A startling Connecticut show of force. A Florida Atlantic ride that hardly anybody saw coming. A foul that sent San Diego State to the Final Four and will live in Creighton infamy. An astonishing rally from 13 points down by a Miami team without a single 3-pointer in the second half.
Can it get any weirder in college basketball this season? Well, there’s still another week.
A most irregular season has given birth to a most unconventional Final Four, intriguing because of not only who will show up in Houston, but who won’t.
“It’s moments like that you can’t make up,” Gonzaga’s Julian Strawther said the other day, after his shot that beat UCLA. But he could have been talking about most of this entire tournament, from the palm trees of Boca Raton to the beaches of Miami to the golf courses of San Diego. The whole country gets involved in March and two of the survivors for the Final Four are not 50 miles away from one another on the Atlantic Ocean. If not for Connecticut, this list of teams would sound like a cruise ship itinerary.
Consider the climbs made by the finalists.
When the season began, Connecticut was nowhere to be found in the top 25 rankings. Nor Miami.
When March began, 237 schools in the nation could claim an NCAA tournament win in their history. Florida Atlantic wasn’t one of them.
MORE COVERAGE: Upset tracker | How each bracket was busted | Latest highlights and previews
When last Friday began, San Diego State had never won a Sweet 16 game, never beaten a No. 1 seed, never knocked off a top-ranked opponent. The Aztecs took care of all that in one night.
When last week began, Miami was faced with the scary task of probably facing both the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the Midwest, the one region where the big names had not keeled over. Houston first, then Texas.
But all four are going to the Final Four. What San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher called “the volatility of this tournament.”
None of the teams seeded Nos. 1 or 2 or 3 will be there, the first time since seeding was introduced 44 years ago. UConn is the ranking member of the foursome at No. 4 seed. Miami and San Diego State are No. 5, Florida Atlantic No. 9, and let the record show no fifth or ninth seed has ever won the national championship. Ever. For that matter, only one No. 4 has done it, and that was Arizona 26 years ago.
None of the top 18 in the preseason Associated Press rankings will be there.
Nobody who has ever been to a Final Four will be there, except for Connecticut. It has been 53 years since the Final Four had three first-timers.
No one who has been in the past eight Final Fours will be there.
The Big Ten won't be there, nor the Big 12, nor the SEC or Pac-12.
Who will be there is a pack of fresh faces who have taken a variety of paths to Houston.
Connecticut will roll into town like a thunderstorm, having won every tournament game by at least 15 points, establishing itself on paper as the most fearsome team in the land. The fact the Huskies — the fact that anyone — would ever be ahead of Gonzaga by 33 points suggests the momentum they are bringing with them. The 82-54 shellacking was the Zags’ worst loss in tournament history and the most lopsided Elite Eight game in 31 years.
“We didn’t have any answers,” Mark Few said, and how often has he said that? “They’re very different.”
Florida Atlantic has gotten there by winning four tournament games by a combined 19 points, engaging in a classic display of survive and advance, constantly shunning the Cinderella tag even as the Owls seem to fit it like a foot into a glass slipper. A team that plays its home games in an arena with fewer than 3,000 seats will this weekend be in front of 72,000.
“We don’t feel like we’re Cinderella,” Alijah Martin said. “We feel like we’re supposed to be here, doing exactly what we’re supposed to do.”
San Diego State will be there on a dramatic twist of fate, having escaped Creighton with a Darrion Trammell free throw with 1.2 seconds left Sunday.
“We’re making the next step and it’s something we’ve always talked about and I’m sure there were people that doubted we could do it, but we never doubted for a minute,” Dutcher said.
CHECK YOUR BRACKET: 2023 Bracket Challenge Game
Miami will be there, outdefending a Houston team known for its defense and outshooting a Texas team known for its firepower. “No one wanted to go home,” said guard Jordan Miller, and apparently that included him. He made all seven of his field goal attempts, all 13 of his free throws.
In a way, the four have all been on curving roads, demanding reevaluation as this chaotic year careened along.
Connecticut, for instance.
The Huskies were unranked before the season, and did that ever get their notice. “We have something on our shoulders," forward Adama Sanogo said, “Every time we play basketball we’re trying to show people wrong.”
A roaring 14-0 start carried them to No. 2 in the polls, but then they stalled in Big East play, losing six of eight. Had Connecticut flowed, and was now ebbing? Nah, just regrouping.
Now this team has steamrolled through its first four tournament wins. The Huskies trailed all of 47 seconds at the East Regional last weekend. They’ve allowed 35.4 percent shooting in the tournament, turning the nation’s top offense from Gonzaga into a 54-point water pistol, 33 points under the Zags’ average. They have had 82 assists on their 120 field goals and outscored four tournament opponents 123-54 just from the 3-point line.
Coach Dan Hurley traced some of the conference woes to Big East teams just knowing each other so well. “Sometimes when people are seeing us for the first time it’s overwhelming,” Hurley said.
Or take Florida Atlantic.
If the Owls have been continually overlooked, it’s due to pedigree and not performance. Pretty hard to ignore a 35-3 record. And yet they continue to be driven by the fire of being taken lightly nationally.
“I expect the prognosticators to pick us fifth in the Final Four,” coach Dusty May said.
There is more than magic to Florida Atlantic, of course. The Owls have spent the past two weeks coming up with big plays, one after another. Let one of the victims explain how.
“When you draw up plays with X’s and O’s, on some teams, all the O’s don’t have to be guarded so you can put your X’s in the right spot to make it hard for the team to score on offense,” Kansas State coach Jerome Tang said. “Every one of their O’s can score the ball and that’s what makes them hard to guard.”
Take San Diego State.
