Final Four newcomers: Grab your name tag at the door
Everyone’s heard of UConn. All these other guys? They’ll need name tags at the Final Four.
When they travel to Houston next week to play for the national title, Florida Atlantic, San Diego State and Miami will be making their first appearances at college basketball’s grand finale, the first time since 1970 that three first-timers all showed up in the same year.
If the unfamiliar names — to say nothing of the seedings — are any indication, fans might look back on 2022-23 as the season when true parity finally sunk down deep into the bones of America’s favorite basketball tournament and turned March Madness into a total free-for-all, all the way to the last weekend.
There will be no No. 1 seed at the Final Four for the first time since 2011. Instead, there will be a 9 seed in Florida Atlantic, a pair of 5 seeds in SDSU and Miami, and a 4 seed in UConn. The combined seed total of the four teams is 23, the second-highest total since the seeding began in 1979. This marks the first time that not a single top-3 seed made it.
The matchups for Saturday: San Diego State against FAU, in a not-so-classic 5-vs-9 matchup. (San Diego State, a 57-56 winner over Creighton on Sunday, is a 1.5-point favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.) Who saw that coming?
In the later game, it’s the Hurricanes as 5 1/2-point underdogs against UConn, which is the prohibitive favorite, at minus-135, to bring a fifth national title home.
If UConn does win, it will join Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas as the fourth school to win the championship under three or more coaches. Dan Hurley would join Jim Calhoun and Kevin Ollie in the winner’s circle for the Huskies.
In the past, some of the upheaval in the brackets could have been pinned on the single-elimination format and the tournament selection committee, which sometimes overvalues its top seeds — this year, that included first-round loser Purdue and seven-loss defending-champion Kansas — while clearly underrating others.
No team got undervalued more than UConn (29-8), which had 25 wins coming in, a No. 8 standing in the NET rankings — which looks at quality wins among other factors — and the still-developing potential of junior Adama Sanogo, who has averaged 20 points and just a touch under 10 rebounds in four tournament games.
But all the other factors upending college sports — namely, NIL deals and the transfer portal — played a role here, too.
Heading into the Elite Eight, Miami coach Jim Larrañaga — who brought George Mason to the Final Four as an 11 seed 17 years ago — said the portal was the basketball equivalent of speed dating. Worked for him. The third- and fourth-leading scorers for the Hurricanes (29-7), Nijel Pack and Norchad Omier, both came to The U from the portal.
Also down in South Florida, FAU got three key players, including 7-foot-1 Russian center Vladislav Goldin, from elsewhere. All moved to the campus in Boca Raton after less-than-successful stays at big-conference schools. No one was quite sure how coach Dusty May would blend all these new faces from different places. Turns out, he did pretty well. At 35-3, nobody has more wins this season than the Owls.
“We already had a good chemistry last year, and the pieces that we added just complemented everything we had going on,” said Bryan Greenlee, in his second year at FAU after coming over from Minnesota.
A longtime power in the Mountain West Conference, San Diego State was 30-2 and projected for a No. 1 seed in 2020 when the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Three years later, the Aztecs (31-6) are two wins away from the title. Their top two scorers, Matt Bradley and Darrion Trammell, are — you guessed it — products of the transfer portal, though coach Brian Dutcher brought them in as much for defense as scoring. SDSU made it this far behind a defense that held top-seeded Alabama to 32% shooting in the Sweet 16 and held Creighton to 11% from 3-point range in Sunday’s win.
Asked what to expect from the Aztecs in Houston next week, Dutcher said, “I would think pretty good defense, to start with.”