Sports | March 14, 2023 5:06 am

The 5 Most-Compelling Storylines of This Year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament

March Madness is sure to bring its usual dose of insanity in 2023 — maybe even more

Brock Cunningham #30 of the Texas Longhorns shoots the ball against Gradey Dick #4 of the Kansas Jayhawks during second half of the Big 12 Tournament Championship game at T-Mobile Center on March 11, 2023 in Kansas City, Missouri.
"Who will win the tournament?" is only one of the many compelling March Madness questions for fans this year
Jamie Squire / Staff, Getty Images

You’re not interested in professional baseball games that don’t count or made-up professional football leagues that don’t matter. The NHL and NBA are winding down their excruciatingly long regular seasons, setting up more eye-catching playoffs in mid-April. The only meaningful thing to do in March from a sports-watching perspective is enjoy the “madness” that comes in the form of a single-elimination college basketball tournament. And the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament is sure to deliver its expected dose of insanity this year — maybe even a little more.  These are the storylines to keep an eye on during this year’s tournament.

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Few High-Profile Legacy Schools Are Expected to Contend

Syracuse, Michigan, Villanova, Louisville, Ohio State and, perhaps most notably, the University of North Carolina will all be missing from this year’s tournament. That’s a lot of college basketball powerhouses finding other ways to occupy their time. Some will be in the NIT. Others could be invited to the CBI tournament. At least one, UNC, has decided to call it a season no matter what.

While March Madness will feature mainstays like Duke, Virginia and Kentucky, as well as Indiana and Michigan State, none of those teams have more than an outside shot at a Final Four appearance, let alone a place in the National Championship Game. 

Kansas and Gonzaga are the only two top favorites with recent tournament success across a number of years. But on a positive note, that does mean…

The Tournament Is Wide Open

“This year’s tournament, which was announced on Sunday night, has an on-any-given-Sunday feel,” wrote Billy Witz, who covers college basketball for the New York Times. “[B]lue bloods don’t feel so rich, midmajors don’t feel so middling and every team enters with questions — even at the very top.”

The overall number one seed, Alabama, has its share of distractions, to put it mildly. One former player is in jail awaiting his murder trial, while two of the team’s current players, including its finest, Brandon Miller, are witnesses in the case. It’s alleged that Miller delivered a gun to the scene of the killing and he’s done nothing to distance himself from the case. If anything, he encouraged discourse about his involvement by allowing himself to be subjected to a pat down by a school staffer during a recent pre-game introduction. ’Bama head coach Nate Oats has been criticized for his handling of the controversies as well.

The defending champions Kansas Jayhawks are without their head coach at the moment. Bill Self was hospitalized with chest tightness and, without him on the bench, the Jayhawks lost their conference championship game by a wide margin, which may have cost them the overall number one seed — though they’re still number one in the West Region bracket.

The Midwest Region’s number-one, Houston, also lost its conference title game, while Purdue, the East’s top-seeded team, struggled down the stretch.

The New York Post and ESPN also published columns discussing this year’s wide-open field. All of which is to say… 

Some Other Legacy Programs Have a Puncher’s Chance

I failed to mention earlier that the UCLA Bruins and the UConn Huskies, both of which have storied histories in the Division I championship tournament, are back in the Big Dance this year. CBS Sports ranks them eighth and ninth respectively, behind the aforementioned number-one regional seeds and Gonzaga, as well as Texas and Marquette. So there could be a bit more drama from familiar faces, but like all the other top-ranked teams, UCLA and UConn are dealing with either injury concerns or problems with consistent play. Thus, it’s difficult to measure expectations for those two legacy programs. 

Who Will Become This Year’s Underdog Darling?

The most exciting tournaments are always the ones where an underdog darling emerges. Think: Davidson’s run to the Elite Eight in 2008 (which more importantly was Steph Curry’s coming-out party) and when Butler, a school with just 4,200 students, made the Final Four two years in a row, in 2010 and 2011. In each of the last two years we saw 15 seeds perform well, with Saint Peter’s advancing to the Elite Eight last year, while Oral Roberts made the Sweet 16 in 2021.

So which program will wear Cinderella’s shoe to the ball in 2023?

USA Today, NBC Sports and Draft Kings all pick the Charleston Cougars in large part because they have won 10 straight contests, shoot well from behind the arc while also rebounding effectively off misses and have a favorable pathway to the Sweet 16. 

“They have a matchup with the No. 5 San Diego Aztecs in the first round,” Draft Kings wrote. “If they can handle the defensive prowess of the Aztecs and advance, that sets them up for success.”

The Cougars would then play the winner of No. 4 Virginia vs. No. 13 Furman. 

“Let’s say that Virginia wins,” Draft Kings continued, “their best aspect is defense and controlling the pace of play. The Cougars would be coming off a win against a team prioritizing defense. Another win would see Charleston taking on either No. 1 Alabama, No. 8 Maryland or No. 9 West Virginia.”

I’m convinced.

Will Another Top Program Say Goodbye to Their Larger-Than-Life Head Coach?

According to ESPN, this will be the first NCAA tournament in 40 years without Mike Krzyzewski or Roy Williams on the sidelines coaching, after both retired from Duke and UNC, respectively. Jim Boeheim, Syracuse’s iconic head honcho, also just retired (or was forced to do so, depending on how you look at it). 2023’s March Madness could also mean the end of John Calipari’s tenure as head coach of Kentucky, after another underwhelming campaign. At 64 years old, it’s reasonable to think the man might retire as well, leaving behind a legacy of championship highs and multiple program-violation lows.

“After nearly 14 seasons, he’s low on energy, out of ideas and coaching a team that has underperformed so profoundly any other Kentucky coach would be fired by the end of the month,” wrote Dan Woken in a USA Today column in February. “The funky COVID year was a complete mess at 9-16. Last year looked like a potential rebound, but getting popped by St. Peter’s in the first round of the NCAA Tournament made it a failure. And this year, despite loads of experience returning and more highly-ranked recruits, the advanced metrics rate Kentucky somewhere between the 40th and 50th best team in the country. That’s unacceptable. That’s fireable.”

But Calipari has a “lifetime contract” with Kentucky, so he probably won’t be fired. However, his name has been (very, very loosely) connected to Texas, and in college sports coaching, strange things happen

Another early-tournament Calipari exit with Kentucky could lead to that kind of madness. If not, there will still be plenty more chaos to fix our eyes on.