The College Basketball Storylines You Should Know Before March Madness
March Madness is nearly upon us, and soon there will be brackets to overanalyze. But if you’re like most Americans, you probably haven’t been paying full attention just yet to the regular seasons of men’s and women’s college basketball.1 So as the sports head into the national spotlight, there’s plenty to get caught up on before the tourney fields are set. Let’s dive into three storylines on each side of the sport to set the table.
Big 12 men’s dominance
The Big 12 Conference is in the midst of a golden era that has included a different men’s national finalist in each of the past three NCAA Tournaments2 and two consecutive national champions (Kansas in 2022, Baylor in 2021). And it could have been three in a row: Kansas was ranked No. 1 in the final AP Poll of the 2019-20 season and the betting favorite before the season was canceled.3
That gilded age was extended this season, as four Big 12 teams are featured in the top 15 of the AP Poll. It’s been 30 years since a conference last won three consecutive national championships and only seven teams in the 83-year history of the tournament format have repeated as national champs. Both outcomes are in play for the Big 12.
With a KenPom-best plus-18.36 adjusted efficiency margin, the Big 12 is again the class of men’s college basketball. The Oklahoma Sooners, considered by ESPN’s Basketball Power Index to be the conference’s weakest team, would rank fifth-best in the Pac-12 by the same metric. Earlier this season, the Sooners throttled the No. 2 team in the country by 24 points, downed three other top-25 opponents and played five other top-25 opponents to outcomes of 10 or fewer points.
Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology predicts seven of the conference’s 10 teams will receive NCAA Tournament bids, which would tie a single-season record. And more impressive than the projected representation is that the Big 12 has a handful of teams that look like true national title contenders.
Kansas (+800), Baylor (+1600) and Texas (+2000) each currently field implied championship odds greater than 4.75 percent, according to BetMGM. And TCU (+3000), Kansas State (+4000) and Iowa State (+5000) are in the mix as dark horse candidates as well. Not bad for a conference that next season will add four more teams — including Houston, which currently tops the AP Poll.
The Alabama Crimson Tide (26-5) are in the midst of their best season in program history and will likely earn a first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Bama features one of the most talented rosters in the sport, with a top-20 offense and defense according to KenPom’s advanced metrics.
Having ascended to the top of the AP Poll for the second time in program history, and with an outright SEC title already accomplished, you might think coach Nate Oats has no shortage of reasons to celebrate. Instead, however, he oversees perhaps the most volatile situation in college basketball, as tragedy and dysfunction threaten the success Alabama fans have enjoyed to this point.
Brandon Miller is Alabama’s leading scorer and a projected top-five pick in the 2023 NBA draft. He has been the undisputed best freshman in the country, with a skill set that captures much of what’s desired in the modern game: length, balance, versatility on both ends, ballhandling, rim finishing and a tight jump shot. But Miller is also connected to the fatal shooting of Jamea Jonae Harris, which resulted in teammate Darius Miles being kicked off the team and charged with capital murder. Although Miller has not been charged with a crime or named a suspect in the case, Oats has repeatedly fumbled his and his team’s response to the crime. “Godawful,” is how Delvin Heard, Harris’s stepfather, described the handling of the situation.
Miller has continued to play as pressure mounts for the program to make necessary amends. Alabama currently has the second-highest national championship odds, according to Bart-Torvik.com, and that status would implode without Miller in the picture. But as a stained campaign trudges on, the noise surrounding the program won’t dissipate while Oats and Alabama continue to focus on basketball above all else.
Liftoff in Houston
The Houston Cougars (29-2) have made the most of their final season in the American Athletic Conference, earning a fourth regular-season conference title in the past five seasons.
Houston is the only team in the nation with both a top-10 offense and defense, according to KenPom’s advanced metrics. Like traditional Kelvin Sampson-led teams, this one regularly short-circuits opposing offenses. The Cougars rank third in the nation in defensive rating (87.6) and effective field goal percentage defense (42.7 percent). More than half of Division I teams this season average at least 70 points per game. Houston, meanwhile, has allowed three teams to reach that mark in a game all season.
