Final Four: Last year’s Bluebloods are this year’s no-names

HOUSTON (AP) — A short year ago, college basketball was gearing up for the game of its lifetime: North Carolina versus Duke in the Final Four.

And this year? Well, to put it politely, who the hell are these guys?

The NCAA tournamentthe annual event that told the tale of underdogs and broken braces, sold and turned into marketing gold, has produced an extreme rendition of what’s happening when for 2023 all the cherished unpredictability plays itself out.

There will be San Diego State versus Florida Atlantic in a Final Four meeting on Saturday. In the other, it will be Miami vs. UConn.

“I expect the forecasters to take us fifth in the Final Four,” Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May said, alluding to the fact that no one really expected the Owls or any of these teams to be here would be.

Of the four programs airing in Houston this week, only one has ever sniffed a Final Four before. It’s the first time this has happened in 53 years.

With four national titles and some famous names from the past including Jim Calhoun, Kemba Walker and Rip Hamilton, the name “Connecticut” should certainly ring a bell, though it may not quite trespass into blue-blood territory.

Miami? That was a program that was literally shelved for 14 years in the 1970s and 1980s due to a lack of interest. The school was too busy building a football program that would become (notorious) for winning with panache.

May Florida Atlantic Program? It’s a relatively new kid on the block, a Division I member since 1993, who’s based in the senior community of Boca Raton, a place known more for its 4:30 dinner specials than its 7:00 p.m. tips is known.

State of San Diego? In her defence, maybe this shouldn’t be the Aztecs’ first Final Four. In 2020, they were 30-2 and generally No. 1 seeded, though still an underdog for a stacked Kansas team that was the favorite. Then COVID hit and wiped this season off the boards.

“There are a lot of really good teams in college basketball, and the difference between winning and losing is razor thin,” said Brian Dutcher, San Diego State coach.

Will anyone aside from the truest diehards bother to watch?

As of Thursday, a pair of seats in the nosebleed section for Saturday’s doubleheader — the most anticipated day on the college hoop calendar — cost around $100 each in the secondary market. A year ago, shortly after the Duke Carolina match was settled, the average price for the same seats almost doubled to $800 per ticket.

There was much debate, and even some hand-wringing, about how one of America’s biggest sporting events spawned a 4-seed, two 5s and a 9 — for a total of 23 seeds, which is the second-highest in history — which together boast not a single McDonald’s All- American still a consensus top 30 recruit.

The transfer portal, which allows players to come and go from school to school without having to take a year off, is perhaps the best explanation. Miami coach Jim Larranaga called it basketball’s form of “speed dating,” a get-rich-quick scheme that, with the right timing, chemistry, and luck, can make a roster very good (or very bad) very quickly.

A few other possibilities: an NCAA selection committee, which some say is detached from reality; the ever-changing landscape caused by Name-Image-Likeness (NIL) deals that give players more influence (and money); and of course a plethora of flawed teams – including Alabama, Houston and Kansas – which were overrated and placed at the top of the heap this year.

But before jumping to any big conclusions about matchups like this becoming the “new normal” in the Final Four, former Duke star and current TV analyst Jay Bilas reminds us that we’re just 365 days from a completely different one kind of meetings are removed.

“I love the ones with the stories about how you don’t need those McDonalds guys to win,” Bilas said. “Okay, so don’t recruit the best players and see how that goes for you. I just don’t understand how it all comes about.”

A year ago the tournament felt perfect. The country got its dose of Cinderella – namely, when 15 Saint Peter’s seeds ran into the Elite Eight for the first time of their kind. Then a sense of perfectly timed normality took over.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski retired from the Final Four the end took on none other than arch-rivals North Carolina. Kansas and Villanova joined those power programs in New Orleans last year, two other great programs in the country with seven national titles. The starting total for these four teams: 13, with most of that coming from the Tar Heels, who came in as an 8 after beating Saint Pete’s.

So, will 2023 be remembered as the year chaos took hold forever, or just a minor blip along the way while all those Jayhawks and Blue Devils reload?

“This tournament is about a lot of different things for a lot of different people,” said Bilas. “Some people love it for the braces, some people love it for the basketball. But no matter who is in the Final Four, the bandwagon is always open and you can jump on it whenever you want.”


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