HOUSTON -- The entire season has come down to this: UConn and San Diego State will play for the national title, just like everyone expected.
By "everyone," we of course mean the 0.04% of brackets in ESPN's Men's Tournament Challenge that picked the Huskies to face the Aztecs in the final. To the owners of those 7,201 brackets, well done. As for the rest of us, some 20 million strong, we at least get what should be a great game to watch. Enjoy and remember.
On Monday night, the 4-seeded Huskies will play for their fifth championship -- and their first since 2014 (also won in the state of Texas, it should be noted). Should they win, they would tie Duke for the most titles since 1985. They've been on this stage before.
The Aztecs? Not so much. This season saw the No. 5 seed advance to its first Elite Eight, Final Four and now national championship game in program history. Should Brian Dutcher's team win, it would be the second time in history a first-time Final Four team won a national championship (UConn did it in 1999), and the first time a 5-seed took the trophy. A lot of records are at stake.
In advance of Monday's meeting for a chance at history (for either team), ESPN's team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi discussed how it could all play out at NRG Stadium.
How the national championship game will unfold
HERE WE GO.— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) April 2, 2023
THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP IS SET 🔥 #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/QLU70V7iIC
Where does this rank among NCAA tournaments all time?
Borzello: I don't know exactly where it would rank, but I think it has had a little bit of everything. It had three game-winning shots in the final seconds in the first round, it had a true buzzer beater from Lamont Butler to advance San Diego State to the title game and it had upsets and Cinderellas galore. For those bemoaning the lack of traditional powers making deep runs ... well, no program has been more successful in March over the past 25 years than UConn. There's a relative lack of NBA star power in the Final Four, but outside of Alabama's Brandon Miller, most of the projected top 10 NBA draft picks were not expected to make deep tourney runs. Jordan Hawkins is a first-round pick, Matt Bradley and Adama Sanogo are great college players, Donovan Clingan and Andre Jackson Jr. will get drafted. For me, the tournament has been great.
Gasaway: To me, tournaments come in types. With a No. 4 filling the role as this year's highest remaining seed and as our potentially so-called "great team," this year feels reminiscent of Final Fours like 2006 (the first Florida title), 2011 (UConn with Kemba Walker) and 2014 (the Huskies with Shabazz Napier). The difference between then and now is that those champions felt a bit more surprising than a UConn title would be this year. The other difference is perhaps that a San Diego State national championship would be a somewhat more startling development. Yes, the Aztecs are a No. 5 seed, while UConn in 2014 was on the No. 7 line. Still, the fact that this year marks SDSU's first ever Elite Eight (much less Final Four) appearance underscores how special this run has really been. This tournament already ranks as one of the modern era's most delightful and salutary surprises.
Medcalf: I'm not sure, honestly. We tend to judge most NCAA tournaments by the Final Four. And we still have another game to go. But I don't think I'll compare this to the great tournaments I've witnessed. I'm not even sure this will register among the good tournaments for me. It hasn't had the memorable blend of highlights that help elevate a traditional tournament. But it did have some moments that stand out. The Lamont Butler buzzer-beating shot was epic. The Fairleigh Dickinson win over Purdue is the biggest upset of all time, in my opinion. The four top seeds missing the Elite Eight was an incredible story, too. I think parity is a beautiful thing. I think Florida Atlantic's run is remarkable, too. The NCAA tournament is always an incredible event. This year is no different. But I don't think this is an edition we'll discuss 25 years from now. It's probably just a Wikipedia page. Nothing more.
Lunardi: There are no bad NCAA tournaments, just differing levels of good. For me, this has been a very good tournament. There have been plenty of upsets, storylines and epic performances to fill our annual quota. Count me among thousands of "satisfied customers" across the college basketball landscape.
Let's do the dang thing.#Made4March pic.twitter.com/dKjXfVjEo9— UConn Men's Basketball (@UConnMBB) April 3, 2023
UConn has seemed unstoppable in this tournament. What does their season/run say about the Huskies and the Big East?
Gasaway: A decade after the league underwent a reformation that left it both smaller and with more Catholic schools than ever (Butler notwithstanding; UConn rejoined as of 2020-21), the Big East is enjoying yet another hoops golden age. The Huskies are drawing well-deserved accolades from near and far, and the league had not one but two teams (Marquette and Xavier) seeded even higher than Dan Hurley's group. Shaka Smart is garnering national coach of the year recognition. Creighton came within a hair of running into UConn in the Final Four. Ed Cooley achieved such a high degree of success at Providence that he was hired to do the same at Georgetown. This is more than just the Huskies. The Big East and particularly its top half is thriving.
Borzello: The top of the Big East was as good as any league in the country this season, and this tournament has been indicative of that strength. It put three teams in the Sweet 16, and that was a group that didn't include the league's regular-season and conference tournament champ, Marquette. The Huskies have played 16 games against teams outside the Big East this season -- 11 in the nonconference and five in the NCAA tournament -- and have won every one by double digits, and nobody came close to beating them.
