2023 NCAA Tournament: Previewing The Road To The Final Four

2023 NCAA Tournament: Previewing The Road To The Final Four

March Madness is here, and the 2023 NCAA Tournament features one of the most wide-open brackets in recent memory.

Mar 14, 2023 by Kyle Kensing
2023 NCAA Tournament: Previewing The Road To The Final Four

Basketball's most thrilling and unpredictable time of year is upon us with the arrival of another edition of March Madness. And thanks to some strong conference-tournament showings from the nation's mid-major conferences, the 2023 NCAA Tournament field initially looks like one of the strongest in recent memory. 

That translates to an exceedingly difficult postseason to project — even more so than usual — but FloHoops.com will give it a try. 

East Region

The World's Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden, nurtured college basketball post-World War II into a nationally beloved sport. However, the point-shaving scandals of the early 1950s resulted in the NCAA Tournament avoiding the venue for decades, only returning in 2014. 

Madison Square Garden rejoining the March Madness rotation is a beautiful development, and this year, it welcomes the East Region semifinalists for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. 

Purdue Under Pressure 

In the last four decades, Purdue basketball's had a Hall of Fame head coach in Gene Keady, one of the greatest college players ever in Glenn Robinson, and Carsen Edwards going on one of the best individual tears in March Madness history. 

And the Boilermakers have not been to a Final Four since 1980. 

With a No. 1 seed and the likely National Player of the Year in Zach Edey leading the way, there may not be another team in this field with as much pressure to advance to Houston as Purdue. 

Smart Basketball 

Marquette reached its last Final Four 20 years ago on the strength of a remarkable March Madness from some guy named Dwyane Wade. Shaka Smart's 2023 Golden Eagles don't have a Wade comparison — what team does, though? Instead, they have fluid offense with multiple potential game-changers in Kam Jones, David Joplin and Tyler Kolek. 

Marquette ranks in the top 20 nationally for the percentage of field goals scored off of assists, and are in the top five of 2-point field-goal shooting, and rank eighth in KenPom.com's adjusted offensive efficiency. The Golden Eagles also play an uptempo style that deviates dramatically from Smart's ballyhooed VCU teams of the previous decade. 

 Riding a month-long winning streak and an impressive showing at the BIG EAST Tournament just might make Marquette the favorite to cut down the nets in MSG for a second time this season. 

Intrigue in the 8 vs. 9

FAU's emergence as a Top 25 team ranks among the more unlikely stories of this college basketball season. The Owls' run to the Conference USA title earned them a 1st Round date against a dangerous Memphis team in what could be the most intriguing styles clash of the opening round. 

FAU flourished this season with a combination of steady offense and harassing defense that exceled at taking opponents out of their rhythm. Johnell Davis is one of the most tenacious on-ball defenders in the field, and an outstanding 3-point shooter, making him the linchpin of FAU's Tournament aspirations. 

Memphis, meanwhile, roars into the Dance on the strength of an American Athletic title-game blowout of previously top-ranked Houston. That game best reflected the Tigers' style when it's truly clicking, as the Penny Hardaway's uptempo approach took the more methodical Houston team completely out of its element. 

FAU can play fast, but may want to avoid a track meet opposite Kendric Davis and Co. 

Double-Digit Dark Horse to Watch

The ubiquitous 5 vs. 12 matchup of the 1st Round jumps off the page in the East, given Summit League champion Oral Roberts is just two years removed from advanced to the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 season. But while this ORU bunch may actually be more dangerous than the 2021 edition — Max Abmas is every bit the heat-seeking scoring machine he was in 2021, only with a more veteran-savvy ball-handling game — the 4 vs. 13 may be the upset pick to click in the region. 

Tennessee once had a case as the strongest team in the nation, but the Vols limp into the Big Dance with seven losses since the beginning of February. Zakai Zeigler's injury dealt a significant blow to Tennessee on both sides of the ball, as Zeigler was both the stabilizing force of the Vols offense and arguably the best perimeter defender in the SEC. 

Louisiana will try to exploit that absence through some impressive 3-point shooting. Greg Williams and Kentrell Garnett both hit at a 40-percent clip from deep. Meanwhile, the Ragin' Cajuns have 6-foot-11 Jordan Brown on the interior to mix it up with Tennessee big Uros Plavsic. 

Final Four Pick

Perhaps it's a case of "fool me once, shame on you..." given its Final Four drought — not to mention losing twice to Vanderbilt in the month of March — but Kentucky heads to the NCAA Tournament with a navigable bracket and the roster talent most equipped to overachieve in the region. 

