The ‘Sweet 16’ Teams That Can Win the 2023 NCAA Tournament

The ‘Sweet 16’ Teams That Can Win the 2023 NCAA Tournament article feature image
Credit:

Rich Schultz/Getty Images. Pictured: Arthur Kaluma (24) of the Creighton Bluejays.

Believe it or not, we now have less than 30 days until the start of the NCAA Tournament. And I'm not referring to the First Four games, either. There are only 29 days until the first Thursday of the Big Dance — one of the best days on the sports calendar.

So, with less than a month until the madness begins, I figured it was a good time to take a look at the college basketball landscape from a futures perspective. Hopefully, I can help you identify where value might lie in what looks like one of the most wide-open years I can remember.

If you examine every national champion's statistical profile over the past 20 years, it is imperative to assess teams' performance prior to the NCAA Tournament.

Any national champion will obviously receive a significant bump in its metrics for winning six additional games — with a few likely against elite competition. That does not help us identify an archetypal profile nor rule of thumb prior to the NCAA Tournament.

Two well-known metrics to focus on are Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (AdjOE) and Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (AdjDE), per KenPom. As you can see in the chart below, every national champion (except one) had a top-25 AdjOE rank prior to the start of the NCAA Tournament.

Additionally — the same exceptional team, 2014 UConn, notwithstanding — every eventual champion also had a combined AdjOE and AdjDE ranking less than 50. That Huskies squad benefited from Shabazz Napier going off for six straight games after entering the tourney as a No. 7 seed — although they needed overtime to escape a first-round matchup with St. Joseph's.

You essentially need an elite offense and can't have glaring issues on the defensive end.


College Basketball National Champions Since 2002

YearChampionAdjOEAdjDETotal
2002

Maryland

41216
2003

Syracuse

183149
2004

UConn

111021
2005

North Carolina

369
2006

Florida

131831
2007

Florida

21416
2008

Kansas

134
2009

North Carolina

13738
2010

Duke

459
2011

UConn

212748
2012

Kentucky

268
2013

Louisville

17118
2014

UConn

571269
2015

Duke

33740
2016

Villanova

15722
2017

North Carolina

42529
2018

Villanova

12223
2019

Virginia

257
2021

Baylor

34447
2022

Kansas

62935

Which Teams Fit the Mold in 2023?

As of Tuesday, Feb. 14, only eight teams boast statistical profiles that fulfill both of our criteria:

  1. Top-25 Adjusted Offensive Efficiency
  2. Sum of Offensive and Defensive Efficiency ranks of less than 50.

Teams That Fit National Title Criteria

TeamOddsAdjOEAdjDETotal

Houston

+6504711

Alabama

+85013518

UCLA

+120024226

Purdue

+85072027

UConn

+3000111930

Kansas

+1100191534

Texas

+2500123244

Virginia

+2500252247

For reference, I used the latest odds via FanDuel. However, as always when you have interest in betting on any future, make sure you shop around. The college basketball futures market routinely offers drastically different odds for some teams at different books.

I also like to look for teams with great coaches and a go-to-player on the offensive end of the floor; someone a team can go to in crunch time when it really needs a bucket. Almost every team on this list possesses both, but I do worry about the latter for Texas and Virginia.

Personally, I have no interest in any team listed with odds below 20-1 in such a wide-open season. If I had to recommend one of the teams above right now at its current price, I'd go with UConn. If Karaban can continue to improve defensively, this is a top-10 team that can be bought cheap.


Other Potential Contenders

Keep in mind there's still a month to go before we get to the NCAA Tournament. Some of the teams above could fall or rise in their efficiency numbers over the remainder of the season.

There are also exceptions that explain why a true contender might not currently fit the national title criteria due to injuries or other factors outside of its control.

Here is a list of eight other teams that a least warrant consideration. I will elaborate on why I agree with some and don't with others, but all eight are worth exploring.


Other Potential Cinderellas

TeamOddsAdjOEAdjDETotal

Saint Mary's

40-134640

Creighton

25-1301141

Arizona

15-1104353

San Diego State

75-1312758

Indiana

20-1233760

TCU

35-1521870

Arkansas

50-1561672

Baylor

14-117980

The two teams that have combined Adjusted Efficiency ranks below 50 are Creighton and Saint Mary's. However, neither team made the first list due to current Adjusted Offensive Efficiencies outside the top 25.

The Saint Mary's Gaels have a go-to-player in freshman phenom Aidan Mahoney. They also have one of the best coaches in the country in Randy Bennett. However, I don't trust the Gaels offense enough to invest at this price — especially since they play in so many high-variance, lower-scoring games with the 359th slowest Adjusted Tempo in Division-I.

On the other hand, the Creighton Bluejays pique my interest at 25-1. If Ryan Kalkbrenner had been healthy all season, the Bluejays would certainly rank in the top-25 in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. He's just so critical on both ends of the floor.

