Houston, we have a Final Four. This past weekend, four teams cut down nets and punched their tickets to the men's NCAA Tournament Final Four in Houston. And — with very few exceptions — they are not the four teams you picked when the tournament started a few weeks ago. This year's tournament has been marked by an exceptional level of madness. For the first time in NCAA Tournament history, all of the No. 1 seeds were eliminated before the Elite Eight. And so it's quite befitting of the upset-heavy nature of this college basketball season that three of the four teams set to take the court this weekend are making their schools' first appearance in the Final Four. But who is leading the National Championship odds?
Will the trend of unpredictability continue? Or will the heaviest favorite of the group seize the reins and take control of the tournament?
Who's In The Field?
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In just their second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, the Owls of Florida Atlantic University defeated Markquis Nowell and Kansas State at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night to punch their ticket to Houston. Head coach Dusty May's team should be underestimated at your own peril. FAU entered the tournament with a 31-3 record, and it was ranked in the AP Top 25 for much of January. It narrowly escaped a tough Memphis team in the first round before defeating upstart Fairleigh Dickinson to get to the Sweet 16, where it bounced Rick Barnes and Tennessee.
FAU becomes just the second No. 9 seed to ever make the Final Four and the first from Conference USA since Memphis in 2008. And to be clear, that was a very different and much more competitive and impressive era of Conference USA. In the course of writing about college basketball, you end up looking at team pages over on Sports Reference a lot. Every team's program record is listed on their home page; usually, if you're dealing with high-level Division I basketball teams, you see a lot of winning records, with thousands of games played. FAU? The Owls have a 364-535 record, a .405 win-loss percentage. They have such chaotic party-crasher energy, and it's wonderful.
Representing the feisty Mountain West Conference, San Diego State also makes its first-ever appearance in the Final Four. The No. 5 seed from the South Region defeated Charleston and Furman to get to the Sweet 16. Then, playing in front of a crowd that was anticipating a strong showing from No. 1 seed Alabama, the Aztecs used a suffocating defense to take out the Crimson Tide in convincing fashion. They advanced past Creighton on the heels of a somewhat controversial foul call in the final seconds that sent Darrion Trammell to the free throw line with just a few ticks remaining. Trammell missed the first try but hit the second to send San Diego State to Houston.
Out of the Midwest Region, No. 5 Miami led a furious comeback against No. 2 Texas to send the Longhorns packing and the Hurricanes to their first Final Four in school history. Coach Jim Larrañaga becomes just the 15th coach in NCAA history to lead two different programs to the Final Four. The Canes followed a familiar recipe to March success — veteran guards stepping up at the biggest moments. For Miami, it's junior Isaiah Wong and senior Jordan Miller who have shouldered much of the load throughout the season and the tournament. Miami's road to the Final Four included victories over No. 12 Drake and No. 4-seeded Indiana in the first weekend of the tournament, along with a big upset over No. 1 seed Houston in the Sweet 16.
Rounding out the group of semifinalists is the lone program that has been on this stage before — UConn. Although Connecticut has been a historically successful program, this is its first Final Four appearance since 2014. Dan Hurley's group was a popular preseason pick in the Big East, and it may be the most talented team left in the tournament. The Huskies' path to Houston has been littered with blowouts. They ended Rick Pitino's Iona tenure with a 24-point victory in the first round before eliminating St. Mary's in a lopsided, 15-point victory. In the Sweet 16, they dominated Eric Musselman's Arkansas Razorbacks from the jump en route to a 23-point win, and followed that up with a wire-to-wire blowout victory over Drew Timme and Gonzaga. Adama Sanogo and Jordan Hawkins lead the UConn attack, with Sanogo dominating the inside and Hawkins hitting shots from all over the court.
What Are The Odds?
UConn is the heavy favorite to cut down the nets in Houston. They are currently -125 to win it all, meaning a $125 bet would net you $100 in profit. Clearly, the Huskies' talent and recent string of blowout wins have impressed the oddsmakers.
Next in line is San Diego State at +360. Miami follows at +490, while FAU checks in as the biggest long shot at +600. Following their victory Saturday night, FAU head coach May joked that many prognosticators may pick them to finish fifth in the Final Four. Not entirely far off!
The first matchup Saturday night is between Florida Atlantic and San Diego State. The Aztecs are a narrow, 1.5-point favorite in that one.
The nightcap sees UConn as a 5.5-point favorite over Miami. UConn was only a 3-point favorite heading into their matchup with Gonzaga, a line that felt a little low to some observers. The Huskies' blowout win on Saturday night must have finally caught the attention of oddsmakers.
As mentioned above, UConn is almost certainly the most talented and well-balanced team remaining. Aside from Hawkins and Sanogo, Alex Karaban and Tristen Newton have been reliable contributors all season. Off the bench, freshman 7-foot-2 center Donovan Clingan has continued to improve all season long and has really cemented himself as a true force in this tournament. Maybe UConn really does just roll through its last two games and, when we look back at this tournament, we'll remember it as an incredibly talented team that went on an all-time streak at the right time.
On the other hand, it's been a tournament defined by chaos. Are you really going bet on the chalk team now that there's only four left? Following his team's loss to Florida Atlantic on Saturday, Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang went into FAU's locker room and complimented the Owls on a great game, saying they were the best team K-State had faced all season and that they really could win it all.
Aside from being a remarkably classy move from Tang, could it be actionable gambling advice? K-State played in the Big 12 against some of the best teams in college basketball all season. The Wildcats' vibes were clicking on all cylinders, and they even led pretty late in the second half.
And yet FAU just has a certain indefatigability and inevitability about them; the Owls outlast every punch you throw and just know how to win games. Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin are clutch bucket-getters. Their man in the middle, 7-foot-1 Vladislav Goldin, has really nice hands and touch, and knows how to finish around the rim.
The smart bet might be for UConn to finish the job. But who wants to be smart when you can be spicy? Take one of the long shots and brag to all your friends when they're cutting down the nets on Monday night.
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