This NCAA men’s basketball tournament wasn’t kind to the sport’s most prestigious programs. Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas all lost in the second round, and only one of those exits was even particularly surprising. Those defeated Tiffany brands at least did better than North Carolina, the preseason No. 1 team that didn’t make the tourney. The teams that did have the best seasons mostly fell flat on their faces, too. For the first time, none of the four No. 1 seeds made it past the Sweet 16. One of them, Purdue, lost to No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson in quite genuinely the worst loss ever by a men’s college hoops team.
The remaining gladiators for this weekend’s Final Four are an eclectic mix. No. 4 seed Connecticut is the favorite to win it all. The Huskies’ opponent on Saturday is Miami, a No. 5 seed that had a very good season but didn’t look much like a title contender entering March. The other semifinal features another No. 5 seed, San Diego State, from the mid-major Mountain West Conference. The Aztecs will play against the biggest underdog left in the field, No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic, a program whose all-time March Madness record before this year was 0–1. There have been longshots in the Final Four in the recent past, but 2023’s field stands out as a surprising bunch of upstarts.
Upsets make March Madness’ opening weekend such a compelling watch, but what happens when all the favorites are gone? A reasonable number of people think the composition of the remaining field is a bad thing for college basketball. Ticket prices have cratered, and maybe the television ratings will be bad, too, not that anyone who isn’t an advertising executive needs to care. But there’s more to the argument than the possibility that smaller schools won’t draw eyeballs. On3’s Ivan Maisel makes the most encapsulating version of the case that the non-UConn participants aren’t an ideal group: “Underdogs will fill three of the four locker rooms in NRG Stadium in Houston, and as much fun as it has been, I must have a hangover because something feels amiss. I say this as an underdog lover of long standing: You can’t have a David without a Goliath.”
College basketball is facing some huge challenges right now. This Final Four might partially be the result of some of those difficulties, but it’s not a problem in and of itself. To the contrary, it could be a boon for the sport: a clash between teams that are all good enough to win it all but have enough Cinderella-like qualities to be extra memorable. This Final Four may well not be as good as the one last year that included four recent national champions in Duke, UNC, Kansas, and Villanova, but there’s more than one way to bake a cake, and there’s more than one way for the tournament to produce a quality Final Four.
It’s easy enough to draw a line from one of men’s college hoops’ current problems to these four teams being the ones playing in Houston. The college game, for reasons old and new, is a less attractive place for the best 18-year-old players in the world to spend time than it used to be. The old reason is money: Schools still can’t give it directly to players, though the recent advent of third-party collectives has offered a path to good money for some. The new reason is competition. Top prospects can (and several do) play in the NBA G-League before their draft year, or they can play in a separate prep league, Overtime Elite, that started in 2021. Or they can simply not be interested in coming to America to play college ball, like Victor Wembanyama, the God-tier French center who plays in his home country and had no good reason to join the NCAA’s ranks before becoming the top pick in the NBA draft. There are only so many earth-shattering, game-ending young players in the world, and fewer of them play in college now. That figures to help every program that’s not a blue blood, including those in the Final Four. It’s possible that this Final Four will not have a single player picked in the first round of the draft, and it’s virtually certain that no one on these teams will be a lottery pick.
It also helps that the elite players who do go to the Dukes and Kansases of the world are so often gone to the NBA in a year or two, while teams that get deep into March are often those that have experience. San Diego State’s rotation is nine players deep with upperclassmen, and as a defensive unit, they are a nightmare to play against.
Roster management is harder now, too. It’s impossible to say if players’ recently gained ability to transfer without sitting out a season has helped or hurt March long shots on the whole. There are countless examples of good mid-major teams losing their best players to power programs that simply go shopping through their rosters. But there are also many cases of non-powers rejuvenating themselves via the transfer portal. San Diego State, for example, has relied heavily on players who came from bigger programs like Cal and TCU and from smaller ones like Seattle and Oakland (Mich.). At the least, an increase in transfer turnover means teams can rise and fall more quickly. It introduces volatility. It’s also the just outcome; making players sit out was a punitive policy that helped coaches control them.
