College Basketball National Title Contenders: Breaking Down Tennessee, UCLA & TCU
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images. Pictured: Tyger Campbell (UCLA)
This college basketball season has been defined by upsets and chaos, particularly at the top of the rankings.
That being said, when looking into the national title market, there are a plethora of teams with two or three losses on their schedule that will have a real shot once March rolls around.
Below, I have listed three teams that I believe are worth an investment as their conference seasons continue to ramp up.
In order to provide some diversity, I have listed teams at three different tiers in order to bring some variety to your national title portfolio.
If you have not read the first addition of our National Title Contenders series, I would encourage you to do so, as it provides some necessary context to an ever-changing futures market.
Tennessee has built the most dominant team in the SEC thanks to one of the best defenses in the country.
As of late, the Volunteers have matched this defensive play with a burst of offense success that makes them a matchup nightmare no matter who they are facing.
In its most recent game against Mississippi State, Tennessee was able to post 87 points, with five different players scoring in double figures.
That speaks to the overall balance of this 2023 Tennessee team.
Offensively, the Volunteers rank second in the country in assist rate, with 70% of their baskets being scored off an assist. This ability to share the ball can be most attributed to the play of sophomore Zakai Zeigler, who leads the team with 3.8 assists per game.
Overall, the Volunteers have nine players that average at least one assist per game. This results in a team that can create shots from the perimeter and on the interior, depending on what its opponent gives it.
Defensively, this Tennessee team is one of, if not, the best in the nation. The Volunteers are giving up an average of 53.2 points per game, which is the third-lowest in the country.
Although, over their last three games, the Volunteers have gotten even better, limiting their opponents to 52 points per game, the lowest rate in the country.
What makes this Tennessee defense great is not just its ability to force teams into bad shots, but to prevent shots all together. The Vols rank first nationally in effective field goal percentage allowed, but they also rank fourth nationally in turnover percentage.
Through 14 games, Tennessee has created a turnover on over a fourth of its opponents’ offensive possessions.
Now, we could talk about the elite statistics of this Volunteers team all day, but why are they worth a long-term investment? The answer is simple: depth and their schedule.
In terms of depth, over its last few games, Tennessee has seen the return of small-forward Josiah-Jordan James, who has been sidelined with a knee injury for all but five of the Volunteers’ games this season.
Josiah-Jordan James has returned pic.twitter.com/235SMuW9Wh
— Karthik Venkataraman (@KarthikV_) January 4, 2023
James, who averaged 10.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game a season ago, will be yet another piece that Rick Barnes can utilize come March.
Lastly, when you take a look at Tennessee’s upcoming schedule, this is a prime opportunity to invest in the Volunteers before their odds begin to drop.
Tennessee’s next two games will be against two of the bottom teams in the SEC, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Then, Tennessee gets to host the Kentucky Wildcats in Knoxville in front of a national audience.
At the time of writing, KenPom projects Tennessee as a 10-point favorite against a Kentucky team that has struggled to find consistency this year. I expect the Volunteers to put on a show in this matchup and in turn, ramp up the conversation around them.
In the end, this Tennessee team will need to reverse a history of underperforming in March, as they have only reached the Sweet 16 once under Barnes.
Regardless, this is a team that has all the intangibles to make a run, and is only going to continue to improve its depth and national exposure.
The next team on the list is available at slightly shorter odds, but brings a history of March success, combined with a roster that has already proven itself against a grueling schedule.
At the time of writing, the UCLA Bruins hold the fifth-longest winning streak in the country, winning their last 10 games. This winning streak has included five victories against Stanford, Oregon, Maryland, Kentucky and Washington State (all inside the top 100).
Just like the Volunteers, this UCLA team is incredibly balanced, ranking seventh nationally in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency.
This success is the result of the Bruins being led by one of the most experienced duos in the country.
Seniors Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell have been the engine that runs this Bruins team. What this duo provides on the floor is obvious, but they also provide a level of experience that few teams in college basketball can match.