Medcalf: The Big East is clearly a power conference. This league didn't need Villanova to win a pair of national titles in 2016 and 2018 to prove as much. John Thompson and Rollie Massimino did that in the 1980s. Instead of a Power 5, college basketball should have a Power 6, including the Big East, based on that alone. I think this UConn run just emphasizes what we've already known: The Huskies represent a new era of blue bloods. Too much of that definition is attached to a team's legacy instead of its current position. For the past 25 years, however, UConn's NCAA tournament success has been unrivaled, and that's before Monday's national title game. In the modern era, UConn is in the same conversation as Duke, Kentucky, UCLA and Kansas. It has more rings over the past 25 years than any of those schools, too.
Lunardi: It turns out the season had a dominant team all along. It just took a few weeks off in the middle of the season. Without that gap, the soon-to-be-five-time national champion UConn Huskies would be discussed in historic terms. The Huskies were that good in the nonconference, and they have been nothing short of unstoppable in the NCAA tournament. That they lost six Big East games is quite a feather in the conference's cap and a perfect transition to what feels like an even stronger showing for the league next season.
Adama Sanogo is left alone for a pair of 3-pointers and he drains both of them.
San Diego State has been on an incredible run. No matter what happens, what is this program's legacy?
Medcalf: In 1999, San Diego State hired Steve Fisher. At the time, the school couldn't get fans to come to its games after a series of struggles. Per the NCAA, its average attendance in the 1998-99 season, the year before Fisher arrived, was 3,189. For his part, Fisher knocked on doors and gave tickets to people. There are students who remember the former coach walking around campus with a pocket full of tickets for anyone who would take them. Now, this team is in the Final Four because of players such as Kawhi Leonard and Jamaal Franklin who helped build the program. San Diego State's first run to the Final Four is one of the more organic developments we've seen in college basketball. But this is not some underdog that emerged from thin air. This is the culmination of the foundation Fisher built nearly 25 years ago.
Borzello: Brian Dutcher said on Sunday that the Aztecs aren't a one-hit wonder. This is a program that won its first 26 games of the 2019-20 season and was 30-2 before the NCAA tournament was canceled due to the pandemic. They've worn home jerseys in the first round of the tournament in three straight seasons. They're 59-11 in Mountain West play over the past four. Dutcher thinks they could be a better team next season, if the expected returnees ultimately come back. Regardless, the Aztecs should be considered a Top 25 team entering every season.
Gasaway: Not only were the Aztecs 30-2 in 2019-20, as my colleague Mr. Borzello rightly point out, it's quite possible or even likely that Dutcher's group would have earned a No. 2 seed had there been an NCAA tournament. That alone speaks volumes about the program. In addition to success, however, SDSU has also established an identity. The Aztecs are synonymous with defense, and this has been true since the Steve Fisher days. If the saying is true and defense really does travel, there are few programs that have proved the point more irrefutably than SDSU. Road trips in the Mountain West can be long, and the games are played at widely varying altitudes. Yet year after year, San Diego State wins. Whatever the outcome against UConn, this program has established that it belongs.
Lunardi: The cynic in me wonders what the Pac-12 is waiting for in terms of inviting the Aztecs to join the conference. The Pac-12 hasn't put a team in the national championship game since 2006 and hasn't won a title since 1997 with Arizona. San Diego State has already achieved that first milestone and is 40 minutes away from the second. Regardless of what happens Monday night, this tournament run should be remembered as the cherry on top of SDSU's inevitable Pac-12 sundae.
"March is for players"
Brian Dutcher says the buzzer-beater was all Lamont Butler as he made the big play that sent the Aztecs to the #NationalChampionship 🙌#MarchMadness @Aztec_MBB pic.twitter.com/a3OharoB2O
"March is for players"
Who will be key on Monday night?
Gasaway: I'll ride with Matt Bradley for one more game. In our previous discussion, I singled him out as my expected star of Saturday night. That came true ... sort of? Bradley scored 21 points and made more 3s (four) than he did in the rest of his tournament games combined (one). Then again, he kind of disappeared on offense for the middle 25 minutes or so of the game against Florida Atlantic. If Bradley plays the full 40 minutes and spaces the UConn defense with some timely 3s, that will absolutely be key for San Diego State's chances to pull the upset.
Borzello: Andre Jackson Jr. is one of the most unique players in college basketball, an elite defender who has developed as the Huskies' primary playmaker this season. Against San Diego State, he'll likely be tasked with guarding Bradley, the Aztecs' leading scorer. Perhaps more importantly, Jackson is the key to UConn's transition game. He constantly pushes the ball after a turnover or long rebound, probing the defense and looking to get up the floor quickly. If he can continue to create havoc defensively and jump-start UConn's transition offense -- enabling the Huskies to not face SDSU's brutal, physical half-court defense every possession -- his team will win.
