The NCAA men’s tournament field has been whittled from 68 to four in a matter of two weeks of postseason games. The remaining quartet arrive in Houston with just one of the top 16 seeds remaining. That school, No. 4 Connecticut, will be joined by three first-time Final Four participants – No. 5 seeds San Diego State and Miami (Florida) and No. 9 Florida Atlantic.
With schools having significantly less pedigree than the usual stage at this point, there is an expectation of unpredictability for the two national semifinals that will take place Saturday. Any of the four could advance and ultimately win this year’s championship.
Our staff provides their picks for the semifinal showdowns.
Florida Atlantic vs. San Diego State
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The matchup seems to favor San Diego State’s defense. The Aztecs are superb at defending the perimeter and slowing down wing players, while the Owls’ offense is largely built around guard play. That’s not to say FAU can’t get into the paint and score, but SDSU has the personnel and scheme to control the tempo and win a close game. San Diego State 61, Florida Atlantic 55.
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The size of San Diego State is going to cause some issues for Florida Atlantic, which will counter with center Vladislav Goldin as its lone option inside. However, the Owls still have a good opportunity to continue their unlikely run because of their balance and athleticism in the backcourt and ability to seize control of the game in the final minutes that they have shown all postseason. Unfortunately, they come up a bit short. San Diego State 60, Florida Atlantic 58.
It’s been a great run, Owls. It truly has. But this San Diego State defense that shut down Alabama is just too good and too deep, and one has to think Matt Bradley will snap out of his mini scoring slump. It will be close, and it will probably not produce tons of points, but in the end the Aztecs will get a few more. San Diego State 68, Florida Atlantic 63.
The Aztecs have maxed out with this run, and their lack of offense will ultimately catch up to them on this stage. The Owls aren’t a fluke, and the group of teams they’ve beaten to get here is impressive. Florida Atlantic 68, San Diego State 63.
Connecticut vs. Miami
It seems like only a cold spell can stop the red-hot Huskies. But Miami’s backcourt is capable of taking this game over should they repackage that second half of the regional final against Texas. Will Isaiah Wong and Nijel Pack show up in tandem? If not, the Huskies’ combo of Adama Sanogo and Jordan Hawkins might just run away with another win by 15 or more points. Connecticut 84, Miami 71.
No team has been more impressive in the postseason than Connecticut, which has run through Iona, Saint Mary’s, Arkansas and Gonzaga will relative ease. Miami presents a different challenge with its talented backcourt of Nijel Pack and Isaiah Wong plus the scoring of Jordan Miller. The Hurricanes are harder to defend than anyone the Huskies have faced. This shapes up as a fast-pace game where depth and the ability to consistently make shots is going to provide separation. Both teams thrive in this area, but Connecticut is better situated to play that game with their superior size. Connecticut 80, Miami 72.
UConn has certainly looked the part of the best team in the tournament. But the Hurricanes have been the most resilient. It is worth noting that from its No. 5 position on the bracket, Miami has faced the highest possible seed in each round of its regional and found a way to prevail. Playing the fourth-seeded Huskies is not exactly a break, of course, but this scrappy Miami team won’t be overwhelmed. Miami 76, Connecticut 74.
The Hurricanes have enough offense to score with the Huskies, but UConn’s activity and size ultimately will wear down a Miami team that isn’t particularly deep. UConn gets its first real tough game of the tournament but pulls through late. Connecticut 79, Miami 72