Compare the programs associated with this year’s Final Four with those from last season and you’ll see some obvious disparities. The four semifinalists in 2022 combined for 60 all-time Final Four appearances, while 2023 boasts only five – each of them coming from UCONN. The lowest seed remaining at this time a year ago was making its 52nd NCAA Tournament appearance, and our underdog this time around is making only its second such appearance.
While we didn’t end up soaked in Blue Blood, there is no shortage of success rounding out this year’s tournament. The four teams combined for a 108-24 (.818) record in the regular season. Miami (FL) shared the ACC regular season title. San Diego State won both the Mountain West regular season and tournament championship. Connecticut went undefeated in non-conference play and entered 2023 as the #2 team in the country. Even 9-seed Florida Atlantic rolled through the season with only 3 losses on their way to winning both tournament and regular season titles in an albeit small, yet historically successful Conference USA.
If you aren’t interested in this year’s Final Four, then simply don’t watch it. I don’t care, you are a hypothetical person and I don’t know you. If you are looking for a reason to get interested, look no further than a Final Four that is completely up for grabs between four teams who have been winning all year long. Each team deserves to be here, winning four straight single-elimination games with at least one of them being against a 3-seed or higher. Not to mention… It’s the Final ******* Four, baby!
San Diego State
I hate to lead with this, but it needs to be addressed. Let’s stop discussing the “controversy” around San Diego State’s win over Creighton in the Elite 8. Was it a foul? Was it not a foul? Was there time left? Forget it. It’s disrespectful to a team that has earned their right to play here. Let’s talk about them.
A major theme to the National Championship run from the Kansas Jayhawks last year involved a sense of revenge from the canceled 2020 tournament, where they were one of the favorites. San Diego State holds a similar taste in their mouth, as they were ranked sixth in the nation with a 30-2 record when the season abruptly ended. This year, the Aztecs come into their first Final Four in program history as one of the hottest teams in the country, securing wins in 14 of the last 15 games. They’ve also developed the pedigree, winning 20+ games in 17 of the last 18 seasons under legendary coach Steve Fisher, and his protégé and current head coach Brian Dutcher. This is a program that has taken command of a Mountain West Conference that is emerging as a national player (as it works through their NCAA Tournament bug).
As a team, SDSU is experienced and composed as any. None of their key contributors have less than 90 career games played, led by veterans Adam Seiko, Nathan Mensah, and Aguek Arop who have been with the program for 5 years. Their depth is a strength, playing 9-deep comfortably. Their offense is more capable than it’s been in year’s past, especially with the support of leading scorer Matt Bradley, who enters every game with big game potential, but it is their suffocating defense that carries the weight of their title chances, allowing less than 57 points per game since the beginning of the postseason.
While they struggled to come up with that elusive “marquee” win all season, the Mountain West is no joke, and Dutcher’s squad handled that with relative ease. Since entering the tournament, they knocked off #1 overall seed Alabama, holding one of the best scoring teams in the country to 64 points. Yes, they belong here, and interestingly what scares me most about them is the inconsistency of the aforementioned Matt Bradley. Bradley is their offensive engine, scoring over 15 points in 13 games this season. He also scored a combined 8 points in their last two games vs. Alabama and Creighton, which tells me they don’t need Bradley to go off to win a National Championship. Consistent scoring from transfers Darrion Trammel and Jaedon LeDee have made this iteration of the Aztecs enough of an offensive threat to beat anybody. THAT is scary.
What it all boils down to: San Diego State belongs here. They are going to be an incredibly difficult team to score on, and they get offensive contributions all the way down the roster. This seems to be the same San Diego State roster that we’ve seen in NCAA Tournament position for the last 4 years, yet there still seems to be questions about how far they can go.
Well, they’ve made it this far, and the Aztecs are a very tough team to keep from winning two more games and cutting down the nets in Houston.
