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And then there were four.
Don’t lie and say you predicted this. This Elite Eight made history with the absence of all No. 1 seeds. Alabama, Kansas, Houston and Purdue all looked like potential champs two weeks ago when they all earned top seeds on Selection Sunday. They didn’t even get a chance to play for a shot at the Final Four.
But that chaos has produced a multitude of storylines. Florida Atlantic didn’t have an NCAA tournament win prior to its Final Four run. And while they’re never mentioned among the bluebloods, the UConn Huskies will pursue their fifth national championship since 1999 — more than Duke and North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas. Miami has a chance to win its first national championship after winning the ACC regular-season title. And San Diego State could cut down the nets for the first time in school history.
But how do these teams stack up against one another? We’re here to tell you.
Here are our rankings of the Final Four teams.
1. UConn Huskies (4-seed)
Path to the Final Four: 87-63 vs. 13-seed Iona (first round); 70-55 vs. 5-seed Saint Mary’s (second round); 88-65 vs. 8-seed Arkansas (Sweet 16); 82-54 vs. 3-seed Gonzaga (Elite Eight)
UConn entered the NCAA tournament with one of the highest ceilings in the field. Back in November at the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland, the Huskies beat Alabama, the NCAA tournament’s top overall seed, by 15 points. Sure, it was early in the second round of the PKI. But they proved they could battle a team with NBA talent and skill. They also beat Iowa State, which was coming off a win over then-No. 1 North Carolina, in the same event by 18 points.
Across the first two months of 2022-23, UConn won 12 of its first 14 games by at least a 14-point margin of victory. It had a more difficult time in the Big East, where it finished behind league champion Marquette, Xavier and Creighton. But you could see the potential. Now, the Huskies are like the kings of the Final Four, searching for their fifth national title since 1999, after winning their first four games by a 22.5 PPG margin of victory. They’re the 10th NCAA tournament team to win their first four tournament games by 15 points or more, per ESPN Stats & Info.
Against Gonzaga, which boasted the most efficient offense in America, UConn won by 28 points, the biggest win in the Elite Eight since 1992. The Huskies have also made 44% of its 3-pointers in the NCAA tournament. Adama Sanogo (20.0 PPG, 9.75 RPG in the NCAA tournament) has been unstoppable. The dominance could continue for Dan Hurley’s team.
Up next: vs. Miami/Texas (Saturday, 8:49 p.m. ET, CBS)
2. Miami Hurricanes (5-seed)
Path to the Final Four: 63-56 vs. 12-seed Drake (first round); 85-69 vs. 4-seed Indiana (second round); 89-75 vs. 1-seed Houston (Sweet 16); 88-81 vs. 2-seed Texas (Elite Eight)
Jim Larrañaga isn’t against name, image and likeness (NIL) deals for his players. How could he be? It’s part of the reason his team is in the Final Four. Last summer, Nijel Pack decided that he wanted to leave Kansas State. He knew he’d have to be a point guard at the next level, and that spot in Manhattan, Kansas was manned by Markquis Nowell, the 2023 NCAA tournament hero who led the Wildcats to the Elite Eight. So Pack decided to make a change, and was reportedly given a two-year, $800,000 NIL deal as a result. Isaiah Wong, the 2023 ACC Player of the Year, was reportedly unhappy with his NIL situation and threatened to leave last summer. All of that was resolved and he stayed.
“TV makes money, right? The shoe companies make money,” Larrañaga said Saturday. “The universities make money. The athletic directors, they run the program, and they benefit from their relationship with the shoe companies. And the coaches make a hell of a living. Well, what’s wrong with that filtering down? It’s a natural progression to our players.”
Even with the NIL assist — common throughout collegiate sports for the last two seasons — players have to find a way to learn how to play together. Chemistry remains an important key for any program. Per Larrañaga, Wong and Pack formed a bond the first day they arrived at the gym in Coral Gables last summer. Add key role players like Norchad Omier, Jordan Miller and Wooga Poplar, and you have a versatile team that has increased its defensive intensity in the NCAA tournament while continuing to play a hectic, free-flowing offensive style that helped it emerge from a double-digit deficit against Texas in the Elite Eight.
This season began with reports of NIL deals. It will end with the Hurricanes, the co-regular-season champions of the ACC, capitalizing on their potential as a serious threat to win the national title.
Up next: vs. UConn (Saturday, 8:49 p.m. ET, CBS)
3. San Diego State Aztecs (5-seed)
Path to the Final Four: 63-57 vs. 12-seed Charleston (first round); 75-52 vs. 13-seed Furman (second round); 71-64 vs. 1-seed Alabama (Sweet 16); 57-56 vs. 6-seed Creighton (Elite Eight)
“Defense wins championships.” That’s the mantra of college basketball, but it’s not always true. Villanova has been the only team (2016, 2018) to finish top-10 in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom since 2015 and win a national title — two, actually. Kansas was 17th last season. Two years ago, Memphis finished first in adjusted defensive efficiency and didn’t even make the NCAA tournament. That said, the bulk of the national champions of the last 20 years could play elite defense.
That quality has fueled San Diego State’s run — Brian Dutcher’s squad is ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency since Feb. 1, per barttorvik.com — to its first Final Four. Charleston had the Colonial Athletic Association’s best offense this season, but registered just 83 points per 100 possessions against SDSU in the first round. Furman had the best offense in the Southern Conference. Then it met SDSU in the second round, and scored just 52 points. Alabama was the top overall seed and Brandon Miller is a projected top-five pick in the NBA draft. He finished 3-for-19, and SDSU knocked off a 1-seed to reach the Elite Eight.
Creighton — ranked 22nd in adjusted offensive efficiency — had size and shooters at multiple spots. The Bluejays had offensive versatility. But SDSU’s run continued. No team in the NCAA tournament has registered more than 90 points per 100 possessions against this squad. The Aztecs lack the offensive juice that’s pushed past NCAA champions, although three different players (Matt Bradley, Lamont Butler, Darrion Trammell) have been their leading scorers in the tournament. But this defense is real. Could SDSU become the first modern team to win a title with elite defense alone? We’ll find out.
Up next: vs. FAU (Saturday, 6:09 p.m. ET, CBS)
4. Florida Atlantic Owls (9-seed)
Path to the Final Four: 66-65 vs. 8-seed Memphis (first round); 78-70 vs. 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson (second round); 62-55 vs. 4-seed Tennessee (Sweet 16); 79-76 vs. 3-seed Kansas State (Elite Eight)
Sometimes it’s difficult to know what’s real in the NCAA tournament. And when a field fails to produce a great team or two, it’s because of the parity among the survivors. There is certainly a narrative that FAU has had a fortuitous run — aided by multiple upsets and the elimination of every 1-seed before the Elite Eight — after turning its first NCAA tournament win in school history into a Final Four appearance. But that’s not the full story. A team that has won 35 games thus far has reached this stage because it knows how to win in clutch moments.
With 10:01 left against Memphis in the first round, FAU was down seven points before coming back to win. The Owls lost their momentum — and a seven-point halftime lead — against Fairleigh Dickinson in the second round, but took it back in a thrilling eight-minute run before ultimately winning by eight. Down six against Tennessee, which boasted the top defense in America, midway through the second half — FAU won that game by seven points. And the Owls were once again down seven against Kansas State with 12 minutes to go in the Elite Eight. But they battled again — and won again.
This is a team that has rehearsed victory all season, and in these critical moments hasn’t lost its composure. And that’s why Johnell Davis (17.2 PPG in the NCAA tournament) and Co. are here.
Up next: vs. San Diego State (Saturday, 6:09 p.m. ET, CBS)