The Final Four is the last chance for cashing tickets. I’ve enjoyed the NCAA Tournament, because upsets are fun and make this annual event a mandatory-viewing experience, and I don’t care how many bluebloods get kayoed. Give their fans a crying towel.
As March Madness spins into the long weekend – two games Saturday, and the championship on Monday – all of the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seeds were wiped out. Of the 16 highest-seeded teams going in,15 failed to make it to Houston for the Last Dance.
The highest-ranked survivor is UConn, a No. 4 seed, a prominent program that’s seeking its fifth NCAA men’s basketball championships. The Huskies are joined by two five-seeds, and Miami and San Diego State – plus a ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic.
There are no true Cinderfellas in this scramble. According to the KenPom ratings, Miami is the second-best team in the ACC this season. Excluding 2020 (Covid), San Diego State has made 10 of the last 12 NCAA Tournament. Florida Atlantic may draw sparse crowds for home games, but the defiant squad has won 11 in a row and sits 35-3 on the campaign.
As usual, there’s considerable whining about the Final Four because the name-brand teams are missing. (Except for UConn.) There’s no Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, or North Carolina. There’s no Villanova, UCLA or Gonzaga. Can’t find a team from the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 or Pac 12. But hello to Conference USA (Florida Atlantic) and the Mountain West (San Diego State.)
See, that’s how it goes. The hypocrisy is amusing. Everyone claims they love upsets and crave upsets – but only to a point. Once we get to the Elite 8, and definitely the Final Four, the peoples want the elite teams. OK, little guys you had your fun – now go away! Scram! And the nation’s TV-media critics begin writing the standard piece of how bad the tournament ratings are, and how the end of college basketball is near.
I don’t blame fans who are bummed out by their favorite team getting booted, but don’t cuss the process. The chalk teams are dust now, and that’s fine. No blueblood team has the inalienable right to compete in the Final Four – and that’s how it should be.
The 2023 Final Four is the first time in the history of the tournament without a No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 in the hunt. And this year we saw a No. 1 seed (Purdue) get ruined in the tournament by a No. 16 seed, Fairleigh Dickinson.
I like knowing that it’s possible for the so-called lesser teams to get into the tournament and go off on an unexpected run to stun elite teams,
This has been a season of almost unprecedented parity. No. 1 ranked teams couldn’t stand their ground during the regular season. Brackets went into the shredder. Only four teams survived, and three of them supposedly have no business being here. Or so we’re told.
Last season the Final Four teams were North Carolina, Duke, Kansas and Villanova … and the CBS executives were drooling over the TV ratings. It was a highly entertaining Final Four, but it’s possible to enjoy the Final Four we have now, but only if you want to give it a chance and enjoy it. That’s the problem. An attitude problem.
I’d argue that this Final Four is true and on point because it represents the season that we’ve watched. There were no locks. Of the preseason Top 25, eight teams failed to make the NCAA Tournament. Defending champ North Carolina was the preseason favorites to win it all again but faltered, failed to make the NCAA Tournament, and was too embarrassed to accept an invitation to play in the NIT.
Didn’t you used to say you wished for more senior-led teams that excelled in fundamental basketball? Didn’t you dislike the one-and-done tourists who stopped by to play a little college basketball before moving to the NBA – and the teams loaded with the top recruits who smashed the teams that seemingly had no chance to win?
Hey, this is the first Final Four since NCAA seeding began in 1979 that doesn’t have a single former McDonald’s All-American. And no Top 30 recruits are still playing. All four of these teams worked for an edge by sharpening skills, playing together, and displaying the quality of team-first basketball.
Here are my picks in the semifinals:
Florida Atlantic vs. San Diego State.
Saturday at 5:09 pm STL time.
Odds: SD State is a 3-point favorite.
Over/Under: 132 points.
KenPom ranking: San Diego State 14th, FAU 17th.
ANALYSIS: I think this will be a tight one. San Diego State is the nation’s fourth-best team defensively (per KenPom.) In winning four games to get here, the Aztecs allowed only 57 points per contest and shut down Alabama star Brandon Miller, who made only three of 19 shots from the floor. SD State harrasses opponents by crowding, bumping and defending the three-point line. They’re ranked second-best in the nation by limiting opponents to a 27.8% success rate on shots from deep.
