Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel

There are 363 Division I teams in college basketball. Only 68 of them will get into the NCAA Tournament field this year. And only a fraction of those 68, if I'm being truthful, are legitimate contenders fit to wear the crown.

So who are they?

By my count, only seven teams have the goods to be the last team standing on the first Monday night of April in Houston. They are (no surprise) called "contenders." Just below them is another bucket of good -- but not great -- teams called "pretenders." These are teams that can make a run in March but don't quite have the goods to win it all. I am sorry in advance if your team falls into that category and your feelings are hurt. The truth isn't always stuffed with empathy.

Let's start with the contenders and work our way down to the pretenders. In the contenders column, I'll rank each team from most to least likely to win the title – led, of course, by my current pick to win it all -- along with accompanying title odds courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook.


1. Houston

Odds to win title: +700

The only team in America with a top-10 offense and top-10 defense in adjusted efficiency, according to KenPom metrics. Houston has a healthy balance on both ends and plays a physical, disciplined style that grinds teams down throughout the game. The Cougars have a superstar vet in Marcus Sasser, a one-and-doner in Jarace Walker and experience littered throughout the roster. 

2. Purdue

Odds to win title: +1000

A No. 1 seed has won the championship 24 of the last 37 tournaments since the NCAA Tournament's bracket expansion in 1985. That's a bright green flashing GO sign for Purdue, the likeliest No. 1 overall seed at this juncture. Historical data aside, this Boilermakers team is exactly the type of team that can win in March, too. Zach Edey -- the frontrunner for Player of the Year who stands at a towering 7-foot-4 -- is a nightmare matchup. Matt Painter, perennially underrated, may be the best coach in college basketball this year. And the supporting cast of characters fits perfectly around Edey with Fletcher Loyer, Braden Smith, Mason Gillis blending smarts, length and depth.

3. Arizona

Odds to win title: +1000

The Wildcats have tightened up their defense lately, boasting the top-rated unit at since giving up 87 points to Oregon on Jan. 14 -- its last loss. They also rank No. 1 across the metrics spectrum at the site overall. This team took some time to find itself, but boy it has found itself an identity behind the lethal quartet of Azuolas Tubelis, Oumar Ballo, Kerr Kriisa and Courtney Ramey. Tubelis is playing like a top-three player in college basketball and raising this team's postseason ceiling.


Odds to win title: +1200

Coach Mick Cronin knows defense, and this UCLA team has embraced its identity on that side of the ball with one of the most fearsome units in college basketball. The roster is good enough to win big in March thanks to elite guard play from Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell and Jaylen Clark, plus an emerging freshmen duo of Amari Bailey and Adem Bona.

5. Alabama

Odds to win title: +1200

Nate Oats' Alabama team has a rep for being explosive and devastating on offense -- which is true of this year's team -- but its ability to lean into its defense is what makes it truly dangerous. It's no one-trick pony. The Crimson Tide play with the quickest tempo in college hoops. They can bury you on offense with star freshman Brandon Miller and get after you on defense with top-two marks in 2-point defense and 3-point defense in percentage allowed. 

6. Kansas

Odds to win title: +1600

Whatever Kansas stock was sold after the Jayhawks lost four in six outings during conference play, I'm willing to buy. This team still has the goods to defend its national championship. Dajuan Harris has improved, providing a floor for two talented shot-makers next to him in Gradey Dick and Jalen Wilson. The Jayhawks lack size, but they're bringing along 6-foot-11 freshman Ernest Udeh Jr. to be a nice complementary piece to small-ball do-it-all weapon KJ Adams in the frontcourt. 

7. Texas

Odds to win title: +2500

It was between Texas and Baylor for this seventh and final spot, but I gave the Longhorns the nod here. Sir'Jabari Rice is playing like a star and Marcus Carr is a microwave scorer who can heat up any night. The depth of Timmy Allen, Tyrese Hunter and Christian Bishop is a luxury few teams have in their back pockets -- not to mention five-star freshman Dillon Mitchell, who has shown flashes and is probably the most talented X-factor in America. This team has won four times on the road in Big 12 play -- the toughest conference in the sport -- and remained a contender even with internal turmoil following Chris Beard's in-season firing. It is resilient, not just frontrunners. 


1. Tennessee

Odds to win title: +1200

Tennessee has the fourth-best odds to win the national championship, but ... yeah ... I'm not buying at that price. The Volunteers have an elite defense, sure, but their offense is shaky at best. That's cost them in two of their last three losses against unranked SEC foes Florida and Vanderbilt. The Vols have also scored fewer than 60 points twice in the last three games. This is a team that can be great in the regular season but -- much like its head coach -- seems destined to fall short of expectations in the postseason.

2. UConn

Odds to win title: +1800

It pains me as a UConn truther to say it, but the Huskies might be pretenders. The 14-0 start to the season was fabulous, and the 15-point home win over Marquette this week was euphoria wrapped inside some early-season nostalgia. However, what we saw to open the 2023 calendar year -- the Hukies lost five of their first seven games -- was alarming. If this team gets its act together and starts rounding into form again, I'll happily jump back onto the UConn wagon. For now, I'm regretfully hedging my Huskies bets. 

3. Creighton

Odds to win title: +4000

Another team that I love but have to fade. Creighton's won seven in a row after some fits and starts in December thanks to the return of Ryan Kalkbrenner, but this team fits the very definition of a good-not-great team. If the bracket breaks right, I'll pick it to make it to the second weekend, but beyond that I'm not sold it has the goods to really challenge for a national title. 

4. Gonzaga

Odds to win title: +1800

No team has more NCAA Tournament wins over the last decade than Gonzaga, so I'll acknowledge that factoid right off the top and admit that I am very much a Zags truther. Unfortunately, this is an easy fade. Gonzaga has two elite talents in Julian Strawther and Drew Timme, but its guard play this season has been well beneath recent standards for the program. 

5. Virginia

Odds to win title: +4000

It's become fashionable to fade Virginia in March even after it won the whole thing in 2019 in part because its offense has not quite been good enough to complement its defense. This season, its offense statistically is the best it has had since it won the title. Defensively, however, this team is worse at defending the 3 than any team since the title team under coach Tony Bennett. On top of that, the Cavaliers don't have enough size or play with enough physicality to overcome their shortcomings. A matchup against a team that's good at defending at the rim or dominant on the glass -- or both -- will likely be what sends UVa packing. My guess is that it winds up being earlier than most people will predict in their brackets.