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Men's Final Four rewrites history as two teams try to move on to NCAA title game

The Florida Atlantic Owls will face the San Diego State Aztecs in the Final Four on Saturday — the first time either program has gotten this far in the NCAA Tournament. The Owls practiced at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, on Friday.
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The Florida Atlantic Owls will face the San Diego State Aztecs in the Final Four on Saturday — the first time either program has gotten this far in the NCAA Tournament. The Owls practiced at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, on Friday.

The men's Final Four in the NCAA tournament marks several historic firsts, adding a layer of anticipation and excitement to a March Madness that has taken one unlikely turn after another.

In the 44 years since the NCAA started seeding every team, this is the first time none of the top-three seeds has made it to the Final Four. But that's just one of the superlative facts about this year's tournament.

The teams are set to decide who plays in Monday's championship final.

How to watch the last 3 games

6:09 p.m. ET Saturday: The San Diego State University Aztecs play the Florida Atlantic University Owls on CBS (streaming online and on TV).

8:49 p.m. ET Saturday: The late game pits the University of Connecticut Huskies against the University of Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes, also on CBS.

Monday: Winners play in the title game at 9:20 p.m. ET.

3 teams are hoping 1 is a charm

This is the first Final Four appearance for three teams: Miami, San Diego State, and Florida Atlantic.

These lower-ranked teams have stared down giants and taken care of business: No. 5 Miami beat No. 1 Houston and No. 2 Texas; No. 5 San Diego State knocked off overall No. 1 seed Alabama and then edged Creighton (No. 6); and No. 9 FAU beat No. 3 Kansas State and No. 4 Tennessee.

All of them have shown they're equal to the moment. Now they'll play in their programs' biggest games ever, in the massive NRG Stadium in Houston.

Will UConn do UConn things?

Signs point to yes — the most emphatic sign being the 82-54 pasting UConn imposed on Gonzaga, extending their defense to limit the normally prolific Bulldogs to 2-for-20 shooting from beyond the three-point arc.

As the highest-ranked team left standing, it's up to No. 4 seed UConn to restore order in a tournament that's been marked by wild upsets.

The Huskies have the pedigree to thrive in tumultuous tourneys. UConn was seeded seventh when it won the 2014 championship, and it was a No. 3 seed when it took the title in 2011 — the most recent year in which none of the No. 1 seeds made it to the Final Four.

Adding to the swag factor: UConn flew to Texas in the New England Patriots' jet.

The men's Final Four will tip off Saturday night inside the cavernous NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, with a crowd of more than 70,000 in attendance.
Carmen Mandato / Getty Images
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Getty Images
The men's Final Four will tip off Saturday night inside the cavernous NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, with a crowd of more than 70,000 in attendance.

Can Miami's defense hold on?

Miami is the only Final Four team whose scoring defense isn't in the top 50, nationwide. The Hurricanes are actually far removed, with nearly 72 points allowed per game, putting them at No. 231. Now they'll be tested by UConn and its star forward, Adama Sanogo.

But Miami has the top-scoring offense among the four squads, and its assist-to-turnover ratio is solid. That's largely a credit to its stellar guards, who are experts at running the fast break: Junior Isaiah Wong was recently named the ACC's player of the year, and senior Jordan Miller didn't miss a single shot — from the floor or the free-throw line — as he scored 27 points in Miami's takedown of Texas.

The Hurricanes also have coach Jim Larrañaga, who led George Mason to an upset win over UConn back in 2006's Elite Eight.

Will Cinderella get to dance in that glass slipper?

As a No. 9 seed, Florida Atlantic has the best claim to be this year's Cinderella team — but it has repeatedly refused to accept that title.

After all, the Owls turned in the best record of any Division I team in the country, at 35-3. They were nationally ranked and didn't lose a single game on their home court this season. FAU also won the title in Conference USA — which put two teams into the final of the National Invitational Tournament.

FAU also has depth: Its bench contributed an average of 33 points per game, second-most in the country.

At home, the Owls usually play in front of around 2,200 fans. Of the adjustment to the NCAA's huge stage, head coach Dusty May said, "I still don't think our guys are going to be fazed by the 70-plus-thousand [fans], the lights, the attention, because they love ball. They love to compete. And they have a lot of faith in their teammates."

San Diego State represents the entire West

The Aztecs are the only team from west of the Mississippi, and they're bringing the highest-rated scoring defense of any squad in the Final Four, allowing just under 63 points per contest.

Not only is this the first Final Four for San Diego State — it's the first time a team from its conference, the Mountain West, has reached this point.

After squeaking out a win over Creighton, Aztecs guard Darrion Trammell described what he was thinking in the final seconds: "That the moment wasn't too big for me. Through everything I've been through, I feel like the opportunity was just set there for me."

Now his team will try to convert that same attitude into another win. Like FAU, San Diego State also has role players who can score. Both teams are in the top 25 nationwide in getting points from their bench.

Either FAU or San Diego State are guaranteed a spot in the final, notching another first in a postseason that's been full of them. Whatever the outcome, it will keep hopes alive for an underdog story to have the happiest of all endings.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.