven't seen Sasser play, he's a killer, who averaged 18 points prior to injury a season ago. Despite not stepping on the court from late-December on, he entered the NBA Draft and nearly did enough to play himself into the first round, before choosing to come back.
Well, now he and Mark add real offensive firepower, to what is always one of the best defensive teams in the sport.
Also returning alongside them will be guards Jamal Shead (who really improved in the absence of the two injured players listed above) and Ramon Walker. In the frontcourt, Reggie Chaney is back, and freshman McDonald's All-American Jarace Walker fits the mold of a typical Houston big man. Fellow freshman Terrence Arceneaux is a long-term NBA prospect to look out for.
This Houston is deep, talented and tough.
North Carolina Tar Heels
I know, I know, I already can tell what you're thinking: "AT, North Carolina? Come on man! They only got hot in the NCAA Tournament! They're overrated!!!!"
Which is a cute narrative, it really is. If only it were right.
The bottom line is, North Carolina didn't "only get hot in the tournament." Over the final two months of the calendar season, the Tar Heels went 13-3, which included a win at Duke in Coach K's final home, knocking out the defending champion Baylor Bears from the NCAA Tournament and making a run to the title game.
Now, they return four starters off that team.
And it's not like those starters are bad players. Caleb Love would've probably been a late first round pick if he'd declared for the draft, and Armando Bacot and RJ Davis are both McDonald's All-American's. This team should also be deeper, with guys like Puff Johnson back.
The final piece of the puzzle was added late in the summer when former Northwestern forward Pete Nance joined this group, adding shooting and versatility to the front court.
This team is deep, talented and most importantly, has a group of guys who have tasted high level tournament success and came back for this moment: To win it all.
The North Carolina Tar Heels will be your 2022-2023 national champions.