Final chapter: Teams set, storylines aplenty at NCAA Men’s Final Four

Mark Sears, named the West Region MVP, lifts the trophy high after leading Alabama to its first-ever Final Four appearance. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Depending on which team emerges with a national championship, the 2024 NCAA Men’s Final Four will unfold as a story of redemption, relationships, a repeat or maybe something remarkable.

Purdue, which suffered an embarrassing first-round loss in 2023, is seeking redemption. Alabama is coached by Nate Oats, who has long-standing ties to his semifinal opponent. Connecticut is seeking to become the first repeat champion since Florida in 2007 and 2008.

And, as it has before, 11th-seeded North Carolina State hopes to write a remarkable storybook ending.

For the first time since 2017, State Farm Stadium – the usual home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals – rolls out the grass for lays down the hardwood where the Connecticut Huskies (35-3), Alabama Crimson Tide (25-11), Purdue Boilermakers (33-4), and North Carolina State Wolfpack (26-14), will battle it out in the final act of the 85th NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

UConn enters the weekend having laid down a path of destruction. The Huskies, who have beaten each of their four NCAA Tournament opponents by 25 points or more, are an overwhelming favorite to win it all again, an expectation coach Dan Hurley believes his team has earned.

“As defending national champs and what we’ve done since last February and how we’ve played in this tournament, we feel like we’ve earned a certain level of respect from media and opposing players when they face us right now because we’ve been that good,” Hurley said.

The Huskies, who won the East Region as the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, will face No. 4 seed Alabama in the second semifinal game on Saturday, April 6 following a clash between the Final Four’s other No. 1 seed, Purdue, and the Wolfpack.

While Alabama is making its first trip to the Final Four in program history and NC State and Purdue are making their first appearance this century, the stage is familiar to Connecticut.

The Huskies won their seventh regional title last Saturday, continuing a stretch of unprecedented postseason dominance. Dating back to their title run that concluded with the program’s fifth national championship a year ago, Hurley’s team has now won 10 consecutive March Madness games by at least 13 or more points, the longest such winning streak by double-digit margins in tournament history.

Connecticut returned two starters from the team that celebrated last year, All-American point guard Tristen Newton and stretch-forward Alex Karaban, as well as talented newcomers in freshman sensation Stephon Castle, and transfer-portal addition Cam Spencer.

Yet, the spotlight of the squad shines on sophomore center Donovan Clingan. Serving as a critical role player in the Huskies’ 2023 run, the 7-foot-2 behemoth moved seamlessly into the starting lineup in his second year and averaged 13 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, anchoring the outright Big East Conference champions.

Clingan only turned his play up a notch in the Big Dance. The Connecticut native was named the East Region’s Most Outstanding Player after notching 22 points, 10 rebounds, and five blocks in UConn’s 77-52 Elite Eight rout of No. 3 Illinois. Having grown up in the shadow of UConn’s Gampel Pavilion, Clingan has recognized a boyhood dream in his collegiate career and looks to add another milestone to it in Phoenix.

UConn forward Samson Johnson blocks an Illinois shot in the second half of the NCAA East Regional Elite 8 game at TD Garden. The Huskies are one of the teams that will play in Glendale this weekend. (Photo by Danielle Parhizkaran/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

UConn forward Samson Johnson blocks an Illinois shot in the second half of the NCAA East Regional Elite 8 game at TD Garden. The Huskies are one of the teams that will play in Glendale this weekend. (Photo by Danielle Parhizkaran/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

“I grew up dreaming of playing for the University of Connecticut,” Clingan said last Saturday. “So to be able to wear this jersey every single day and play for such a historic and special program and insert myself – and my teammates inserting themselves – into history, it’s special.”

Alabama’s football program is familiar with State Farm Stadium, having played there in the College Football Playoff, but it’s new territory for the Crimson Tide basketball program, which faces the task of facing Clingan and the Husky Express.

The Tide has emerged as a national power on the court in recent years thanks to a home run coaching hire. Oats, formerly an assistant of ASU’s Bobby Hurley at Buffalo, took over in Tuscaloosa in 2019 and transformed a program that had missed four of the last five NCAA Tournaments.

Implementing an efficiency-based offense that maximizes point value at the rim and beyond the arc, Oats led Alabama to the Sweet Sixteen in 2021. The Crimson Tide earned the program’s first No. 1 seed in last year’s tournament but bowed out to eventual finalist San Diego State in the second weekend.

After the loss of top-three NBA Draft pick Brandon Miller, senior point guard Mark Sears led Alabama to another strong season as the SEC’s second-leading scorer. With Sears and athletic guards Rylan Griffen and Aaron Estrada on the perimeter and near 7-footer Grant Nelson in the middle, Alabama paced the country in scoring offense at 90 points per game this season.

Unlike years past, the Tide were able to ride their scorers in a postseason breakthrough, toppling No. 1 North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen and carrying that momentum into an 89-82 victory over No. 6 Clemson to clinch the program’s first trip to the Final Four.

“Being from Alabama, the state of Alabama, and to do it with this group of guys, it’s amazing,” Sears said.

For Oats, the imminent face-off with Hurley’s Huskies has special meaning. He got his start in the college ranks from Hurley’s brother, Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley, as an assistant at Buffalo. And Arizona State is the host school of this Final Four.

“It’s ironic I get to coach against Danny,” Oats said. “I don’t know if “get” is the correct word, because they’ve got a pretty good team. But I’m in the Final Four and get to go against Danny, who helped me get in this thing – obviously, Bobby is the one who hired me. But the two of those guys kind of came into college together and have been great to me the whole time.”

