Year in and year out, March Madness is the most exciting athletic tournament in the country. The number of high-quality games mixed with the pressure and what is at stake makes each of these games feel like a championship game in themselves. Now, the month of March is wrapping up, and the final four is quickly approaching this weekend, and just like in years past, this March Madness tournament has made history. There is not one single 1,2 or 3 seed in the final four, for the first time since seeding was invented in March Madness. Between the two Southern Florida Programs, SDSU and UConn, each team brings something special to the table, and it is best to examine each team, how they got here, and what it would take to bring home a National Championship.
(9) FAU Vs. (5) SDSU
The first game features two mid-major teams, something unexpected, especially when one of those mid-majors is not a dominant one such as Gonzaga. Along with the fact that this game is a mid-major clash, Florida Atlantic as well as SDSU are each making their first appearances in the final four.
Florida Atlantic head coach Dusty May has proved that his 31-3 squad, who has never won an NCAA tournament game, were massively under ranked when they were given a #9 seed. After an incredibly wild round of 64 win over Memphis, FAU has continued to dance past FDU, Tennessee and Kansas St. Led by the strong guard play of Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin, the Owls play aggressive on the offensive end while doing their best to take teams out of their offensive rhythms. This showed in their upset win over Tennessee, and then showed again in a hard-fought victory over Markquis Nowell and Kansas St. Davis is currently averaging roughly 17 points per game in the tournament, exploding for 29 of them in their second-round victory over the nation-wide favorite Farleigh Dickinson Knights. No one in the country expected the Owls to be making the trip to Houston at the end of the season, their run has been inspirational and is giving fans reminders that it is not always going to be the teams with the most money or the most history to win, it is the team that plays together, plays tougher, and plays with more heart.
Many people had SDSU losing to Charleston in the first round, and yet here the Aztecs are in their first final four appearance ever. Coached by a Steve Fisher product in Brian Dutcher, the Aztecs play up-tempo defense and play incredibly strong. Dutcher was part of the recruitment of the Fab 5, he has been around college basketball for a while and understands the benefits of adapting. Dutcher mainly runs his offense through Matt Bradley, Lamont Butler, and Darrion Tramell, all tough guards who have a knack for playmaking and scoring. SDSU has proven that it does not need all three guards to have big nights in order to win, Matt Bradley struggled against Creighton, and Butler and Tramell both stepped up in the low-scoring win. Forward Keshad Johnson is a hard-nosed forward who is exceptional on the defensive end and rounding out the starting lineup is 6’10 forward Nathan Mensah, who is a great rim protector and presence inside. Micah Parrish gives great guard minutes off the bench, as well as forwards Aguek Arop and Jaedon LeDee. Just when this Aztecs team looks like they are out of the game, their defense turns into offense, their discipline shows and they have proven to be able to make strong comebacks and stay composed while in the late stages of these games. While this is SDSU’s first experience competing in the final four, this run could very well help this program that has been thriving turn into an even stronger one, with a potential conference move into a power 6. Regardless, SDSU and FAU have each proven that it does not fully matter what conference you compete in, if you do not come to play every night, and if you do not want the spotlight in the biggest moments, you will not succeed at the highest level, which in this case is March Madness.
(4) UCONN Vs. (5) Miami
The second game has potential to be one of the faster-paced more high scoring games we have ever seen in the final four. This game features what could be the next dynasty of college basketball in UConn, and another program making its first appearance in the Miami Hurricanes.
