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2024 Final Four Picks

Braden Smith, Purdue
 (11) NC State Wolfpack vs. (1) Purdue Boilermakers

During a March where upsets have been light and it's often felt as though much fo the "madness" is missing, the 11th-seeded NC State Wolfpack have taken up the mantle as this year's Cinderella story. It's been a truly remarkable run with five straight victories in the ACC Tournament just to gain entry to the field, and four more to make the program's first Final Four since they won it all back in 1983. Yet, the Wolfpack aren't the only team in this matchup with the storylines - Purdue became just the second one seed in NCAA Tournament history to lose to a 16 seed in 2023, and now they're trying to replicate exactly what Virginia did a year later by winning it all. It's Matt Painter's first Final Four and the program's first trip since 1980, the type of run that has erased years of March disappointments. With so many storylines, it's a shame only one of these can move on to face the winner of Alabama-UConn next.

In a sport increasingly defined by the three ball, Purdue-NC State should feel like a bit of a throwback, with the big men dominating the conversation in March so far. For the Boilermakers, it's all about Zach Edey, who just claimed his second straight National Player of the Year award. The 7'4'' giant is a force around the rim, incredibly consistent on both ends and a stat machine. Yet, Edey's effectiveness isn't just about how many points he scores or how many blocks he gets, but the way he impacts the game both ways. Teams almost have to double team him underneath, opening up opportunities for the rest of Purdue's supporting cast, and his mere presence in the paint often takes teams completely out of their gameplan. Of course, the rest of these Boilermakers deserve plenty of credit, too. Braden Smith's importance in particular should be vitally important here - despite being just a true sophomore, Smith plays with a maturity and poise well beyond his years, and he's been in complete control this March. Add in Lance Jones and Fletcher Loyer as the scorers, plus the oft-overlooked Trey Kaufmann-Renn, it's no surprise this Purdue team has put together all the right pieces and gotten to this point.

Facing off against Edey will be NC State's own big man sensation, D.J. Burns, who has become a household name with an impressive run in March. At 6'9", 275 pounds, Burns doesn't look like your prototypical collegiate big, but he's shockingly smooth around the rim and plays with real finesse. And, much like Edey, his mere presence on the block attracts defenders and allows the Wolfpack open shots on the perimeter, plus cutting lanes to the paint. Burns isn't the type of player we can expect to play the full 40 minutes, NC State will rotate several bigs in, but his matchup with Edey will be must-watch television. Yet, NC State's supporting cast should receive plenty of credit themselves, with D.J. Horne, Jayden Taylor, and Michael O'Connell all playing crucial roles in getting them to this point. Horne and Taylor are going to be tough matchups for Purdue - both guards can be awfully streaky, but they're freakishly athletic and play a different brand of basketball than the Boilermakers are used to seeing in the Big Ten. And the chess match between O'Connell and Smith will be another interesting one - neither point guard should be expected to drop 20 points on this night, but both have a great understanding and feel for the game and play a commanding role in ensuring their offense is running smoothly. I actually think NC State's starting lineup matches up very well overall with Purdue's, which is fairly surprising given the seeding disparity. But, where the real differences lie on this roster are in the depth. Purdue is much deeper this year than in the past several seasons, and they've had the added benefit of receiving the double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament. On the flip side, NC State had to win five games in five days during their conference tournament, and four more hard-fought victories once they've gotten here. This late in the season every time is tired, but that depth could make all the difference in this type of game.

NC State has been the perfect remainder of what makes this event so special every single year, a team coming out of seemingly nowhere who has put together a special run that will forever go down in program history. They've defied the odds at every point just to arrive in Phoenix and shouldn't be intimidated by this stage at all. Yet, I think they've finally met the end of the road with Purdue here. The Boilermakers are an experienced, balanced, and motivated basketball team with one of the premier coaches in the game - even with the momentum of NC State, I think that may end up being too much at the end of the day. Purdue should come out on top, and get one step closer to the ultimate redemption story on Monday.

