Men’s Final Four roundtable: Can anybody beat UConn? Can NC State or Bama pull an upset?

By Brian Hamilton, Brendan Marks, CJ Moore and Kyle Tucker

Final Four week is here. Alabama, UConn, Purdue and NC State will convene in Glendale, Ariz., this weekend to decide the national title. To help get you ready, we gathered four of The Athletic’s college basketball writers to answer a few burning questions:

Can anybody beat UConn?

Purdue! Purdue can beat UConn! True story. It’s maybe a different question than “Will Purdue beat UConn,” should that matchup occur, but the Boilermakers’ adjusted efficiency margin is only four points less than the Huskies’. The rest is just strength on strength: Donovan Clingan versus Zach Edey, Purdue’s high-level 3-point shooting versus UConn’s high-level 3-point shooting defense, and so forth. Ask me to pick, and I don’t believe the Boilermakers can guard the Huskies and their endless trove of complex sets for 40 minutes. But a scenario in which Edey gets Clingan in foul trouble and Purdue’s shooters get hot is not far-fetched. And that would give the Boilermakers a chance. – Brian Hamilton

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Riding high with Purdue after a cathartic win 44 years in the making

Here’s the thing: I can eat salads all week in Phoenix. I am physically capable of that. But it does not mean that I will. Because sometimes forces beyond our control, such as the desire to eat red meat and cheese-filled sides with friends, intervene. UConn is a force of nature, a perfect blend of talent and drive, that has bent 10 consecutive NCAA Tournament opponents to its will. Show me a hole in the Huskies roster, point out one obvious deficiency, and maybe you could change my mind. But right now, it really does feel like, as Dan Hurley says, this team is “bulletproof.” Some can beat Connecticut. Nobody left in this tournament will. – Kyle Tucker

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Illinois is no match for ‘Cling Kong,’ as UConn climbs back to Final Four

The Huskies have the same inevitable feel as 1999 Duke, or 2015 Kentucky … and, well, look how those seasons turned out. That’s what makes the NCAA Tournament great: The best team is not guaranteed to win, and frequently does not. So, yes, while the Huskies have looked Death Star-y most of this season, anything is possible — and especially when it pertains to UConn’s first Final Four opponent, Alabama. Ever since Creighton canned 14 3s (on 28 attempts) against Dan Hurley’s team on Feb. 20, copying that same script has seemed the most likely way to actually upset UConn. And have you met the Crimson Tide? UConn’s Final Four opponent has made at least 14 3-pointers in 10 games this season, and it has shot 50 percent or better from deep five times. (If you drop that threshold a little, to 40 percent or better, the Tide have hit that mark in half of their 36 games this season, including three of four in the NCAA Tournament.) I’m not saying it’s going to happen; I picked UConn to win the title when the bracket was announced, because I simply do not know how you defend all their options. I still don’t. But if Bama has a Creighton-esque shooting night, the upset of all upsets is at least possible. — Brendan Marks

I’m not predicting it but, yes, it’s possible in a tournament where the best team does not always win. Alabama’s 3-point frequency allows for variance. The Crimson Tide shoot almost all 3-pointers and layups; the issue with the latter is that Clingan will be waiting at the rim, and we just saw how poorly that went for Illinois. That said, Illinois relied a lot on scoring in the paint off drives, and Alabama will work and work and work to set up good looks from deep. The blueprint to beat UConn is how Creighton won in late February. Clingan prefers to play in drop coverage, and Mark Sears is one of the best shooters off the bounce in the country. If Sears stays hot, it’s possible. — CJ Moore

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Nate Oats did the math. And he found the formula for getting Alabama to first Final Four

Who’s more likely to pull an upset: NC State or Alabama?

That’s hard. I lean slightly toward Alabama for all the reasons above. The Purdue-NC State matchup is fascinating; one reason that Edey dominates is that he establishes low-post position so close to the basket. If his first catch isn’t close, he’ll kick it back out and then push back for better position. Well, if DJ Burns Jr. is guarding him, it’s going to be hard to dislodge Burns. So maybe Burns can push Edey out and make his shots harder.

Burns has also not faced length like Edey’s. While he can loft his shots over length, Edey’s length is different. So that’ll be a challenge for both. NC State has also forced its opponents to shoot a lot of 3s during this stretch, and Purdue is just coming off a cold shooting game and a slow start could lead to some doubt from the Boilermakers. But Purdue is going to stick to its plan of getting Edey the ball no matter what, and while this run has been incredible for the Wolfpack, they haven’t faced a team as close to as good as Purdue or a player anything like Edey. — Moore

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The tactical and practical choices that made DJ Burns Jr. the breakout star of March

Since I’ve already boldly claimed nobody is beating the Huskies, I’m going to have to go Wolfpack here. There sure seems to be some magic at play for NC State, which was going to miss the dance altogether and then won nine straight games in the span of 20 days instead. This is feeling a lot like the 1983 Pack, which coincidentally also had to upset a 7-foot-4 repeat national player of the year (Ralph Sampson) on the way to an improbable national title. This time, destiny looks like a dancing bear. Burns is the hero America needs, and if anyone can dash Edey’s championship dreams, it’s him. – Tucker

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‘He’s like a polar bear and a ballerina’: The incomparable DJ Burns is powering NC State

Alabama is the more potent team, but NC State has the better setup. Everything the Crimson Tide does well — play with pace, shoot a bunch of 3s — UConn is more than accustomed to counteracting. And Dan Hurley’s ability to gin up perceived slights and use them as motivation is at a Hall of Fame level at the moment. Also, the Huskies have been here before. They’re not just excited to earn a spot in Glendale. Purdue, meanwhile, just had one of the most epic wins in the history of the program. The team it will face has had nothing to lose for weeks and happily will muck things up. Burns may be giving up a few inches, but he’s one of the few humans strong enough and nimble enough to create problems for Edey on both ends. — Hamilton

