Can UConn be beaten? Here’s how the three other remaining Final Four men’s teams compare

By | April 1, 2024

On the eve of his team’s Elite Eight game with Illinois, UConn head coach Dan Hurley came across a series of tweets from a little-known former Illini player.

Sean Harrington, now an ESPN analyst, wrote on X that UConn “hasn’t faced a team as athletic and physical” as Illinois. He added that Terrence Shannon Jr. “will be the best player on the floor” and that UConn “doesn’t have a good answer for him.”

For most coaches, criticism from a backup guard who last played for Illinois 21 years ago would be easy to ignore. For Hurley, even the smallest disrespect is fuel for him and his players, more ammunition to fight complacency.

Hurley mentioned Harrington’s comments without prompting Saturday night after UConn clinched a return trip to the Final Four with a 77-52 mauling of Illinois. Calling what Harrington said “just stupid,” Hurley told reporters in Boston, “You fight beasts and monsters every night in the Big East, and the Big East has prepared us for teams like Illinois.”

Stories like these illustrate why UConn will arrive in Phoenix later this week as an overwhelming favorite to repeat as national champions. Not only do the Huskies have an entire rotation of future professionals and a system that maximizes their individual talents. They also have a head coach with a Michael Jordan-like knack for fabricating perceived slights and keeping players hungry.

The next speed bump on UConn’s road to back-to-back titles is an Alabama team that has unexpected contributions from a trio of role players in its first Final Four appearance in program history. On the other side of the standings are No. 1 seed Purdue and rising No. 11 seed NC State, both of which clinched their spots in the Final Four with memorable Elite Eight victories on Sunday.

Led by center Donovan Clingan (32), UConn has battled its way through the NCAA tournament thus far.  Can anyone challenge the Huskies in the Final Four?  (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)Led by center Donovan Clingan (32), UConn has battled its way through the NCAA tournament thus far.  Can anyone challenge the Huskies in the Final Four?  (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

A year ago, UConn stormed through the NCAA tournament, winning all six games played by at least 13 points. Only three of the Huskies’ top eight players from that team return, yet they are undeniably even better this year.

They are 35-3. They have lost just once since Christmas. They have held leads of 30 points or more in each of their first four NCAA Tournament games. They fooled Illinois into believing it had a chance for nearly 20 minutes Saturday, then reeled off a whopping 30 unanswered points to bury the 29-win Big Ten tournament champions.

UConn has been so dominant that the obvious question going into next weekend’s Final Four is whether the Huskies are inevitable. Below are the three challengers hoping to dethrone the kings of college basketball, and an assessment of the major threat each poses.

Alabama (25-11)

How it got here: Defeated Charleston (13), Grand Canyon (12), North Carolina (1), Clemson (6)

Just three weeks ago, after a 102-88 SEC quarterfinal loss to Florida, Alabama coach Nate Oats challenged his team to take more pride in their defense. The fast, free-flowing Tide had given up 100 or more points in three of its previous six games.

“These guys are going to have to decide how much they want to win in the NCAA tournament,” Oats said. “If we don’t change, we won’t play too many games at this point.”

Alabama has been only marginally better defensively in four NCAA tournament games, but the Tide have made up for it with an offensive attack. They are shooting 41.4% from behind the arc and punishing opponents on the offensive glass and in transition. West Regional MVP Mark Sears has been the constant, but each night different role players have stepped up to support him — even an 18-year-old freshman who should still be a senior in high school by now.

It’s hard to imagine Alabama putting up much resistance against UConn’s ultra-efficient offense on Saturday. Alabama’s perimeter defenders have struggled to force turnovers or consistently stay in front of their man without making mistakes, and Nick Pringle doesn’t provide enough rim protection to make up for it.

Still, the number of threes Alabama shoots can be the equalizer — and an effective way to neutralize Donovan Clingan’s rim protection. If the Tide strikes from behind the arc and trades threes for twos, they might be able to stay within striking distance.

Threat level for UConn: Unlikely but not impossible.

NC State (26-14)

How it got here: Texas Tech (6), Oakland (14), Marquette (2), Duke (4)

In early March, NC State wasn’t even considered a realistic threat to make the NCAA tournament after losing seven of its last nine regular-season games.

Now the Wolfpack have clinched a spot in the Final Four.

The charmed run began with NC State winning five win-or-go-home games in five days to capture the ACC tournament title and the league’s automatic NCAA bid. Then the 11th-seeded Wolfpack continued to win, eliminating Texas Tech, trailing Oakland in overtime and outsmarting Marquette from start to finish.

The victory that will go down in NCAA Tournament history is Sunday’s 76-64 Elite Eight stunner to topple longtime ACC rival Duke. Huge but agile center DJ Burns extended his run in the NCAA Tournament spotlight, scoring 29 points to lead NC State’s rally from a six-point halftime deficit.

Look, NC State doesn’t have the same talent as UConn. It also doesn’t match up particularly well with Purdue. And yet, how can you count on a team for this kind of heating? If you want to get a full Kemba, why not finish him against UConn?

Threat level for UConn: Count out DJ Burns at your own risk.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - MARCH 31: Zach Edey #15 of the Purdue Boilermakers celebrates their victory against the Tennessee Volunteers during the Elite Eight round of the 2024 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament held at Little Caesars Arena on March 31, 2024 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)DETROIT, MICHIGAN - MARCH 31: Zach Edey #15 of the Purdue Boilermakers celebrates their victory against the Tennessee Volunteers during the Elite Eight round of the 2024 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament held at Little Caesars Arena on March 31, 2024 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Purdue (33-4)

How it got here: Defeated Grambling State (16), Utah State (8), Gonzaga (5), Tennessee (2)

Shortly after his team’s Chernobyl-level collapse in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year, Matt Painter grappled with a complex question: How do you fix what might not be broken? Is there an adjustment for a program that annually cruises from November until conference tournament time, only to find itself in a ditch when the spotlight shines brightest?

Painter’s response, after evaluating every aspect of his program, was to resist the temptation to overreact. Instead, he tinkered around the edges, adding Southern Illinois forward Lance Jones as a defensive specialist and secondary ball handler and exploring ways to keep his players mentally and physically fresh in March.

That level-headed approach last season paved the way for Purdue’s current redemption tour. The same players who flopped in the first round against Fairleigh Dickinson shed the label of underachievers in March and took Purdue to its first Final Four in 44 years.

A Purdue-UConn title game would be a matchup between the two best teams in men’s basketball this season. Can Zach Edey get Clingan into big trouble? Could Clingan slow down the two-time National Player of the Year? How would Hurley and Painter attack each other’s teams schematically?

Repetition versus redemption. This is the game all neutral observers want to see.

Threat level for UConn: Significant. This Purdue team would be the title favorite for many other years.

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