College basketball analyst and writer
HOUSTON – Let’s dispense with the theory that this Final Four marks a significant change in men’s college basketball.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a team or two like San Diego State and/or Florida Atlantic in the future.
A year ago, the Final Four had four blue bloods: Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and Villanova. It came at the start of an era where players could take advantage of Name Image and Likeness, the transfer portal and an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19.
This season, even with those three things seriously affecting the sport, the chances were still strong that several high-profile teams could make it to the Final Four.
- Kansas won the Big 12.
- Alabama, which had never been to the Final Four, was the No. 1 seed and had the top consensus NBA prospect in college basketball in Brandon Miller.
- Houston was in the Final Four in 2021 and had the same general makeup to do it again two years later.
- Purdue won the regular season and Big Ten conference tournament titles.
- All four No. 1 seeds were headed in the right direction to make a run at NRG Stadium.
- Kansas was without head coach Bill Self, who was recovering from a heart procedure.
- Alabama, like it or not, may have had too many distractions off the court, and dealing with San Diego State’s suffocating defense didn’t help.
- Houston wasn’t fully healthy and Miami was simply a better offensive team.
- Sorry, there is no explanation for Purdue losing to #16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson.
That said, the lack of No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in this Final Four is more of an anomaly. Texas (2), Kansas State (3) and Gonzaga (3) were all in the Elite Eight and had a chance to advance, but were unable to do so against Miami, Florida Atlantic and UConn, respectively.
But let’s not rain on at least two of these teams as if they were some kind of smell for the Final Four.
UConn? Huskies are my definition of a blue blood and I don’t care who wants to argue.
The Huskies have won four national titles: three under Jim Calhoun and one under Kevin Ollie. The Huskies have produced countless NBA Draft picks and a string of All-Stars.
There was a bit of a March Madness drought from 2014 to 2023, but the Huskies still have more titles than UCLA and Indiana combined since 1999: UConn 4, Indiana/UCLA 0.
“Even when you’re down and you’ve got UConn on your chest, you’re still everybody; it’s still a Super Bowl for the other coach and the other players because of the history and the tradition,” the coach said UConn Dan Hurley.
The Huskies rebuilt thanks to the new mix of high schoolers, transfers and overall development.
UConn didn’t win the Big East (Marquette did in both the regular season and the postseason tournament), but the Huskies were the Big East’s most impressive team in November, December and March. The midseason slide was the only reason the Huskies were a 4 seed and not a No. 1 seed, which is what they’ve played for in dominating Iona, Saint Mary’s, Arkansas and Gonzaga en route to Houston.
The Huskies are favorites in the Final Four, the first time they’ve been in that position this season. But they are not accepting it.
“I still feel like we’re the underdog,” UConn’s Andre Jackson Jr said. “I feel like we have been all year. I feel like we came into the season and a lot of teams, a lot of people, underestimated us. We still play with the same chip on our shoulder.”
Miami was in the Elite Eight last season. The ‘Canes shared the ACC regular season title with Virginia. The narrative seems to be that if it’s not North Carolina, Duke or Virginia, the ACC must be down. But Miami has proven to be an elite ACC program under Jim Larrañaga.
The Hurricanes benefited through the portal/NIL with the addition of Kansas State’s Nijel Pack. But he’s just one piece of the puzzle they’re coming back to. And to say that this team is only here because of the NIL deals would be completely wrong. Of course it has helped, but there is much more to this story.
“NIL has been great,” Pack said. “We’ve benefited a lot. I think it’s great that basketball players get the benefit of their name, image and likeness. It’s been great for me. Honestly, the pressure is not something I even pay attention to. Pressure only comes from other people putting it on you. As long as you don’t put it on yourself, it’s good. All I care about is making sure we win games. We’ve won a lot of games this year, so that leaves people with nothing to say”.
Getting Pack into the portal, filling a gap, was as important as any added income.
“Basketball is my No. 1,” Pack said. “Finding the right place was a huge thing and with the transfer portal, I had to find a place that accepted me. The opportunity I had for myself to be able to play the position I wanted and this is the perfect place to to me. They already had a great staff here and the opportunity presented itself. I couldn’t find a better place.”
The portal and NIL are not going anywhere. NIL as a recruitment incentive could be established because the donor class wants to see more results before making payments. There may be a natural correction.
The year of COVID, however, has aged these teams. Any player who was in college in 2020-21 could get an extra year — six years to play five instead of five to play four. This class will graduate in 2024-25.
But it does mean that teams like San Diego State, a Mountain West Conference power that didn’t have March Madness success until this season, are bigger and ready for this run.
“It pretty much felt like everything was history in the making,” San Diego State’s Keshad Johnson said, referring to the 2020 Aztecs team that was poised for a deep run if not for the pandemic. “Covid was a curse for a lot of my older teammates and the players, and we’re back here for revenge. We’re living the dream and we’re letting them live it through us because they didn’t get to experience it. That’s why we are here”.
San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher, who helped rebuild the Aztecs under Steve Fisher decades ago, said, “We have a lot of older guys — fifth-year guys, sixth-year guys … We have a bigger team.” ‘
Meanwhile, all Florida Atlantic did was win 30+ games. OK, so the Owls have never done it before and recently Conference USA isn’t exactly a feeding ground for champions, but this Florida Atlantic team is still legit enough to make it this far. The Owls got the right mix of signings, have developed their talent and can play a variety of styles to win.
“We feel like teams that are called ‘Cinderellas’ don’t deserve to be here,” FAU’s Alijah Martin said. “They’re just on a good streak in the tournament, but we’ve been good all year. Our record is about that, and like I said in my other interview, don’t call us Cinderella. You can call us ‘Beast Boys’ and you can call us ‘Pitbulls’ or ‘Rottweilers’. You can call us a “very good basketball team”.
FAU coach Dusty May added, “The term ‘Vefofocs’ has always been that team that maybe took a hit late in the season and got hot where they averaged five 3s a game, and then over the course of five games they make 12. Either way, it’s more of a flash in the pan than five months’ work.”
So these four teams deserve and have earned their place.
But that doesn’t mean the premierships won’t be around again next season and beyond. Will we see this type of Final Four again? For sure. Will it be every year? No.
“If you expect all four No. 1 seeds to be in the Final Four every year, it doesn’t work that way,” Larrañaga said. “There’s too much parity in college basketball. There’s too much roster turnover every year. The transfer portal has created that. We have trades, every team has trades.
“So even how your season starts doesn’t really reflect how you might be in February and March,” he said. “And it’s an impossible task for the committee to rank from 1 to 68 and have everything fall into place.”
Andy Katz is a longtime college basketball writer, analyst and host. It can be seen on the Big Ten Network as well as March Madness and NCAA.com, and hosts the “March Madness 365” podcast. Katz worked at ESPN for nearly two decades and, before that, in newspapers for nine years.
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