23 in ’23: Top college basketball storylines entering the new year
What a wild 2022 in college basketball. Kansas won its first national championship since 2008, capping off one of the most dramatic Final Four weekends ever. We watched one expected, and one surprising conclusion to Hall of Fame coaching careers in New Orleans. Mike Krzyzewski’s illustrious run at Duke ended in as dramatic fashion as it could have, with a Final Four loss to North Carolina that will live in Chapel Hill lore forever. We also saw Jay Wright’s career close with a stunning announcement in April following a third Villanova run to the Final Four in six years.
The year contained one of the greatest Cinderella stories in NCAA Tournament history with Saint Peter’s, which began with the historic upset win over Kentucky, which hasn’t been the same since. We’ve seen the likes of Oscar Tshiebwe, Drew Timme, Trayce Jackson-Davis and more bigs flooding summer headlines with their return to college basketball for another year.
From a shocking fight between Michigan and Wisconsin last February to the arrest and suspension of Texas head coach Chris Beard, there’s been significant ugliness in the sport as well.
With that in mind, whether you’re just getting into college hoops as the calendar turns to January or you’re looking for a reset on the sport, we picked 23 storylines to keep your eye on in 2023.
1. Zach Edey is the best player in college basketball. Will he lead Matt Painter to his first Final Four?
The Boilers enter the new year at 13-0 with a 7-foot-4 star who has turned into must-see TV every time he steps on the floor. Zach Edey has averaged 22.6 points and 13.9 rebounds per game, leaving no doubt at the moment that he would be national player of the year. For a Purdue team that entered the year unranked after the loss of a top-five pick in Jaden Ivey, it’s been nothing short of remarkable to see what Painter’s done in molding his freshmen guards into a new-look backcourt. Many thought last year would be the one for the Boilermakers to reach the program’s first Final Four since 1980, but Saint Peter’s had other plans. Would there not be some irony to the run coming the following year, when expectations going into it were lowered? Purdue looks like the class of the Big Ten, and they give the conference another candidate to win the league’s first men’s basketball national title since 2000. Why not, right?
2. UConn is back, and the Huskies are the deepest team in the country.
Believe it. UConn is clearly the head of the Big East again, opening the season with a 14-0 record. It’s the best start to a campaign since 1998-99, when Jim Calhoun’s Huskies reeled off 19 consecutive victories in a season that ended with the program’s first national championship. Adama Sanogo is performing like a first team All-American, but we thought that was very possible entering the year. What makes the Huskies so dangerous is their depth. They are a legit nine-deep, with a sophomore superstar in Jordan Hawkins to dial it up from downtown and the indispensable presence of Andre Jackson to lead as a captain. Interestingly enough, the two Phil Knight tournament champions, Purdue and Connecticut, are a combined 27-0 and ranked first and second in America. That being said, the pathway to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the Huskies is there. They will have Madison Square Garden rocking in March for the Big East Tournament, and bear in mind: the East Regional is at MSG, as well. Could Connecticut go through a second home, New York City, to a Final Four? That dream is alive in Storrs, and it feels like the good old days for the Huskies faithful.
3. What is going on with Kentucky?
The Wildcats, pegged to be a potential Final Four team at the start of the season, are far from that right now. John Calipari has a real dilemma on his hands with an 8-4 squad that does not have one impressive win on the season, and seems to lack synergy at the moment. In this week’s latest disappointment, an 89-75 loss at Missouri that the Tigers controlled the whole way, it was the most recent case of Kentucky’s offense having next to no rhythm. The Wildcats have the reigning national player of the year back in Oscar Tshiebwe. Their point guard Sahvir Wheeler returned as well, and Cason Wallace has been one of the country’s best freshmen. At bare minimum, UK should be a top-25 team. They don’t even deserve that recognition right now. Will Cal figure it out? If the Wildcats don’t make some noise in March, that would mark a third straight year of disappointment in Lexington. While Calipari’s job is safe with the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class entering the program for 2023, this is not a fan base that’s going to have much more patience if this year comes and goes, and the team isn’t achieving success when it matters most. Next season would become that much more critical.
4. How many Final Four contenders are there?
It’s a fitting question for our fourth storyline to monitor because the answer reflects the parity of college basketball. Even though Purdue and UConn have dominated thus far, it’s not like they’re on some one-way trip to the Final Four. In fact, one might argue it would be more surprising if both teams made it to Houston rather than neither. That’s just the state of college hoops. In our opinion, all of these teams have a quality case to win the national title in addition to the Huskies and Boilermakers:
Yes, that’s 15 total, and you just know the madness of March could see another team emerge from the dance floor. It’s that wide open on the road to Houston.
