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UConn may look invincible, but don’t count out rest of Final Four

In Sports
April 01, 2024

On the eve of his team’s Elite Eight clash with Illinois, UConn head coach Dan Hurley stumbled over a series of tweets from a little-known former Illini player.

Sean Harrington, now an ESPN analyst, wrote on X that UConn “has not had to deal with a team as athletic and physical” as Illinois. He added that Terrence Shannon Jr. “will be the best player on the floor” and that UConn “doesn’t have a good answer for him.”

To most coaches, criticism from a career backup guard who last played for Illinois 21 years ago would be easy to ignore. To Hurley, even the slightest disrespect is fuel for him and his players, more ammunition to fight against complacency.

Hurley mentioned Harrington’s comments without prompting on Saturday night after UConn clinched a return trip to the Final Four with a 77-52 mauling of Illinois. Calling what Harrington said “just asinine,” Hurley told reporters in Boston, “You’re going against beasts and monsters every night in the Big East, and the Big East prepared us for teams like Illinois.”

Stories like that exemplify why UConn will arrive in Phoenix later this week as an overwhelming favorite to repeat as national champions. The Huskies don’t just have an entire rotation of future pros and a system that maximizes their individual talents. They also have a head coach with a Michael Jordan-esque knack for inventing perceived slights and keeping players hungry.

The next speed bump in UConn’s road to back-to-back titles is an Alabama team that has ridden unexpected contributions from a trio of role players to its first Final Four appearance in program history. Looming on the other side of the bracket are fellow No. 1 seed Purdue and surging No. 11 seed NC State, both of whom clinched their spot in the Final Four with memorable Elite Eight victories on Sunday.

Led by center Donovan Clingan (32), UConn has steamrolled its way through the NCAA tournament so far. Can anyone challenge the Huskies in the Final Four? (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

A year ago, UConn stormed through the NCAA tournament, winning all six games it played by at least 13 points. Only three of the Huskies’ top eight players from that team returned, yet they are undeniably even better this year.

They’re 35-3. They’ve lost only once since Christmas. They’ve led by 30 points or more in each of their first four NCAA tournament games. They fooled Illinois into believing it had a chance for nearly 20 minutes on Saturday, only to rip off a jaw-dropping 30 unanswered points to bury the 29-win Big Ten tournament champions.

UConn has been so dominant that the obvious question entering next weekend’s Final Four is if the Huskies are inevitable. Below is a closer look at the three challengers hoping to dethrone the kings of college basketball and an assessment of how big a threat each of them pose.

Alabama (25-11)

How it got here: Defeated Charleston (13), Grand Canyon (12), North Carolina (1), Clemson (6)

Not even three weeks ago, after a 102-88 SEC quarterfinal loss to Florida, Alabama coach Nate Oats challenged his team to take more pride in its defense. The fast-paced, freewheeling Tide had surrendered 100 or more points in three of their previous six games.

“These guys are going to have to decide how bad they want to win in the NCAA tournament,” Oats said. “If we don’t change, we’re not going to be playing too many more games at this point.”

Alabama has only been marginally better defensively in four NCAA tournament games, but the Tide have made up for it with an offensive onslaught. They’re shooting 41.4% from behind the arc and punishing opponents on the offensive glass and in transition. West regional MVP Mark Sears has been the constant, but different role players have stepped up in support of him each night — even an 18-year-old freshman who should still be a senior in high school right now.

It’s difficult to envision Alabama offering much resistance for UConn’s ultra-efficient offense on Saturday. Alabama’s perimeter defenders struggle to force turnovers or consistently stay in front of their man without fouling and Nick Pringle doesn’t provide enough rim protection to make up for it.

Still, the volume of threes that Alabama shoots can be the equalizer — and an effective way to neutralize Donovan Clingan’s rim protection. If the Tide are hitting from behind the arc and trading threes for twos, maybe they can stay in striking distance.

Threat level to UConn: Unlikely but not impossible.

NC State (26-14)

How it got here: Texas Tech (6), Oakland (14), Marquette (2), Duke (4)

In early March, NC State wasn’t even considered a realistic threat to make the NCAA tournament after losing seven of its final nine regular-season games.

Now, the Wolfpack have nabbed a spot in the Final Four.

The charmed run began with NC State winning five win-or-go-home games in five days to capture the ACC tournament title and the league’s automatic NCAA bid. Then the 11th-seeded Wolfpack kept right on winning, dispatching Texas Tech, edging Oakland in overtime and outplaying Marquette from start to finish.

The victory that will go down in NCAA tournament lore is Sunday’s 76-64 Elite Eight stunner to topple longtime ACC rival Duke. Massive-yet-nimble center DJ Burns extended his run in the NCAA tournament spotlight, scoring 29 points to spearhead NC State’s rally from a six-point halftime deficit.

Look, NC State doesn’t have the same caliber of talent as UConn. It doesn’t match up particularly well against Purdue either. And yet how can you count out a team on this kind of heater? If you’re going to pull off a full Kemba, why not finish it against UConn?

Threat level to UConn: Count out DJ Burns at your own risk.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - MARCH 31: Zach Edey #15 of the Purdue Boilermakers celebrates their win against the Tennessee Volunteers during the Elite Eight round of the 2024 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament held at Little Caesars Arena on March 31, 2024 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Purdue (33-4)

How it got here: Defeated Grambling State (16), Utah State (8), Gonzaga (5), Tennessee (2)

Shortly after his team’s Chernobyl-level meltdown in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year, Matt Painter grappled with a complex question: How do you fix what may not be broken? Is there a tweak for a program that annually cruises along from November until conference tournament time, only to veer into a ditch when the spotlight shines the brightest?

Painter’s answer, after evaluating every aspect of his program, was to resist the temptation to overreact. He instead tinkered at the edges, adding Southern Illinois transfer Lance Jones as a defensive specialist and secondary ball handler and exploring ways to keep his players mentally and physically fresh entering March.

That level-headed approach last offseason paved the way for Purdue’s current redemption tour. The same players who flopped in the first round against Fairleigh Dickinson have shed the label of March underachievers and taken Purdue to its first Final Four in 44 years.

A Purdue-UConn title game would be a matchup of men’s college basketball’s two best teams this season. Could Zach Edey get Clingan in foul trouble? Could Clingan slow down the two-time national player of the year? How would Hurley and Painter attack each other’s teams schematically?

Repeat versus redemption. This is the game all neutral observers want to see.

Threat level to UConn: Significant. This Purdue team would be the title favorite many other years.

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