Men’s Final Four starts Saturday with UConn as heavy favorites

Published 9:39 am Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Don’t expect Purdue or North Carolina State or the University of Alabama to just show up at this weekend’s NCAA Final Four in Glendale, Arizona and act happy to be there.

All three programs come in knowing that they have reached this stage by beating some solid teams along their journey through the tournament.

That said, defending national champions the University of Connecticut, come into the weekend as prohibitive favorites to once again hoist the trophy awarded to the best college basketball team in all the land.

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The UConn Huskies are 35-3 and have been on a tear in reaching the final weekend of play. Coach Danny Hurley’s team opened the tournament with a 91-52 win over Stetson and then beat Northwestern 75-58 to make the Sweet Sixteen.

They reached the round of eight by annihilating San Diego State 82-52 on Thursday.

The thought was that maybe the University of Illinois would give UConn a tough matchup in the Elite Eight on Saturday and it was close, for a while.

The Huskies then used a 30-0 run, with 25 of those points coming to start the second half, in an eventual 77-52 win.

The Final Four berth is the seventh in program history for the Huskies of the Big East.

Their opponent on Saturday night will be the Alabama Crimson Tide, school making its first-ever appearance in the Final Four. Tipoff on Saturday is scheduled for 7:49 p.m.

Alabama is 25-11 and didn’t come into the Big Dance with a whole lot of momentum, as they lost 102-88 to Florida in quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament.

Coach Nate Oats likes for his Tide to play fast and they’ve shown they can put up points in a hurry. Alabama won 109-96 over College of Charleston in the opening round and then 72-61 against Grand Canyon to punch a ticket to the Sweet Sixteen.

Facing the top seeded team in their bracket, North Carolina, Alabama rode transfer forward Grant Nelson past the Tar Heels.

Nelson, who played previously at North Dakota State, used his size and athleticism to score 24 points, grab 12 rebounds and block five shots in an 89-87 win that sent Alabama to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history.

On Saturday, the Crimson Tide faced a team that had similarly played its best basketball of late in the Clemson Tigers with a spot in the Final Four on the line.

Clemson led early, but a deep Alabama roster began to wear them down in an eventual 89-82 victory for the Tide.

UConn is currently favored by around 11.5 points for the semifinal matchup on Saturday.

The opening matchup will be followed by the second semifinal of Purdue (33-4) against North Carolina State (26-14).

For the Boilermakers of Purdue, the hope is to erase the embarrassment of 2023. In the opening round last season, Purdue, a top seed, lost 63-58 to no. 16 seed Farleigh Dickerson, just the second time in men’s tournament history for a 16 seed to beat a 1 seed.

The first time that happened was in 2018 when University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) beat the Virginia Cavaliers. Virginia then went on to capture the 2019 NCAA National Championship.

That’s a similar path that Purdue and head coach Matt Painter want to follow as his team has marched through the tournament thus far with wins over Grambling State, Utah State, Gonzaga and Tennessee.

The Final Four appearance for Purdue is the first for the program since 1980 and it’s been a similarly long time for their opponents on Saturday.

The North Carolina State Wolfpack have been the darlings of the tournament and head coach Kevin Keatts has the school playing in the Final Four for the first time since 1983.

NC State won five games over five days to capture an automatic berth via winning the ACC Tournament, something they had to do as the team was unlikely to grab an at-large bid.

Over the course of those five days the Wolfpack beat Louisville, Syracuse, Duke, Virginia and North Carolina to take the ACC tournament.

Commentators and pundits kept wondering when NC State would run out of gas as they went straight from one tournament grind into another.

The answer is they didn’t. The Wolfpack beat Texas Tech 80-67 in the first round and topped a similar group of upstarts from Oakland University 79-73 in overtime to move to the Sweet Sixteen.

The Wolfpack kept rolling by beating Marquette 67-58 and they moved on to the Final Four by again topping Duke, this time 76-64.

DJ Burns Jr. of NC State has been an unstoppable force in the tournament as the Wolfpack have played through him in the post for great results.

Burns Jr. scored a season-high 29 points in the win over Duke and was named the region’s most valuable player.

How efficient Burns Jr. will be against Purdue center Zach Edey will determine the outcome of the game. Edey is 7-foot-4 and will likely again sweep most of the major player of the year honors.

Purdue is favored by around 10 points in their semifinal matchup with NC State.