That’s the essence of this matchup. A tenacious defensive team getting after an FAU offense that’s ranked 24th in the nation overall, 25th in effective field-goal percentage (54.3%), and 44th in three-point percentage (36.5%) The Owls have derived 37 percent of their total points by hitting shots from three-range. That will test a SD State defense that specializes in defending threes. In fairness FAU has a fine defense (29th) and isn’t a one-dimensional team.
One concern about San Diego State: the Aztecs can be sluggish on offense, ranking 75th nationally overall – and 223rd in effective field goal percentage. Florida Atlantic has an underrated defense, ranking 30th nationally. Another weakness, at least to this point: San Diego State ranks 309th in the nation with a made free-throw rate of 74.4%, and could be trouble in a close game.
Bernie’s Pick: I’ve been waffling on this today. And the line on this game has moved; San Diego State was a 2.5-point favorite until the sharp money coming in on FAU pushed the line to 3. But I keep coming back to this: in their two wins last weekend, the Aztecs held Alabama and Creighton to a combined 5-of-44 shooting from three-point range (11.36%) and have been excellent against the trey all season. That’s kind of a big deal against an FAU unit that launches a three on 44% of their field goal attempts. And I had another thought: SDSU doesn’t have a go-to scorer that they must rely on to win. They have only one guy averaging double-digit points — Matt Bradley at 12.5 ppg. But the Aztecs have bunch of players who contribute a good share of points from game-to-game; you just never know who it will be. Those kind of teams are sneaky-good offensively.
I’ll go with San Diego State by two points, 65-63.
Miami vs. UConn.
Scheduled for 7:49 pm STL time.
Odds: UConn is favored by 5.5 points.
Over/Under: 149 points.
KenPom ranking: San Diego State 14th, FAU 17th.
ANALYSIS: UConn is the best team in this group of four, and it probably isn’t close. According to KenPom, the Huskies go into Houston with the nation’s No. 3 offense and No. 11 defense. Other important qualities for UConn: No. 2 offensive rebounding percentage in the nation; 13th at defending threes, 14th at defending two-point shots; and 8th overall nationally at limiting opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 44.8%. UConn has a massive presence near the rim with big men Adam Sonogo (6-9) and Donovan Clingan (7-2.) That explains why the Huskies have blocked nearly13 percent of opponent shots this season, which ranks 25th nationally. UConn gets scoring from just about anyone, with eight players posting an above-average offensive rating.
In going 4-0 in the tournament the Huskies have won by an average of 22.5 games. In the Sweet 16, they embarrassed Arkansas by 23 points and humiliated Gonzaga by 28. The two victims combined to shoot 32.5 percent overall, made only 7 of 26 three-pointers, and had eight shots blocked by the forceful UConn defense.
I’m not taking Miami for granted. Jim Larranaga is a sharp coach, and Miami has a smart backcourt that takes good care of the ball. The Hurricanes averaged 87.3 points in their last three games to dispose of Indiana, Houston and Texas. Miami has the nation’s fifth-ranked offense according to the KenPom metrics, and can make threes in bunches. As much as I respect the Miami offense that can score with anyone, I can’t overlook Miami’s defense. I don’t see how the Hurricanes can fend off UConn when UConn has so many ways to score. Opponents have a 51% effective field goal percentage against Miami this season, which makes the Hurricanes 207th in the nation at defending shots.
That won’t work against the peaking UConn machine. Good luck trying to stop Andre Jackson and Jordan Hawkins while also coping with UConn’s size and length. The Huskies are demons in transition and run smooth half-court sets. And I don’t see how Miami can hang with UConn on the boards. Miami better score a helluva lot of points — or forget about it.
Both schools are a perfect 4-0 against the spread in the NCAA Tournament, but UConn has covered 69.4 percent of the time this season compared to Miami’s 61% cover rate.) If you’re looking for a stat to catch your attention, it’s this: Miami has covered in eight of nine neutral-site matchups this season, a success rate of 89%. I’ll add this: UConn fans don’t trust coach Dan Hurley in close games, and if Miami can keep knocking down shots to make UConn sweat … could get interesting.
BERNIE’S PICK: At the beginning of this tournament I picked UConn to win it all. I’m going with UConn in this one, 83-74.
Thanks for reading and have a nice weekend.
Bernie invites you to listen to his sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.