Nate Oats

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Informed sources report that I wrote this column last season and in 2021 and, perhaps, in every season since John Wooden retired.

I will probably attack the topic again next month.

But ... who are the legitimate contenders to win the 2023 NCAA men's basketball national title?

How many teams have performed in a way that you will confidently predict they will make the Final Four, which will be played in Houston April 1 and 3?

Has anybody separated itself into the role of favorite?

At BetMGM, Houston is the future book favorite, followed by Purdue and Alabama, followed by UCLA and Tennessee. DraftKings also has the Cougars on top, followed (in order) by Purdue, Alabama, Tennessee and Kansas.

One of the most reliable tools for identifying a national champion remains offensive and defensive efficiency.

In 18 of the last 20 men's tournaments, the national champion ranked in the top 20 in those categories, according to the data at Ken Pomeroy's analytics site.

The primary outlier was Connecticut in 2014, which I will always consider a fluke champion under Kevin Ollie. That UConn squad lost eight games, including three to Louisville by 12, 33 and 10 points. The Huskies survived a first-round overtime win over St. Joseph's and rode Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright to the title, even though they had the 39th most efficient offense (and 10th most efficient defense) in America.

(Raise your hand if you still can't believe it. OK, everybody put them down.)

The other non-qualifier was Baylor. When Scott Drew's team scored two years ago in a tournament essentially played without fans in Indianapolis, they were No. 2 on offense and No. 22 on defense. Close enough, right?

Other than that, everybody else was a dual qualifier. Ten champions during that period ranked in the top 10 in both metrics.

Who are the dual qualifiers top 20 this season?

As of Monday, there are three using Pomeroy's numbers: Houston, Connecticut and Alabama.

Houston, coached by Kelvin Sampson, is clearly the most qualified team in the trio, ranking sixth in offensive efficiency and eighth in defensive efficiency.

Except the Cougars play in the American Athletic Conference, have a home loss to Temple and have not played a team ranked in the Ken Pomeroy's top 60 since Dec. 17 and won't until the NCAA Tournament. They're good — and not tested the way teams are tested in the Big 12, Big Ten and Southeastern conferences.

Connecticut sits at No. 9 in offense and 20th on defense.

There was a time I believed in the Huskies. That time was Dec. 20 when they had won their first 13 by at least 10 points, including games against ranked opponents like Alabama and Iowa State.

Since then?

Since then, the Huskies have lost six of 10, beating only one team (Creighton) in Pomeroy's top 100.The Huskies are more likely to be a five-seed than a one-seed when it matters.

Team No. 3 is Alabama, which sits 20th on offense, fifth on defense. The Tide are talented and explosive. They are also 1-2 in games against Pomeroy top 20 teams and they lost to Oklahoma by more than three touchdowns.

(For the record, another analytics site — — also has three dual qualifiers: Houston 2 and 11; Alabama 8 and 6 and San Diego State 20 and 18.)

Clearly, this looks like a season when the shot clock is running down on predictive status of the dual qualifier.

To be fair, the numbers will continue to shuffle over the final four weeks of the regular season as well as conference tournament week. (Hey, it's 34 days until Selection Sunday.)

Purdue, which held off Houston as the No. 1 team in the new Associated Press poll after the Boilermakers lost at Indiana on Saturday, has been a dual qualifier nearly the entire season. On Monday, Purdue sat first in offense and 21st on defense.

The six other teams that are close to joining Houston, Alabama and UConn are the following:

  • Arizona: Second in the Pac-12, the Wildcats are 10th on offense and 36th on defense. Double-figure losses to Utah, Oregon and Washington State — three teams unlikely to make the tournament — are my major issue with Tommy Lloyd's team.
  • Texas: Thirteenth on offense and 27th on defense. Are you really buying a team led by an interim coach (Rodney Terry) who lost his only NCAA Tournament game at Fresno State from a program that has not made the Final Four since 2003? Not me.
  • UCLA: The Pac-12 leaders are 23rd on offense and a robust third on defense. The Bruins are led by Jaime Jacquez and Tyger Campbell, who have Final Four experience. They're also 1-3 against teams ranked in Pomeroy's top 25.
  • Creighton: The Bluejays rank 29th on offense and 16th on defense. They're also a difficult team to read because they suffered a six-game losing streak while battling injuries in early December.
  • Kansas: Ranked 27th on offense and 17th on defense, the Jayhawks have the added burden of trying to become the first program since Florida (2006-07) to score back-to-back titles as Bill Self chases his third NCAA title.
  • Virginia: The Cavaliers actually do not qualify in either metric. But they're lose on defense (26th) and closer (24th) on offense.

Virginia has a point guard (Kihei Clark) who won a national title and four guys who are shooting close to 40% or better from distance. I like that. Virginia is likely to be no higher than a 3-seed, making the price enticing for a Tony Bennett team.

At 34 days and counting from Selection Sunday, the 2023 NCAA Tournament is still looking for a team to beat.

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