Between the two of them, both Jaquez and Campbell have played in 18 total NCAA tournament games coming into this season.
In addition to this experienced duo, UCLA has seen the emergence of Jaylen Clark, who is averaging 14.1 points per game in an expanded role.
Jaylen Clark's biggest strength is defense, but the offensive leap is what is raising his ceiling
21/22: 6.7 ppg 51/26/54
22/23: 16.7 ppg 60/39/67
Can be an elite defender but without being positive offensively, you wont be on the floor to play defense (Mattise Thybulle) pic.twitter.com/2DLO5bl4uj
— Ryan Hammer🔨 (@ryanhammer09) December 27, 2022
It’s clear that this UCLA team has the talent and experience needed to win it all.
The question becomes: is now the right time to invest in a Bruins team that currently has the sixth-shortest odds to win the title?
For me the answer is yes, but it’s not quite as simple as that. I would love to have this experienced UCLA team in my portfolio come March, and I believe the time to invest is fast approaching.
The reason I would hold off on investing in this Bruins team is due to their health and upcoming schedule. The Bruins’ next six games all come against teams ranked inside the top 70, including a January 21 matchup with Arizona on the road.
In addition, Amari Bailey — who is averaging 9.5 points in 26.3 minutes per game — has missed the Bruins’ last two contests with a foot injury and is expected to miss a third against USC.
#UCLA head coach Mick Cronin said Amari Bailey is out for the USC game.
— Bruin Report Online (@BruinReport) January 4, 2023
With all this being said, it would not shock me if UCLA were to drop one — or even two — of its next six games.
Although not ideal for Bruins fans, this would present an ideal opportunity to invest in UCLA before its Pac-12 schedule lightens up.
At the time of writing, UCLA is sitting at +1600 at BetMGM and can be found down to +1400 at multiple other books.
For the third spot on the list, I have included the team that I believe presents the best odds currently available to win the national title.
The TCU Horned Frogs have been nearly perfect as of late, and that is no mistake, as they are one of the most experienced rosters in the country.
Last season, head coach Jamie Dixon led TCU to the second round of the NCAA tournament, where it was outlasted by No. 1-seeded Arizona in overtime.
This season, Dixon returns essentially every piece from his 2022 tournament team.
The Horned Frogs rank third nationally in minutes continuity, with 77% of their overall minutes from 2021-22 returning. This experience has been on display all season as TCU has strung together the third-longest winning streak in the country at 11 games.
As with the two teams above, TCU has achieved this success through its play on both ends of the floor.
Defensively, TCU doesn’t rank lower than 53rd in any major category and ranks 19th in overall defensive efficiency.
On the offensive end, the Horned Frogs take care of the basketball — with the 18th-lowest turnover percentage — and create second-chance opportunities on over 35.9% of their possessions.
In its most recent outing, TCU made its national presence known, going on the road and taking down No. 19 Baylor. TCU was led — as it frequently is — by point guard Mike Miles Jr., who tallied 33 points and four assists.
So far this season, Miles has led the team in points, assists and steals.
Still not over Mike Miles' game last night:
33 points, 2 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals on 12/21 shooting and 9 FTA
— Mavs/Magic Draft (@MavsDraft) January 5, 2023
Having a creator such as Miles — that can contribute on both ends of the floor — is irreplaceable when making a run to the title.
If the Horned Frogs are able to stay healthy, I believe they have a starting five that can compete with any team in the country.
Another reason to invest in this TCU team is the NCAA tournament experience of Jamie Dixon.
During his time at Pittsburgh, Dixon led the Panthers to 11 tournament appearances, including two Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight.
A team that has an experienced tournament coach — and one of the most talented starting fives in the country — is a unit I want to invest in once March rolls around.
Even after its victory against Baylor, TCU can be found at +3000 at DraftKings, which is a number I expect will continue to decline.