The 2023 NCAA Tournament technically began Tuesday with the First Four in Dayton, and each game of the doubleheader was highly entertaining. For many, though, the action really kicks into high gear with jam-packed slates on Thursday and Friday with the feel of a two-day national holiday for sports fans. Filling out brackets and rooting for specific team victories provides enjoyment to millions and, for NBA die-hards, this is a fantastic annual opportunity to brush up on the latest with the next wave of professional standouts.
In 2023, the best prospect in the NBA Draft is Victor Wembanyama, and he won’t be suiting up on the collegiate stage this month. That is also the case for Scoot Henderson, Amen Thompson, and Ausar Thompson, which serves as a reminder that college basketball is far from the only place to check out top-tier prospects. In fact, some of the best college prospects won’t participate in the Tournament (Ohio State’s Brice Sensabaugh, Michigan’s Jett Howard, etc.), but there remains no shortage of intriguing players to monitor.
Today, we’ll glance at the five top prospects in each NCAA Tournament region, acknowledging this is an arbitrary cut-off and perhaps the No. 6 prospect in one region may be better than the No. 4 prospect in another. Alas, let’s get to the players.
South Region: Brandon Miller (Alabama), Keyonte George (Baylor), Noah Clowney (Alabama), Terquavion Smith (NC State), Adam Flagler (Baylor)
The South Region is unquestionably headlined by Alabama’s Brandon Miller. The buzz is building that Miller could even usurp Henderson, at least for some, as the No. 2 overall player on the board, and Miller’s performance over the course of the season has been tremendous for the Crimson Tide. His size and shooting bring encouragement with regard to floor and, after a very rough start inside the arc, Miller improved rapidly with his craft. There are continuing questions around his off-court linkage to a January shooting, but Miller hasn’t missed a minute for Alabama as a result and NBA teams are still evaluating him as one of the top prospects around.
After Miller, there is a drop to Keyonte George, who many still view as a lottery pick for Baylor. He has efficiency and distribution issues, but George has tremendous pedigree dating back to high school. Clowney is showing tremendous defensive tools and could be in line for a late first-round landing spot if his play stands out for the Crimson Tide this month. Smith was a potential first round pick a year ago that returned to NC State and is leading a tournament team as a prominent shot creator. There is a drop in consensus after that top four, and Flagler gets the call at No. 5 here. The transfer from Presbyterian has continued to rise on boards for NBA teams, and Flagler’s biggest appeal is his high-level shooting acumen and solid size for a point guard.
East Region: Cason Wallace (Kentucky), Dariq Whitehead (Duke), Dereck Lively (Duke), Kyle Filipowski (Duke), Julian Phillips (Tennessee)
Wallace is a personal favorite as a tremendous defensive guard with real instincts. He is a potential lottery pick, especially if teams give him the semi-annual bump for miscast Kentucky guards. Wallace is also a very solid shooter and decision-maker, even if he may not have primary upside. Whitehead has been banged up at times this season, but he’s a 6’6 wing for the Blue Devils that can shoot it with five-star high school pedigree.
Lively was, at least by some, the No. 1 recruit in the country and had a brutal start to the season. However, the 7-footer has come along nicely on the defensive end, and he has sky-high potential on that end to go along with some appeal as an offensive rim-runner. Filipowski is more polarizing as the best college player for Duke but also the No. 3 prospect on his own team. His offensive appeal is very easy to see as a big with inside-out ability and a tremendous skill level, but the questions come with a lack of a natural defensive role in the NBA. Phillips is a jack-of-all-trades forward for the Vols who doesn’t stand out in any single way right now, but he’s 6’8 and checks a lot of boxes as a potentially intriguing role player.
Midwest Region: Jarace Walker (Houston), Jalen Hood-Schifino (Indiana), Kris Murray (Iowa), Colby Jones (Xavier), Marcus Sasser (Houston)
Houston is a tremendous college basketball team, as evidenced by their No. 1 seed, and Walker is both a very valuable college player and a lottery-projected prospect. He’s a 6’8 forward with a reported 7’2 wingspan and tremendous defensive capabilities. On offense, he’s a projected role player, but Walker finishes well and doesn’t need the ball to be succesful. Hood-Schifino is a fast-rising prospect this cycle as a 6’6 guard that can handle, defend, distribute and generally excel. He would fit in a lot of places at the NBA level.
Murray, the brother of Sacramento’s Keegan Murray, is extremely productive and will garner obvious comparisons to his brother. Keegan was the better prospect, but Kris isn’t far off and will be a first-round pick based on his forward size and offensive skill set for the high-powered Hawkeye attack. Jones has a ton of positive assets as a projected NBA role player, with good shooting guard size, craft, and shooting acumen. It’s easy to see his translation from a starter with the Musketeers to a valuable NBA player. Sasser is currently banged-up, with questions on whether he’ll play for Houston in its opener, but the 6’2 guard can score and he’s extremely valuable to a No. 1 seed.
West Region: Nick Smith Jr. (Arkansas), Anthony Black (Arkansas), Gradey Dick (Kansas), Jordan Hawkins (UConn), Julian Strawther (Gonzaga)
Arkansas has the top two prospects in this range and is the No. 8 seed in the West. That’s tough to reconcile, but Smith missed a large swath of the season. He was a consensus top-five high school prospect with very clear offensive upside as a primary scorer in the NBA. Comparisons have been in the ether to Jamal Murray, and Smith could return to a mid-lottery slot or higher with a breakout in March. Black is less traditionally appealing as a shot creator, but he is a 6’7, highly-skilled perimeter player who passes well, defends, and makes all the right plays. His jumper is the big question, but Black is the kind of player that could be an NBA starter even as a fringe shooter.
Dick is a 6’8 sniper with a high release and excellent shooting numbers. He’s not a pure specialist by any means, though, as Dick is a good passer and has enough size to at least be reasonable on defense in time. He’s improved even over the course of the season for the Jayhawks. Hawkins is a 6’5 shooting guard with real movement shooting potential and rock-solid defense. His lack of size may be limiting a little bit, but he’s a first-round talent. Finally, Strawther is clearly No. 5 on this list and would be closer to the fictional No. 6 than to No. 4. Still, his size and shooting are very appealing for Gonzaga, and the questions really focus on whether his limited athleticism will make him too much of a defensive challenge in the league.