How UConn (and Purdue, Alabama, NC State) could win the national championship

A regular season filled with top-25 upsets every week has led to a Final Four that includes the two teams that were ranked No. 1 in the AP poll more than anyone else. There is also just the sixth 11-seed to ever reach the Final Four and a team that needed to win five games in five days at the ACC tournament just to hear its name on Selection Sunday.

It wouldn’t be an NCAA tournament without a Cinderella, right?

Now we head to Phoenix with a Final Four filled with plenty of star power — both on the floor and on the sideline.

UConn is looking to go back-to-back for the first time since Florida in 2007, Purdue is attempting to pull off a Virginia-esque turnaround to win its first NCAA tournament, Alabama is going for its first national championship, and NC State is trying to channel former coach Jim Valvano and its run to the 1983 title.

The Huskies enter as the favorite to win it all and a potential national title showdown between UConn and Purdue — and Donovan Clingan and Zach Edey — will garner the majority of predictions. In a one-game scenario, however, Alabama’s shooting prowess and the suddenly unstoppable D.J. Burns Jr. are poised to play spoiler.

From the reporters who covered each team’s path to the Final Four, here’s how each team could cut down the nets in Phoenix.


NO. 11 SEED | SOUTH REGION

Round of 64: def. No. 6 Texas Tech 80-67
Round of 32: def. No. 14 Oakland 79-73 (OT)
Sweet 16: def. No. 2 Marquette 67-58
Elite Eight: def. No. 4 Duke 76-64
Final Four opponent: vs. Purdue, Saturday, 6 p.m. ET

By Adam Teicher (from Dallas)

The way North Carolina State turned its season around, going from 17-14 heading into the ACC Tournament to 26-14 now, is impressive. As coach Kevin Keatts said, the Wolfpack didn’t accidentally get hot, not against the competition they’ve been playing against. North Carolina State has beaten five ranked teams in their current nine-game winning streak, including Duke in the Elite Eight. The Wolfpack have eight transfers and it took some time for everything to come together but NC State is better defensively and a better rebounding team than earlier in the season. The Wolfpack can play a lot of styles. It can play at a quick tempo or a more deliberate pace. It can use a lineup loaded with bigs or play with four guards. They guard well against the 3-point shot. The two most recent opponents, Marquette and Duke, combined to shoot 9-of-51 (18%) from 3-point range. Burns is a load for opponents to handle under the basket.

What stood out: The Wolfpack not only have size but they use it well. In the Sweet 16 win over Marquette, NC State made a priority of defending the 3-point arc and did it well. The Golden Eagles made just 4-of-31 from 3. The Wolfpack still protected the rim well and outrebounded Marquette by a wide margin. Mohamed Diarra (6-foot-10), Ben Middlebrooks (6-10) and Burns (6-9) all get significant minutes. Duke made just 5-of-20 3-point shots in the Elite Eight matchup.

Who could become a household name: Burns isn’t NC State’s leading scorer or rebounder. But he poses problems for opposing defenses in terms of how to account for him. He’s a load to handle with the ball if he’s not in a double-team but it’s problematic to always send help to him because he’s such a good passer. His footwork around the basket is tremendous for a player his size (6-9 and probably larger than the 275 pounds he’s listed at by the school).

What could be the downfall: The Wolfpack don’t have a deep roster and could be in trouble if the fouls start piling up. The Wolfpack can reliably go seven players deep but beyond that Keatts will have to do some creative mixing and matching. Playing against Purdue and Zach Edey generally requires a lot of fouling.


NO. 4 SEED | WEST REGION

Round of 64: def. No. 13 Charleston 109-96
Round of 32: def. No. 12 Grand Canyon 72-61
Sweet 16: def. No. 1 North Carolina 89-87
Elite Eight: def. No. 6 Clemson 89-82
Final Four opponent: vs. UConn, Saturaday 8:45 p.m. ET

By Paolo Uggetti (from Los Angeles)

A year after stitching together a 31-win season that ended in a Sweet 16 run, Alabama returned with a vengeance and it’s led them to the first Final Four appearance in program history. In Los Angeles, the Tide showed they were worthy of such a spot. They fully embraced their identity and showed a fearlessness in the face of an opponent that was supposed to be better than them (North Carolina) and another opponent that raced out to a 13-point lead against them (Clemson). During this tournament, Alabama has won a game by scoring 109 points and won another by scoring 72 points and it has led head coach Nate Oats to praise the improvement the Tide have made on defense. Make no mistake about it though, this team will go only as far as its offense — led by guard Mark Sears and buoyed by big men Nick Pringle and Grant Nelson — does.

What stood out: The Tide’s commitment to keep shooting at all costs. Even when they had made one 3-pointer in 13 attempts against Clemson, there was no straying away from what had gotten them to the Dance in the first place. In their minds, the shots were simply bound to go in and well, they did. As Oats explained, it’s not just about shooting 3s but rather taking efficient shots. Alabama simply doesn’t take midrange shots. It’s all layups, 3s and free throws. So far, the formula is working to perfection.

Who could become a household name: Sears. Alabama’s top guard is already a program legend who holds the single-season scoring record and is averaging over 24 points a game in the tournament. On Saturday, Sears engineered an impressive second-half performance against the Tigers when it seemed the basket turned into the size of a pool for him as he made six 3s. The 6-1 senior will have his work cut out for him against one of the top defenses in the country in UConn. And if he can get hot from 3 yet again and take out the top seed in the tournament, his legend will only grow.

