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March Madness 2023: National Championship Prediction

Adama Sanogo, UConn

One of the strangest NCAA Tournaments in recent memory concludes Monday night in Houston, with a game few, if any, expected. The fifth-seeded San Diego State Aztecs, who had never advanced past the Sweet 16 prior to this year, are looking to take down the four seed and favorite, UConn Huskies. For the Huskies, it's an opportunity to prove themselves as one of the sport's true elites; they're searching for their fifth National Title since 1999, a feat no other program has accomplished in that span.

If you're looking for an up-tempo team that plays at a relentless pace, the San Diego State Aztecs are not your team. No, Brian Dutcher's club is one of the slowest-paced teams you'll find in Division I basketball, instead leaning on an efficient half-court offense and smothering defense. That's not to discredit this Aztec offense, which has been very effective this March. They've shown they can beat high-scoring teams by slowing it down and leaning on a balanced offensive approach. Guard Matt Bradley is still the focal point, but I've been routinely impressed just how many Aztecs can contribute on this side of the ball. Senior forward Jaedon LeDee had 12 points in the win over Florida Atlantic in the Final Four and it feels like somebody new steps up every single game. It could be Darrion Trammell, Lamont Butler, Micah Parrish, any of these guys can step up and make a couple big shots to spring an upset. With that being said, it still feels like SDSU is going to need Bradley to be on his "A" game. They've been able to survive even during poor performances from him, such as his two-point showing in the Elite Eight, but the reality is that this team is significantly scarier when he's on. Defenses have to respect his shooting and his ability to stretch the floor opens up ample opportunities for the Aztecs, who thrive off getting to the rim. We will see pretty early which Bradley has come to play; he hit several big shots against FAU early on that helped fuel the eventual victory. No matter what, defense is still the strength for San Diego State and if they do manage to come out on top, it will be the reason. Every young basketball team should watch how the Aztecs play on this side of the ball. They communicate as well as any team I've seen at the collegiate level, and their perimeter defenders are relentless. It also helps that Nathan Mensah is the final defender in the post, as his 7'4" wingspan effects everything at the rim. The defense will be in for a tough battle against the flaming hot Huskies, but they've shut down offense after offense during this run. 

While San Diego State's run has been a major surprise, UConn has splattered opponent after opponent on their journey to the National Championship. They have not had a single-digit win, instead blowing out each team that has stood in their way. That remained the case this past Saturday, as they controlled the Miami game from start to finish. San Diego State will have to contend with a team that is shooting lights out from everywhere on the court, an offense that has dropped at least 70 in every game this NCAA Tournament. Big man Adama Sanogo continues to punish defenders; he had yet another double-double in the Miami game and feels like the runaway favorite to win the Tournament's Most Outstanding Player Award. He'll face a battle against Mensah on the block, but I'm not sure if the Aztecs have seen a player with his skill-set. This isn't your prototypical back-to-the-basket big man. He can step out and hit a three or two and is one of the best passing big men in the country. Surrounding Sanogo are a collection of high-flying guards, including Jordan Hawkins, Tristen Newton, Andre Jackson, and Joey Calcaterra. Hawkins and Jackson are spark-plugs for this offense, while Newton and Calcaterra both understand their roles and find ways to contribute. Then, you add on forward Alex Karaban and center Donovan Clingan, one of the most efficient bigs in the nation, it's no surprise UConn has been so dominant on this run. The Aztecs present an obvious challenge to this offense, but I think it's important to note, UConn is not a one-dimensional team. Not only can they score in a variety of ways on offense, but they play both ends incredibly well. They've matched their offensive intensity with strong defense, including holding Miami to 32% from the field in their win.

The "David vs. Goliath" angle gets overplayed in sports media and it doesn't quite fit this one, considering the fact these two have similar seeds. But there's no denying these two programs are vastly different, one of them being in uncharted territory and the other searching for another title to add to their trophy case. It creates an interesting matchup, particularly between two teams who have opposing strengths. I've said throughout this Tournament that people shouldn't overlook San Diego State, and I feel the same way looking at this one. I may not have expected the Aztecs to make this run, but this is the type of tough, veteran-laden team that is an incredibly difficult out in March. They know exactly what they are and do it well. Plus, that veteran experience really comes out down the stretch in close games, which has helped the Aztecs win several consecutive close contests.

With all that being said, I would feel foolish picking against UConn at this point in the Tournament. This has been one of the most dominant runs I can remember in college basketball history and the team feels like they are on a mission. I suspect Danny Hurley and the Huskies claim their first National Title together, the program's first since Shabazz Napier and company in 2014, a satisfying conclusion to a season that has been full of ups-and-downs in Storrs.

UConn by nine

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