Last season, Oscar Tshiebwe won the National Player of the Year award and still elected to return to Kentucky to chase a championship and continue his development as a pro prospect. The last time a reigning National P.O.Y. returned to school, Tyler Hansbrough led North Carolina to a title back in 2009. While the Wildcats haven’t won a National Championship since 2012, haven’t been to a Final Four since 2015 and haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2019, this program that went 26-8 last season features upperclassmen in the presumed starting five (surprising for a John Calipari team) including Tshiebwe and SEC assist leader Sahvir Wheeler. It will also benefit from five-star freshmen recruits Carson Wallace and Chris Livingston.
As for the other three teams? North Carolina lost in the championship game and has key stars returning: center Armando Bacot and guards Caleb Love and R.J. Davis. They’ll have to replace Brady Manek, but this team is going to contend once again for Hubert Davis.
This should be Rick Barnes’ best Tennessee team since they’re a veteran, deep bunch with three preseason All-SEC team selections: Santiago Vescovi, Zakai Zeigler and Josiah-Jordan James. Keep an eye on five-star recruit Julian Phillips as well.
Finally, UCLA will have one of the best veteran backcourt duos in the nation this year, as Jamie Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell will make life easy for coach Mick Cronin. Prized freshmen Adem Bona and Amari Bailey should also step in and produce right away for the Bruins. Overall, I’m very high on all four of these programs this year, but love Kentucky to win it all.
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Prior to the season, Gonzaga, Kentucky, Houston and North Carolina were all tied at +330 at DraftKings to make it to the Final Four and I see all four of them making it. I also think Gonzaga has a great chance to finally win the national championship. They’ve never won a national championship, but they have been to the Final Four twice in the last five tournaments and return NBA draft prospects Drew Timme and Julian Strawther. They’re coming into this season ranked second in the AP Top 25 and I wouldn’t rule them out to dominate this season and finally win that title.
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Experience is everything when it comes to the NCAA tournament, and you'll notice that trend in my Final Four picks. UNC, of course, was last year's runner-up to Kansas and returns key pieces in the frontcourt and backcourt to help them make another deep run. Houston lost to Villanova in the Elite Eight last year after a Final Four run in 2021, and they're getting SG Marcus Sasser healthy plus adding freshman F Jarace Walker, a potential NBA lottery pick. Arkansas could be ready to take the next step after losing in the Elite Eight in each of the past two seasons, as they reload a talented roster with two potential NBA lottery picks in SG Nick Smith and PG Anthony Black plus Missouri transfer PF Trevone Brazile.
But when the confetti settles, I think it's Baylor cutting down the nets for the second time in three seasons, possibly even getting revenge on UNC in the title game for knocking them out of last year's tournament. After winning the national title in 2021, the Bears (27-7, 14-4 in Big 12 last season) ran into a red-hot Tar Heels team on its way to the national title game. That loss to UNC, especially after an improbable comeback, will fuel an experienced Baylor team to make another deep tourney run this season. That team, which finished first in the Big 12, will return top scorers LJ Cryer and Adam Flagler, along with super-sleeper Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, and will add NBA lottery prospect Keyonte George. Scott Drew has all the pieces he needs to make it back to the Final Four (and win) in 2023, so grab these +1600 odds while you can; they're as low as +1200 at other books, making this look like an even better value.
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