The student news site of Edwardsville High School

Tiger Times

The student news site of Edwardsville High School

Tiger Times

The student news site of Edwardsville High School

Tiger Times

NCAA Men’s Basketball Conference Predictions

Zach Kennett
design by Zach Kennett; photos courtesy of AP Newsroom

The 2023-24 NCAA Men’s Basketball season tips off Nov. 6, just over seven months after the road to the Final Four ended in Houston, Texas. 

Around the NCAA, title contenders look to come out of the Power 6 Conferences: the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. Here are the top teams to look out for in each conference.

ACC – Duke Blue Devils

The No. 2 Duke Blue Devils are the highest-ranked team in the ACC, pulling ahead of ranked competition such as UMiami and North Carolina.

Though their March hopes were cut short in the second round by Tennessee, they retained sophomores Tyrese Proctor and Kyle Filipowski, who combined for 24.5 points per game last year. 

Filipowski will play a ginormous role this season, as the 7-foot center is eyeing a possible National Player of the Year run, which would be the program’s first since 2019.

Head coach Jon Scheyer needs to prove that last year was not a fluke and that the Blue Devils can prosper under the sophomore head coach like they did in the days of Coach Krzyzewski. Scheyer was recently extended through the 2028-29 season.

Duke still has question marks at the forward positions. Sophomore small forward Mark Mitchell has experience, appearing in 35 games last season, but the 6-foot-9-inch wing will have to adjust to more minutes that come with a starting role. Five-star recruit TJ Power will have to fill the hole left by the drafted power forward Dariq Whitehead, who put up 8.3 points per game.

Non-conference play will see the Blue Devils face off against ranked competition like Michigan State, Arizona, Arkansas and Baylor, games which should all test Duke’s depth.

Beyond UMiami, North Carolina and Virginia, the ACC offers little competition for the Blue Devils. Pushover squads like Louisville and Notre Dame offer easy wins, and middling schools such as Pitt and N.C. State won’t test Duke too much.

Big 12 – Houston Cougars

The No. 7 Houston Cougars will play their first season in the Big 12 and compete with their I-35 neighbors, the No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks, for the conference title.

The conference competition doesn’t stop there; the No. 18 Texas Longhorns and No. 20 Baylor Bears are also aiming for the Big 12 championship.

However, according to KenPom, a college basketball analytics service, the Cougars have the No. 3 offense and No. 5 defense in the nation, outranking both Texas and Baylor in either category.

Last year, the Cougars saw their season cut short by the UMiami in the Sweet Sixteen and lost their top two scoring talents in Marcus Sasser and Jarace Walker to the draft. 

But Houston plugged the holes, replacing the former with Baylor transfer LJ Cryer and the latter with depth in Terrance Arceneaux. Cryer scored 15 points per game for the Bears and was named to the all-conference team. Arceneaux was awarded to the AAC’s all-freshman team.

Houston’s non-conference schedule includes only one game against a ranked team: the No. 15 Texas A&M Aggies, whose offensive and defensive KenPom projections match up terribly to Houston’s high-powered lineup.

The Big 12 will not be an easy conference for the Cougars to win, but for a program that hasn’t seen a losing season in eight years and is projected to be one of the most well-rounded squads in the sport, it should be simple.

Big East – Connecticut Huskies

On April 3, after buzzsaw-like dominance over ranked March competition such as San Diego State University, UMiami and Gonzaga, UConn cut down the nets in NRG Stadium after their fifth national championship run in school history.

Now, the No. 6 Huskies will compete in a top-heavy Big East against Marquette, Creighton and Villanova without the likes of Jordan Hawkins, Andre Jackson and Adama Sanogo.

Still, with returning forward Alex Karaban, guard Tristen Newton and center Donovan Clingan, all with extensive March experience, freshman recruits, like five-star guard Stephon Castle and highly-touted wing Jaylin Steward and Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer, the Huskies have the talent to be repeat national champions.

Projections support this, with KenPom projecting UConn to have the No. 8 offense and the No. 4 defense. History disagrees, however, given that no school has repeated as national champions since the Florida Gators in 2006 and 2007.

Head coach Dan Hurley looks to break this streak, returning in his sixth season with the program, having helmed the team to a 104-55 record and second straight year on the season-end AP poll.