I am not going to pretend I have watched a ton of FAU basketball this season. But what I do know for sure is that the Owls have made a habit of crushing storylines throughout this year’s tournament. First, Penny Hardaway’s Memphis Tigers became a trendy pick to make a surprise run to the Sweet 16 behind electric SMU transfer Kendric Davis, but were defeated in dramatic and somewhat controversial fashion by Florida Atlantic. Then came the Cinderella of all Cinderella’s in Fairleigh Dickinson. Head coach Tobin Anderson became a household name, put up a convincing effort to become the first 16-seed to reach the Sweet 16, and ultimately ran out of steam against an FAU team who briefly became the villain of the NCAA Tournament when Alijah Martin attempted (and missed) a windmill dunk with the game in-hand as time expired. Tennessee came in under Rick Barnes who finally had a shot to exercise his tournament demons with the 9-seed in his path. They disposed of the red-hot Duke Blue Devils without their starting point guard, Zakai Zeigler, but even the Volunteers’ physical and seemingly immovable defense wasn’t enough to stop the new Cinderella of Boca Raton.
Finally, “Mr. New York City” Markquis Nowell took 3-seed Kansas State into Madison Square Garden and made plans to Kemba his way into a Final Four appearance for first-year head coach Jerome Tang and the under-regarded Wildcats team. But after being held scoreless for nearly five minutes in the second half, Kansas State went back to little Manhattan, and it was the Owls dancing their way into the Final Four.
And now Florida Atlantic boasts a compelling story of their own. As countless media members love to call out when a team exceeds expectations, the preseason polls slotted FAU 5th in the respectfully weaker Conference USA. They shattered that label en route to 31 wins and 3 losses in the regular season, but not one game against an NCAA tournament team. They are now 4-0 against NCAA Tournament teams led by Johnell Davis, who was not only named CUSA Sixth Man of the Year, but also to the All-Conference first team, speaking to the depth of the squad that will also run 9-deep. Head coach Dusty May worked as an assistant for two other CUSA foes (UAB, Louisiana Tech), in addition to the Florida Gators coaching staff before taking the job at Florida Atlantic where he has morphed the Owls into a conference competitor over the last 4 years. But no one expected this.
What it all boils down to: This team can not, and likely will not play like they are “happy to be here”. They were disrespected and written off not only all season but throughout their entire tournament run. It has been proven that they belong, and the path has opened up for Florida Atlantic to legitimately shock the nation.
The Owls are a great shooting team that happens to have a 7-foot-1 center in Vladislav Goldin lurking around if shots are missed. Get hot, and stay hot, and Florida Atlantic will be your 2023 National Champions.
The Hurricanes may be both the most fun to watch, and the most dangerous team remaining in the tournament. Not only can this team beat you in many different ways, but their roster makeup alone covers just about everything we are seeing in today’s game. After losing three starters from their 2022 Elite 8 run (including leading scorer Kameron McGusty), Miami (FL) reloaded with transfers Nijel Pack, a proven scorer at Kansas State, and Norchad Omier, a lesser-known dominator of the Sun Belt at Arkansas State. They also developed within, though, bringing back Isaiah Wong and Jordan Miller, who would become this season’s leading scorers, as well as Wooga Poplar and Bensley Joseph, who grew into key contributors to their success.
Experience on the floor is matched by experience on the sidelines, where head coach Jim Larrañaga roams, before he makes his way into the locker room for a post-win old guy dance. Let this be an official proposal to refer to this man as “Coach L” (assuming we started at Coach A, worked our way down to Coach K, and are ready for the next legend to take over), because Larrañaga is working his way toward an all-time career. The late bloomer who started as the head man at Bowling Green, brought George Mason on an improbable Final Four run, eventually earning him a Power 5 job, and 725 career victories.
Now, Coach L’s fun-loving, all-trusting demeanor carries into the Hurricanes experienced roster, which plays basketball so loosely it’s like they are out on the black top. They have been scoring at an impressive rate since squeaking by a pesky Drake team in the first round, leading to an impressively comfortable victory over heavily favored 1-seed Houston in the Sweet 16. What makes them even more fun to watch is that no game involving the Hurricanes is ever over – See: Down 12 with 10:35 remaining in the Elite 8 vs. Texas. See also: Up 25 at the half vs. Florida State on February 25th.
What it all boils down to: Miami (FL) is not going to be uncomfortable in any game. Their guards can shoot the ball, and Omier can tidy things up in the paint. This team will score, and they have shown to turn on the defensive intensity when the going gets tough. But the easy-going attitude that Coach L instills on his team and this country can be susceptible to lackadaisical defeat, and a hole that is too deep to climb out of.
