CBS Sports college basketball writers Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander surveyed roughly 100 coaches for our annual Candid Coaches series. They polled everyone from head coaches at elite programs to assistants at some of the smallest Division I schools. In exchange for complete anonymity, the coaches provided unfiltered honesty about a number of topics. Over the next few weeks, we'll be posting the results of the questions asked.
We're starting our annual Candid Coaches series with one of the questions we ask every season, an inquiry designed to see which team college coaches from every level of the sport believe is most likely to win the 2023 NCAA Tournament. I've said for a while now that I do not think there will be a consensus preseason No. 1, and this exercise more or less confirmed it given that A) no school got even 40% of the vote and B) 12 DIFFERENT SCHOOLS received at least one vote. That said, 85% of the vote did go to one of the teams I have ranked first, second or third in the CBS Sports Preseason Top 25 And 1. So there does seem to be something close to a consensus top three. But the roughly 100 coaches we polled did not vote Gonzaga, North Carolina and Houston in the same order that I've ranked Gonzaga, North Carolina and Houston in the Top 25 And 1. The results of their answers are below.
Who will be the best team in college basketball this season?
Quotes that stood out
On North Carolina
- "Their returning core gives them an edge over the other teams in my mind. I also think that the addition of Pete Nance and the continued development of Puff (Johnson) will help them. One of the freshmen, Tyler Nickel, is an absolute monster and could make a difference this year as well."
- "I was so impressed at how Hubert Davis stuck to his coaching roots but was also willing to adjust and adapt to his personnel by playing outside the 'Carolina System' that had been so successful for decades. They bring back and have added all the pieces needed to replicate their run from last March. Brady Manek was such an offensive threat and will be tough to replace, but I have no doubt Hubert will learn quickly how this team can be more dangerous."
- "Gonzaga is bringing back too much talent from a great team to not be the favorite to win it all. Drew Timme should be better than ever, and I think this will be the year they actually win the national title."
- "Gonzaga still brings back a dominant player in Timme, but they have more guys that have been in their program, and I think that's a huge benefit to return not just game experience but guys like Hunter Sallis and others who have been there. They don't have quite as much turnover, probably, as the others. I also think there's some value in a culture that's been sustained over time and been rock-solid."
- "Houston has an elite culture. They probably play harder than any team in the country. With the talent they are getting, the way they defend and the chip on their shoulder, I think they are capable of winning it all."
- "I'll go with Houston. They have a dude in Marcus Sasser, good players around him and depth. On top of that, I trust Kelvin Sampson a lot more to get the best out of his team and figure out rotations and combinations better than (the other coaches) with top teams."
- "I think, top to bottom, they have arguably the best roster and are led by the guy (Oscar Tshiebwe) who I think will be the player of the year again. I think there's also something to be said with how their season ended and who they should come back to be. You look at Virginia a couple of years ago (winning the national title after losing to UMBC in the first round of the NCAA Tournament the year before). I don't know if they'll win the title, but they'll be my betting pick to do it."
- "I heard you say on the (Eye on College Basketball) podcast that Kentucky's most talented lineup might not have enough shooting. I think that's right. But they have shooting on the bench, and the best big in college basketball. I think this is the year Cal gets a second championship. If I could have any roster, I'd want his."
I had North Carolina ranked No. 1 in Version 1.0 of the Top 25 And 1 that posted just after the 2022 NCAA Tournament championship game, but ultimately dropped the Tar Heels below Gonzaga after Rasir Bolton surprisingly returned to campus and Southern Conference Player of the Year Malachi Smith committed to the Zags. That said, as I've mentioned many times, I don't have any problem with anybody who thinks UNC should've remained No. 1 even after those developments -- and 37% of the coaches we polled are people who fall into that category. They consider North Carolina the preseason favorite largely because the Tar Heels are returning every rotation player besides Manek from a team that advanced to the championship game of the 2022 NCAA Tournament after beating Duke twice in the final month of the season and ending Mike Krzyzewski's Hall of Fame career.
The betting markets disagree, though.
Houston and Gonzaga -- which finished second and third in our Candid Coaches poll -- are actually the co-favorites to win the 2023 NCAA Tournament at +850, according to Caesars Sportsbook, while UNC is slightly behind the Zags at +1000. What that underlines is how it's reasonable to rank those three teams in any order -- and that the 2023 NCAA Tournament is very much up for grabs in a way that isn't always this clear in August.
It should make for a fun season.
For what it's worth, eight of the other nine teams that received Candid Coaches votes are also teams I have ranked in the Top 25 And 1 -- specifically No. 4 Kentucky, No. 5 Duke, No. 6 Arkansas, No. 7 Baylor, No. 8 Kansas, No. 9 Tennessee, No. 10 UCLA and No. 11 Creighton.
Interestingly, the only team not in the Top 25 And 1 that received a Candid Coaches vote is Virginia. When I asked the coach who submitted that ballot why he voted for Tony Bennett's team, this is what he said: "(The Cavaliers have) everyone back, and I feel like they are ready for another monster year. (They) also (have) some underrated recruits."
Added another ACC coach who didn't vote for Virginia but went out of his way to say he thinks the Cavaliers will be really good: "(They) figured it out at the end of last year. They'll finish first or second in our league."