Oscar Tshiebwe took a step back compared to a season ago, yet remains a defensive force on the interior, one of the nation's best offensive rebounders, and a handful when he gets the ball in the paint. Antonio Reeves' outside shooting is a nice complement, and his presence contributes to the uncanny length the Wildcats boast on the perimeter. 

Losing Sahvir Wheeler late in the season leaves a glaring hole in the offense, but Kentucky has the pieces all the same to make a run to Houston. The Wildcats could just as easily bow out to Kansas State with Jerome Tang's unselfish and uptempo offense, combined with stifling defense, though. 

RELATED: Jerome Tang's Championship Experience Set to Elevate K-State 

Midwest Region

Kansas City welcomes the Final Four hopefuls emerging from the opening weekend of the Midwest Regional. Host city of the 1988 Final Four, Kansas City became the focus of some Selection Sunday controversy this year. 

Kansas' loss in the Big 12 Conference Tournament to Texas ostensibly kept the Jayhawks out of the Midwest, with the top seed in the region instead going to Houston — which also dropped its conference-title game. How much that impacts the Road to the Final Four should be an interesting development as the Tournament unfolds. 

Texas-Sized Bracket

Aforementioned top-seed Houston headlines a Midwest Region with three Texas teams in the field. In second is Texas, which opens with one of the tougher No. 15 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, Colgate. 

The Patriot League champion Raiders gave Wisconsin all it could in a virtual road game last March, and this Colgate squad could realistically be even more dangerous as the nation's top 3-point shooting team. Oliver Lynch-Daniels is a sharpshooter at 50.3 percent for the season, and Ryan Moffatt knocks down better than 45 percent. The two have combined for nearly 300 attempts. 

Texas' defense is feisty, however, thanks in part to the activity of one Marcus Carr. 

A matchup with longtime rival Texas A&M could be on the horizon in the Round of 32, should the Longhorns handle Colgate and the Aggies advance past Big Ten Tournament finalist Penn State. 

Penn State played its way solidly into the field with steady offense and efficient 3-point shooting. The trio of Andrew Funk, Seth Lundy and Jalen Pickett connected on 234 3-point attempts and hit 40.5, 40.6 and 38.3 respectively. Drexel transfer Camren Wynter adds additional scoring pop to the Nittany Lions backcourt. 

A&M's defense with outstanding perimeter defender Wade Taylor has its hands full in this opener. 

Can The Hoosiers Get Hot? 

This NCAA Tournament may not have a more enigmatic team than Indiana. The Hoosiers oscillate between looking like one of the most dangerous teams in the field, to a prime candidate for 1st Round upset. Taking on a very good Kent State team out of the MAC promises to test Indiana's upset vulnerability right out of the gate. 

Since Feb. 15, IU has been as up-and-down as a team can get with a stretch of loss, win, loss, win (over Purdue, completing a season sweep of the Boilers), loss (by 22 points to Iowa, also in the Midwest Region), win, win, loss (to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament). 

Putting it together for four straight games to reach the program's first Final Four since 2002 might be a stretch, but Indiana has the players. Trayce Jackson-Davis is an outstanding scorer in the paint, and combines with Race Thompson to give the Hoosiers some muscle on the glass. 

Freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino may be the key to a deep Indiana run. He dropped 35 points on Purdue on Feb. 25 and 19 in a Big Ten Tournament win over Maryland. When he's scoring, IU at its best offensively. 

Double-Digit Dark Horse to Watch

With the exception of Penn State, no double-digit seed in the Midwest has a more reasonable path to the Sweet 16 than Drake. The Missouri Valley champion Bulldogs present some matchup problems for No. 5-seed and 1st Round foe Miami, particularly with their defense. 

Drake forces opponents into slow possessions and tend to keep scoring opportunities to one-and-done. Darnell Brodie is a solid rim protector on the interior, and Tucker DeVries drives an offense that can score in bunches — even as the defense grinds opponents down. 

Final Four Pick 

The AAC Championship didn't go as planned, but Houston's been at or near No. 1 in the nation all season for a reason. Kelvin Sampson may well be the best coach in the game without a national championship, but with this year's Final Four in Houston and the Cougars boasting all the necessary pieces for a title run, the storyline is perfect for this to be the year. 

Marcus Sasser's status for the Tournament is a huge variable; Sasser is the team's most dynamic offensive weapon and a catalyst of Houston's pestering defense. While we wait and see his availability, the Cougars will rely on J'Wan Roberts and Jamal Shead to fuel the defense while Jarace Walker potentially takes on more scoring responsibility. 