The Aztecs almost always have a good record but have not been large on the March radar screen, mostly because they never have lasted very long. How to explain them doing this now?
“Pretty good defense to begin with,” Dutcher said.
Indeed, the Aztecs have made shooting a maddening and frustrating ordeal for the opponents, especially from the outside. Creighton expired with 2-for-17 shooting from behind the 3-point arc, including 0-for-10 the second half. Two nights before it was Alabama going 3-for-27.
Still, San Diego State needed one critical whistle to clinch advancement, Ryan Nembhard bumping Trammell as he drove the lane in the final seconds of a 56-56 tie. The foul depended upon perspective. There was certainly contact. But there had been a lot of that all day, and up to that moment the two teams had shot only 15 free throws.
Trammell: “I think I got fouled but that’s up to the refs to decide.”
Nembhard: “I tried to make a rearview contest. Called a foul. So yeah, it’s a tough feeling.”
Trammell missed the first free throw to increase the tension. That included for the folks up in the stands, where Diema Adams-Parham and Lester Parham — his mother and step-father — were anxiously watching.
“I’ve been doing this for 22 years and it never gets any easier,” she would say later. But that moment after the first miss? “The hardest. It was the most pivotal moment of his career.”
Lester bit on the towel he was holding before the second attempt.
At the line, Trammell had his own thoughts, which he mentioned later: “That the moment was not too big for me.”
He made the second.
“When you play defense like that,” Lester Parham said later, “all you need is one.”
The way it ended was an echo from Dutcher’s past. “This is not the first time fouls have been called at the end of NCAA tournament games,” he said. He should know. He was an assistant on the Michigan bench in the 1989 national championship game when Rumeal Robinson was fouled with three seconds left in overtime and the Wolverines behind a point, a call the Seton Hall camp contests to this day and always will. Robinson made both free throws to win 80-79. So Dutcher is on a roll with timely tournament whistles.
What a way for a losing team to exit, but Creighton coach Greg McDermott took the high road out of town.
“All the credit goes to San Diego State and it’s on us that we didn’t quite get it done,” he said. “Not anyone else.”
But that call? “We’re not going to go there.”
The last to come aboard was Miami.
Jim Larrañaga is 73 years old and recent films suggest he might have lost a step on his locker room dancing, but certainly not his coaching.
The Hurricanes were supposed to be on the periphery of the ACC race, and so it seemed in January when they went 3-4 in a stretch, Later, they even blew a 25-point lead and lost at home to 9-23 Florida State. Hardly the look of a team destined for late March. But they ended up sharing the ACC season title.
Larrañaga understands this road. It was 17 years ago he led George Mason to a shocking Final Four bid. Know who his team upset along the way? Connecticut, same team the Hurricanes will be facing Saturday.
“It's the same exhilaration, just the jubilant attitude, because you just love when your players accomplish a goal they set out before the season,” Larrañaga said of then and now. “What we said the first day of practice, we've got to start visualizing right now what we want to accomplish and be working toward that every single day. And that's what these guys have done.”
All five starters scored in double figures in both the Houston and Texas wins and the Hurricanes shot over 50 percent against both. They outscored Texas 37-17 the last 13 minutes of the 88-81 victory. For the weekend in Kansas City, Miami shot 51 free throws against Houston and Texas. The Hurricanes missed seven. And that’s how they took care of the state of Texas teams who wanted so badly to get to Houston.
What this quartet creates is a Final Four rainbow of tradition.
Florida Atlantic, San Diego State and Miami are first-timers. There is something powerful about a sense of destiny in March, when it is a team’s chance at last.
“I still remember being a child watching the ’87 Hoosiers (national champions on Keith Smart’s famed late shot) and because of that, I became a fan forever,” said Florida Atlantic’s May, whose journey started in small-town Indiana. “So we’ve never had our moment. And when we made the tournament this year we felt like this could be our moment to really captivate an area, a fan base, a student body. And I think we’ve exceeded that moment but there’s no reason why we wouldn’t just continue to ride this wave.”
Dutcher spent much of his career at Steve Fisher’s right hand, both at Michigan and San Diego State, and credits Fisher’s vision for starting the path to this high spot.
“We recruited and told people this is what we were going to do,” he said. “They all thought it was recruiting talk, but here we sit.”
Miami didn’t even have a basketball team for 14 years through the 1970s and ‘80s, dropping the sport before deciding to revive the program. Now look at the Hurricanes.
“Last week I went through the lobby of the hotel, and our cheerleaders and dance team were all there studying,” Larrañaga said. “Two of them are going to be doctors. One of them is going to be a lawyer. I sat and talked with them because to be at the University of Miami is a very, very special place. It's like a resort.”
Well, maybe not at practice.
Connecticut is the outlier here, both in climate and a glorious Final Four past. Four national championships in the past 25 years and no other program in America can say that. Not Duke, not North Carolina, not Kentucky. Three of those four titles, incidentally, came in the state of Texas. Same as where this Final Four will be.
“We sold it to these guys. We’ve done it here before, we can do it again,” Hurley said. “But I think it becomes a little bit of a mental hurdle, especially like early rounds of the NCAA tournament where you feel maybe the burden of the history and the tradition.
“So the climb to get to this point has been real and it’s been more challenging than I thought.”
But they have taken these last steps to the Final Four in a single bound.
“UConn’s back,” guard Jordan Hawkins said at the post-Gonzaga bashing press conference.
“Back,” guard Andre Jackson Jr. agreed sitting next to him. “But we never left.”
The Connecticut men have even lasted a week longer than the Connecticut women and that hadn’t happened in 24 years. This season just keeps putting stranger and stranger. And now there is one week to go.