In what could be a season full of mystery, the 2023-24 men’s college basketball season tips off Monday.
Zach Edey, the reigning Wooden Award winner, returns for Purdue, which hopes to duplicate Virginia‘s feat and put last year’s first-round loss to Fairleigh Dickinson behind it with a national title run. The sport also hasn’t had a back-to-back Wooden Award winner since former Virginia star Ralph Sampson Jr. 40 years ago. Could Edey follow Sampson?
But this landscape lacks a juggernaut. There is no obvious front-runner. And that’s usually a good thing. The new Big 12 (hello, Houston) appears to have multiple national title contenders. Of course, UConn hopes to repeat but it might not even be the best team in the Big East. Marquette or Creighton could claim that honor. The Pac-12’s final season might not yield any grand headlines but Florida Atlantic‘s nucleus from the Final Four run will be one of the biggest stories in college basketball.
Either way, get your popcorn ready. College basketball is back and ESPN’s experts — Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway, Joe Lunardi and Myron Medcalf — have a few last-minute picks and predictions.
2023-24 NATIONAL PREDICTIONS
The most interesting team
John Gasaway: In ways both good and potentially worrying, North Carolina is the pick here. In two seasons under Hubert Davis, the Tar Heels have carried a 15-point lead into halftime at the national championship game one year and missed the tournament entirely the next. What’s the true “new normal” for one of the game’s most storied programs?
Joe Lunardi: Tennessee belongs in the best-golfer-never-to-win-a-major category. The Vols might be the biggest athletic department never to reach a Final Four. In men’s basketball that is. Rick Barnes has been consistently excellent since arriving in Knoxville, but unable to get past the Sweet 16, despite multiple top 10 teams on KenPom. This could (should?) be the year that changes.
Jeff Borzello: I’ll go with FAU. The Owls are ranked in the preseason top 10 after making a run to the Final Four last season and bringing back all five starters. They’re also a team that earned a 9-seed and was seconds away from losing in the first round to Memphis. Do they carry over the momentum? Or do they struggle with a target on their backs in a tougher league (moving from Conference USA to the AAC)?
Myron Medcalf: It has to be the team in Lexington led by the guy with a national championship ring and a $33 million buyout. The relationship between John Calipari and Kentucky will be one of the biggest stories in college basketball this season. With the return of Antonio Reeves and a top-ranked recruiting class, he has the players to win big. But it has also been nearly a decade since he reached the Final Four. Kentucky will be this year’s Netflix drama either way.
The mystery team that will either be a bracket disruptor or a tournament disaster
Gasaway: Can we just pencil in Miami here every season? Last year, the Hurricanes closed the regular season with two games at home in which they lost to Florida State and barely beat Pitt. Then Jim Larrañaga’s group went to the Final Four as a No. 5 seed. Now pollsters have UM at No. 13, but laptops are warning us to stay far away from this team. Mysterious!
Borzello: I have zero idea what to think about UCLA. On the one hand, the Bruins have Mick Cronin, a couple of potential one-and-done freshmen and they bring back Adem Bona on the interior. But there’s hardly any other returning production on the roster, and their best freshmen are coming from overseas, so they will need time to adapt. They could fall anywhere from a second weekend team or barely make the tournament, and I wouldn’t be surprised.
Medcalf: This honor belongs to the Maryland Terrapins. With the return of Jahmir Young, Julian Reese and Donta Scott and the addition of a strong recruiting class, Big Ten title contention and a second weekend run both seem possible for the Terps. But, this program has started 1-3 or worse in Big Ten play for the past three years and hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2016. Kevin Willard could change all of that this season, but I’ll have to see it to believe it.
Lunardi: Let’s make it a mystery conference, perhaps even one you’ve heard of. The Big Ten has collected a whopping 26 NCAA tournament bids the past three years and produced exactly Z-E-R-O teams in the Final Four. That should be impossible, considering 10 of those 26 were top-four seeds in their region. I call that disruption quite disastrous.
The first top 25 team to exit the NCAA tournament
Medcalf: I’ll pick UConn. Why? Recent champs have had rough outings the year after their title runs (or two years later, in Virginia’s case, since we didn’t have a 2020 national championship). Duke’s 2015-16 squad was the last national champion to reach the second weekend in the next NCAA tournament. How wild is that? The Huskies could get caught in a similar title hangover.
Lunardi: Gonzaga hasn’t lost a first-round NCAA tournament game in 15 years, since a guy named Stephen Curry knocked the Bulldogs out. Mark Few is 14-0 in tourney openers since then and 20-3 overall during the Zags’ incredible run. Bracketology loves the Zags, but even the best dealers bust occasionally.
Gasaway: It’s not just UNC last year. History suggests making the preseason top 25 is no guarantee of reaching the tournament. Can we really be certain that, for example, Florida Atlantic will hear its name called next March? The Owls may pick up more losses (four or five?) in this year’s new-look American than they did in last year’s Conference USA (two).
Borzello: I don’t want to take the easy way out and just pick No. 25 Illinois. So, going out on more of a limb, I’ll go with Texas. The Longhorns’ success this season will come down to Max Abmas. Arguably the nation’s best scorer over the past three seasons, how will his production translate to the Big 12? If he’s not putting up huge scoring numbers, I question how dynamic this team will be offensively.
A non-Power 5 school we’ll all be rooting for
Medcalf: It has to be Florida Atlantic, right? It is the anti-transfer portal team. All of those talented players had opportunities to play for other schools after their Final Four run but instead returned to Boca Raton to chase a national championship. I remember the way the world latched onto Butler a year after Gordon Hayward‘s shot clanked off the rim in the national title game against Duke. I think the Owls could enjoy similar fanfare, even though they’re in a league that’s in a higher tier.