They won a weak ACC, they have experience, they have talent, and they are appointment television. But will Larrañaga have his guys focused enough to dance his way to a National Championship?
UCONN may have the most compelling story in the Final Four, and it has nothing to do with their current team or coaching staff. What is it about chaotic tournaments that works so well for the Connecticut Huskies? Of their four National Championships, the last two have come as a 3-seed, and a 7-seed, both times beating an 8-seed to cut down the nets. While it won’t be an 8-seed this time, UCONN has the opportunity to make it 3 national titles in 12 years with three different head coaches – something that hasn’t been done since…I don’t know I am sure somebody will shove this stat down your throat.
Dan Hurley has an affinity for chaos himself, though the fiery head coach for the Huskies has admitted to trying to tone it down during this season’s run. His squad started the year 14-0 including five-straight impressive wins over Oregon, Alabama, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Florida. They then hit a rough patch losing 6 of 8 before bouncing back to end the regular season on an 8-1 stretch. But the team seemed to have been written off by that point. Big mistake.
Since entering the NCAA Tournament, UCONN has been on a tear, winning their four games by an average margin of 22.5 points and looking like the most dominant team remaining in the tournament. Big man Adama Sanogo has been unstoppable and is working his way into “How do you not give him the ball every time?” territory. When he needs a breather, in steps 7-foot-2 Freshman Center Donovan Clingan, who is just tall enough to accidentally drop the ball in the basket every now and then despite his raw skillset. The sharpshooter Jordan Hawkins has been the go-to guy of late, notching 20+ points in the last two, and probably delivers the best Kemba or Shabazz impersonation amongst the Huskies roster. But UCONN doesn’t need a Kemba Walker or a Shabazz Napier to take over this year. ECU transfer Tristen Newton along with the likes of Andre Jackson and Joey Calcaterra have stepped in to add some quality guard play, and with touted transfers Naheim Alleyne and Hassan Diarra coming off the bench, the Huskies are just about as deep as the rest of the Final Four.
What it all boils down to: Does this not feel like another UCONN kind of year? They have emerged out of the chaos as the likely favorites to hoist the generic NCAA trophy when it’s all said and done, and people still forget they were in a two-horse race with Purdue as the title favorites back in late December. They are one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, and despite lacking a “true point guard” they are actually 4th in the nation in Assists per game.
Before this tournament, UCONN hadn’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2014. Despite their decorated program history (18 Sweet 16s, 5 Final Fours, 4 National Championships) neither the current roster nor head coach have much background on this stage. The next two games, however, could be a cakewalk if they play up to their capabilities.
In case you don’t get the chance to watch, here is how the last three games of the Men’s College Basketball season will go down:
San Diego St. 70, Florida Atlantic 63 The FAU offense will start hot, putting SDSU back on their heels, as the Owls take a six-point lead into the break. Brian Dutcher will simply glare the defense back into his team with those villainous eyes and the Aztecs will hold our sweet Cinderella to 24 second-half points and only one made three. San Diego State creates enough offense to advance to the title game.
Connecticut 86, Miami (FL) 75 The closest game yet for the Huskies will not be so close early on. In fact, UCONN will take a 21-point lead into the under-16 timeout. The Hurricanes will storm back behind the grit and scoring ability of their guards, but ultimately UCONN’s size and lead will be just insurmountable enough. Hurley and his Huskies march on.
Connecticut 78, San Diego State 76 In one of the all-time classics in March Madness history, offenses and defenses alike find success and San Diego State erases an 11-point deficit in the 2nd half when Matt Bradley puts back a Darrion Trammel miss to give the Aztecs a 76-75 lead with 2.6 seconds to go. In the ensuing timeout, Bob, Bobby, and Dan Hurley combine forces in the huddle and share words that will be speculated on for years to come. After Jordan Hawkins hits a 40-footer as the clock expires he continues his stride and holds his follow-through all the way to the thirteenth row, where he is met by a mob of UCONN students and fans. Jim Nantz in his final year calling the Final Four gives Hawkins his entire outfit, as we all ride off into the proverbial sunset together.
Thank you, March. We’ve got it from here.