Welcome to the Year of the Big Man in men's college basketball. Maybe the Year of the Big Coaching Change, too. There are a lot of threads to follow once the 2023-24 season begins in 12 days.
Let's start with the return of Zach Edey, last year's Wooden Award winner who solidifies Purdue as the favorite in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers have a chance to avenge last season's historic first-round upset loss to 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson and chase a national title. Virginia did the same thing five years ago. Maybe Purdue will, too.
In the ACC, Duke's Kyle Filipowski, an AP preseason first-team All-American, decided to postpone his NBA dreams and return to lead a strong Blue Devils squad that will have to top North Carolina -- determined to erase a disastrous 2022-23 season that ended without an NCAA tournament berth -- and national semifinalist Miami to win the league championship and vie for the national title in Jon Scheyer's second year at the helm.
Hunter Dickinson, the talented big man who anchored Michigan a year ago, and his new Kansas team might stand in the way, though. Dickinson's arrival in Lawrence elevated the Jayhawks to the No. 1 spot in the AP preseason top 25 poll. "I want everybody to know we're better than them," he told ESPN at Big 12 media day earlier this month. Nothing will be easy in the Big 12, though, which adds last year's AAC champion Houston along with three other schools this season, as realignment continues to redefine collegiate sports.
On the West Coast, Arizona and Oumar Ballo look like a team with Final Four hopes, while UCLA, Colorado and USC (with or without Bronny James) all seem capable of winning games in March, too. For the Pac-12, ending its 26-year national championship drought in its final year of existence as we know it would be a remarkable storyline -- even if it does seem unlikely.
Finally, there will once again be noise around reigning national champion UConn, which hopes to win back-to-back NCAA titles for the first time since Florida in 2006 and 2007. The Huskies will face competition within the Big East from Marquette and Creighton, which are also contenders for the league's fourth national title since 2016. The top story however remains Rick Pitino's return, with the task of boosting St. John's as well as Ed Cooley's similar attempt to revitalize Georgetown.
These aren't the only storylines we'll be watching this season -- there's plenty surrounding the top conferences. ESPN's Jeff Borzello, Joe Lunardi, John Gasaway and Myron Medcalf discuss some of the topics heading into the 2023-24 men's college basketball season.
Is the Big 12 the most dominant conference in the sport? Why or why not?
John Gasaway: All hail the Big 12, it is indeed the most dominant men's Division I conference. For the past few years that statistical status was a product not only of national titles won by Baylor (2021) and Kansas (2022) but also of the league's relatively svelte 10-team configuration. (In this case fewer members meant a lower probability of having multiple weak teams.) Now? The Big 12 has added four new programs and it's still tops, thanks in large part to first-year member Houston.
Myron Medcalf: Yes. And if you like what the Big 12 has now, just wait until next season when Arizona arrives next season. With the addition of Houston this year, however, the league has gained a squad that averaged nearly 30 wins over the past five years and made four second-week appearances in the past four NCAA tournaments. You can measure a league by its depth: A West Virginia squad that finished 7-11 in Big 12 play last season made the NCAA tournament. You can also measure a league by its best teams: The top lineup of Houston, Kansas, Baylor and Texas is unmatched. The Big 12 is still the king of college basketball.
Jeff Borzello: The Big 12 has been the most dominant league in the country for most of the past decade, ranking No. 1 at KenPom in eight of the past 10 years and No. 2 the other two seasons. And national championships by Baylor and Kansas cemented its spot atop the hierarchy of the sport. But with a 10-team league, it felt like the entire league was in NCAA tournament contention for the first three-plus months of the season. That led to hugely impressive Quadrant 1 and 2 records, better computer numbers, etc. Houston will continue that trend, but UCF, BYU and Cincinnati have to pull their weight as well.
Joe Lunardi: The Big 12 is about to learn a hard lesson. Major expansion, which for this season is a leap from 10 to 14 schools, almost always results in declining metrics across a league. The days of seriously considering 80% or 90% of Big 12 teams for NCAA bids is over. The Big Ten to some extent and the ACC for sure have already been down this road. The internal math simply doesn't work, and we'll be redefining dominant before too long.
The Big East has four teams in the AP preseason top 25. What does that say about the league's recent trajectory and whether it can pull off a repeat national title?
Lunardi: We should know better than to trust the preseason polls. North Carolina was an overwhelming No. 1 choice last year and missed the NCAA tournament altogether. That said, this season's Big East boasts both quality and quantity. The conference also has a long history of strong NCAA performances. With several schools finally catching up to Villanova, the Big East has a good a chance as any league to see a repeat national champion.
Medcalf: I don't think the poll tells the full story about the Big East. The league's top tier has been strong for a decade. And this season's national title contenders (Marquette, Creighton, UConn) will extend that trend. But the league is set to be even deeper in the years ahead. The second tier (Villanova, Xavier, etc.) could elevate the entire conference, which sent five teams to the 2023 NCAA tournament, this season and beyond. In the future, Rick Pitino's arrival at St. John's and Ed Cooley's switch from Providence to Georgetown could put the Big East in the same conversation as the Big 12 when it comes to the deepest leagues in America if those programs grow under new leadership.
