This isn't the men's Final Four anyone predicted at the start of the season. It's not the Final Four anyone predicted on Selection Sunday. If someone tells you that they expected UConn, Florida Atlantic, San Diego State and Miami to be the last four teams standing in Houston, ask them if they're willing to show you their bracket.
Although these four teams might lack the star power of past years, this is still an intriguing quartet. UConn is not a "blue blood," but a fifth national title since 1999 would put the Huskies far ahead of UCLA (zero), North Carolina (three), Kentucky (one), Duke (three) and Kansas (two) in that same stretch. FAU could go from winning its first NCAA tournament game to winning its first national title in the same year. Miami and San Diego State are also chasing their first national titles, along with an opportunity to showcase the parity across the college basketball landscape.
As we enter the final weekend of the 2022-23 season, ESPN's Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway, Joe Lunardi and Myron Medcalf discuss the tournament, the teams left standing and make their predictions for another evening of blockbuster games.
No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic vs. No. 5 seed San Diego State (-3, 132): 6:09 p.m. ET, CBS
No. 5 seed Miami vs. No. 4 seed UConn (-5.5, 149.5): 8:49 p.m. ET, CBS
This is as unexpected a March as we've seen in a long time. What has intrigued you most about this year's tournament?
Gasaway: Not only did we have our first ever Elite Eight without a single No. 1 seed, those top seeds were all defeated in -- shall we say, unmistakable fashions? Put it this way, these weren't cases where an opposing team got hot from outside and brought forth a miracle. Purdue lost to a No. 16 seed that shot 30% on its 3s. Then Kansas came up short against Arkansas despite the fact that the Razorbacks were 2-of-15 from beyond the arc. Alabama lost by seven to San Diego State. And that was a nail-biter compared to Houston's 14-point defeat at the hands of Miami. The results may have been surprising, but over the course of 40 minutes each so-called lower seed clearly earned the right to advance. In fact two of them are still playing.
Borzello: Along the same line as Gasaway, I've been surprised/impressed/intrigued by how many of the upsets haven't really felt like upsets. Like, was FAU beating Kansas State all that stunning in a vacuum? Miami punched Houston in the mouth early in their Sweet 16 matchup and never looked back -- and again, that was just one of the elite offenses in college basketball doing what it does. San Diego State's physicality and defense imposing its will on Alabama was a surprise in theory, but it was also entirely predictable. And then 4-seed UConn was the best team in college basketball for the first two months of the season, and looked like it again for the final month of the season. UConn running through the West to the Final Four wasn't remotely surprising.
Medcalf: I'm intrigued by the style these teams have all shared on their run to the Final Four. Some of the best teams in America, and the highest seeds, played an old-school setup. Kentucky, Purdue and others that played through a traditional big man did not survive the first weekend. This Final Four slate, however, showcases the changes in college basketball. Yes, UConn has Adama Sanogo, but next to him is Alex Karaban, a 6-foot-8 forward who has made 41% of his 3-pointers. San Diego State's small-ball lineup has allowed it to play a versatile defensive style. Miami has a 6-7 "center" in Norchad Omier and Florida Atlantic has a 7-1 big man in the paint and four players who are 6-4 or smaller in its starting lineup. Sure, we understood that Villanova could win a title with that style, or even Kansas a year ago. To see the modern revolution spread across the sport and open the door for these teams, however, shows how quickly things have changed over the last decade.
Lunardi: For a change, the annual "anybody can win this thing" argument has been proved true. I think the "upset" here is that it doesn't happen more often in a format that encourages -- heck, promotes -- random outcomes. Bravo FDU! Encore FAU! The sport thanks you.
What excites you about this group of Final Four participants?
Medcalf: I always love to see the celebration on Monday night, when a team wins it all and enjoys the spoils of its hard work. To know three out of four teams could experience that euphoria for the first time in program history is compelling and the essence of what makes the NCAA tournament the greatest event in sports. The parity is real. But I also love the real questions that will decide all of this. Can anyone score against San Diego State? Can UConn be stopped? Is Miami's versatility the x-factor in the whole field? Should we really bet against a 35-win Florida Atlantic team that continues to outplay its opponents in the final minutes of close games? Looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds.