Medcalf: How about Donovan Clingan? I think the 7-foot-2 freshman has been one of the most critical players in this NCAA tournament. He's also protection for a UConn squad that will battle the most physical team in America. San Diego State has been the nation's best defensive team for months. Its goal will be to get Adama Sanogo into early foul trouble. But Clingan is also more than a security blanket. Entering the Final Four, the Huskies had connected on 53% of their shots inside the arc and held opponents to just a 39% clip inside the 3-point line with Clingan on the floor, per hooplens.com.
Lunardi: Dan Hurley, who has maintained a remarkable (for him) calm composure at the Final Four, and is now just 40 minutes from the promised land. Hurley could always coach. His teams play hard and smart and are generally relentless at both ends of the floor. The lingering question has always been whether he can stay out of the way when it matters most. UConn's five-game run has put those concerns in the rearview mirror and it's only fair to wonder if this will be the first of multiple championships in a potential Hall of Fame career.
Who will win, and why?
Borzello: UConn is operating at such a high level right now, it's hard to see the Huskies losing Monday night. San Diego State does pose a difficult matchup, given how good the Aztecs are defensively and how they impose their physicality and tempo on opponents. But I think UConn is built to win in a variety of ways. Its defense against Gonzaga and Miami the past two games has been incredible, holding two top-five offenses to their worst games of the season. Their offense is obviously fantastic; they have size on the interior, shooters on the perimeter and confident playmakers at the point of attack. They can win this game at either end of the floor, at any tempo.
Score prediction: UConn 67, San Diego State 60
Gasaway: Dan Hurley's team is going to win because history says that's what happens next. Up until Virginia's string of very close wins in the 2019 tournament, there was a robust streak of national champions who outscored their first five tournament opponents by a larger margin than the teams they faced in the title game. There are other recurring indicators. This will sound strange, but every national champion for the past 20 years was ranked in the top 12 of that season's Week 6 AP poll. This year, UConn falls into that category. Also, 17 of the past 20 champions were in KenPom's top six on Selection Monday. The Huskies check that box as well. Finally, Jordan Hawkins will be healthy and Andre Jackson Jr. isn't going to miss two first halves in a row with foul trouble. However, if all of the above should fall to pieces and No. 4-seeded UConn loses to No. 5 San Diego State, the magnitude of the upset will be vastly overstated. Any team that can dispense with Alabama is capable of beating the Huskies.
Score prediction: UConn 72, San Diego State 61
Medcalf: I think San Diego State's defensive pressure is a real thing. This is a team full of solid, experienced athletes. I think the physical edge UConn has had won't be as pronounced as it has been throughout the NCAA tournament. But it's important to remember the Huskies have played incredible defense through this dominant run. San Diego State's come-from-behind win over Florida Atlantic featured a multitude of missed free throws and jump shots. The Huskies can turn a hot-and-cold offensive team into a frozen offensive team. Plus, the best way to beat a great defense is to play over the top of it. And UConn can do that with Clingan and Sanogo. They're explosive in transition and dangerous from the 3-point line, too. The Huskies can win in so many ways.
Score prediction: UConn 74, San Diego State 64
Lunardi: Fool me once ... I went with Miami in a Final Four upset because this tournament seemed destined to end unexpectedly. So much for that idea. In this matchup, I just don't see how San Diego State can score enough to knock off this UConn juggernaut. The Huskies can beat you in so many ways, and they'll happily win the title game in whatever manner the Aztecs dictate. Whether it's 60-50 or 85-75, the Huskies are at least 10 points better than SDSU and will win their fifth crown fairly comfortably.
Score prediction: UConn 71, San Diego State 59
National championship line
Opened at Caesars Sportsbook
No. 4 UConn -7 vs. No. 5 San Diego State
MoneyLine: UConn -320, SDST +250
Note: Both San Diego State and UConn were listed at 60-1 at the start of the season to win the National Championship. Regardless of who wins, that will be the longest preseason odds by an eventual national champion since UConn in 2014 (65-1). -- ESPN Stats and Information
How the national championship was set
How UConn beat Miami
What was key in UConn/Miami's win?
In Houston's Sweet 16 loss to Miami, Kelvin Sampson said Norchad Omier was a bigger challenge for his team than any 7-footer they'd faced all season. Miami's ability to play its versatile lineup and challenge bigger teams is the result of Omier's presence. But Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan helped limit his impact. I think that mattered most. Omier finally met a couple of players who could handle him in the paint. Omier missed five of his first eight shots and played with eight fouls for the most of the second half. With 3:57 to play in the second half, UConn had a 44% offensive rebounding rate. Those second-chance opportunities were in part attached to Omier not being able to act as the physical presence he has been for Miami all year. UConn capitalized off those opportunities with 16 second-chance points that contributed to the 14-point lead it held in the final 3:35 of the matchup. -- Medcalf
What surprised you most about this game?
