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2024 Final Four featuring repeat-hopeful UConn, a dominant Zach Edey and surging NC State sets stage for more madness

For the first time in a few years, the men’s Final Four features a compelling mix of season-long heavyweights and a surging Cinderella nobody wants to face.

College basketball’s last four standing include the NCAA’s best all-around team in UConn; its highest-scoring team in Alabama; its most dominant player in Purdue’s Zach Edey; and an 11th-seeded NC State that began its improbable run well before the tournament.

An upset-heavy March Madness lived up to its nickname over the last 11 days, setting the stage for this Saturday’s epic showdowns in Glendale, Ariz., between UConn and Alabama; and Purdue against NC State.

UConn, the defending NCAA champions and this year’s top overall seed, bulldozed through its first four tournament games, continuing a trend of lopsided victories that dates back to last year’s Big Dance.

No team boasts the experience or depth of the repeat-hopeful Huskies, who brought back core players from last year’s run including Tristen Newton, Alex Karaban and Donovan Clingan, and added to them with do-it-all Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer and star freshman Stephon Castle.

Illinois guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (0) is pressured by UConn center Donovan Clingan (32) while driving to the basket during the second half of the Elite 8 college basketball game in the men's NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 30, 2024, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

AP Photo/Steven Senne

UConn center Donovan Clingan (left), pictured here Saturday, is dominating this NCAA Tournament. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Each of UConn’s four wins this tournament have been by at least 17 points, including on Saturday, when Dan Hurley’s Huskies unleashed a 30-0 run to easily dispose of third-seeded Illinois in the Elite 8. The 7-2 Clingan, an anticipated NBA lottery pick, is averaging 15.8 points, 10.0 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game.

Anyone unseating 35-3 UConn, the only No. 1 seed to win its conference tournament, would come as a surprise, but offensive-minded Alabama should at least be able to match the Huskies’ firepower.

Alabama’s 90.6 points per game this season lead all Division I teams. Star guard Mark Sears scored at least 18 points in all four tournament games.

The Crimson Tide (25-11) already won a shootout against a No. 1 seed this tournament, topping North Carolina, 89-87, in the Sweet 16. Grant Nelson, a 6-11 forward with NBA draft prospects, came up particularly big against the Tar Heels, leading Alabama with 24 points and 12 rebounds. The battle of bigs between Clingan and Nelson is a storyline to follow Saturday.

On the other side of the bracket, upstart NC State hopes to extend its fairytale March into April.

The Wolfpack were just 17-14 on March 9 and appeared destined to spend the spring at home. All they’ve done since is win nine games in a row, including five games in as many days to clinch the ACC Tournament and earn an improbable automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament.

NC State’s conference tournament run included wins over North Carolina and Duke. The Wolfpack continued to hunt down top teams in the NCAA Tournament, defeating second-seeded Marquette in the Sweet 16 and fourth-seeded Duke, again, in the Elite 8.

At the heart of NC State’s surge is bulky big man DJ Burns, who scored a season-high 29 points in Sunday’s upset of the Blue Devils. He has at least 16 points in three of NC State’s tournament wins. At 6-9 and 275 pounds, Burns could receive interest from NFL scouts as an offensive line prospect if he chooses to do so, according to NFL Media’s Peter Schrager.

Duke's Jeremy Roach goes up for a shot against North Carolina State's DJ Burns Jr. and Ben Middlebrooks during an Elite Eight college basketball game in Dallas on Sunday. North Carolina State won 76-64. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

DJ Burns Jr. (left) and NC State upset Duke on Sunday in the Elite 8. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The Wolfpack last won a national championship in 1983. Led by Queens-born Hall of Fame coach Jim Valvano, NC State that year defeated a Houston team starring Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.

To win its first title in four decades, NC State has to go through Purdue, a No. 1 seed seeking redemption after losing to 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson in the first round of the 2023 tournament.

Purdue boasts the ultimate mismatch nightmare in Edey, a skilled 7-4 center with excellent touch around the basket. Edey, the reigning Wooden Award and Naismith College Player of the Year winner, leads the nation with 25.0 points per game and ranks second with 12.2 rebounds.

Edey scored a career-high 40 points and delivered 16 rebounds in Sunday’s win over Tennessee. He’s recorded at least 23 points and 14 rebounds in all four tournament games.

This year marks the first time since 2021 that multiple No. 1 seeds made the Final Four. None made it last year. It’s also the first time since 2021 that a seed as low as No. 11 advanced this far.

UConn seeks to become the first repeat champions since the 2006-07 Florida Gators. In stark contrast, this is the first-ever Final Four trip for Alabama, the first since 1980 for Purdue and the first since 1983 for NC State.

It may be April now, but with stakes this high, there should be no shortage of madness this weekend.


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