Houston, there’s a problem. The men’s college basketball Final Four will head to Houston, the Bayou City, with the most unexpected remaining teams ready to compete for a national title: Florida Atlantic University, San Diego State University, University of Miami and University of Connecticut.
The second weekend of the tournament has been nothing short of crazy with many of the top-seeded teams continuing to fall across the bracket.
In a blink of an eye, fans saw the dramatic fall of Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans, the heartbreak suffered by the Creighton Blue Jays and the exiting of tournament favorites such as the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Houston Cougars.
Let’s take a look at some of the wildest games that shaped the Final Four and the key factors that very well might be deciding the case for a national champion.
No. 5 seed San Diego State defeats No. 1 seed Alabama in the Sweet Sixteen, 71-64:
The Aztecs were down 48-39 at one of the most important times in a college basketball game: the middle of the second half. But then a 12-0 run put San Diego State on top of the Crimson Tide, and the rest is history.
SDSU senior Darrion Trammell had arguably the best game for the Aztecs, putting together 21 points and a dominant defensive performance. Senior Nathan Mensah helped the defensive campaign, posting five blocks but helping the team compile 14 turnovers.
On the other hand, Alabama had an underwhelming team performance, especially on the offensive end. Shooting just 32% overall and 11.1% from beyond the arc, it’s easy to see how a lead can crumble so quickly. But considering they got outrebounded by the other team and were expected by many to win the entire tournament, it will be hard to get over a loss like this one.
No. 5 seed Miami defeats No. 1 seed Houston in the Sweet Sixteen, 89-75:
I would be dancing just like 73-year-old head coach Jim Larrañaga if my team handed the last remaining one-seed a ticket straight out of the tournament. The fifth-seeded Hurricanes came into the second round as an underdog against a Houston team that has been superb all season long.
It was a perfectly coached game on the Miami side. Sophomore Nijel Pack had a career night with 26 points and a season-high of 7 three-pointers. Houston was having a hard time keeping up with the Hurricanes as Miami generated a 16-2 run in the second half.
With an impressive defensive performance, the lead only cut down as far as 11 in the last few minutes of the game. The Cougars, led by freshman Jarace Walker’s 16 points, were never able to cut the lead. Walker and the rest of the Cougars will be in Houston for the Final Four, but for all the wrong reasons.
No. 4 seed UConn defeats Gonzaga, 82-54, in the Elite Eight:
If the summary of this game could be put into one sentence, it would be about how the Bulldogs could not respond to the Huskies’ fluid offense. Once All-American senior Drew Timme took a seat on the bench early in the second half due to foul trouble, and the Bulldogs couldn’t pull through without their star.
UConn on the other hand controlled all ends of the floor. Sophomore Jordan Hawkins scored 20 points, first-year Alex Karaban secured 12 points and junior Adama Sanogo posted a double-double. Once Timme was out of the picture, UConn took ahold of the game with their transition threes. At one point, the score was 60-37.
It’s fair to say that the Huskies are playing their best basketball since the 2014 national championship run.
No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic defeats Kansas State in the Elite Eight, 79-76:
This was one of those games where you just knew it was going to be close all the way through.
Senior Markquis Nowell, coming off a record-setting performance against Michigan State, put on another good showing at the garden for the Wildcats, finishing with 30 points, 12 assists and five steals. But, the Owls outrebounded Kansas State, 44-22, and made a complete team effort. The Wildcat’s leading scorer, senior Keyontae Johnson, fouled out.
Kansas State would not quit, putting in basket after basket as time continued to run out. Florida Atlantic would be sent to the line multiple times as the Wildcats cut the lead all the way to one. With one chance left to tie the game, Nowell ran down the court and passed the ball to Ismael Massoud who failed to get a shot off as FAU’s Johnell Davis put out a defensive stop.
Each Team’s X-Factor Moving Forward
San Diego State:
Controlling the pace of the game with guys like seniors Matt Bradley and Trammell is something the Aztecs have been successful at this entire tournament. Defensively, they’ve been solid. Offensively, they haven’t played their best.
Florida Atlantic loves to play faster. It will be up to San Diego State to make the flow of the game favor them. The key for them to be successful at that: defense, defense and more defense.
Jim Larrañaga is the only coach in the tournament who knows what it means to be in the Final Four. Back in 2006, he took the 11-seeded George Mason Patriots on a cinderella run. Want to know who he beat in the Elite Eight? UConn.
The Hurricane’s have someone to count on by the sidelines. After trailing to Drake in the first round and having a 13-point hole in the second half against Houston, it’s fair to say that this team will not give in with the coaching ability that Larrañaga brings.
Compared to the other three teams, it’s fair to say that the Huskies have been the best team overall. There hasn’t been a super close game yet for them, especially considering their average margin of victory is at 25 points.
Having some special players in Sanogo and first-year Donovan Clingan will make UConn dangerous to play this late in the tournament. Even without those two, the Huskies have the lineup that can be really physical, which could be a problem for the Hurricanes.
If they are able to keep their team chemistry together, they may just win their fifth championship since 1999.
The Owl’s have been doing the one thing that guarantees survival in March: winning. They had a first-round shootout with Memphis, a close second-round matchup with Fairleigh Dickinson and dramatic finishes with the Volunteers and Wildcats.
Going up against San Diego State, Florida Atlantic will need to rely more on their offense in order to keep up with the Aztecs. They play with heart and without selfishness. Keeping that identity has allowed them to somehow win their games. They will need that mindset as a team in order to make it to the championship game.
The first two weekends of the 2023 NCAA Tournament have been filled with upsets and all-time shockers. With all the madness that has happened over that span, we are left with Miami, San Diego State, Florida Atlantic and UConn. A four, two fives and a nine seed. It’s one of the most surprising results this tournament has ever produced.
The Final Four still brings a lot of questions. Can UConn seal the deal with how dominant they’re playing? Can Florida Atlantic or San Diego State control the tempo? Will Miami be prepared enough?
It’s an understatement to say that this final stretch will be madness.