South Region

The South culminates in a city one can debate is actually a Midwestern spot: Louisville. Geographical semantics aside, one of the most basketball-crazed parts of the country can look forward to a wild regional no matter if upsets emerge — and the possibility for upset in this bracket is high — or even if it goes chalk. 

Will Arizona Finally Break Through? 

Arizona ranks among the most consistent winners of the last 35 years. And yet, it's been 22 years since a Wildcats team last reached the Final Four. In that stretch, the Wildcats have lost five Elite Eight games and five in the Sweet 16, including last year's defeat to Houston. 

UA opens with a difficult draw in Princeton, a methodical team with a maddening style that's the very antithesis of how Tommy Lloyd wants to play. Survive that, and a potential Round of 32 matchup against Missouri could bring a taste of late '80s high-scoring basketball to the 2023 NCAA Tournament. It would make for an interesting juxtaposition in back-to-back games. 

Creighton Catching On 

A preseason top 10 team, Creighton hit a brutal stretch early in the campaign that could have doomed the Bluejays from even making the Tournament. Credit Greg McDermott and his players for righting the ship after a stretch losing six straight. 

Creighton has gone 12-4 since Jan. 4 against a tough BIG EAST Conference, scoring wins along the way over Xavier and UConn. The Jays feature a dangerous offensive trio with Ryan Nembhard, Trey Alexander and Baylor Scheierman, while 7-foot-1 Ryan Kalkbrenner presents difficulties for any opponent trying to attack the paint on the other side of the ball. 

Freshman Phenom on the Big Stage 

Veteran experience carries particular weight come March Madness. Even in the era of One-and-Done, upperclassmen tend to be more pivotal to deep Tournament runs than standout freshmen. 

With that in mind, Alabama's Brandon Miller is the best all-around player in the Tournament this year. Not like Paolo Banchero for Final Four-qualifying Duke a season ago, Miller is a top 3 NBA draft pick capable of dominating a game on either side of the ball. 

The Crimson Tide are not without veteran playmakers, including outstanding distributor Jahvon Quinerly and backcourt mate Mark Sears, but Alabama's a team that will go as far as freshmen take it. Future pro standout Miller leads the kiddie corps along with Jaden Bradley and big man Noah Clowney, as he looks to join Carmelo Anthony and Anthony Davis in the rare ranks of freshmen to guide championship winners. 

Double-Digit Dark Horse to Watch 

There may not be a more popular No. 12 seed in the Tournament than Colonial Athletic Association champion College of the Charleston. The Cougars play one of the most fun and effective offensive styles seen in college basketball this year, but at the CAA Championship, also flexed their muscle in a pair of gritty wins over Towson and UNC Wilmington. 

RELATED: Charleston Fights Its Way to the Big Dance 

The rough-and-tumble nature of Charleston reaching the Tournament proved the Cougars' ability to hang with physical, defensive-oriented competition — exactly the kind of opponent the Cougars draw in Round 1 against March Madness mainstay San Diego State. 

If Charleston can dictate the tempo, a similar style awaits in the Round of 32 if Virginia advances. Emphasis on if. 

Another intriguing double-digit seed to watch in the South Region, Furman, could give Virginia fits. The Paladins are playing in their first NCAA Tournament in 43 years and have plenty of lost time to make up for. Their high-volume 3-point shooting and uptempo style presents a stark contrast to the slow and methodical brand of ball UVa coach Tony Bennett has made his signature. 

A potential College of Charleston-Furman matchup in the Round of 32 could be the most high-scoring game of the Tournament, if it comes to pass. 

Final Four Pick 

The South looks wide open, even with a No. 1 overall seed in Alabama. The Crimson Tide's youth could become an issue, if close games against middling SEC competition late in the regular season is any indication. Likewise, second-seeded Arizona dropped confounding losses in the regular season to teams like Utah and Stanford, despite excelling against Tennessee, Indiana, Creighton and UCLA. 

No. 3 seed Baylor looked like a No. 1 seed a month ago, but then went 2-4 down the stretch with three of its losses coming by double-digit-point margins. But Adam Flagler is a Final Four-proven playmaker, a dangerous 3-point shooter, and the kind of veteran standout who can get rolling at just the right time. 

This might be the year Arizona advances, though, if injuries Kerr Kriisa (shoulder) and Oumar Ballo (hand) sustained in the Pac-12 Tournament are not too serious. Arizona's disappearances against some middling opponents might point to an early exit, but the Wildcats have risen to the occasion against high-quality competition enough times to suggest they're tested enough for March. 

West Region

The NCAA's longstanding moratorium on postseason events in Nevada was lifted commensurate with various states across the nation legalizing sports wagering. The first-ever March Madness to hit Las Vegas promises to be special, for numerous reasons. 

