Wild men’s NCAA Tournament final pits underdog San Diego State against four-time titlist UConn

Connecticut and San Diego State will meet Monday night for the national championship.

In basketball. College basketball. Men’s college basketball. Just to be as clear as possible: There were 352 Division I men’s teams during the 2022-23 season, and the No. 5 Aztecs and the No. 4 Huskies are the last two standing.

It can feel a little hard to believe.

San Diego State had never reached the Elite Eight before this season. Now, after a thrilling, buzzer-beating epic against No. 9 Florida Atlantic, the Aztecs will look to join UNLV in 1990 as the only current mid-major programs to win the national championship.

Connecticut has won four since 1999, making a case along the way for being counted among the premier brands in the country. Yet the Huskies had made just three tournament appearances and never advanced past the opening weekend since winning the whole thing in 2014.

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These are the factors that will determine Monday night’s championship game:

San Diego State’s physical (and mental) toughness

For about a decade, the Aztecs have earned a reputation for being one of college basketball’s toughest teams because of the play of a defense that annually ranks among the nation’s best.

That has held to form during tournament play. SDSU is giving up an even 60 points per game heading into Monday night while holding opponents to 35.9% shooting from the field and 21.6% from deep.

In a good analog for what sort of talent and depth they’ll see Monday night, the Aztecs beat overall No. 1 seed Alabama 71-64 in the Sweet 16 and did a number on freshman star and projected lottery pick Brandon Miller, who had just nine points on 3 of 19 shooting.

The San Diego State Aztecs mob Lamont Butler (5) after he hit a buzzer-beater to lift them into the national championship game.

FAU connected on 44.2% from the field and became the Aztecs’ first opponent since New Mexico on Feb. 25 and the 11th overall to crack the 70-point mark. But FAU was held in check in the second half, hitting on just 8 of 24 attempts as SDSU cut into and then erased the Owls’ lead.

There’s also something to be said for the Aztecs’ mental toughness. Down 56-42 with under 14 minutes left, SDSU went on a 23-9 run to even the score with 4:24 remaining.

Of course, Lamont Butler’s game-winning jumper will go down as one of the clutch moments in tournament history. 

There’s one factor to keep in mind Monday night: SDSU has played a series of close games this tournament — the Aztecs are the first team in tournament history to win Elite Eight and national semifinal games by one point apiece — while UConn has blown out five opponents in a row.

In a close game, the confidence that comes with these narrow victories will give the Aztecs an edge over the Huskies.

UConn is an unstoppable juggernaut. Right?

Well, it does seem that way.

The Huskies beat No. 13 Iona by 24 points and No. 5 Saint Mary’s by 15 points, both times pulling away after a sluggish first half. UConn dominated the second weekend, dispatching with No. 8 Arkansas by 23 points and No. 3 Gonzaga by 28 points. 

Against the Hurricanes, the Huskies went up 14-4 after seven minutes and led 37-24 at halftime. After Miami drew within eight points, 53-45, with 11:40 remaining, UConn went on a 7-0 run to push the lead to 60-45 with just over eight minutes left and won 72-59.

In doing so, the Huskies became the seventh team since 2000 to reach the championship game by defeating every opponent by a double-digit margin. Of the previous six, only 2016 North Carolina failed to win it all.

Over and over again since the start of tournament play, UConn has had the answer. Driven by an electric offense built around the two-man game of forward Adama Sanogo and guard Jordan Hawkins, the Huskies might have the personnel and pace to crack the code of San Diego State’s defense.

But don’t sleep on the Huskies’ defense, which hasn’t allowed more than 70 points in a game since Feb. 25 and has been very impressive the past two games. After Gonzaga hit on just 33% of its attempts from the field, Miami made only 32.3%. The Hurricanes were to convert just 8 of 23 layup attempts against the Huskies’ frontcourt.

The potential X-factors

Sanogo and Hawkins will receive the Aztecs’ undivided attention, leaving the Huskies’ supporting cast in a position to play the deciding role in the championship game.

Senior guard Tristen Newton had seven points, eight assists and five rebounds against the Hurricanes and is averaging 8.5 points, 6.8 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game since the tournament opener against Iona.

Adama Sanogo reacts after a play against the Hurricanes.

Freshman forward Alex Karaban has 31 points and 20 rebounds in his past three games. Freshman center Donovan Clingan has provided a big spark in tournament play, including six rebounds and a block in the win against Miami.

For SDSU, leading scorer Matt Bradley made only 3 of 17 attempts in wins against Alabama and Creighton but came alive against FAU with a team-leading 21 points. This was Bradley’s first 20-point game since scoring 23 points against UNLV on New Year’s Eve.

Containing Sanogo in the paint will take a team effort. Look for three frontcourt players to share the load in Nathan Mensah, Jaedon LeDee and Aguek Arop.

Why Connecticut will win

Because this is a team putting together one of the most dominant runs in NCAA men’s tournament history. The Huskies have beaten five teams by an average of 20.6 points.

Because Sanogo has been impossible to stop. The Aztecs are terrific defending the perimeter but weaker inside, giving Sanogo an opportunity to take control of the game in the paint.

Because UConn doesn’t lose on this stage. The program has played in four national championship games and won them all, beating Duke (1999), Georgia Tech (2004), Butler (2011) and Kentucky (2014).

Why San Diego State will win

Because this defense has what it takes. Forget that UConn is loaded. Forget that the Huskies are bulldozing everything in their path. The Aztecs have the defensive style and length to disrupt things and turn the tempo and pace of the game in their favor.

Because Bradley is heating up. His game against FAU could give him the jolt of confidence SDSU needs on the offensive end. More than anything, the Aztecs need a go-to scorer in key moments — Bradley can be that guy.

Because a wild-and-wacky tournament warrants a wild-and-wacky conclusion. UConn will almost undoubtedly be favored Monday night. But since when does this tournament care about favorites? Underdogs have ruled this tournament, so SDSU winning it all would be the perfect conclusion.

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg

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