Just like NC State has adopted the “Why Not Us?” motto this postseason, I too have picked up a new mantra: I’m done picking against NC State. I do not know what’s in the water in Raleigh, N.C. — although they should probably preemptively bottle it now, in case the Wolfpack go full 1983 on us this weekend — but Kevin Keatts’ team isn’t just squeaking out wins; it’s dominating. The Wolfpack’s four NCAA Tournament wins have come by an average of 10 points each, and the closest of the bunch (hilariously) was in the second round, against Oakland in overtime. NC State is playing much better defense than it did in the regular season, and its collection of unique role players makes it a difficult scout on short notice. Plus, for as one-of-one as Edey is as a player, Burns might actually force him to catch the ball further than five feet from the basket. If Edey can’t get to his spots as easily, it’s a whole different ballgame. — Marks

Who will be the star of this Final Four?

To go slightly down the list of betting favorites, I’m taking the guy who will not take it for granted that he’s there, who’s playing with an edge, and who’s been shooting very consistently during the NCAA Tournament, if not on an outright heater. Give me Cam Spencer. UConn’s balance makes it tough for anyone to stand out, but Spencer has the ability to pile up four or five 3s in a game and really tilt the action — especially in a potential title-game matchup with Purdue, when it’s no guarantee Clingan can outmatch Edey. (And vice-versa, which is why Edey isn’t my pick.) – Hamilton

Burns is the first name that came to mind, but I’ll go with the obvious answer: Edey. His Elite Eight performance against Tennessee was one of the most singularly dominant showings I’ve ever seen, and for Purdue to win two games in Phoenix, he’ll have to be near — or above — that same level for another 80 minutes. Especially if Edey downs America’s new sensation, Burns, and then potential lottery pick Clingan in the title game, we’ll be talking about him in a new air. The guy’s obviously a generational player — he’s going to be the first back-to-back Wooden Award winner since Ralph Sampson in the ’80s — but I’m not sure we’re talking enough about the totality of this season should Purdue win it all. In that case, you could easily make the argument that Edey — the nation’s leading scorer — had the best college basketball season of all time. — Marks


Are we headed for a Zach Edey collision against Donovan Clingan? (Lon Horwedel / USA Today)

If I knew for sure he’d get two games, I’d go Burns. Because the more you watch NC State’s nimble giant, the more you love him. But I’ll bet on someone I’m confident will play Saturday and Monday: Clingan. My suspicion is he’ll continue his ascent to full-blown star status with a monster performance against either Edey or Burns for all the marbles. “Cling Kong” has been a monster this postseason. In the last five games, he’s averaged 17 points, 11.2 boards, 3.2 blocks and 1.2 steals in just 25 minutes per game. He completely dominated Illinois in the Elite Eight, allowing zero made shots when he contested them. – Tucker

Clingan. Alabama’s bigs are on the thinner side, similar to the Illini’s Coleman Hawkins, and we just saw how that went — Clingan scored 22 points on just 12 shots. He could dominate offensively in that game again, but the main reason he’ll be the star is his defense. He’s going to make it really hard for Alabama to score at the rim, and then he’s going to be tasked with his biggest challenge of the year against Edey. If there’s anyone built to slow Edey, it’s Clingan. But if Edey wins that matchup and Purdue ends up the champion, then the answer is Edey. The real answer is the center on the team that ends up winning this, unless it’s somehow Alabama. And if that’s the case, then Sears will have made a gazillion 3s. — Moore

Favorite tournament moment so far?

Being careful with wording here, given my 13 years covering Kentucky. Let’s not call it favorite, rather most unforgettable moment of the tournament was “future insurance salesman” Jack Gohlke of Oakland drilling 10 3-pointers – some of them despite tight defense and absurd launch angles – to stun the Wildcats in the first round … only to sink six more in the second round and almost end NC State’s run. That performance by Gohlke, the Golden Grizzlies and their coach of 40 (!!!) years, Greg Kampe, is everything we love about the NCAA Tournament. And reason enough to leave the damn thing alone. – Tucker

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Oakland’s Jack Gohlke, the unlikely NCAA Tournament hero we never saw coming

In-person? Haven’t been privy to many epic moments, but Yale’s upset of Auburn was entertaining on many levels. Witnessing the underdog consume a favorite that very obviously underestimated them is always fun. James Jones is underrated as a head coach and earned a moment like that. Mostly, though, the absolute fire spit by Yale fans sitting directly behind me was hilariously stunning, be it directed at the opponent, the Bulldogs themselves or even Jones. Like these fans were mean. Angry. Like old men trying to return soup at a deli. Who knew! — Hamilton

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Yale beating Auburn is ‘what makes March Madness special’

Seeing Matt Painter advance to a Final Four and get to celebrate with Gene Keady and former Purdue star Robbie Hummel, who was there calling the game for radio. Dana O’Neil’s final section of her behind-the-scenes piece on Purdue’s run to the Final Four had me searching for tissues on my flight home Monday. Painter and that team has caught so much grief for the last year — if you don’t believe it, go look in the comments anytime we wrote about Purdue or ranked Purdue No. 1 — and a redemption story is just one of the best things sports has to offer. Witnessing Burns mania in person is a close second, but nothing beats the Purdue-Tennessee game, with Edey and Dalton Knecht trading buckets and momentum swinging back and forth, and the celebration after. — Moore

For info on tickets, click here.

(Top photo of Alabama’s Mark Sears, UConn’s Cam Spencer and NC State’s DJ Burns Jr.: Kirby Lee, Winslow Townson and Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)

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