5. Will the Big 12 make it three national championships in a row?
The Big 12 is once again college basketball’s best conference, and the league has the metrics to prove it. In the NET rankings, all 10 teams in the conference are ranked in the top 52. There’s no league than can come even close to being able to collectively say that.
With half the conference in the AP Top 25, there’s every reason to believe at least one from this league will be in Houston in the Final Four. And just think: next year, the currently third-ranked Cougars will be in the conference, as well. In a world of unknowns, the Big 12 has locked up the conference heavyweight belt again.
6. Could Kansas repeat as national champs?
We have not seen a repeat national champion in college basketball since Billy Donovan and Florida achieved the feat in 2006 and 2007. That’s possible in Lawrence this year. If Edey at Purdue wasn’t the national player of the year to this point, Kansas 6-foot-8 junior Jalen Wilson would be my pick. He’s led a versatile team that’s caused matchup nightmares for opponents and jumped out to an 11-1 start to the year. Bill Self has reloaded.
7. What will be the ending to Jon Scheyer’s first chapter as Duke head coach?
It’s a fascinating question to think about entering the new year. Duke’s shown flashes that the Blue Devils could make a deep March run, but other moments that have lacked promise. An 11-point loss to Wake Forest ahead of the Christmas break with Dereck Lively II and Dariq Whitehead out due to illness left a sour taste in their mouths. There are nights where Jeremy Roach looks like the undisputed leader and star on the court, but he has to be that man every night for Duke to get to where it strives to go. Kyle Filipowski has been all Scheyer could hope for while Mark Mitchell, Tyrese Proctor and Northwestern transfer Ryan Young have all been solid. But for Duke to reach its ceiling, the 6-foot-7 Whitehead has to keep progressing on the wing as the year goes on. It will be interesting to see how Scheyer fares with this particular team in his first March Madness as a head coach. Would it surprise me if Duke reached the Final Four? Honestly, no. The talent is there and they defend at a high level. Would it shock me if they exited in the first or second round? Nope. That’s life with a young team.
[Duke’s new king: Jon Scheyer’s journey to one of basketball’s biggest jobs]
8. The Pac-12 has two national championship contenders, and both are big brands.
Arizona and UCLA are going to be in a clash at the top of the conference, and either one of them is capable of making it to Houston this April. What makes the Wildcats so dangerous? A lethal frontcourt duo of Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo, plus the dynamic creativity of Kerr Kriisa. As for UCLA? Jaime Jaquez Jr. is an All-American, and the emergence of Jaylen Clark this season has been super impressive to watch. Tommy Lloyd and Mick Cronin have done two of the better coaching jobs in the country, and between Arizona and UCLA, you get a 23-3 record. Is that good?
9. Will Drew Timme end his last dance in storybook fashion?
Gonzaga took a hit on the national radar with some early losses, but Mark Few also played about as challenging of a non-conference schedule in the country. A 100-90 win over Alabama in Birmingham on Dec. 17 was awfully impressive, as the Zags showed their full offensive arsenal in the performance. Timme is one of the five best players in the country once again. The question is simple: How much help will he get? Julian Strawther is key for that to happen, as is getting consistency at point guard. Timme deliberated about his decision last spring before electing to return to school. Can he make his last dance, the best one? It’s certainly his plan.
[Drew Timme Q&A with FOX Sports]
10. Here comes North Carolina.
The Tar Heels should have a reality TV show about them, because the first two months of their season have featured no shortage of ups and downs. But, with back-to-back wins over Ohio State and Michigan and Armando Bacot combining for 54 points and 20 rebounds in the process, UNC has figured out that feeding their All-American early and often is a good idea. The other thing? Hubert Davis’ team wasn’t giving the same effort on the defensive end that it’s giving now. That’s a large shift, and RJ Davis and Caleb Love have been better lately as well. Will the Tar Heels stay on this trajectory and save their best for another deep March run? It’s certainly possible, and will be fun to take in with so many familiar faces looking to do just that.