On the other side of the bracket, the Purdue Boilermakers are now two wins away from completing the ultimate revenge story. Like the Virginia Cavaliers in 2018-2019, Matt Painter’s club arrives at the Final Four seeking its first national championship in the wake of total embarrassment the year before.

Purdue became only the second No. 1 seed in the history of the tournament to fall to a No. 16 seed in 2023. Fueled by that historic defeat, Purdue brought back National Player of the Year Zach Edey, who imposes his will on every game with his solid 7-foot-4 frame.

Edey led the nation in scoring, averaging 25 points per game while grabbing 12.2 rebounds in the process. Supporting Edey down low is the nation’s top three-point shooting offense. An array of sharpshooters such as Braden Smith, Fletcher Loyer, and Lance Jones have created defensive nightmares for opponents all season.

They shot the lights out in its first three games of the tournament, but it was Edey who willed his team to the Final Four with a career-high 40 points in Purdue’s 72-66 clinching victory over No. 2 Tennessee.

Having been at the helm of Purdue basketball since 2005, Painter was overwhelmed with pride after the Boilermakers’ first regional title in 44 years.

“To be able to get to a Final Four is a dream come true for me as a coach and for these guys as players,” Painter said Sunday. “Just grateful to be in this position.”

It is particularly rewarding for Edey, and gives him an opportunity to add an exclamation point to a stellar college career. But it was Painter who Edey was thinking about after the Boilermakers advanced.

“Obviously, we’ve watched teams kind of have this feeling and this experience for the last three years,” Edey said. “And now to be able to go through it ourselves, for me to have payback for Coach Paint for really believing in me, it’s amazing.”

The stage is set for the Men’s Final Four with UConn, Purdue, NC State and Alabama coming to the Valley. (Photo by Joe Eigo/Cronkite News)

The stage is set for the Men’s Final Four with UConn, Purdue, NC State and Alabama coming to the Valley. (Photo by Joe Eigo/Cronkite News)

In true David versus Goliath fashion, mighty Purdue will be matched up with NC State’s Cinderella Wolfpack. Entering conference championship week, NC State was a middling 17-14 and the 10th seed in the ACC Tournament, needing a miracle just to get into the NCAA bracket.

What they got was five days of madness, as Kevin Keatts’s group became just the second program in NCAA history to win their conference tournament, and thus the automatic bid, with five wins in as many days.

Taking down ACC powerhouses Duke, Virginia, and North Carolina en route to the conference title, the Wolfpack stayed in stride in the NCAA, upsetting No. 6 Texas Tech, then No. 2 Marquette before beating No. 4 Duke again in the Elite Eight.

“These young men in the locker room, through all the adversity that we have, the ups and downs of winning games and losing games, they never lost their faith and stayed together,” Keatts said following Sunday’s victory. “It means a lot. It really does.”

The Wolfpack seem to be channeling the 1983 NC State team, the school’s last to reach the Final Four. That team made a nearly identical, improbable run over the last three weeks to win the NCAA championship.

Coached by the legendary Jim Valvano, the Wolfpack pulled off upsets of a Michael Jordan-led North Carolina team, as well as Ralph Sampson and Virginia to steal the ACC tournament championship that season.

Not stopping there, the “Cardiac Pack” miraculously kept the run going to the Final Four, where they would shock the world with a buzzer-beating victory over Houston’s “Phi Slamma Jamma” Cougars to win the national championship and finish off one of the great underdog stories in the history of sports.

Can lightning strike twice?

The Wolfpack’s Cinderella II story could depend on a pair of DJs: DJ Burns and DJ Horne.

Formerly a star guard at Arizona State, Horne transferred to his native Raleigh, North Carolina and led the team in scoring and three-point shooting. Super senior DJ Burns has captured the hearts of fans nationwide with his big body, big personality and even bigger play in the paint as the South Region’s Most Outstanding Player.

His matchup with Edey will be must-see TV, at least for those who don’t have Final Four tickets.

Hosting college basketball’s grand finale for the first time since North Carolina cut the nets down in 2017, and with no shortage of storylines surrounding the event this year, tickets to the Final Four are in high demand.

Ticket prices for the semifinal games on Saturday start at more than $300, with an all-session ticket, including Monday’s title game, going for a minimum of $680 on Ticketmaster. Championship game prices are sure to change following Saturday’s results, but the get-in price for the final game of the season stands at $165 as of Monday afternoon.

With the weather forecast detailing temperatures in the high 60s under sunny skies, Phoenix has become a destination vacation for college basketball fans this weekend.

But only one team will author a national championship story and celebrate in the confetti.

“Everybody dreams of this as a young basketball player,” Clingan said on Saturday. “Don’t take any moment for granted; go out and give it everything you’ve got.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Scott Sandulli expects to graduate in May 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Sandulli has interned as a staff writer for affiliates of Rivals and SB Nation

Bennett Silvyn BEH-nit SIL-vin
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Bennett Silvyn expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business, marketing and sports management. Silvyn has interned in marketing and social media for the Arizona Sports and Entertainment Commission, as a reporter for Arizona Foothills Magazine, in sponsorships for the Arizona Rattlers and in social and digital media for FC Tucson. Silvyn has also reported for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network and The State Press.

Joe Eigo joe EYE-go (he/him)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Joe Eigo expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Eigo is in his third semester at Cronkite News. He has previously worked with Inferno Intel, WCSN, The State Press and The Racing Experts.