But although defense comes standard for Sampson’s squads, it’s Houston’s offense and dunktastic style of play4 that has fans reminiscing about Phi Slama Jama and anxiously clamoring for the start of the tournament. The Cougars rank third in the nation in offensive rating (117.8), which would be the highest finish ever by a Sampson-led team. As part of that improvement, Houston has upgraded its shooting efficiency from beyond the arc and, critically, from the stripe.5
With two total losses by a combined seven points, Houston has a 1-in-6 probability of cutting down the nets for the first time in school history, according to Bart-Torvik.com.
South Carolina’s dynasty continues
Once again, the most dominant team in either men’s or women’s college basketball can be found in Columbia, South Carolina. Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks (-145 championship odds) opened the regular-season slate with a 70-point victory, which appropriately set the table for what was to come. South Carolina is about 45 points better than the average Division I team in 2022-23, according to Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System — the highest single-season SRS in men’s or women’s college basketball since UConn in 2017-18. By now, South Carolina is accustomed to the spotlight and to being the hunted: The Gamecocks have held the top spot in the AP Poll for 37 consecutive weeks, going back to the end of the 2020-21 season. An unblemished Gamecocks run through March would stamp the 10th undefeated season in the history of the sport.
Aliyah Boston, who collected both National Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors last year, has seen her share of responsibilities diminish — but that might be a good thing, as it means her teammates have thrived. Boston is playing about three fewer minutes per game and has seen her usage rate drop by 4.7 percentage points this season, but she has managed to secure 20 double-doubles and establish a level where, in the words of Staley, “you really can’t stop her.”
South Carolina has proved itself repeatedly throughout the season, beating five top-20 opponents, including UConn and Stanford on the road. A championship is the expectation for the 32-0 Gamecocks, who could become the first repeat champion since UConn in 2015 and 2016.
Can UConn extend its streak?
When appraising the dominance of the UConn women’s basketball program, stats aren’t difficult to find. A personal favorite is that 18 different teams have qualified for the Final Four since 2008 — one of whom is UConn, which has qualified for every single national semifinal over that stretch.
But the Huskies (+700 championship odds) have their work cut out for them if they hope to extend the streak to 15 seasons. Star guard and 2021 National Player of the Year Paige Bueckers suffered a season-ending injury in August, and in January, UConn’s season was briefly paused because it didn’t have enough healthy players to compete. Last month, the team lost consecutive games for the first time in 30 years — “a fairy-tale stat,” as coach Geno Auriemma, who himself has also missed time this season, put it. Two weeks later, the Huskies lost to conference opponent St. John’s for the first time in 11 years.
“We look like a poorly coached team,” said Auriemma in late February.
Until this week, UConn was considered on track for a No. 3 seed, which would have marked the first time since 2004-05 that it failed to earn a top-two seed. That would be considered a major disappointment for a team with 11 national championship banners, but we should remember that UConn is still considered to be about 34.6 points better than the average Division I team this season according to SRS, and reinforcements are on the way.
To that point, the return of former No. 1 recruit Azzi Fudd to the lineup will make a big impact. “When you have Azzi, you’re talking about a Final Four-type of team now,” said Georgetown coach James Howard.
So don’t count these Huskies out just yet.
Why wouldn’t you tune in for the Caitlin Clark show?
By now, fans of ESPN’s SportsCenter have grown accustomed to seeing highlights of Iowa junior Caitlin Clark. She is the most exciting player in college basketball, most recently earning acclaim for a 25-foot, off-balance game winner in the Big Ten Tournament.
Clark leads the nation in assists (8.3 per game) and is tied for second in scoring (27.0)6 for an Iowa team projected to be a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Three of the four best seasons in school history according to SRS have materialized with Clark on the roster, with this season being its best.
There are plenty of teams with more collective firepower than the Hawkeyes (+2500 championship odds), who finished the regular season in a tie for second place in the Big Ten standings. But there isn’t a player more feared than Clark — and in a tournament that annually makes stars out of scorers, Clark is as primed as anyone to explode on the sport’s biggest stage.