#5 Miami Hurricanes vs #4 UCONN Huskies
As a general rule of thumb, guard play is one of the top predictors of success in the NCAA Tournament. Not only is it important to have guards that can control the game and get a team into their offense, but possibly more importantly, it’s more difficult as a defense to keep a guy from getting going if he has the ball in his hands a lot. For that reason alone, Miami has to feel good about their roster with only (a possible) two games to play. Every player on their squad that averages even 5 points per game is a guard except for Norchard Ormier, who is a 6’7” forward. If guard play wins games in March, Jim Larranaga’s squad is full of them. On their way to Miami’s first Final Four appearance of all time, guards Isaiah Wong, Jordan Miller, Nijel Pack have all had at least one tournament game scoring 21 or more points, and Wooga Poplar hasn’t been a slouch, being in double figures himself for three of the four games. Having that kind of balance allows Miami the luxury of being able to weather a bad game from one of their top players because someone else can (and often does) step up.
On the flip side, UCONN comes at you with size to supplement their stellar guard play. Adama Sanogo has had one heck of a tournament run thus far, as the 6’9” forward has averaged 20 points, 9.75 rebounds, and 1.25 blocks per contest on 65% shooting from the field during the tournament. And if you throw out the blowout against Gonzaga where he went 3-11, those numbers go even higher. Sophomore Jordan Hawkins has been filling it up too, scoring 20 against Gonzaga and 24 against Arkansas the last two games. Miami’s guards are good, but Hawkins may be the best guard on the court. UCONN has arguably looked better than any other team in the tournament thus far (and including “arguably” in that sentence is probably being a bit too modest). Their complete dismantling of Gonzaga in their last game should send a message to everybody left in the field that they are the favorites from this point forward.
Keys to the Game
These two teams have very different lineups. Miami is going to use their speed and quickness to spread teams out and they play a faster pace than any other team left in the tournament. However, don’t think that they can only play in transition, because they still only rank 90th nationally in pace of play. They don’t turn the ball over much, so if they can spread UCONN out, and then force turnover on the other end, they have a chance. Meanwhile, UCONN will want to punish Miami’s lack of size by hammering them on the boards, and forcing Miami off the three point line and into tighter, more confined space where quickness can be more easily negated. Sanogo has a chance to be a true difference maker in this one, as his battles with Ormier could be huge. Another thing to keep an eye on is how UCONN uses freshman Donovan Clingan, their 7’2” center. They want to steal about 10-15 minutes a game with him and if he can do that without giving up too much defensively to this much smaller Hurricanes team, UCONN will be in good shape. If he can’t it could put pressure on UCONN to go away from the rotations that have worked in this tournament. And if Clingan can actively punish the smaller defenders, the game becomes extremely difficult for Miami from a matchup perspective. Ultimately, this game should come down to the style of play the two teams settle into. Miami needs to force UCONN into a lot of turnovers and hurt them in transition. However, UCONN generally makes good decisions with the ball and has not been turning the ball over as of late, so expect UCONN to move on to play for a title.
Score prediction: #4 UCONN 79 #5 Miami 66
#5 San Diego State Aztecs vs #9 Florida Atlantic Owls
Like Miami, San Diego State and Florida Atlantic are both making their first Final Four appearances. They did it in very different ways, however. San Diego has a veteran laden roster in which their top nine players are upperclassmen. They have a strong commitment to defense, holding opponents to fewer than 63 points per game. On the other hand, Florida Atlantic’s top four scorers are all sophomores and the Owls have lost only 3 games all season despite their youth. This will be a game of clashing styles, as Florida Atlantic is at their best when they can play a free flowing style of offense. They play excellent defense, but their balanced offensive attack has been crucial to their success. Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin have been the engines for the Owls’ tourney run. They are a young exciting team, and as a nine seed, are on one heck of a Cinderella run.
San Diego State is the opposite. They don’t care about getting into a track meet with you, they want to slowly choke the life out of you and kick dirt on your lifeless body. Their defense has allowed 57.25 points per game in the tournament, and it’s not like they’ve played poor offenses – they took down the number 7, 12, and 16 scoring offenses in the nation during that run. They only have one player, Matt Bradley, that averages double-digit scoring.
Keys to the Game
The biggest key is whether Florida Atlantic can get early offense and shots at the rim. If they can get those high percentage shots, they have a chance. If they can’t find a way to do that, they are going to have a long, painful day on the offensive end. Florida Atlantic is no slouch defensively either though, and with San Diego looking to turn the game into a rock fight, the Owls should be able to keep it a low scoring game on the other end as well. Ultimately, this has all the makings of the ugliest game of the tournament offensively. People that don’t appreciate defense will turn on the game and wonder how these two teams made it this far. Expect a low scoring affair with a ton of missed shots. If Alabama can only get 64 against SDSU, FAU will need to keep the Aztecs south of the 60 point mark to have a realistic chance to win.
Score Prediction: #5 San Diego State 61 #9 Florida Atlantic 47
Potential National Championship Matchup
#5 San Diego State vs #4 UCONN
UCONN is no stranger to deep tournament runs, and they are the favorites to win the whole thing this year. Meanwhile, SDSU coach Brian Dutcher is back in the Final Four for the first time since he was an assistant coaching the Fab Five at Michigan. As good as SDSU’s defense is, UCONN’s defense is just as efficient. It would be another defensive battle, but with enough veterans to keep it an interesting and enjoyable game on both ends.
Keys to the Game
It will likely be a slower paced game, so whichever team can be more efficient will have a major advantage. What likely puts UCONN over the top in this matchup is their elite rebounding. When you’re in a low possession game, extra possessions become even more impactful. If UCONN is able to get to the offensive glass, they could find themselves cracking the Aztec code. Either team could potentially win, but the Huskies are looking like world-beaters right now and matchup well with SDSU. Adama Sanogo could be the difference maker that puts them over the top and leaves Houston as MOP and UCONN’s 5th Championship.
Score Prediction: #4 UCONN 69 #5 San Diego State 63