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What To Watch For In The Men’s Final Four

This article is part of our March Madness series.

One year after arguably the most blue-blooded Final Four of all time, the 2023 men’s NCAA Tournament national semifinal slate looks uniquely green. The four-team field includes three first-time participants (Florida Atlantic Owls, San Diego State Aztecs and Miami Hurricanes) and a blue blood-lite program (Connecticut Huskies) that is making its first trip to the semifinals in nine years. The quartet of “new bloods” left standing in 2023 account for 55 fewer Final Fours and 14 fewer national championships than last year’s semifinalists. 

The odds of a perfect bracket are always infinitesimal — 1 in 120.2 billion, according to some estimates — but they were perhaps even longer this year, as the opening weekend busted every single bracket. Tattered brackets and all, let’s dive into what our model forecasts ahead, as well as the case for each team to advance to Monday night.

No. 9 Florida Atlantic vs. No. 5 San Diego State
6:09 p.m. ET Saturday, CBS
FiveThirtyEight favorite: SDSU (62 percent)
Consensus Vegas line: SDSU -1.5 

Why the Aztecs are favorites: After a narrow 1-point victory over No. 6 seed Creighton, the Aztecs’ third tournament win decided by 7 or fewer points, oddsmakers envision another razor-thin margin in the first national semifinal.

Brian Dutcher coaches the stingiest defense remaining in the tournament, led by Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year Lamont Butler and the springy, shot-disproving Nathan Mensah, who has blocked at least two shots in every game this tournament. The Aztecs rank fourth in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric and have held two consecutive top-25 offenses in No. 1 overall seed Alabama and Creighton to less than 65 points apiece. Neither the Crimson Tide nor the Bluejays found any success along the perimeter, as they shot a combined 5-for-44 (11.4 percent) from beyond the arc, contributing to Aztec opponents’ dreary showing from the arc throughout the tournament (17 percent). 

SDSU’s physical, athletic defense has largely driven its tournament success, allowing the Aztecs to control the pace of every matchup. As Dutcher put it, “Our defense carries us.”

Why the Owls can pull the upset: The lowest seed remaining in the tournament and the second-ever No. 9 seed to advance to the Final Four, FAU should be comfortable by now as the underdog — and in any games that come down to the wire. After a dominant run through conference play, Dusty May’s Owls were rewarded with 300-1 championship odds,1 which would be the longest odds for any eventual national champion since seeding was introduced in 1979. And the Owls’ run has been a series of nail-biters. Just as its upcoming opponent has eked out victories, so too has FAU, with all four of its wins coming by 8 or fewer points.

And despite their appearance (FAU trots out a four-guard lineup), the Owls rank in the top 20 in rebounding rate and have won the rebounding battle in every tournament game, including a 44-22 advantage on the glass in the team’s win over Kansas State in the Elite Eight. Controlling the glass will be critical against SDSU, another elite rebounding team that has won the rebounding battle in all but one game this tournament. With multiple ball handlers on the floor around 7-foot-1 Vladislav Goldin, FAU has capably handled difficult assignments from two top-40 defenses2 and the nation’s top-rated unit, Tennessee. 

FAU’s guard quartet opts to push the pace. The Owls’ 16.9-second average offensive possession length is the shortest of any team left in the field, a proper contrast to the Aztecs’ 18.5-second average defensive possession length, which is by far the longest of any Final Four team and ranks No. 345 nationally. Plus, a regression to the mean should occur against SDSU: Since 2010, only one tournament team has held opponents to less than 20 percent shooting from beyond the arc on a minimum of 90 attempts, and we already know that opposing 3-point percentage is a very unstable stat. FAU, which has hit at least eight 3-pointers in each tournament game on a 31 percent clip, might be the squad to finally find the bottom of the net against the Aztecs.

And while SDSU’s defense is elite, it is forced to overcompensate for the worst offense left in the tournament — by a considerable margin. The Aztecs advanced to this stage despite leading scorer Matt Bradley being limited to 8.8 points per game on 31 percent shooting. With the senior struggling and a team true shooting percentage that ranks No. 214 nationally, it remains to be seen if SDSU has enough offensive firepower to withstand a strong shooting night by a team that has shown it is more than capable.

No. 5 Miami vs. No. 4 UConn
8:49 p.m. ET Saturday, CBS
FiveThirtyEight favorite: UConn (64 percent)
Consensus Vegas line: UConn -5.5

Why the Huskies are favorites: Dan Hurley’s Huskies have rather violently discarded opposing teams to this point, winning each of their four games by at least 15 points and their most recent outing by 28, the biggest Elite Eight blowout in 31 years. UConn hasn’t lost a nonconference game all season and has rapidly transformed into the runaway favorite (-125, according to BetMGM) to cut down the nets in Houston since the start of the tournament. Given the Huskies’ sheer dominance, it can be easy to forget that UConn actually trailed at halftime to No. 13 seed Iona in the round of 64.3

The inside-outside combination of Adama Sanogo and Jordan Hawkins has been unstoppable to this point. Each player averages better than 17 points in less than 27 minutes per game. Hawkins is taking 7.8 shots per game from beyond the arc and is scorching the nets on an absurd 51.6 percent of them. 

Defensively, UConn has held each of its opponents to less than 66 points on worse than 39 percent shooting from the field. Most recently, the Huskies clamped down on the nation’s most efficient offense in Gonzaga, holding the Bulldogs to the team’s worst single-game offensive rating in at least 13 years.

And even when their shots haven’t fallen, which has been rare, the Huskies haven’t had any difficulty cleaning up their misses. UConn is plus-45 on the glass and ranks second in the nation in offensive rebounding rate.

Why the Hurricanes can pull the upset: It’s difficult to poke holes in UConn’s tournament resume — drubbing opponents by an average of 22.5 points per game will do that. The lone question mark for the Huskies is something the team had no control over: level of competition faced.4

In Miami, UConn will face an opponent that has perhaps weathered stronger opponents and faced more overall talent than any team left in the field. Miami calmly scored 47 second-half points on No. 1 seed Houston and its top-five defense, and two days later, against No. 2 Texas in the Elite Eight, the Hurricanes came back from a 13-point second-half deficit to stun the Longhorns. 

So Miami has performed like a team unafraid of the moment and undisturbed by its program-best run through the Big Dance.5 And UConn is shooting so well from the perimeter that it would make Hall of Fame alumnus Ray Allen blush, but a 41-for-98 (41.8 percent) clip is likely unsustainable; only three tournament teams since 2010 have taken as many 3-pointers as UConn has and connected on a higher percentage. And yes, the Hurricanes are defensively challenged — should they cut down the nets, they would be the worst defensive team to win the tournament by Ken Pomeroy’s pre-tournament metrics — but that hasn’t stopped them from cutting down elite offenses in the tournament. 

The Hurricanes dominated the offseason headlines with NIL deals that secured players like Nijel Pack (18.5 points per game during the tournament) and Isaiah Wong (16.5). The two are a big part of Miami’s top-five offense, which has plenty of firepower to make this matchup competitive if UConn’s shooting splits come back to Earth.

Check out our latest March Madness predictions!

Footnotes

  1. Before this season, the Owls had never won a tournament game.

  2. Kansas State and Memphis.

  3. The Huskies ended up with a 24-point win.

  4. With Kansas losing in the second round and UCLA losing in the Sweet 16, UConn has yet to play a top-two seed, an experience shared by FAU.

  5. This was Miami’s second consecutive — and second-ever — season with an appearance in the Elite Eight.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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