Another problem is that basketball is college sports’ tail, and football is the dog wagging it. Football-driven realignment decisions put a bunch of basketball programs in conferences that don’t really make sense. Sometimes it’s gone OK, like Maryland leaving the ACC, where it won a national title, for the Big Ten. Other times it’s been an economically necessary pain, like West Virginia traveling an insane amount to play Big 12 games so that its athletic department can remain in the big time. And in rare instances, it’s gone horrifically, like when football nudged UConn in 2013 from the Big East to the American Athletic. The Huskies are in the Final Four now for a lot of reasons, but the most foundational one is that they made that most unusual of college sports decisions: They picked basketball over football when they dropped out of the American in 2020, made their football team a nomad, and returned home to the basketball-centric Big East. Most schools wouldn’t make that decision, because they don’t prioritize basketball that way.
And yet! UConn figured itself out, not just by going back to a reformed Big East but by hiring a good head coach, Dan Hurley, away from Rhode Island in 2018. Hurley built a good staff and restored a program that had gone into the tank in weird fashion under its former coach, Kevin Ollie. (The school fired Ollie and tried to pin NCAA violations on him in order to avoid paying his buyout. It did not work.) Hurley has built his machine gradually, and everything has clicked this year. The Huskies are great. They have risen to the No. 1 spot in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency ratings, and they have one of the best big men in the game in center Adama Sanogo. They don’t historically recruit like a mega-elite school, but maybe that’s changing. Next season’s freshman class is ranked fourth nationally. Plus, UConn has three national titles this century. Perhaps the Huskies are a legit Goliath to the David of every team left. That’s normally how you’d think of a multi-time national champion that recruits the way Hurley is recruiting now.
The Huskies’ semifinal opponent, Miami, is a solid team and a fun basketball hang. The U ranks fifth in adjusted efficiency on offense (good!) and 104th on defense (not great!) and thus plays in lots of high-powered, back-and-forth games. One can treat the Canes like an out-of-nowhere Final Four underdog, which isn’t far from the mark, even though they were the top finisher in the ACC standings and had the conference’s player of the year, guard Isaiah Wong. One could also just stare at the whole spectacle of Miami basketball in mesmerization. Wong publicly threatened to leave the team before the season if friends of the school didn’t pay him more. In very Miami fashion, the school was also the first to get in NCAA trouble for violations related to name, image, and likeness payments—and in very NCAA fashion, it was the women’s team that got hit, despite the overwhelming majority of payments happening in the men’s game. Miami is an odd place, an entity unlike anything else in college sports, and it’s nice for a change to see a Miami team on this big stage.
In the other semi, San Diego State is a redemption story packaged as a Cinderella. They’re a mid-major, for now, but they’ve gotten great players, most prominently Kawhi Leonard for two seasons between 2009 and 2011. The Aztecs have missed just one tournament since coach Brian Dutcher took over in 2017. The trouble was that they couldn’t actually win a game in the tournament, and their best-looking team was 30–2 when a new virus called COVID-19 canceled 2020’s tournament. SDSU is a throwback, built on depth, experience, and defense. SDSU is fourth in defensive adjusted efficiency and second in three-point percentage allowed at just 27.8. No. 1 seed Alabama had by far its worst shooting night of the season when SDSU eliminated it in the Sweet 16. Lots of teams seem to have their worst offensive performances when going against the Aztecs.
FAU’s appearance is more stunning. The Owls have no basketball history that most people would find worth speaking of. The school has never put a player in the NBA, and it’s only made periodic noise in lower-level conferences. The school has long had big football ambitions. It founded a program in 2001, hired legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger to run it for a bit, later built a nice stadium, and had a couple of 11-win seasons in the last six years. But FAU basketball? What in the heavens? The Owls have been great all year. Their 35–3 record is the best in the land. Guard Johnell Davis is a monster. But it still feels so sudden and will probably never happen again. So let’s enjoy it as the boys from Boca Raton give their school the most prolific national profile it’s ever had or will have.
There is a lot to be said for a Final Four in which the most famous programs and coaches slug it out, and this year’s probably will not touch North Carolina sending Mike Krzyzewski into retirement in the most humbling way possible before falling to Kansas after the biggest title-game comeback ever. But these four teams feel like a lovely combination. UConn is full-on elite by any measure. Miami is fun to look at. SDSU and FAU are mid-majors that are good enough to be threats even at this late juncture. This collection of teams has considerably more variety than what the Final Four normally gets, and college hoops can use some spice from time to time, too.