11. What ends up happening with Chris Beard and Texas?
The Longhorns are 11-1 on the season, but that’s not the story with the program. In the darkest story in college basketball this season, Chris Beard’s arrest and felony charge of assaulting his fiancee resulted in the second-year Texas head coach being suspended indefinitely without pay. According to the police affidavit from the case, Beard’s fiancée initially told police, “He choked me, bit me, bruises all over my leg, throwing me around and going nuts.” But, in a statement Randi Trew made last week, she apologized for the role she played in the event, with part of her statement reading:
“Chris did not strangle me, and I told that to law enforcement that evening. Chris has stated that he was acting in self-defense, and I do not refute that. I do not believe Chris was trying to intentionally harm me in any way. It was never my intent to have him arrested or prosecuted. We appreciate everyone’s support and prayers during this difficult time.”
Beard is in the second year of a seven-year contract paying over $5 million per year. What will be the next step in this situation, and what effect will it have on Texas going forward? That all remains unanswered entering 2023.
12. The best freshman in college basketball resides in Alabama.
Brandon Miller has been everything Nate Oats and the Crimson Tide could have hoped for and more, and we will be hearing the 6-foot-9 superstar’s name called early on a June night in Brooklyn later this year at the NBA Draft. The Tennessee native has been outstanding in leading the Crimson Tide into the top ten of the national rankings, averaging 19.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, including a 36-point performance against Gonzaga two weeks ago. His scoring prowess, high-level athleticism and maturity is an outstanding combination of assets that just says “lottery pick.”
13. Can Indiana stay in the picture near the top of the Big Ten and make noise in March?
Missing point guard Xavier Johnson for the foreseeable future is a difficult blow to the expectation level for Mike Woodson’s team. The positive: five-star freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino has gotten better and better as the year’s gone on with four straight double-figure scoring performances. Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson have produced in the paint as well. The key for IU? Perimeter shooting, and being able to find enough at point guard with Johnson down.
14. Along those lines, who’s the biggest challenger to Purdue in the Big Ten?
This is an interesting question to ponder because while the league is deep and built up a strong non-conference resume, it’s difficult to figure out how one would power rank the top of the conference. In the preseason, Illinois and Michigan received a lot of love. The Illini are 0-2 in conference play, and the Wolverines lost to Central Michigan on Thursday night. It’s been surprising to see a Hunter Dickinson-led team disappointing at 7-5.
Wisconsin is the second-highest ranked team out of the Big Ten in the AP Top 25, something that nobody could have called in November after the Badgers lost Johnny Davis and were preseason No. 9 in the media poll. Indiana would certainly like a word in the discussion. Ohio State’s got a blend of experience and talented youth that could fit into the equation and you can never count out Tom Izzo. But, the fact is, there’s a wide openness to the Big Ten and a depth in the league that could lead to eight or nine NCAA Tournament tickets getting punched on Selection Sunday. But who’s the big challenger to Purdue? We shall see.
15. Where does Rick Pitino land next?
This may be the single most intriguing storyline heading into the 2023 edition of the coaching carousel.
It feels inevitable that the 70-year-old, the only coach in college basketball history to take three different programs to a Final Four, is going to get one final opportunity at a higher-profile job. It’s nothing against the Iona Gaels, who are 9-4 and the clear frontrunner in the MAAC, but there are programs in dire need of a winner and Pitino is clear from the NCAA investigation and its soon-to-be-defunct IARP. Who’s going to pull the trigger and hire the Hall of Famer this offseason? Expect Pitino’s name to be all over what should be another active coaching changes cycle with some high-profile jobs opening up.
16. Arkansas has reached back-to-back Elite Eights. How will this year’s ride end for the Razorbacks?
Arkansas is one of our 23 storylines not just because they are a top-15 team in the country, but because their freshman class is stacked with talent and athleticism. The big question: What ends up happening with top NBA Draft prospect Nick Smith, who’s only played in five games this season and is sidelined with a right knee injury currently? His name is one to watch because the pro potential speaks for itself, and there’s a bit of a mystery surrounding Smith’s timetable to return. That being said, Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh are two special talents for the Hogs. On top of that, the Razorbacks have the SEC’s third-leading scorer in Ricky Council IV and are absolutely capable of making the deep run again. Will it happen? We shall see.
17. Will Villanova surge in January and find a way into the NCAA Tournament?
The Wildcats have made 16 of the last 17 NCAA Tournaments, but it will be an uphill climb for Kyle Neptune to keep a streak of nine in a row going in his first season at the helm. That being said, five-star freshman Cam Whitmore has certainly added a lot and the Cats have played much better basketball in recent weeks, winning five of six and giving UConn a challenge in Hartford earlier this week.
