March Madness: Ranking the men’s Final Four starters from 1 to 20

By | April 3, 2024

In recent years, we’ve heard men’s basketball coaches complain that they can no longer build a title contender based on one-and-done prospects, that the value of a five-star freshman has diminished.

Consider this Final Four confirmation of that theory.

Only one team has a freshman in its starting five. UConn’s Stephon Castle is the Huskies’ fifth leading scorer.

Twelve of the twenty Final Four starters have transferred at least once. Some are already playing for their third program.

More than half of the Final Four starters are seniors. The average age of each team’s starters is over 21 years old.

The Final Four begins Saturday at 6:09 PM ET in Glendale, Ariz., with Purdue trying to end NC State’s charmed run, followed by a clash between UConn and Alabama. Here’s an attempt to rank the starters from all four teams from 1 to 20:

For a man who insisted he felt “no pressure” To help Purdue shed the unwanted tag of underachiever in March and reach its first Final Four in 44 years, Edey certainly had a visceral reaction after beating Tennessee in the Elite Eight. Edey, after beating Dalton Knecht and dropping 40 and 16 on the Vols, addressed Purdue’s legion of haters with CBS sideline reporter Evan Washburn: “They thought they knew us, man,” Edey began. “They thought they knew what we had in our hearts. I promise you they didn’t. We’re fucking winners. This is what we do.”

The best player in the NCAA Tournament? That is Edey, the two-time national player of the year. Best expectation in the NCAA tournament? That could be Clingan, who produced perhaps the best performance of his career in the Elite Eight. Illinois shot 3 of 25 inside the arc during Clingan’s 22 minutes, according to ESPN Stats & Info. In addition to his 22 points and 10 boards, Clingan changed the game with his rim protection. Clingan vs. Edey neck and neck in the national title match on Monday evening? Yes please.

The best guard left in this tournament is the small but mighty maestro of Alabama’s rushing attack. Sears is averaging more than 24 points per game in the NCAA Tournament and has made 17 of 38 attempts from behind the arc. Sometimes he plays point guard. Sometimes he’s off the ball. Either way, he’s looking for his opportunity.

The supposed weak link of UConn’s 2023 national title team has emerged as one of the best players on this year’s roster. Newton, a 2022 transfer from East Carolina, was named one of five finalists for the Wooden Award this week after averaging a team-high 15.0 points and 6.1 assists.

Just a few weeks ago, Burns was the little-known second-leading scorer on an NC State team with 14 losses heading into the NIT. Now he’s the smiling face of this NCAA tournament, a star so big that none other than Nikola Jokic was glued to the TV last Sunday night and was late to his post-game press conference as a result. “He’s great,” Jokic told reporters. “I think he’s so skilled.”

This is not the same Smith who sputtered to the finish line last March while showing signs of fatigue and waning confidence. The all-Big Ten point guard is averaging 9.5 assists per game in the NCAA Tournament and added 14 points in the Boilermakers’ Sweet 16 win over Gonzaga last Friday. As the shot clock ticks down, Purdue wants the ball put into Smith’s hands.

Dan Hurley originally recruited Spencer to fill the void left by Jordan Hawkins. The idea was for Spencer to run around screens, bury jumpers and increase the defense’s gravity. What Hurley also got was a kindred spirit. Spencer is the rare player who is as fiery, passionate and driven as Hurley.

8. Alex Karaban, F, UConn

Here’s a perfect example of why UConn is the overwhelming favorite to win the national title: The Huskies’ effort never wanes. Not only did Karaban force Illinois’ Marcus Domask into a tough shot last Saturday, the UConn sophomore then sprinted past a jogging Domask to create a transition opportunity.

9. DJ Horne, G, NC State

He may now be known as the “other DJ” at NC State, but Horne has been the Wolfpack’s best player for most of this season. The 6-foot-4 Raleigh native is averaging 16.8 points and shooting over 40% from behind the arc. He was at his best in NC State’s toughest games, scoring 29 points against North Carolina in the ACC title game and a combined 39 against Marquette and Duke in the South Region semifinals and final.

10. Stephon Castle, UConn

The tall, athletic UConn wing is the only freshman caliber to make it to this Final Four. His three-point shot is a work in progress, but he’s already a perimeter stopper and a slasher who can do things like this when he gets to the rim:

Even though Estrada is now the second-leading scorer on an SEC team that is two wins away from a national title, the former Hofstra standout still has the mentality of an overlooked recruit with a chip on his shoulder. “I’ve been doubted, under-recruited and looked down upon my entire life,” Estrada said after Alabama’s Elite Eight win over Clemson. “That just provided more fuel.”

12. Lance Jones, G, Purdue

When Matt Painter assessed his program after last year’s horrific loss to Fairleigh Dickinson, the Purdue coach came away convinced the Boilermakers needed another ballhandler and a lockdown perimeter defender. Enter Jones, a transfer from Southern Illinois who has taken the pressure off Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer and improved Purdue’s supporting cast around Edey this season.

13. Rylan Griffen, G, Alabama

On one side of Alabama’s victorious locker room, Nick Pringle cradled the West Regional trophy like a baby on Saturday night. On the other hand, Griffen showed off a shiny Alabama-themed championship belt sent to Alabama from the WWE. An excited Griffen said, “This is almost better than the trophy!”

14. Fletcher Loyer, G, Purdue

Forty-four years in the making, and Loyer botched the moment.

Luckily for Purdue, the second-year sharpshooter was better when it counted, drilling six of his 13 attempts from behind the arc.

15. Mohammed Diarra, F, NC State

Look no further than Diarra if you’re trying to understand why NC State has been so much better since the postseason began. Diarra recorded four double-doubles in 31 regular season games. Then the ACC Tournament started and he turned into Ben Wallace 2.0, with seven double-digit scoring games and five double-doubles, all while fasting until sunset for Ramadan.

16. Grant Nelson, F, Alabama

The unlikely hero of Alabama’s Sweet 16 disaster in North Carolina comes from a town so remote that even other North Dakotans say it’s in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t until the summer before Nelson’s senior year of high school that he first attracted interest from colleges in the state. Now he’s one of the pillars of Alabama’s run to its first Final Four.

17. Casey Morsell, G, NC State

The long-armed fifth-year does a little bit of everything for NC State. He is the Wolfpack’s emotional leader, third leading scorer and best perimeter defender. He has shown the ability to burst for big numbers at times, putting up 28 points against BYU and 25 against Louisville earlier this season.

18. Trey Kaufman-Renn, F, Purdue

The highest-rated recruit at Purdue? Believe it or not, it’s Kaufman-Renn. The former top 40 prospect and runner-up Indiana Mr. Basketball in 2021, redshirted as a true freshman and bided his time last season. He has shown great potential this season playing alongside Edey or in his place. Kaufman-Renn is a big reason why the Boilermakers could be back in the title mix a year from now.

19. Nick Pringle, F, Alabama

Pringle was inserted into Alabama’s starting five after sharpshooting guard Latrell Wrightsell went down with an injury, and has brought a semblance of rim protection to an Alabama team that hasn’t had it all season. Charles Bediako isn’t, but Pringle plays with grit and energy, rebounds and has presence in the court.

20. Michael O’Connell, G, NC State

It’s a testament to the strength of these four teams that O’Connell is last on this list. He scored at least 10 points in all five of NC State’s ACC Tournament wins. His three-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime against Virginia in the ACC semifinals kept the Wolfpack’s season alive and paved the way for this unlikely story.

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