ARIZONA BASKETBALL

Tall Final Four task: Beating reigning champion UConn will not be an easy task in Arizona

Apr 4, 2024, 7:53 AM

UConn looking to become first repeat champions since 2006-07 Florida Gators....

The Connecticut Huskies celebrate after defeating the Illinois Fighting Illini in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at TD Garden on March 30, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The 2024 version of March Madness has apexed with a trio of streak busters in the desert. N.C. State is in the Final Four for the first time since Jim Valvano ran around trying to find someone to hug after the 1983 national championship. Purdue and big man Zach Edey will make their first Final Four appearance since Joe Barry Carroll dominated the paint in 1980.

Alabama? Never been.

An angry pack of Huskies awaits them in the Valley of the Sun.

Dominating on its way to a fifth national championship a year ago, UConn has looked even more unbeatable so far in its run to become the first repeat champion since Florida in 2006-07.

“Our defense is elite. Our offense is elite. We rebound the ball,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “These guys play every possession like it’s the end of the world.”

The Huskies have done nothing but end opponents’ hopes through consecutive dominating March runs.

UConn steamrolled its way through the 2023 bracket, winning each game by at least 13 points. That was the best since Indiana in 1981.

These Huskies may be better.

With 7-foot-2 Donovan Clingan in the middle and talent across the roster, UConn won its first four NCAA Tournament games by an average of 27.7 points. The Huskies made Illinois look like a JV team in the Elite Eight, reeling off 30 — yes, 30 — straight points in a 77-52 victory to become the first reigning champion to reach the Final Four since Florida’s consecutive titles.

Knocking off UConn will be a monumental task in Glendale, Arizona, starting with Alabama in the semifinals Saturday.

“His (Hurley’s) formula is working out pretty well,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “I’m going to have to figure out that formula myself here soon.”

Who could challenge UConn in the Final Four?

Oats already has sorted a few things figured out.

The Crimson Tide lost in the Sweet 16 last season, then most of its roster. Oats had three returning players and replaced three assistants who left for head coaching jobs.

Playing fast and letting 3s fly from all over, Alabama led the nation in scoring during the regular season and has kept up the pace in March. Led by heady, gritty point guard Mark Sears, the Crimson Tide scored at least 89 points in three of four NCAA Tournament games, including 109 in the opener against Charleston.

Alabama reached its first Final Four by making 16 3-pointers in an 89-82 win over Clemson in the Elite Eight.

“Guys bought in — we can make this run, other teams have done it,” Oats said. “We have the capability to do it.”

The first national semifinal on Saturday will be big — as in more than 14 feet and 575 pounds of men in the paint.

Purdue has college basketball’s most unstoppable force in Edey.

At 7-4, he didn’t need a ladder to cut down the nets in Detroit and has the skill to go with his size. Edey was the AP national player of the year last year and the front-runner to become the first player to repeat since Virginia’s Ralph Sampson earned it three straight years from 1980-83.

Edey has been nearly unguardable in the NCAA Tournament, becoming the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) in 1968 to have at least 50 points and 35 rebounds while shooting 65% from the field the first two games of an NCAA Tournament.

Edey topped that with a career-high 40 points and 16 rebounds in a 72-66 win over Tennessee that sent the Boilermakers to the Final Four a year after making history by losing to a No. 16 seed.

“Zach’s got a competitive fight to him. He doesn’t back down,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “When you have that elite physical size and you have that competitive spirit with it, with some skill, it’s pretty dangerous. He’s pretty hard to handle.”

So is N.C. State’s DJ Burns Jr.

The 6-9, 275-pounder has a big-sized game and a personality to go with it. He’s the focal point of the Wolfpack offense and opponents have yet to find a way to stop him.

Burns has great footwork, a soft touch and vision to find the open man nearly every time. Combined with the team’s other DJ, Arizona State transfer DJ Horne, N.C. State won five games in five days just to get into the NCAA Tournament and kept rolling into the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

“DJ Burns has been around for a long time, but his personality, his play has really opened eyes of a lot of folks around the country,” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said.

Now the Wolfpack get to play in the game’s biggest spotlight with two other teams who ended long droughts — and a fourth vying for a place in history.

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