NCAA Football

So … who’s going to win it all? Our experts update their men’s national title picks


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

With men’s college basketball seven weeks from the start of the NCAA Tournament, The Athletic is taking stock of the 2022-23 season and predicting what’s to come. With that in mind, a panel of five experts will debate different topics all week. Up 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 truly have no idea. This is a good thing. We’ve entered 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 like eight or nine (or maybe even slightly more?) very high-level teams, all with flaws, all of whom could conceivably win the thing, and picking between any of 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 go missing. (Getting tons of offensive rebounds is great, but if no one’s ever making shots, all those extra possessions only go so far.) This same issue (with arguably greater extremity) is what keeps us from going all in on Tennessee. I’ll go a little bit crazy post-Arizona loss and pick UCLA, where they boast key guys with deep tournament experience, a great veteran point guard, a splash of top frosh talent, and elite team defense. But again: darts at the board.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

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

Seth Davis: I’ve got Purdue as my No. 1 team, so right now they’re my pick. Sometimes we get too stuck to conventions and history, and in Purdue’s case both those things make me feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick that field goal with Lucy holding. (Or Brett Maher trying to kick a PAT. Too soon?) One of those conventions is that you need to have great guard play to win a national championship. Well guess what — Purdue has that. And I’m not just talking about those fearless freshmen Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer. I’m talking about the Big Maple himself. He’s not a playmaking point guard, but Zach Edey is expert at recognizing and passing out of double teams. You simply cannot guard this man one on one, but he’s so good at reading the defensive help that he almost always makes the correct pass. And of course, it’s easier for him because he’s always passing over 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 great at this part of the game. They just need to be good enough, which clearly they 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 on KenPom, so they must be doing something right. That ranking has gone up during the course of the season, and combined with their No. 4 ranking in offensive efficiency, clearly we have a championship-caliber team.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

How the No. 196 freshman recruit became a Final Four contender’s floor general

Brian Hamilton: Picked Houston before the season started and sticking with the Cougars at this moment. The Temple loss was … suspect. I just can’t get past the idea that the whole operation is predicated on defense and rebounding missed shots at the other end … and now Houston’s offense is efficient enough where there’s just less variability involved. It doesn’t need second-chance scoring to merely 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 my predicting skills are trash, 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 in which Alabama’s football-crazed fans were apoplectic over a two-loss, Playoff-less campaign and nursing a second-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 for it in nonconference, beating Houston, Michigan State, North Carolina and Memphis, with their only two losses 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 beyond battle-tested come March, but with enough easier matchups in conference play (thank you, South Carolina) to avoid running out of gas.

Brendan Marks: I’m apparently the wrong guy to ask; I took North Carolina in the preseason, which … has aged like unrefrigerated milk. Technically it’s still possible, but I’ll take a mulligan and select again. Purdue is still probably the best team I’ve seen live this season — topping Alabama, pre-collapse UConn, Xavier, Texas, and Virginia — but I just can’t bring myself to trust an all-freshman backcourt winning six games in March, even alongside someone as singularly unique as Edey.

So I guess give me … Arizona? The Wildcats are coming off a win over their biggest competition in the Pac-12, UCLA — who 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 from his team. Am I slightly worried about Arizona’s defense, and the fact that it isn’t an awesome defensive rebounding or turnover-forcing team despite its size? Absolutely I am. But I also think you could pick probably 15 different answers for 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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