While college basketball experts try to tell you every year "This season is as wide open as ever" - the 2022-2023 really seems to actually be that way.
Purdue has held the top spot in the polls for weeks. Now it's Alabama. At times, UConn has looked like the best, with Houston, Virginia, Texas and others all staking their claim as good enough to win it all. Heck, you know this season is crazy when North Carolina was No. 1 in the preseason - and now fighting for their tourney lives.
So with exactly two weeks until March, we asked our college hoops crew, one simple question:
If you had to bet on one team to win it all today, who would it be and why?
Aaron Torres, AT Media college hoops writer Zac Krull and former Division I head coach Jamion Christian shared their thoughts:
Zac Krull - UCLA
The 2022-2023 College Basketball season has been one that we’ve never quite seen before. By this time of year, at least one or two teams gain some major traction and are labeled as the “favorites”, however that hasn’t necessarily been the case so far this season. Purdue was ranked as the No. 1 ranked team in the country for three straight weeks, but fell out of the top spot after Sunday’s loss to Northwestern. While Matt Painter has done a great job with this group, many people have a difficult time trusting Purdue considering last season’s shocking Sweet 16 loss to Saint Peters. In addition, Alabama is currently the No. 1 ranked team in the country and have had an amazing season under head coach Nate Oats. The worry with Alabama is just how reliant they are on the three point-shot and just one-off night can knock you out of a one and done tournament.
One common theme we have seen in college basketball during recent years, is experience coming up clutch in the big dance. Each of the last two National Champions haven’t started a single freshman and virtually everyone who played for both teams had NCAA Tournament experience. In addition, 33 of the 37 National Title winners since the NCAA Tournament expanded, have been a No. 1, two or three seed.
There is one team that fits these qualifications to a core, and that is Mick Cronin's UCLA Bruins. UCLA shocked the world back in 2021, making it all the way to the Final 4 as a No. 11 seed in the Big Dance. UCLA even had to win five games to get there, considering they were put in Dayton for the "First Four" that season. After barely squeaking by Michigan State, UCLA was able to ride that momentum all the way to the Final Four and were just one miraculous Jalen Suggs shot away from getting to Monday Night.
Fast Forward two years later, and this UCLA team still has a very strong DNA from that run two years ago. There aren’t many better players in college hoops right now than Jamie Jaquez Jr., who has played in over 120 games throughout his college career, with over 1,500 points during that stretch. Jaquez has really elevated his game so far this season, including a masterful 25-point, 12 rebound performance in UCLA’s victory against Oregon on Saturday night. In addition, there aren’t many point guards I trust in the country over Tyger Campbell. Another senior with plenty of NCAA Tournament experience, Campbell is currently four in the Pac 12 in assists per game and is a maestro in the mid-range. UCLA has a somewhat uncanny formula to win games, that includes playing elite defense and hitting a handful of mid-range jump shots. While today’s modern version of basketball has shifted away from that shot, UCLA has embraced it and you can’t blame them, considering this was a very similar formula that got them to the Final Four.
One major difference between this UCLA team and the Bruins we saw two years ago, is the development of Jaylen Clark. Only averaging 2.5 points in nine minutes per game as a Freshman, Clark has burst onto the scene as one of the best and most versatile, valuable players in the sport. As one of the elite defenders in the sport, Clark not only leads the Pac-12 in steals per game with 2.7, but that also ranks third in the entire country in the category. Clark has also shown his ability to contribute on the offensive side of the floor, averaging 13.2 points per game and even hitting the game winning three-pointer with under 10 seconds left to give UCLA the victory over USC on January 5th. Clark isn’t even the only premiere defender on this Bruins team, considering freshman big man Adem Bona is 4th in the Pac 12 in blocks per game with 1.5 Mick Cronin has been one of the elite coaches in college basketball over the course of the last decade plus and it was great to see him breakthrough to his first Final 4 in 2021.
However, Cronin isn’t always recognized among the sports best, and that shouldn't be the case based on what he’s done since arriving in Westwood. Cronin is 88-39 overall and 52-18 in Pac 12 Conference play during his 4 years at UCLA. This is after, finishing with a 668 overall winning percentage at Cincinnati, and getting them to the NCAA Tournament in each of his final 9 years there consecutively. With some of the biggest legends in the coaching industry recently walking away, Cronin would have a legitimate chance to cement himself as one of the premier coaches in the sport with a National Title and this might be his best chance to do it.