In fact, since Kalkbrenner returned from a three-game absence due to Mono, Creighton ranks fifth in overall efficiency, per Torvik. That includes a ranking of 18th on offense and eighth on defense.

The Bluejays' previous eight-game winning streak just ended at Providence on Tuesday, Feb. 14. Despite finding themselves in a tough situational spot and environment, they still had chances to win at the end of regulation and the first overtime before falling in double-overtime.

It's also hard to envision their odds getting any higher when you look at their remaining schedule. (This should always be a consideration when evaluating futures.) The only NCAA Tournament team remaining on Creighton's regular-season schedule is Marquette in a game that Creighton will host.

In order to have a realistic shot at winning a national championship this year, a team must be one of the top-15 to top-20 teams without a glaring deficiency on offense or defense. I have Creighton power-rated right outside the top five with the only real concern being lack of depth if an injury pops up.

Elsewhere, Arizona sits just outside the top 50 with a top-10 offense. However, as I said previously, I have no interest in any team this year with odds under 20-1.

Plus, the Wildcats rely heavily on their transition offense. That could bite them in the NCAA Tournament with a higher frequency of games played in the halfcourt. I also don't trust the Wildcats' erratic backcourt.

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Possible Purchase Orders

The two teams on the list that I have wagered on to win the national title are TCU (70-1 preseason) and Indiana (50-1 two weeks ago). I still think both are worth an investment if you can find 35-1 or better out there on either.

I have TCU as a top-five team in the country when fully healthy.

The Horned Frogs don't have the sexiest analytical profile, but that's because star guard Mike Miles has missed over 30% of their games this year. He's recently returned to practice after suffering an injury and should be back to 100% soon along with Eddie Lampkin, who is critical to their offensive rebounding prowess.

The Horned Frogs are a well-coached team that's uber-athletic and physical on both ends of the floor. They have an abundance of defensive versatility and the deadliest transition game in college hoops, led by two NBA-caliber guards in Miles and Damion Baugh, who missed the first six games of the season due to suspension.

They struggle to shoot from the outside, but that's not as detrimental given their dominance on the offensive glass.

Indiana has also dealt with injuries (namely starting point guard Xavier Johnson) that have hurt its season-long metrics. However, it should continue to get healthy as we approach March. Plus, the Hoosiers have built quality depth that should pay off come tournament time.

I've loved what I've seen in recent weeks from the coaching staff. It also doesn't hurt to have an All-American inside in Trayce-Jackson Davis to go along with a potential future first-round draft pick at guard in Jalen Hood-Schifino.

The perimeter defense has potential holes, but this is a top-10 caliber team at full strength. I still believe there's a bit of value in the market left even after a precipitous drop in the odds over the past 10-plus days.


Adding a Key Piece

Two teams that I likely will be avoiding are Baylor and Arkansas, but both do at least deserve mention after recently adding a key roster piece.

The Bears boast one of the nation's best backcourts, which leads an offense that ranks No. 1 in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. They also have a coach and a few players with national title experience from two seasons ago. The Bears will come out of the Big 12 battle-tested and are playing their best ball of the year.

The glaring potential is the defense (79th Adjusted Defensive Efficiency), especially at the rim. The hope is Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, who returned from injury four games ago, can help address those issues. The Bears will not be an easy out, but the price isn't right for me.

Conversely, Arkansas has the defensive numbers, but the offense ranks outside the top 50 in Adjusted Efficiency. However, potential lottery pick Nick Smith Jr. returned from injury this past weekend.

Smith certainly raises the ceiling of this roster, which has three potential first-round picks and a coach who has taken the Razorbacks to back-to-back Elite Eights.

Can the Hogs overcome a total lack of perimeter shooting if they potentially run into a team that zones them to death? That's my primary concern.


Potential Dart-Throw Option

Lastly, if you're looking for a long shot as more of a potential hedge later in the tournament, I'd look at San Diego State if you can find 100-1 or better. The Aztecs could easily rise up into the top 50 in OE+DE over the next few weeks.

Plus, despite playing in the Mountain West, the Aztecs have a top-10 strength of schedule and record quality, per Haslametrics.

Head coach Brian Dutcher is one of the best game-planners in the country, which bodes well in a tournament setting. The offense also has a go-to-player in Matt Bradley, who is very streaky. If he gets hot, he could carry San Diego State to the Final Four. I like that type of variance for a dart throw in a wide-open year.


Missed the Cut

If I had to extend the list to six other well-coached teams worth mentioning, Marquette has intrigue, but there are certainly issues at the rim on defense.

The same can be said for Gonzaga, which unsurprisingly has an elite offense once again under Mark Few. I have similar defensive concerns for Miami and Xavier.

Conversely, while Iowa State and Tennessee can dominate on the defensive end, I ultimately don't trust either offense enough to make a deep run.


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