Borzello: The questions from a decade ago about the Big East's viability seem like ancient history with the league claiming three of the past seven national championships and three teams inside the preseason top 10. It's a league that has always prided itself on having the best coaches in the country and with Rick Pitino joining a group that already included Dan Hurley, Sean Miller, Ed Cooley, Shaka Smart, Greg McDermott and others, that's still a talking point. And with three clear-cut Final Four contenders in Marquette, Creighton and UConn, another national title isn't out of the question.
Gasaway: The hoops gods have really smiled on the Big East lately. The moment Jay Wright stepped down at Villanova with four Sweet 16s, three Final Fours and two national titles over his last seven years, the league was ready with a UConn team that absolutely dominated the 2023 tournament. And the Huskies weren't even the best team during the league's regular season. That was Marquette, and Shaka Smart's bringing almost everyone back. Somewhere Dave Gavitt is smiling.
Check out the some of Zach Edey's top highlights at Purdue last season.
How ready are you to forgive and forget that last Purdue game you saw and go all in with the KenPom No. 1 Boilermakers? Which team(s) can deny Matt Painter a second straight outright Big Ten title?
Medcalf: The NCAA tournament is the greatest sporting event in the world. It's also the worst way to determine a champion. Purdue had a terrible night against Fairleigh Dickinson in March. But Tyler Hansbrough returned for another year after winning the 2008 Wooden Award and led his team to the 2009 national title. Edey could do the same. I'm also going to assume that this team can do what Virginia did in 2019 and regroup to compete for a national title after suffering a stunning upset.
Lunardi: The Boilermakers won an eight-bid league by three full games a year ago. They also collected a conference tournament title. Those accomplishments say much more about Purdue's prospects than a 40-minute anomaly in March. For what it's worth, Virginia won the ACC by four games (and the conference tourney) when it lost to UMBC in 2018. The Cavs weren't as reliable the following year until it really mattered. We may be saying the same thing about Purdue in April.
Gasaway: Purdue outscored the Big Ten by 0.10 points per possession last year and Zach Edey's still here. So, yes, I anticipate taking the Boilermakers all the way in my 2024 bracket. Unless of course Matt Painter's team is paired against Princeton, NJIT, Monmouth, Rider or the Hackensack School of Interpretive Dance. Over the past two seasons, Purdue has gone 58-14, but is 2-4 against teams from New Jersey. If the Boilers were in the MAAC they'd be a bubble team.
Borzello: Upsets happen in March. But the Boilermakers played 34 other games last season and were undoubtedly one of the four or five best teams in the country in those games. And they still have Zach Edey. Purdue will have stiffer competition for the Big Ten title this season, though. Michigan State is one spot behind them in my preseason rankings; the Spartans bring back four starters and have a top-five recruiting class.
On SEC Now, Antonio Reeves details mentoring the young Wildcats' roster while Coach Cal highlights the hype, saying "every game we play is someone's Super Bowl."
Since 2019, Kentucky hasn't made it past the first NCAA tournament weekend, and the SEC as a whole hasn't had a team in the Final Four. Which of these streaks is more likely to come to an end this season, and why?
Lunardi: Both negative streaks should come to an end this season, but I'd bet on the league (Final Four) before I'd bet on Kentucky (Sweet 16). At least five teams have Final Four potential, including the Wildcats, and there have been several deep runs by SEC teams recently that have fallen just shy of the last weekend. My personal choice to reach the Final Four this year is Tennessee, but I also wouldn't be surprised if either Alabama or Arkansas got there.
Gasaway: Since any team's chances to make it past the first weekend are but one in four, I too will go with the SEC as a whole ending its run of national semifinal futility at 0-for-3 (shocking, I know, but hey the Big Ten's right there too, and the Pac-12 is 0-for-5). My vote of confidence in the top half of the league collectively, however, includes a frank admission that no single team might be as strong as, say, Alabama was last year.
Borzello: Kentucky's. The Wildcats might start slow as their three talented centers -- Aaron Bradshaw, Ugonna Onyenso, Zvonimir Ivisic -- all deal with injuries or availability questions, but there's a ton of talent on the roster and it will click at the right time. If there is a team to break the SEC's Final Four drought, my money would also be on the Vols. They have more offensive firepower to go with a defense near the top of the rankings annually.
Medcalf: I'll go with the Wildcats as well. This team has the makeup of the most successful Kentucky teams that have played under John Calipari. He'll have depth in the paint but also a group of playmakers on the perimeter with Antonio Reeves, Justin Edwards, D.J. Wagner and Rob Dillingham. I think it has a balance that the Wildcats have lacked in recent years. That should be sufficient to get to the second weekend. If that doesn't happen, the whole thing could end in a messy divorce if Calipari decides his time in Kentucky is over or the school decides to move on without him.
Check out some of the best moments from Duke's first season under coach Jon Scheyer as he agrees to a six-year contract extension.