UConn’s conference schedule will prove if the team really has it; the last six games of the season will see the Huskies face off against Marquette twice, and Creighton, Villanova, Seton Hall and Providence. Seton Hall and Providence provide little rest from the otherwise ranked competition, as both schools are just outside KenPom’s top 50 rankings.

The Huskies have the players and coaching; their success largely depends on surviving the gauntlet of the Big East.

Big Ten – Purdue Boilermakers

The No. 3 Purdue Boilermakers, reigning Big Ten champions, shouldn’t have much to prove. 

Yet, after Purdue saw two straight national championship runs cut short by New Jersey schools who tip-toed into the big dance, head coach Matt Painter has to prove that he’s capable of leading a team to March success.

He’s not alone. Reigning National Player of the Year Zach Edey needs to show that his post-heavy game translates to tournament success, and returning supporting players like guards Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith will need to progress from beyond the arc if Purdue wants any odds of a Final Four run.

The Big Ten will be tough. In the conference’s final year before westward expansion, the Boilermakers will have to dominate ranked competition in Michigan State and Illinois, with the Spartans being slotted just one spot below Purdue in the preseason AP poll.

Tough unranked schools such as Maryland, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern and Michigan will also vie for conference success.

Still, Purdue is highly-touted for a reason. Edey dominates in the physical, paint-driven play of the Big Ten, and Southern Illinois transfer Lance Jones, who averaged 2.1 three-pointers per game, should boost the Boilermakers’ shooting from the perimeter.

The defense is a concern. KenPom projects the Boilermaker defense 14th in the nation, behind Big Ten squads like Michigan State and Wisconsin, with the latter playing Purdue twice.

Additionally, with a schedule where easy wins will be hard to come by, beating middling schools will become a requirement for a team searching for their first Final Four run since 1980.

Pac-12 – Arizona Wildcats

In the collapsing neutron star that is the Pac-12, Arizona looks to win their sixth conference title in 11 years before bolting out the door to the greener pastures of the Big 12 next season.

And they have the tools to do it. 

The Wildcats added UNC guard Caleb Love, who averaged 16.7 points per game, through the transfer portal and retained senior Oumar Ballo, who was second on the Wildcats in both points and rebounds last season. Guard Pelle Larsson, who averaged 3.1 assists per game last year, is also returning.

Defense is the chief concern in Tucson, as Arizona’s was ranked 39th in the nation by KenPom last year and allowed more points per game than any other Pac-12 team.

Head coach Tommy Lloyd addressed this, bringing in three freshman big men to clog up the paint.

Question marks remain, however, as KenPom ranked the Wildcats’ defense No. 23, behind conference rivals USC and UCLA.

Those schools should be the only conference competition Arizona will face, and the high-scoring Wildcats should have little issue blazing past the No. 21 Trojans and unranked Bruins. 

With games against Duke, Purdue, Michigan State, Alabama and Florida Atlantic making up one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the NCAA, Arizona must ensure that their games against weaker competition, especially in the shallow Pac-12, end with a victory.

SEC – Kentucky Wildcats

Out of the five ranked teams in the SEC, none have portfolios quite like Kentucky. 

The No. 16 Wildcats have eight national titles, good for second-most all-time, and current head coach John Calipari has helmed the program to four Final Four runs and one national championship.

Yet, in a conference as stacked as the SEC, the blue blood will need to rely on more than its past to stand out.

No. 9 Tennessee, No. 14 Arkansas and No. 15 Texas A&M are projected by most to best the Wildcats, and reigning SEC champion No. 24 Alabama looks to hold on to their title.

Luckily, Calipari snagged three five-star recruits in small forward Justin Edwards, center Aaron Bradshaw and point guard DJ Wagner, which made the Kentucky freshman class the most talented in the nation, according to 247sports. 

Wagner, alongside returning guard Antonio Reeves, highlight a squad whose offense is projected to be the 10th best in the nation and first in the SEC, according to KenPom.

Transfer Tre Mitchell, a 6-9 big who scored 11.7 points per game for West Virginia, will contribute heavily to the high-powered offense.

With a non-conference schedule that sees the Wildcats play only two ranked teams, Kentucky can easily cruise into conference play with the best record in the SEC.