Breaking news, rankings, predictions and analysis all in one place.

March Madness 2023: Final Four Picks

Jordan Hawkins, UConn

9 Florida Atlantic Owls vs. 5 San Diego State Aztecs

We've seen unique and nontraditional Final Four matchups, but this year's game between Florida Atlantic and San Diego State may take the cake as the most surprising I can recall in my lifetime. That's not a knock against these two teams, but the reality is that this is uncharted territory for both programs. Florida Atlantic had made the NCAA Tournament just once in school history and had never won a game in the Big Dance. Now, they are just 40 minutes away from competing for a National Title. San Diego State has traditionally had more success, but they are also playing in their first Final Four in program history. So, here we are, the Owls and Aztecs opening up the 2023 Final Four in Houston with the hopes of both continuing their magical runs.

Florida Atlantic head man Dusty May has built a very modern college basketball roster. It's essentially four guards starting and one traditional big, Vladislav Goldin, all who play at a ferocious pace. Goldin oftentimes doesn't get the attention of FAU's guards, but the Russian transplant has been the heart and soul of the team during this NCAA Tournament run. He's not very flashy or overly impressive in one area, but he's a competitor who brings his "A" game the entire 40 minutes. Goldin has been an active presence around the rim the entire Tournament, but faces one of his toughest tests in the form of San Diego State's Nathan Mensah. Expect a real battle between these two on the block, and both do a tremendous job of playing physical without fouling. Goldin will swallow up possessions inside, but the Owls feature plenty of playmaking on the perimeter, with Johnell Davis, Alijah Martin, Bryan Greenlee, and more. They're particularly effective because this offense doesn't lean solely on one of these guys. Just about everybody on the roster can take over games and hit the big shot when needed. Veteran Michael Forrest is a prime example; he played sparingly in the wins over Memphis and Farleigh Dickinson, but then came on and was a real spark off the bench in the Tennessee win, scoring 11 points and playing great defense. It's that type of depth that has been the most surprising to me during this run. As good as the top guys are on this Owl roster, the ninth or tenth guy can come and contribute in the same way. That's a testament to the culture of confidence May has built in this program, and the type of athlete they've recruited and developed. This team isn't going to shy away from the bright lights of the Final Four; they're going to respond and compete the entire way.

San Diego State has been one of the most consistent programs on the West Coast for some time now and hovered around the Top 25 all season, but are still a surprising participant in this Saturday's action. Beating a tough pair of mid-majors on the first weekend was one thing, but shocking top-seeded Alabama and the dynamic Creighton Bluejays was on a whole different level. The Creighton win didn't come without controversy, but that shouldn't overshadow what Brian Dutcher's team has done over the last several weeks. They've shut down high-flying offenses one after another with stifling defense and played a smart, methodical brand of basketball offensively. It's a recipe you don't see that much anymore in college basketball, but one that has run to near perfection. It helps that the Aztecs have great balance on offense, plenty of experience, and a roster that understands their system and knows their respective roles. The star of the roster is Matt Bradley, a former Cal transfer, and the lone Aztec to average over 10 points per game. However, the last two wins have been an indication of what makes San Diego State so tough to beat. Bradley has scored just eight points total, but the offense has come from other sources, and the defense has given them an edge. Much like FAU, it's anybody's guess who is going to step up and be the top dog for San Diego State on a given night, which makes them so unpredictable. In the Creighton win, it was Lamont Butler pacing them with 18 points; in the Alabama win, it was Darion Trammel with 21. That type of balance and depth makes them a tough out, no matter the opponent.

