2023 NCAA Tournament National Championship Contenders & Final Four Dark Horse Picks

2023 NCAA Tournament National Championship Contenders & Final Four Dark Horse Picks article feature image

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During the Spring of 2019, I authored two recurring college basketball futures columns as a writer at Action Network. Those columns were titled, "College Basketball National Title Contenders" and "Final Four Dark Horse Candidates."

Since then, it has become tradition that I revive those columns for the NCAA tournament.

The goal of this article is to help you isolate the specific teams with viable paths to the Final Four and to explicitly exclude other teams from plausible contention.

My hope is that this discrimination of contenders vs. pretenders will help you build more viable (and more financially lucrative) NCAA tournament picks for your bracket pools.

What Qualifies a Team as a "National Championship Contender?"

For a thorough explanation of my full methods, refer to my original National Title Contenders and Final Four Dark Horses articles from the 2018-19 season.

But, as a concise summary, teams qualify as National Championship Contenders by achieving three metrical thresholds, each sourced from Ken Pomeroy and adjusted each offseason based on previous postseason results.

  • Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (AdjO) of 113.9 or higher.
  • Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (AdjD) of 96.2 or lower.
  • Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM) of 23.83 or higher.

Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (AdjO): Points scored per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponents

Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (AdjD): Points allowed per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponents

Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM): The difference between a team's offensive and defensive efficiency

These thresholds correspond precisely with statistically significant and discriminating z-scores among our sample population of teams since the 2001-02 season.

Furthermore — and this point is very important — there is no statistically significant improvement in a team's odds to win the national championship beyond these prescribed threshold values.

However, it is imperative that a team meets all three of these metrical thresholds in order for the preceding statement to hold true. Independently, each metric still reports statistically significant improvement in a team's title odds up to approximately z=+2.00.

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National Championship Contenders from Previous Seasons

During the 2018-19 college basketball season — when this perennial column originally debuted — 10 teams qualified as National Championship Contenders by the end of the regular season.

Those 10 teams included: Virginia, Gonzaga, Duke, Michigan State, North Carolina, Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky, Purdue and Virginia Tech.

During the 2020-21 season, the list of National Championship Contenders was notably shorter. Only six teams made the cut that year: Gonzaga, Illinois, Michigan, Baylor, Iowa and Houston.

Finally, last season 10 teams made the cut as National Championship contenders, including: Gonzaga, Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor, Houston, Duke, Auburn, UCLA, Kansas and Villanova.

Altogether, that gives us a sample of 26 teams distinguished as National Championship Contenders during the past three NCAA tournaments. Here's how those 26 teams have collectively performed:

  • 25 teams advanced to the Round of 32.
  • 21 teams made it to the Sweet 16.
  • 14 teams made it to the Elite 8.
  • Nine teams booked a trip to the Final Four.

Among the teams that qualified as National Championship Contenders in each season, all three groups included the eventual national champion ('19 Virginia, '21 Baylor and '22 Kansas).

Moreover, nine of the 26 teams exited their respective tournaments by losing to other end-of-season National Championship Contenders.

2023 National Championship Contenders

After cross-referencing 2022-23 teams with an AdjEM of 23.83 or higher, AdjO of 113.9 or higher and AdjD of 96.2 or lower, six teams qualify as 2023 National Championship Contenders:














2023 Final Four Dark Horse Contenders

Once teams make it to the Final Four, AdjO and AdjD lose much of their statistical strength as factors that discriminate champions from non-champions.

Instead, at this advanced stage of the tournament, the sole metric that still reports a significant Pearson's coefficient is AdjEM. Therefore, if you're trying to identify a national champion, you should prioritize AdjEM as the most distinguishing factor.

However, if instead you're trying to identify sneaky Final Four teams that might bust others' brackets, then the combination of AdjO and AdjD remains an effective tool to identify these relative longshots.

By excluding AdjEM as a required threshold, our resultant qualifying sample of teams includes significantly more Final Four teams.

Nevertheless, this wider net also catches far more teams that make early tournament exits. Thus, it is necessarily a higher-risk / higher-reward strategy to intentionally target these Final Four Dark Horse teams.

This season, only six additional teams qualify as Final Four Dark Horse candidates based on our prescribed methods:










Texas A&M


Florida Atlantic


Notable Teams That Do Not Qualify as National Championship Contenders Nor Final Four Dark Horses

In addition to highlighting the set of teams that can win a championship — or at least make the Final Four — it is also valuable to identify the specific teams that do not make the cut.

These are teams that may make the Sweet 16, and may disrupt brackets in the process, but shouldn't be trusted to make it all the way to the Final Four.

Six such teams stand out like a sore thumb among this year's NCAA tournament field — and interestingly, that group includes all four No. 3 Seeds.


3 Gonzaga


2 Arizona


2 Marquette


3 Baylor


3 Xavier


3 Kansas State


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