UConn seems like they may be the most complete team in the country, and Dan Hurley has really shown the coaching genetics that his hall of fame high school coach and father, Bob, has passed down to him. The pace that this offense plays with, and the inside presence it also contains, makes it one of the toughest offenses to compete with in the country. Starting with elite sharpshooter and scorer Jordan Hawkins, the sophomore has shown he is capable of hitting big shots in big games, shooting 6/10 from three-point range in their elite 8 blowout win against a very experienced Gonzaga team. Through the Huskies first four games in the NCAA tournament, they have an average winning margin of 22.5 points. Some view this as a negative, as the rest of these teams have trailed in the second half during the elite 8 and the rest of the tournament. What people do not remember is that this UConn team was trailing Iona at the half and coming back against a squad that is coached by the legendary Rick Pitino is something to be said. Moving on, the Huskies may have the best glue guy in the country in Andre Jackson. The 6’6 guard/forward is averaging 7.75 assists, 7.75 points, and 7 rebounds thus far through four tournament games. Jackson just passes the eye test; he knows how to play the game correctly and is incredibly talented on the fast break. Time and time again, Jackson makes the correct play in transition or in downhill motion on offense, and this leads to the Huskies getting easy threes off or easy dunks from their dominant centers, Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan. Sanogo might be the most dominant center in the country, and the Huskies do not even really play through him, allowing him to take advantage of not being the main focus of the defense. Clingan, the 7-foot freshman comes off the bench, and has been a great rim presence on the defensive end for UConn during their run. Miami is a team that can score at a high rate, coming at you in waves with various guards capable of scoring. If UConn does not allow Miami to disrupt their game, they very well could be dancing into the National Championship. The UConn program has four national titles since the year of 1999, the most of any program, if Dan Hurley can propel the Huskies to their fifth national title essentially in this decade, college basketball could very likely see its next blue blood.
The Miami Hurricanes came back from a 13-point deficit the other night to take down the Texas Longhorns in the Elite 8. Jordan Miller was fantastic, some might even say perfect, as he had a very Christian Laettner like performance. Miller was perfect from the field and from the free throw line and helped spark the Canes’ big comeback on both ends of the floor. Miller might be the most underrated player in the country, and that is probably because most people did not know who he was. Whether it is bias towards the Big 10 conference or the fact that Miami is perceived as a football school, people who are not fans of Miami or ACC basketball have not had the pleasure to realize how versatile Miller is. The 6’7 guard/forward is incredibly lengthy and uses it to his advantage. Whether it is attacking the rim or posting up, Miller’s touch, skill and footwork is some of the best in the country. Now, as great as he was in the Elite 8, Miller is not even the Hurricanes’ best player. That title goes to the ACC player of the year, Isaiah Wong. Wong is just a competitor and knows how to score at all three levels on the highest level. The 4th year player propelled Miami to the Sweet 16 last season and was a big spark in Miami’s comeback over the Longhorns. Nijel Pack, the electrifying point guard who can shoot it from anywhere has already made some sparks in the media as well. When the Hurricanes beat the #1 ranked Houston Cougars to advance to the Elite 8, legendary head coach Jim Larranaga was asked about NIL and its impact. Many people understand that the landscape of college hoops is changing largely due to NIL. When it comes to NIL money, the U might have some of the most in the country, as its alumni love their athletic programs and understand how important they are for the university. Pack signed a 2-year, $800,000 NIL deal while he was in the transfer portal last season to come play for Larranaga and the Huricanes. He accepted, and it has clearly paid off deeper than just monetary factors. Wooga Poplar has also shown to be an electrifying player on both ends of the floor, often using his athleticism as well as pure confidence to succeed in the tournament thus far. The most important player on this Hurricanes team is Norchad Omier, another contender for the best glue guys in the country. As Miami averages roughly 79 points an outing, Omier has done the dirty work. As a 6’7 center, he is a bit undersized, but his passion and skill when it comes to rebounding proves that height is not everything. Omier transferred from Arkansas State, being rumored to sign an NIL deal worth roughly $175,000. Omier is currently averaging 13.25 rebounds an outing in March Madness but will need to stay out of foul trouble if the Hurricanes want to succeed on Saturday night. Jim Larranaga is a great coach, who sparked the George Mason final four run in 2006. Now, Larranage is back in the final four, only this time with a power 6 program and a chance to make more history. This run, along with NIL aspects is going to benefit the Miami Hurricane’s Basketball program in immense ways. It is going to be a challenge for Miami, as UConn has looked as close to unbeatable as can be, but the way Miami comes at you with so many weapons could allow them to compete in this game. The way Jim Larranage preaches for his players to be themselves as well as to play together is a recipe for success, and this Miami team has shown recent resilience in their win over UT. While UConn looks the most dominant, we have seen time and again that anything in this tournament is possible.