The ACC's success this season depends on:
Gasaway: How people define the term. North Carolina and Duke faced off in the 2022 Final Four. Success! Yet the league contributed just one top-four seed (the Blue Devils) to that bracket. In broad terms, the conference has transitioned nicely from Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams to the next generation. Then again, the ACC's top-to-bottom strength remains a concern, one not assuaged by the impending arrivals of Cal, Stanford and SMU.
Lunardi: A collective rebound. The top of the conference hasn't produced a No. 1 seed since 2019 and the middle of the league has been largely absent from NCAA bubble conversations. Tournament success has masked what can honestly be called a precipitous leaguewide decline. If and when that turns around, it will be the usual suspects -- Duke and North Carolina -- leading the way. In the meantime, there is plenty of mediocrity ahead.
Borzello: The middle of the pack. Last season the league had three 4- or 5-seed teams in the NCAA tournament, then two 11-seed teams -- and nobody else in the dance. In 2022, there was a 2-seed, and four teams with seeds between 8 and 11. The ACC needs more top-to-bottom competitiveness. Not coincidentally, there seems to be very little preseason hype for anyone outside of Duke, UNC and Miami entering the campaign. Which team(s) will step up?
Medcalf: The bottom of the league. Last season, the ACC finished with six sub-100 teams in the NET rankings. The average NET of those teams (Syracuse, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Florida State, Louisville) was 197. The Big East, Pac-12 and Big Ten combined had seven sub-100 teams at the end of last year. But the ACC's bottom tier impacts the NCAA tournament projections around its best. The problem is that this league's basement is the worst in the country. Improvement there will define the league's strength and success this season.
With the Pac-12 as we know it in its final season, what are your expectations from this group of teams and its chances in March?
Borzello: The Pac-12 has had only two Final Four appearances since UCLA rattled off three in a row from 2006 to 2008, and the Bruins are entering a rebuilding season, so expecting a Pac-12 national championship in its final season seems like a stretch. But Arizona has the talent -- and with the additions of a couple of transfers, the toughness -- to win games in March. The Wildcats are the favorites to win the league. Elsewhere, USC has an elite backcourt, Colorado is intriguing and UCLA is still UCLA.
Medcalf: I think Oumar Ballo and Arizona have Final Four potential. And UCLA, Colorado and USC could compete in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. But I'm not convinced there is an undeniable national championship contender in this conference. The league has averaged four NCAA tournament berths over the past three seasons, and I suspect this year will follow that trend. But I don't think the Pac-12 will end its 26-year national championship drought this season.
Gasaway: Laptops are rightly showing Arizona the love, Andy Enfield's quietly established stability at a high level at USC and don't be shocked if Mick Cronin pulls a rabbit out of his hat tipping off the post-Jaime Jaquez Jr./Tyger Campbell era at UCLA. Alternately, if the suits in the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC poached the wrong programs there will be red faces should Oregon State face Washington State in the 2024 national title game.
Lunardi: All we can say for sure is that this season's Pac-12 champion won't be a member of the conference next year. Washington State and Oregon State will be the last teams standing at that time, and neither is in the title mix for 2023-24. Having grown up following the UCLA dynasty, I'm more sad than expectant entering the league's last campaign. Arizona is good enough to play in April, but that's the high-water mark for this sinking ship.
Team listed first/alone is the consensus pick in each conference; teams listed in parentheses received at least one vote. * Denotes a unanimous pick from our panel to win the conference race.
ACC: Duke Blue Devils (North Carolina Tar Heels)
America East: Vermont Catamounts (UMass Lowell River Hawks)
American: Florida Atlantic Owls*
Atlantic 10: Dayton Flyers*
Atlantic Sun: Eastern Kentucky Colonels
Big 12: No consensus (Kansas Jayhawks, Houston Cougars)
Big East: No consensus (UConn Huskies, Creighton Bluejays)
Big Sky: Weber State Wildcats*
Big South: UNC Asheville Bulldogs*
Big Ten: Purdue Boilermakers*
Big West: No consensus (UC Santa Barbara Gauchos, UC Irvine Anteaters)
Coastal Athletic Association: Charleston Cougars (Drexel Dragons)
Conference USA: Liberty Flames*
Horizon League: No consensus (Northern Kentucky Norse, Wright State Raiders)
Ivy League: Yale Bulldogs*
Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference: No consensus (Rider Broncs, Iona Gaels)
Mid-American: Akron Zips (Kent State Golden Flashes)
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference: Howard Bison*
Missouri Valley: Drake Bulldogs*
Mountain West: San Diego State Aztecs*
Northeast Conference: Sacred Heart Pioneers (Wagner Seahawks)
Ohio Valley: Morehead State Eagles (Tennessee State Tigers)
Pac-12: Arizona Wildcats*
Patriot League: Colgate Raiders*
SEC: Tennessee Volunteers (Alabama Crimson Tide)
Southern: Furman Paladins (UNC Greensboro Spartans)
Southland: McNeese Cowboys*
SWAC: Jackson State Tigers (Texas Southern Tigers)
Summit League: South Dakota State Jackrabbits*
Sun Belt: Appalachian State Mountaineers (James Madison Dukes)
Western Athletic Conference: Grand Canyon Lopes*
West Coast Conference: Gonzaga Bulldogs*