It still boggles my mind that one of these two teams will be playing for the 2023 National Title. But, isn't that what makes the NCAA Tournament so compelling? Two teams and two programs that have never been to this point before, matching up for an opportunity to play on the sport's largest stage. It feels like it should be a great game, too. I trust Florida Atlantic a bit more offensively than SDSU, but the Aztecs counter with an elite defense and superb rim-protector in Mensah. The Owls are a better shooting team generally, but San Diego State maintains an efficient offense, one that can get awfully hot itself. It almost feels like a coin toss to me, as most of this Tournament has been, but the Aztec superiority defensively makes me give them the slight edge. We know that defense is going to show up night after night, which isn't always the case for FAU's offense. As long as they can do just enough offensively, San Diego State earns their spot in the National Championship.

San Diego State by five

5 Miami Hurricanes vs. 4 UConn Huskies

Much has been said about the lack of a top three seed in this year's Final Four, but that doesn't mean the event isn't without a blue blood. UConn has won four National Titles since 1999, more than any other program in that span, and is closing in on a fifth. Standing in their way are the Miami Hurricanes, who got all they could handle from Drake in the first round but has looked more impressive in each passing game.

The focal point for UConn is none other than Adama Sanogo, a force underneath who has reached a new level this NCAA Tournament. We've always known he can score and rebound, but the Gonzaga win displayed even more: Sanogo can pass the ball as well as any big at this level. He had six assists in the win over the Bulldogs, and forces defenses into an incredibly tough position. On one hand, they have to help against him underneath, but Sanogo is so good at finding the open man when defenses collapse. It helps that the Huskies have an abundance of shooters surrounding him, namely Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson. Hawkins has been the team's breakout star on the season and is absolutely on fire right now, while Jackson is a modern "3-and-D" who space the floor and shut down opposing offenses going the other way. Add in supporting pieces like Joey Calcaterra and Tristen Newton, it's no surprise the Huskies have overwhelmed every opponent they've faced throughout this Tournament. They're playing with supreme confidence right now and it feels like Miami is going to have to draw up something defensively to be able to keep up for 40 minutes.

Yet, if there is a team that can hang with UConn right now scoring, it's the Miami Hurricanes. Jim Larranaga's club averaged just under 80 points per game on the regular season and has eclipsed that 80-point threshold in each of their last three victories. The guards are what fuel Miami, as the trio of Jordan Miller, Isaiah Wong, and Nijel Pack is about as good as you will find anywhere in college basketball. Wong is the heartbeat of the team, their most dangerous scorer and a capable passer, but don't overlook Miller or Pack's importance. Both have proven they can handle leading roles when needed, and Pack is arguably the best shooter on any of the four remaining teams. The concern I do have for the Hurricanes is their size; although Miller and others play much larger than most at their respective positions, there's really only one traditional big that sees hefty minutes. That is none other than Norchad Omier, and even he isn't a prototypical big, playing more of a combo forward role at 6'7", 248 pounds. I don't doubt that Miami can still find ways to score on UConn despite their lack of size, but the larger concern is on defense. Is there anybody on this roster that has a legitimate shot to containing Sanogo on the block? Omier is going to give is his best shot, but Sanogo has a clear edge here, and he's also an incredibly tough player to get into foul trouble, making it difficult to get him out of the game. With all of this being said, I had the same concern for the 'Canes in their last two games against Texas and Indiana, and they did a superb job mitigating the size differential.

Nearly two decades ago now, Jim Larranaga's George Mason Patriots pulled off one of the all-time upsets by shocking UConn in the 2006 Elite Eight. Times have changed a lot since then, but the opportunity remains the same for Larranaga: beating the Huskies and securing his program one of their most important wins in school history. Unfortunately, I don't see a magical upset taking place this time, although Miami is just a five-point underdog. It's too difficult to pick against UConn right now; they've dominated every team that has stood in their path so far, including some really quality basketball teams. They're shooting lights out, playing with a different type of energy, and look like a basketball team on a mission. It's hard to not just pick against the Huskies, but imagine anybody else takes home the 2023 National Title. But this is college basketball and if this year has shown us anything, it's to expect the unexpected.

UConn by eight

No comments:

Theme images by LUGO. Powered by Blogger.