Many things that could go wrong for UConn did go wrong. Jordan Hawkins was under the weather and Andre Jackson Jr. picked up two fouls in the opening minutes. None of that made any difference against a Miami team that had just hung 51 points in 20 minutes on Texas, a higher seed than the Huskies. Dan Hurley's team was resilient, Sanogo is playing the best basketball of his already very illustrious career and Donovan Clingan continues to crush the spirit of opponents who think they're catching a break because Sanogo is on the bench. The final result was what we're used to seeing from UConn in this bracket, but the way the Huskies got it done was surprising -- and very impressive. -- Gasaway
Who was your most outstanding player of this game?
UConn got enormous contributions across the board, but none greater than Sanogo's. From the unexpected 3-pointers to the timely blocks to the sublime driving layup from the wing, the Huskies' big man displayed a versatility that has him halfway to a Final Four Most Outstanding Player award. All told, his double-double (21 points, 10 rebounds, 9-for-11 from the floor) was a stat line Miami simply could not match. Throw in four points and a half-dozen more rebounds from Clingan, and UConn's edge in the middle was a death blow to the Hurricanes. -- Lunardi
What will be the legacy of Miami?
Miami's legacy will not be the same for everyone. Some will see the Hurricanes as a team that was fueled by the name, image and likeness (NIL) deals attached to Nijel Pack, who transferred from Kansas State, and others. But that's unfair. First, the NIL contributions are all legal. And this Miami team has been elite all season. These Hurricanes shared the ACC crown with Virginia, and they entered Saturday's game with a 13-2 record in their past 15 games. The Canes represent what's possible in college basketball. Last year, they were in the Elite Eight and this year, they were a Final Four team. If anything, their run -- and this entire Final Four -- suggests that the traditional powers might be losing their grip on the sport because of the growing parity. But Miami should be remembered as an excellent team that made history with the first Final Four run in school history. -- Medcalf
• Jeff Borzello: UConn cruises past Miami to return to national title game
How San Diego State beat Florida Atlantic
What was the key to San Diego State winning this game?
Down the stretch, San Diego State was able to get back to what worked in the first four games of the NCAA tournament (and all season, really). It had only three offensive rebounds in the first half, but grabbed nine in the second half -- including six in a 59-second stretch toward the end. After having some success going at Nathan Mensah and SDSU's interior players in the first half, FAU started struggling to finish at the rim. The Owls finished just 5-for-14 on layups. And the Aztecs' defense came back to life as a whole. They have been a dominant defensive unit this season, but FAU had its way in the first half, scoring 40 points in the first 20 minutes. But the Owls made just eight shots after halftime, including just two in the final 7:40. San Diego State's switchability at every spot on the floor began to cause issues for FAU, after giving the Owls too much space early. -- Borzello
What surprised you most about this game?
Everything, literally everything, surprised me from start to finish. FAU acted like it had been here before right from the opening tip. After the first 40 minutes of the Final Four, Alijah Martin is your Most Outstanding Player (so far): 26 points with 19 coming in the second half. And even that wasn't enough on a night when San Diego State began attacking the offensive glass after halftime. (Speaking of surprises, the Aztecs got many of those second chances off of their own missed free throws.) Matt Bradley started fast and finished with 21 points, just enough to put Lamont Butler in position for his iconic game winner. Yes, Lamont Butler. Just one more surprise in a 2023 bracket filled with them. -- Gasaway
Where does this semifinal rank among semifinals for you?
Game notwithstanding, this was an important national semifinal for the sport. That both teams played at a high level reinforces the notion of non-power conferences belonging at this level. Throw in a legendary finish and we'll remember both FAU and San Diego State for a long, long time. The first true buzzer-beater of a great tournament could not have been more dramatic. -- Lunardi
What's next for Florida Atlantic?
FAU isn't going anywhere. Provided no players enter the portal or make ill-advised NBA draft decisions, Dusty May should bring back all but one player. Michael Forrest is the lone senior on the roster, with all five starters still having eligibility. May has already made it clear he's not going anywhere, agreeing to a long-term extension that was announced earlier in the week. If he can retain Johnell Davis, Martin, Vladislav Goldin, Nick Boyd and Bryan Greenlee -- plus a few key bench players -- FAU will once again be a top-25 team. Thirty-five wins and a second straight Final Four appearance will take some doing, but the Owls will have the continuity and talent to make another run. -- Borzello
• Pete Thamel: Butler's buzzer-beater sends San Diego State to final
• Myron Medcalf: FAU players 'not dwelling' on defeat in Final Four