What could be the downfall: This is what makes this Alabama team a fascinating experiment, of sorts. If the shots are going in, they are effectively unbeatable. If they’re not, it’s a different story. Oats has said there are contingency plans should they go cold, but against the best team in the country in the Huskies, odds are that Alabama will test an old basketball adage: Live by the 3 or die by it.


NO. 1 SEED | MIDWEST REGION

Round of 64: def. No. 16 Grambling 78-50
Round of 32: def. No. 8 Utah State 106-67
Sweet 16: def. No. 5 Gonzaga 80-68
Elite Eight: def. No. 2 Tennessee 72-66
Final Four opponent: vs. NC State Saturday, 6 p.m. ET

By Myron Medcalf (from Detroit)

Zach Edey is more than a future two-time Wooden Award. He’s one of the most dominating forces this sport has seen. Every team in Purdue’s path has tried to stop him. They’ve used multiple players. They’ve doubled him. They’ve tried to keep the ball out of his hands. Nothing has worked. Through four games, he’s averaged 30.0 PPG and 11.0 RPG. He’s also registered 54 free throw attempts and made 66% of his shots. He’s the anchor of a Purdue squad that’s second in the country in 3-point shooting (40.6%). Sunday’s win proved, however, that the Boilermakers can win ugly (3-for-15 from beyond the arc) because of Edey, who had a career-high 40 points. He’s the reason the Boilermakers could advance again and potentially challenge UConn in the national championship. Edey is so good at dictating the flow of any game. And he has the stamina to play 40 minutes. There is no easy way to deal with one of the most dominant players in college basketball history.

What stood out: Edey played 39 minutes in Sunday’s win. It was the first time a player had finished with 40 points and at least 15 rebounds in the NCAA tournament in 34 years. Edey worked hard in the offseason to slim down and become a more mobile threat. He wanted the ability to play in games like the contentious affair against Tennessee on Sunday. Overall, he’s played 35 or more minutes in six games since Feb. 22. He has to deal with teams throwing multiple players at him. But he has the energy to be a pivotal player in the final minutes of an NCAA tournament game.

Who could become a household name: I’ll go with Fletcher Loyer, who looks like a ’90s sitcom star. He has a rich basketball history, too. He was a standout high school player in Michigan and Indiana, where he won state player of the year in 2022. His brother, Foster, played at Michigan State and Davidson. His father is an NBA scout. Plus, his Purdue ties are strong. His grandfather played for the Boilermakers and his mother is a former assistant for the Purdue women’s volleyball team. Also, he’s good. He’s averaging 11.75 PPG and he’s connected on 46% of his shots from beyond the arc in the NCAA tournament.

What could be the downfall: If the 3-pointers stop falling like they did on Sunday against Tennessee, Purdue could be in trouble. That doesn’t happen often for a team ranked second nationally in 3-point shooting (40.6%) but when it does, it can get ugly. In Purdue’s four losses this season, the Boilermakers connected on just 34% of their 3-point attempts, far below their season average. A slow night would also make teams feel more comfortable about doubling Edey.


NO. 1 SEED | EAST REGION

Round of 64: def. No. 16 Stetson 91-52
Round of 32: def. No. 9 Northwestern 75-58
Sweet 16: def. No. 5 San Diego State 82-52
Elite Eight: def. No. 3 Illinois 77-52
Final Four opponent: vs. Alabama, Saturday 8:45 p.m. ET

By Jeff Borzello (from Boston)

Dubbed the “UConn Invitational,” the Huskies did nothing to dissuade the notion that they are the heavy favorite to cut down the nets and become the first back-to-back national champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007. The stats are simply eye-opening: UConn is the first program in NCAA tournament history to win 10 straight games by double-digits. They’re the third program in history to win their two games directly before the Final Four by 25-plus points apiece. They went on a 30-0 run — in the Elite Eight! UConn has the nation’s best offense and a top-five defense, the only team remaining to rank in the top five at both ends of the floor. Tristen Newton is an All-American, Cam Spencer and Alex Karaban are reliable and we’ll get to Stephon Castle shortly — but the emergence of Donovan Clingan as the most dominant defensive player in the country will be the key in the Final Four. Clingan single-handedly kept Illinois away from the rim, blocking five shots and forcing the Illini to go for 0-for-19 from the field on shots contested by the 7-foot-2 lottery pick. Dan Hurley’s guys embrace the “us against the world” mentality and are playing with a massive chip on their shoulder.

What stood out: UConn’s ability to play different styles, at different tempos and beat completely different teams. San Diego State entered its game against the Huskies with a top-10 defense — and then UConn went out and had the most efficient offensive performance anyone has had against the Aztecs since 2019. Illinois had the nation’s best offense besides UConn — and the Huskies held the Illini to the program’s worst offensive effort since 2015. Alabama’s fast-paced, 3-point-happy style will pose a different challenge for UConn, but the Huskies certainly won’t be unprepared for that matchup.

Who could become a household name: Stephon Castle. The UConn freshman is a likely lottery pick and a former five-star recruit, so he’s already a household name in the eyes of scouts — but he’s established himself as an elite defender in the NCAA tournament. He helped hold Northwestern’s Boo Buie to 2-for-15 shooting and then held Illinois’ Terrence Shannon Jr. to 2-for-12 from the field. Up next? Alabama’s All-America guard Mark Sears.

What could be the downfall: Given that the Huskies have lost just one game at full strength, it’s hard to find many weaknesses. They’ve had some off days shooting the ball, but barely broke a sweat against Northwestern despite going 3-for-22 from 3 and battered Illinois by 25 despite going 3-for-17 from deep. One potential issue would be Clingan getting into foul trouble. Samson Johnson is a solid backup, but Clingan is the most impactful defensive player in the country.

This post was originally published on ESPN

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