Borzello: New blood! Last year's Final Four could have carried the blue-blood banner for multiple years, with Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Villanova -- and now we've seen it swing back the other way. UConn is a known commodity, of course, but SDSU, FAU and Miami have never been to this point. It also feels like none of them is a fluke. The Aztecs are a perennial MWC contender and would have been a 1- or 2-seed in the 2020 NCAA tournament before it was canceled, while Miami fell one game short last season. FAU had never won a tournament game, but is 35-3 thus far.
Lunardi: The absence of so-called "blue bloods" is a good thing, not bad. What do we remember more? Coach K's 11th Final Four or Butler's Gordon Hayward nearly banking in a half-court shot to steal Duke's championship? On the other hand, how many more national titles does UConn have to win before we call the Huskies a blue blood? I'm just eager to see if there's a team in Houston that can give them a game.
Gasaway: By my admittedly rough estimation, we have 35 or so rotation players and, of course, four head coaches on hand for the festivities in Houston. Of that group there is one person -- one! -- who's been here before. Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga reached the Final Four with George Mason 17 years ago. He's the experienced one of the bunch. The final weekend of the season is an entirely new experience for virtually everyone here. Maybe this is a passing moment, and possibly next year at this time we'll be up to our eyeballs in blue-blood programs again. For now, it feels like the NCAA tournament worked as designed. The field of 68 gives every team a chance, and these four made the most of that.
Nathan Mensah hits Keshad Johnson wide-open under the rim for an easy two-handed flush for the Aztecs.
San Diego State has one of the most stifling defenses in the nation. Can the Aztecs keep Florida Atlantic from another late-game surge? Who will win?
Borzello: I think San Diego State's defense will prove too much. FAU has been able to get advantages this tournament because it plays four guards around a big, and it creates issues for teams guarding ball-screens. The Owls have been able to get into the lane and either finish or kick out for an open 3. San Diego State will be able to eliminate a lot of that, pressuring the ball on the perimeter, switching on screens and then having Nathan Mensah protecting the rim. The tempo will also be another factor; San Diego State rarely allows teams to get out in transition -- although coaches have said that's an area the Aztecs are potentially vulnerable.
Score prediction: San Diego State 62, FAU 57
Medcalf: Yeah, I think SDSU is a difficult matchup for anybody in Houston. I think Brian Dutcher's squad will be a problem for FAU, too. Prior to its Elite Eight game against Creighton, SDSU had led its three previous NCAA tournament opponents by 22 points at halftime. I think it's difficult for teams to get off to good starts against the Aztecs, and I think that will be the challenge for FAU. A seven-point deficit against most teams is more like a 15-point deficit against SDSU. But it could have a challenge in a close game late. Its offensive output has been the overarching concern.
Score prediction: San Diego State 64, FAU 61
Gasaway: Mensah has blocked a truly formidable 18% of opponents' 2-point attempts during his tournament minutes. Carrying over the pattern displayed in the regular season, however, the senior's been in the game only about half the time in the last four outings. FAU will be well aware of the possessions when he's sitting, and in those minutes the Owls will likely be laser-focused on getting to the rim. The expectation here though is that an SDSU defense that got the better of Alabama will be able to summon that same spirit against Florida Atlantic. Make no mistake, Brian Dutcher may require that kind of performance from his defense. In the tournament thus far the Aztecs have put 266 points on the board in 268 possessions.
Score prediction: San Diego State 59, FAU 56
Lunardi: We saw yet again in the South Region final that the tortoise (San Diego State) will impose its will on the hare (Creighton). It doesn't guarantee victory, but it dramatically ups the chances of the more methodical team.
Score prediction: San Diego State 65, FAU 59
UConn has been the most dominant team we've seen in the NCAA tournament in years. What has to happen for the Hurricanes to stop the Huskies? Who will win?