Borzello: Finally, Merrimack is eligible for the NCAA tournament. The Warriors haven’t been allowed to go dancing since they were in the midst of their mandatory four-year transition from Division II to Division I, but look at what Joe Gallo has done in those four years: NEC regular-season titles in 2020 and 2023, NEC conference tournament title in 2023. It would be fitting if they get to the NCAA tournament in their first eligible season.
Gasaway: Move over, Syracuse. There’s a new game in town, literally. Le Moyne is also located in Syracuse, New York, and this marks the first season at the Division I level for Nate Champion’s group. Keep an eye on the Dolphins in the NEC all season. Fun fact: John Beilein coached Le Moyne in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Lunardi: Saint Mary’s remains the best true mid-major in the country, sporting back-to-back No. 5 seeds and consecutive second-round NCAA appearances. The Gaels are back for another run and earned the top spot, over Gonzaga, in the WCC coach’s poll. And they have a lifelong chaplain, Brother Bernie LoCoco, who at age 88 is 16 years younger than the ageless Sister Jean!
Max Fiedler makes a sweet dish
Max Fiedler makes a sweet dish
The player everyone should be paying a lot more attention to
Lunardi: Tucker DeVries of Drake doesn’t just play like a coach’s son, he is the son of Bulldogs head man Darian DeVries. Darian has averaged 24.4 wins over six seasons in Des Moines, including 25 and 27 with Tucker roaming the paint. This year’s Bulldogs should be back in the NCAA tournament, this time with a real chance to win.
Gasaway: Max Fiedler at Rice. He was No. 1 in the nation in effective field goal percentage last season while also ranking No. 1 on the team for assist rate. At 6-11, Fiedler operates as a “point center” primarily from the top of the key.
Borzello: Tristan da Silva, Colorado. I cooled on the Buffs as the offseason progressed, although opening with them at No. 13 on the day last season ended obviously was too lofty. But, I still think they’re a team that can win a game or two in March. And da Silva is the primary reason. He’s a 6-foot-9 player from Germany who shot 39.4% from 3 last season and had 11 games of 20-plus points. He also might be the best returning player in the Pac-12.
Medcalf: Fine. I’ll start the Drew Pember bandwagon. At 6-11, he had multiple 40-point games last year and he made 38% of his 3-pointers. At UNC Asheville Bulldogs, he won’t get a lot of national TV buzz unless his team returns to the NCAA tournament. But he’s a unique player in college basketball.
Hunter Dickinson’s top plays from last season
Check out Hunter Dickinson’s top plays of the 2022-23 season as he announced his transfer to Kansas.
The player not named Zach Edey who could win the Wooden Award
Borzello: Hunter Dickinson already has some level of name cachet, he’s already been a productive college player and he’s going to be the star of the preseason No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks. I think it will be very difficult to beat out Edey simply because he’s such a force and his floor is so incredibly high, but if Dickinson can put up 19 and 9 on the best team in the country, there’s certainly an argument.
Lunardi: See Hunter Dickinson above, who could easily end up as the best player on the best team in the country.
Gasaway: Kyle Filipowski, who, like Edey, will be the featured scorer on one of the best offenses in the country. As a sophomore, he will likely start hitting 3s, and he could put up gaudy single-name numbers to add to the buzz.
Medcalf: Dickinson and Filipowski are the answers here. But I’ll add another name: Max Abmas. He has averaged 21.9 PPG, 22.8 PPG and 24.5 PPG the past three seasons at Oral Roberts. If Abmas puts up similar numbers with Texas in the Big 12, he’ll be more than a cool storyline. He could be a serious contender for National Player of the Year honors.
The one storyline you’re watching this season
Gasaway: Are there any great teams this season? Every year around January, without fail, people say there are none, and then I always act all omniscient and say, oh you just wait, one will emerge. That worked out well with the whole UConn thing in 2023, but this year? Not seeing that clear candidate yet.
Medcalf: I think it’s Year 3 for Hubert Davis. This team soared from nowhere in his first season. It’s easy to forget the Tar Heels had a double-digit lead on Kansas at halftime of the 2022 national title game. And then, we all know what happened last year with the fall from preseason No. 1 to missing the NCAA tournament. This year feels like a significant season, not only for Davis and his future but also for the program.
Lunardi: I’m fascinated by Hunter Dickinson and Kansas. Dickinson spent the summer as college basketball’s first truly marketable free agent, cashing in a pay day that could exceed anything at the next level (just ask Drew Timme). Will it pay off in wins and championships for the Jayhawks? Only time will tell.
Borzello: Bronny James is the obvious one, but I’m also fascinated by John Calipari returning to the Calipari of a decade ago, and want to see if he can win with a rotation made up primarily of freshmen. Can you still win that way in 2023-24? He’ll need his bigs to get healthy and he’ll need D.J. Wagner to be awesome from day one, but there’s enough talent here for Kentucky to be a factor come March. It might be a roller coaster between now and then, though.
FINAL FOUR PICKS (* NEXT TO THE NATIONAL CHAMPION)
WOODEN AWARD (PLAYER OF THE YEAR)
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR
COACH OF THE YEAR
Borzello: Rick Barnes, Tennessee
Gasaway: Greg McDermott, Creighton
Lunardi: Rick Barnes, Tennessee
Medcalf: Kelvin Sampson, Houston
Hunter Dickinson, Kansas
Zach Edey, Purdue
Kyle Filipowski, Duke
Tyler Kolek, Marquette
Wade Taylor IV, Texas A&M
Hunter Dickinson, Kansas
Zach Edey, Purdue
Kyle Filipowski, Duke
Tyler Kolek, Marquette
Armando Bacot, North Carolina