The big question: When will senior Justin Moore come back from an Achilles’ tendon injury and what percent of his normal self will he be? The 6-foot-4 guard returned to Villanova practice on a limited basis this past week, the team announced. For a 7-6 Nova team, January offers a chance to accumulate wins and stay near the top of the Big East. Will they seize the opportunity and play their way into being on the tournament radar come February? We shall see.
18. Who’s going to win the ACC crown?
It’s an interesting question to monitor as we enter January. Virginia would be my pick to win the regular season title because of their experience and balance on the offensive end of the floor. That being said, Isaiah Wong is making his claim for ACC Player of the Year and has led Miami into the top 15 of the country after an Elite Run last season. Mike Young’s Virginia Tech team has been powered by Sean Pedulla, who steers the ship for a top-25 KenPom offense. And, while young, you can’t count out Roach and Duke to be in the mix. The title race in this league will be one to watch.
19. Is this the year for Rick Barnes to break through in March at Tennessee?
The Volunteers are the best defensive team in college basketball and have five players averaging double-figure scoring, powered by an elite set of guards, Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler. The question with Tennessee is not talent. It’s not athleticism or the way they lock teams down. At this point, all eyes are on Barnes to lead the program on a run in the big dance. Barnes is a strong coach, but his flaw has been underwhelming in the NCAA Tournament. He’s made it the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament just one time in the last 15 years of his coaching career. Will that change this year for a top-10 Vols team? We shall see.
20. Richard Pitino and the New Mexico Lobos are on unbeaten watch
Joining UConn and Purdue as the last unbeatens in college basketball, the Lobos have it rolling at 13-0. Senior guard Jaelen House is their star talent, averaging 17.2 points and 5.3 assists per game on the season. The Mountain West has some quality teams at the top of the league with San Diego State, Utah State and others, but for now, we’re on unbeaten watch for a New Mexico team that ranks 22nd in the AP poll. For Pitino, his signature moment came Dec. 18 when he beat his dad in a matchup at “The Pit,” 72-64. Richard has found a home in Albuquerque, and they’re one of the surprise storylines nationally.
21. Sean Miller will be back in March Madness
The Xavier Musketeers started Big East play at 3-0 for the first time since 2017-18, Chris Mack’s final year, and Miller has one of the best offensive teams in the country. Xavier is relevant again nationally, and for a program that used to be a staple to the NCAA Tournament, it will have been five years since the Musketeer faithful last experienced the big dance floor for their program. Xavier is certainly on track to end the drought this spring, and their leading scorer has been one of the best transfers in the country, Solely Boum (17.9 PPG, 4.7 APG). With NCAA-related Arizona drama behind Miller, he feels at home back at Xavier, and the Musketeers look like the potential biggest challenger to UConn in the Big East.
22. Which first-year head coach at their program is going to keep surging into the New Year?
We’ve seen a number of great stories emerging nationally. In the Big Ten, Kevin Willard and Maryland surprised everybody in the country with a shocking 8-0 start to the season. While the Terps have cooled off a bit, will they be able to make the NCAA Tournament? That would be quite the turnaround in College Park.
How about the additions to the SEC? LSU’s Matt McMahon, Missouri‘s Dennis Gates and Mississippi State‘s Chris Jans are a combined 35-4, and all three of those programs are in a good position to fight for an NCAA Tournament ticket.
At Kansas State, Jerome Tang has a stifling defense and the Wildcats are 11-1 on the year. Following a really active coaching changes cycle, we’ve seen early success from several leaders around the country. The question becomes, who will be able to persevere through the grind of their league slate?
23. Will the stars align for Kelvin Sampson and Houston?
It’s the last storyline for a reason, because it would be the Hollywood ending to the college hoops season if the Cougars hoisted the program’s first national championship trophy in their home city. They need Marcus Sasser to perform to his All-American level and for perimeter shooting to keep evolving, but Houston should be able to build and evolve throughout AAC play, which they will likely dominate. Highly-touted freshman Jarace Walker is a must-see talent on this team, having scored 17 points with seven rebounds and four assists in a signature road win at Virginia on Dec. 17. With Tramon Mark coming along in the backcourt and J’Wan Roberts holding things together down low, the Cougars have different options and an elite distributor in Jamal Shead (5.6 assists per game). What makes Houston so hard to play is that you have to win the game on their terms, which are flat-out nasty. We saw the program reach the Final Four two years ago. Last year, it was an Elite Eight. Could this be the year?
Like the 22 other storylines … grab your popcorn.
It’s going to be a fun ride to crown a 2023 champion.
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John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
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