Jamion Christian - Virginia
When you watch Virginia you know what you’re going to get, every time they step on the floor: high energy, maturity, and physicality. It’s going to be hell for the other team to score and they will have to chase these dudes all around on offense.
Head Coach Tony Bennett’s ability to reset the needle this year with experienced and talented players isn’t talked about enough. Somehow this team is older, experienced, and still extremely hungry. As the season has progressed, they are one of the few teams that has stayed consistent in terms of performance, game in and game out. Looking at their schedule, you can see that unlike some other teams in the Top 10 they have been ready - mentally and physically - to play whomever is across from them.
I love their maturity on the floor. It will be a huge advantage for them over the less experienced teams.
Players improving as the season continues:
Rarely when I watch a game does someone or something jump off the screen for me. But when I watch Virginia play, I see several players who have the ability to change the game. Reece Beekman, Armaan Franklin and Kihei Clark get a lot of credit - and it is well deserved. But Jayden Gardner and the way that Bennett uses him as both a ball mover and as a post up threat is really unique.
In the Year of the Big, it could be the tweener who dominates the month of March.
Gardner has been productive his entire career and I do believe this year has been his most dominant in affecting his team’s winning record. I think it is important to add a reserve who can get comfortable quickly: as of late, it’s been Ryan Dunn. His minutes through the year have been up and down, but recently he has been making winning plays in big moments. Don’t be surprised to see him in a big moment, coming up huge for the Cavaliers.
Can you win close but you also blow teams out?
With the way Virginia defends, it will always be tough to score on them. The physicality, the long hard hedges on ball screens, and how they get back defensively creates havoc for their opponents. They aren’t going to beat themselves on the defensive side of the ball. They are one of the rare teams whose style of play lends to low scoring games or games where they can beat you by a quick 20. As the competition rises, you do not want to be in a dog fight with a team that may have great, individual talent. Being able to stretch those leads out against teams with one or two dominant players becomes really important.
Aaron Torres - Alabama
I'll readily admit this: While most in the media always try to claim the sport is "wide open" to drum up interest in March, most years that's a total farce. As I always say, in the last 15 NCAA Tournaments, 12 have been won by No. 1 seeds, one by the top two seed (Villanova in 2016) and the other two by UConn in 2011 and 2014 when they had Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier leading them.
Therefore, history tells us that if you're not a No. 1 seed or have the best player, you're probably not winning this thing.
But with that said, this year really is wide open. There are probably minimum 10-12 teams I could see winning it all.
Still, there has been one team that has consistently stood above everyone else all year. So in a season where seemingly no one can separate themselves, I'll instead go with the team that has been consistently best: The Alabama Crimson Tide.
Yes, that sounds weird to write: Alabama, as a basketball power.
And yes, in a sport dominated by older teams, I feel weird picking one that has four freshmen who play significant minutes.
At the same time, freshmen led teams won it in 2012 (Kentucky) and 2015 (Duke) so it's not like it can't be done.
And in every other way, Alabama fits the bill of a title contender.
One, do they have the baseline talent to win it all? I'd say so. Brandon Miller is a legitimate first team All-American, Noah Clowney will likely be a first round pick if he declares, Jaden Bradley and Rylen Griffen look the part of future NBA players, and overall, this team has four former McDonald's All-Americans in Miller, Bradley, Nimari Burnett and Jahvon Quinerly.
Do they have veteran guards? Yes, they do. Quinerly (a fifth-year senior), Mark Sears (a fifth-year transfer from Ohio) and Burnett (a third-year transfer from Texas Tech who is coming off knee surgery) don't fit the bill of a traditional veteran backcourt, but they are.
Most importantly, they have the single biggest piece needed to win it all: They can beat you in multiple ways.
Need to score in the 80's to win? Alabama is third nationally in scoring.
Need to play in the 60's? Alabama is Top 20 nationally in field goal percentage defense.
Need it with toughness and physicality? They rank in the Top 20 nationally in rebounding and blocked shots.
Yes, this isn't a traditional power, and yes there are plenty of other teams that are capable of winning it all.
But if I can only pick one, with two weeks to go - I'm rolling with the Tide.
Follow Jamion Christian on Twitter - @JamionChristian
Follow Zac Krull on Twitter - @ZacKrull_