Medcalf: I don't see a world where UConn suddenly slows down. This is a team that started the season 14-0 with wins over Alabama and Iowa State before a rocky 2-6 stretch, followed by a 13-2 run that has led this team to the Final Four. So the only way Miami wins this game is if it can go punch-for-punch with the Huskies. The good news for the Hurricanes is they have the 3-point shooting capability and transition efficiency to run with UConn. That's the only way. The Canes were down 13 against Texas in the second half of their Elite Eight win. They just hit another gear and overwhelmed the Longhorns. They are the only team, I think, with a shot to beat the Huskies. But the potential is different than the reality.
Score prediction: UConn 87, Miami 80
Gasaway: Which UConn will we see? Will we get the team that's put up classic "here's your national champion right here" numbers over the last four games? Or is will this be the team that lost to Marquette at Madison Square Garden five games ago? I'll go with the assumption that the version that made short work of the Gonzaga offense will show up. Incredibly, Dan Hurley's offense has been even better in the tournament (1.21 points per possession) than Miami's (1.16). UConn is getting it done on both sides of the ball. The Huskies will need to do just that against a UM team that outscored No. 2 seed Texas 51-36 in the second half of the Midwest Region final.
Score prediction: UConn 85, Miami 81
Borzello: Two of the top-five offenses in the sport will be going head-to-head here, so whichever team can get timely stops late likely pulls this one out. For Miami, it needs to keep getting downhill and keep attacking. Isaiah Wong, Nijel Pack and Jordan Miller are all big-time shot-makers and Omier has been dominant on the offensive glass. Will they be able to get Sanogo in foul trouble, which in turn hinders UConn's offense? Similarly, can Omier stay out of foul trouble against Sanogo and Donovan Clingan? Miami's post depth isn't the same as UConn's bench. At the other end, being cognizant of where Jordan Hawkins is at all times is imperative, as is trying to keep UConn in the half-court and out of transition. UConn is just too balanced at both ends.
Score prediction: UConn 82, Miami 79
Lunardi: Why go against the grain and predict the predictable in Houston? Doesn't this tournament deserve an unexpected champion? Miami is the candidate and "Coach L" pulls a repeat of his 2006 George Mason shocker against UConn.
Score prediction: Miami 71, UConn 69
UConn forces a Gonzaga timeout early in the second half as Jordan Hawkins knocks down the 3-pointer.
Who will be the star of Saturday night, and why?
Borzello: I'll go with Jordan Hawkins. He's been performing at an incredibly high level since mid-January, playing himself into a borderline lottery pick. Coaches who have scouted both teams this season observed that Miami is effective at defending pick-and-roll situations, but can be susceptible to off-ball movement and screening for shooters. That's where Hawkins excels, running off screens, pindowns, making backdoor cuts if a defender overcommits. He's coming off a 6-for-10 3-point shooting game and has made at least three 3s in each of his four tournaments. I see that hot perimeter shooting continuing against the Hurricanes.
Medcalf: I think it'll be Adama Sanogo. He's been an unstoppable force for UConn throughout the NCAA tournament. I think he'll be the stabilizing force against Miami. I also think he'll be the key to early foul trouble for Omier, which could change the game. (It also could happen the other way around.) But I think Omier hasn't faced a physical presence that could deal with his strength and physicality. Sanogo is ready for that battle.
Gasaway: Matt Bradley. The senior is yet to see his shots fall in the tournament, and now he is due. Bradley connected on 43% of his 3s in Mountain West play, and he's a career 39% shooter from beyond the arc. When we speak of career numbers with SDSU's leading scorer, we're working from a large sample size. Bradley logged his first season as a member of the California Golden Bears back when Duke had a guy named Zion and Virginia faced off against Texas Tech in the title game. He's been around for a while, and it says here that the cold shooting is about to end.
Lunardi: I'm going with the Isaiah Wong/Nigel Pack exacta. Let the NIL chorus begin!