(1) UConn Huskies vs. (4) Alabama Crimson Tide

Following one of the most dominant National Title runs in recent memory last spring, the UConn Huskies have built on it with an arguably even more impressive showing this year. They've built their four opponents throughout the 2024 NCAA Tournament by totals of 39, 17, 30, and 25, and show no signs of stopping as they arrive in Phoenix. But, as they look to become the first college basketball team to repeat as National Champs in nearly two decades, a flaming hot Alabama team stands in their way. The Tide may enter as underdogs, but after outlasting Grand Canyon, UNC, and Clemson in thrilling games to get here, they're hoping that magic can help spring the upset.

UConn's offense took awhile to get going in their Elite Eight victory over Illinois before an early second half onslaught, but the early struggles helped big man Donovan Clingan shine in a way we haven't seen yet on the 2023-24 campaign. Clingan has always been a two-way force, and he just about singlehandedly shut down everything at the rim from the Illini, but his growth offensively has been a joy to watch. Illinois simply couldn't defend him underneath, and now he has a chance to show what he can do against Alabama's Grant Nelson and Nick Pringle. It will be interesting to see what strategy Nate Oats devises to try and contain Clingan - one would assume they'll look to collapse the paint, but that leaves them vulnerable against UConn's shooters. And, the Huskies have no shortage of players that can take over the game from three. Tristen Newton and Cam Spencer in particular are the types of scorers that can shoot opponents out of the game, and both will be looking to take advantage against an Alabama perimeter defense that has struggled all season. If that's not enough, there's also uber-athletic Stephon Castle and do-it-all Alex Karaban to contend with, giving Danny Hurley no shortage of options to play around with. This is just an insanely tough offense to stop - they all understand their roles, just about anyone can step up and handle the offensive burden, and they play with pace. No defense has been able to contain this group for a full 40 minutes, and the Tide don't especially encourage confidence. Mark Sears can rack up steals and Nelson blocks plenty of shots, but Alabama's team defense hasn't been at the level it needs to be at for most of the year. However, they've stepped up when needed in the Big Dance and you wonder if this elevated stage is what they need to put it all together.

The more likely scenario is that the Tide are going to look to win this one in a shootout, a gameplan that Nate Oats has leaned on throughout his tenure at Alabama. The offense is averaging nearly 91 points per game, playing at a frenetic tempo and running at every opportunity. Mark Sears has been the fuel behind it all, averaging 21.5 PPG on 51% shooting, but the Tide have several weapons they can throw at defenses. Nelson in particular is the type of versatile big that should be a tough cover for Clingan, and you have to believe he saw tape of the Illinois game, where Illini bigs Coleman Hawkins and Quincy Guerrier seemed hesitant to attempt shots from three. Expect Alabama to look to get Nelson involved and moving on the perimeter early on and hope to get Clingan off-balance, which should open up lanes for their other scorers, namely Sears and Aaron Estrada. Look for Alabama to also get out and run every chance they get, not only where they are at their best, but where they get out in front of the UConn defense and secure some easy baskets. But, do you wonder whether that's going to run as effective as it has been so deep in this Tournament. After three hard-fought victories straight, it would not be a shock if the Tide struggle to find the legs to do so, even with how well-conditioned this team is. It doesn't help that UConn has had more chances to rest with their games being blowouts, but also that Alabama could be without guard Latrell Wrightsell, who has missed the last two games with a head injury. This was already not a deep bench before his injury and Wrightsell's absence is a major storyline to watch entering this one.

The scoreboard operators are going to be busy in Phoenix for this matchup, which should provide plenty of fireworks to round out an exciting night of basketball. That may be what Alabama wants, but trying to outscore the Huskies is a daunting proposition. The Tide are going to have to step up their game from what we've seen so far, and play their absolute "A" game. Which is certainly possible but at this point, it would be foolish to pick against UConn. Perhaps this one will be closer than their first four games of this Tournament, but I still see the Huskies getting the chance to defend their crown in the National Championship Game on Monday night.

UConn by ten

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