Vegas has grown into an unofficial hub at this time of year, thanks to the various conference tournaments played throughout Sin City during Championship Week. T-Mobile Arena's last game of the conference-tournament stretch delivered an instant classic, with Arizona beating UCLA in the closing seconds of the Pac-12 title game. 

Perhaps a similar finale awaits in Las Vegas' first NCAA Tournament regional. Potentially welcoming the reigning national champion in Kansas offers a strong starting point. 

Road to Repeat

When Duke claimed the 1992 national championship, 19 years elapsed since John Wooden's UCLA dynasty last repeated. Fifteen years passed between Duke's back-to-back titles and Florida winning its second in 2007. 

The 2023 NCAA Tournament marks 16 years without a repeat winner. Kansas looks like a strong contender as a No. 1 seed that, until its Big 12 Tournament loss to Texas, appeared to be a clear favorite for the top-overall seed. 

However, the 2023 Jayhawks aren't the first defending champs since 2007 to head into the Big Dance looking like the team to beat. Just last year, Baylor fell as a No. 1 seed in its Second Round matchup with North Carolina. In 2017, Villanova could have completed a threepeat, only ever accomplished by Wooden at UCLA, but lost in the Round of 32 to Wisconsin. 

This is a different team from those, of course, just as this is a much different Kansas lineup than the 2022 national championship-winning bunch. While Ochai Agbaji heads toward likely NBA All-Rookie recognition, Jalen Wilson carries the load as KU's star. Grady Dick, a potential lottery pick in this summer's NBA draft, is rounding into form as a multifaceted scorer. 

Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer running it back, this ain't. But that may be what carries Kansas to a repeat. 

Gonzaga's Pursuit of the Mountaintop 

The rise of a Jesuit school in eastern Washington to the status of true basketball powerhouse began nearly a quarter-century ago in the West Region. Gonzaga came within striking distance of the Final Four in 1999, but didn't actually break through to the national semifinals until 18 years later despite becoming a fixture of the NCAA Tournament. 

With two National Championship Game appearances in the last five years, the Zags are oh-so-close to the last frontier. A midseason lull for the 2022-23 squad, and a roster lacking in a clear NBA lottery pick like recent Gonzaga standout Jalen Suggs and Chet Holmgren, perhaps has the Zags the most under-the-radar they have been in a long time. 

That could be to the benefit of a program that built its legacy on thriving as the underdog. 

With the nation's most efficient offense, a veteran stalwart in Drew Timme and the dynamic scoring touch of Rasir Bolton and Julian Stawther, don't sleep on Gonzaga's potential of a third Final Four in six years. 

Jaime Jaquez's Moment 

Johnny Juzang commanded spotlight in UCLA's surprising Final Four run two years ago, but Jaime Jaquez Jr. was just as essential to the Bruins' success. As the 2022-23 Pac-12 Player of the Year, Jaquez has thrived as The Man for the best UCLA team in 15 years, and perhaps the Bruins team best-equipped to win the national championship since 1995. 

If the Bruins are to advance to Houston, the load is squarely on Jaquez's shoulders — and not just offensively. While he's the catalyst of the UCLA offense, the season-ending injury to Jaylen Clark leaves Jaquez having to take on the toughest defensive assignments that Clark would typically draw. 

Jaquez acquitted himself nicely in that regard opposite Arizona's Azoulas Tubelis in the Pac-12 Championship. 

Double-Digit Dark Horse to Watch 

Referring to UCLA's 2021 Final Four, a number of deep NCAA Tournament runs began at the First Four. An Arizona State team that snagged one of those last at-large bids could be primed as this year's First Four dark horse. 

The Sun Devils were excellent away from home this season, scoring road or neutral-court victories over VCU and Michigan in Brooklyn; Creighton in Las Vegas; and both Oregon and Arizona on their home courts. Desmond Cambridge Jr. and DJ Horne are the kind of streaky shooters who can get hot on the March Madness stage. 

Final Four Pick 

Should Arizona State make that run out of the 1st Round, the Sun Devils may run into a brick wall with Gonzaga's size. That means a potential Sweet 16 rematch of the unforgettable 2021 Final Four between the Zags and UCLA. 

Kansas has been excellent and has playmakers all over the floor. However, the winner of a potential Gonzaga-UCLA matchup will give the Jayhawks a great fight. The status of UCLA big man Adem Bona is significant, as is how Amari Bailey responds to being in a more prominent role. 

If Bona isn't at 100 percent, Gonzaga has the favorable path to the Elite Eight — and the corps to push the Zags to a third Final Four.