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The Off-the-court Intrigue Shaping College Basketball in 2022-23

From more continuity in the men’s game to more contenders in the women’s game, it’s a new era in college basketball entering the new season.

At long last, welcome to college basketball season. The games tip off for real on Monday, and while the slate isn’t exactly loaded thanks to the Champions Classic getting bumped to the second week of the year, there is plenty of intrigue around this season. Gonzaga and South Carolina are the betting favorites to win the men’s and women’s national championships, respectively, but they’re far from the only contenders. 

More importantly for fans, there are plenty of storylines off the court that will shape how college basketball continues to evolve.

As the 2022-23 season begins, let’s explore the biggest and best of them.

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Impending NCAA Tournament Expansion

Thanks to the NCAA’s recent efforts to atone for the disastrous inequities witnessed at the 2021 NCAA Tournaments, it’s safe to assume that if the men expand their own March Madness field, then the women will do the same — like it or not. And if you’re against further expansion as most fans tend to be, at least take solace in knowing that it means increased opportunities for more men and women each year to play on the sport’s biggest stage. 

The 2023 NCAA Tournaments are locked at 68 teams, so don’t worry about anything changing in time for March, but there’s a real chance the field is bigger in 2024 or 2025. It doesn’t sound like we’re going to get a 96-team field anytime soon, but don’t be surprised if the First Four becomes the First Eight and the fields are 76 teams each.

Why? Well, people like to say football drives the bus in college sports, but that’s not entirely true; 85% of the NCAA’s annual revenue comes from March Madness, so more springtime basketball inventory means more revenue for the NCAA. Oh, and it makes the coaches happy — a good way to increase your job security on the sidelines is to make the NCAA Tournament. More at-large spots means it gets a little bit easier to do just that.

Continuity in the Men’s Game

A fortunate byproduct of the NIL era is that we are going to see more roster continuity in men’s college basketball. Players like Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, who in the past may have gone to the NBA Draft after a year like he had in 2021-22, are back with an opportunity to make (quite literally) hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The obvious benefit is that keeping more talent in school makes the college game better. It also makes it easier for the so-called casual fan to follow the game. In the past, men’s college basketball hasn’t featured teams with clear on-court identities in the season’s opening weeks, as the true superstars don’t often emerge until around January.

Well, now we know. CBS Sports published its list of the top 101 players in college basketball this year and the top 10 are all upperclassmen, with Timme and Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe leading the way.

Some other returning stars to watch: Armando Bacot at North Carolina, Marcus Sasser at Houston, Trayce Jackson-Davis at Indiana, and Jaime Jaquez at UCLA.

The Women’s Game has More Contenders than Ever

For the better part of the past decade, the pool of contending teams in women’s basketball has slowly grown. This year, South Carolina is the clear-cut national championship favorite, but there are probably a dozen teams that have real Final Four potential — and if you can make it to the Final Four, who knows what can happen? Stanford and Tennessee are both expected to be factors, as always, and though UConn lost Paige Bueckers for the season, would anyone really be surprised if they were major factors in the end? 

But there are some less traditional names joining the fray this year. Vic Schaefer has his best team since he came to Texas in 2020, and that’s saying a lot — the Longhorns are coming off back-to-back Elite Eight seasons. Iowa also has a potential Final Four team with Player of the Year candidate Caitlin Clark and Monika Czinano. Louisville will be back in the mix as well, along with a resurgent Notre Dame and a sneaky-good Iowa State.

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The IARP Fallout

One of the biggest storylines on the men’s side this offseason was the drama (or lack thereof) around the Independent Accountability Resolution Process board that reviewed NCAA infractions cases from Memphis and Louisville. After literally years of review, both programs got off essentially unscathed despite facing Level I violations (the big, bad kind).

Even though Louisville doesn’t figure to be competitive this year and Memphis projects as an also-ran in the AAC, this has some broader implications. We’re still awaiting a rule on Kansas’s own case, and the Jayhawks have already suspended head coach Bill Self and assistant Kurtis Townsend for the first four games of the season as a preemptive measure. Jayhawk fans should feel a little more at ease after seeing the Louisville and Memphis resolutions, however, and for the Cardinals in particular, the NCAA infractions case is no longer looming over them on the recruiting trail. Kenny Payne’s job just got much easier when it comes to bringing in talent.

Slightly unrelated: The process has been so long and drawn out that the IARP will dissolve when it is done with its current slate of cases.

The Women’s Regionals

This year, instead of the typical four regional sites, the final 16 teams will go to one of two locations for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight: Greenville, South Carolina and Seattle. The hope is this will create better game environments by consolidating eight fanbases in cities likely to have at least a semi-local team.

Greenville will, of course, be a hotbed for South Carolina fans, and if Oregon makes it to the tournament, you can count on the committee sending the Ducks out west. Stanford, which isn’t exactly local but also isn’t TOO far, will be as well. The question becomes whether other fanbases will travel a longer distance than usual — UConn fans are used to playing their regionals in Connecticut or, at farthest, Albany. Will they go to South Carolina? Louisville and Notre Dame were typically locks for the midwest; same question to those fanbases.

As I wrote after last season, I’m willing to give a chance to any idea to increase visibility and excitement around the women’s game. Let’s wait and see what happens here.

The Balance of Power in Men’s Hoops

Last year, we got our first look at North Carolina in a post-Roy Williams era, and Hubert Davis weathered a rocky regular season to take the Tar Heels all the way to the national title game. This year, we get to see if Jon Scheyer at Duke and Kyle Neptune at Villanova can have similar success in their first years following the departure of a program legend (Mike Krzyzewski and Jay Wright, respectively). 

So far, Scheyer has shown no signs of letting Duke fall from the top of the sport. The Blue Devils enroll the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, led by Dariq Whitehead and Dereck Lively. For 2023, Scheyer already has four of the top 16 recruits currently committed, per ESPN’s rankings.

At Villanova, Neptune has a team with a real shot at winning the Big East. The Wildcats probably won’t be as dominant this year as they were during the latter part of the Wright Era, but that’s not Neptune’s fault. The team has had some turnover from last year’s crew that made the Final Four, and an injury to stud freshman Cam Whitmore isn’t helping matters. Neptune told Boardroom that Whitmore is one of the most talented players on the team and was “unbelievable” in practice this fall. Don’t be surprised if Villanova makes the second weekend once again.

One More Under-the-radar Storyline: Keep an Eye on the WAC Tournament

This isn’t going to get much attention, but is something worth keeping an eye on. The Western Athletic Conference, which operates entirely off the national radar with schools like Grand Canyon and Abilene Christian in tow, is going to use advanced metrics to help seed its men’s conference tournament. The idea is to minimize some of the randomness around one individual game result and really favor its best teams. While the wild unpredictability of March Madness is part of what makes it fun, one-bid leagues desperately want their best teams to win their conference tournaments and will go to great lengths to help them out — just look at the WCC, where Gonzaga is essentially guaranteed a double-bye to the conference semifinals every year. If those small schools get their best teams in, it increases their odds of winning an NCAA Tournament game or two, which would result in far higher payouts to the league. If this works out well for the WAC, other conferences might follow suit.

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