#11 NC State vs. #1 Purdue
NC State has gone from a 17-14 team at the close of the season that was threatened by a terrible Louisville team and needed a free throw and a buzzer beater to get by Virginia. Without their five wins in the ACC Tournament, they wouldn’t have been in the tournament at all. Once in the tournament, Texas Tech, Oakland, Marquette, and Duke got front row seats to the DJ Burns show. Burns, who has become a March hero, has scored 73 points in the tournament so far. The 6’9”, 275lb big man has been a matchup nightmare and knows how to use his size to his advantage, while still showing skills uncommon for a man of his size. DJ Horne at guard has given NC State the one-two punch they needed to make a deep run, and despite being in the shadow of Burns, has been awesome in his own right.
Purdue, on the other hand, always expected to be here. They’ve been one of the three best teams in the country essentially all season. Hoping to exorcise the demons of last season, Matt Painter and company have gone through Grambling, Utah State, Gonzaga, and Tennessee. Zach Edey has shown throughout the tournament why he is considered the best player in college basketball. He’s averaged an incredible 30 points, 16.25 rebounds, and 1.75 blocks per game in the tournament. He’s been absolutely unguardable in the process. He has attempted 64 field goals in the tournament and 54 free throws. In his most recent game, a win against Tennessee, he had a 40 point, 16 rebound game.

Keys to the Game

This almost seems too obvious. The two teams are led by a dominating big man and a guard that is able and willing to fill it up as well. DJ Horne and DJ Burns vs. Zach Edey and Fletcher Loyer for a spot in the championship game. Purdue’s guards (Loyer, Braden Smith, and Lance Jones) can all take turns being the impact guard on the floor, but Loyer was aggressive in the Tennessee game and looks poised to take on the role of second option. That’s not to say that this game is going to be a college version of NBA Jam with it being straight two-on-two, as there are plenty of talented players on both of these rosters, but the game will likely come down to which pairing wins the battle. Edey, despite a physical brand of basketball, is extremely skilled at avoiding foul trouble. If one of the bigs can get the other in foul trouble, it would go a long way to helping that team end up on top. I would say it’s more likely Edey wins that battle. Purdue is more well balanced in that when defenses collapse on Edey, they have a lot of shooters, but NC State has a more dynamic guard in Horne. The duo that plays better (the DJ’s vs. Edey & Loyer) should win the game for their side. The bet here is Purdue.

Prediction: #1 Purdue71 – #11 NC State 58

#4 Alabama vs. #1 UConn
In their first Final Four appearance in school history, Alabama enters having the highest scoring team in the country and they attempt the fourth most threes. As a result, they can pile up points in a hurry and make it nearly impossible for teams to keep pace. Mark Sears, their electrifying point guard, averages 24.25 points per game over the first four games of the tournament. The team as a whole is averaging nearly 90 points per game. The question with the Tide is, what do they do when the outside shot isn’t falling? The one game in the tournament that they failed to make ten threes (Grand Canyon) Alabama only scored 72 points. They cannot afford that in the game against UConn.

UConn has looked like a juggernaut. After winning the title last season and saying goodbye to their best players, they reloaded and are easily the most talented team in this field. Tristen Newton and Cam Spencer are two senior guards that provide strong leadership and do a little bit of everything for the Huskies. Donovan Clingan, meanwhile, is a 7’2” big that has two double-doubles in the tournament, including a 14 point, 14 rebound, 8 block game against Northwestern. Looking at every team left in the field, they each have a glaring weakness, but UConn does not. They are the most well-rounded team in the field. They have a very real chance to be the first repeat champion since Florida in 2006 and 2007.

Keys to the Game

Alabama must hit threes to be in this game, and UConn cannot allow them to go off from deep. If Alabama can stretch the court and allow Grant Nelson to attack Clingan off the bounce, they have a chance, but they have to at bare minimum make double digit threes. More likely, they will need 14 or 15 to win. For UConn, they need to get Clingan involved early and often. Grant Nelson and Nick Pringle will struggle to match his size and physicality. UConn allows fewer than 6 threes against them per game, so if they can take away the three, and utilize Clingan’s shot blocking, they will be in good shape.
Prediction: #1 UConn 77 – #4 Alabama 71

Potential Championship Matchup

This tournament has represented the year of the big man. Zach Edey, Donovan Clingan, and DJ Burns have been awesome all tournament long. It’s only fitting that the championship come down to Edey vs. Clingan. This would be a game that could represent the game of the tournament. These are two teams that have been considered elite all year and have both been dominant for stretches. With a combined 68-7 record, these two teams have been able to win using multiple different styles all season long. UConn has the more balanced squad, while Purdue has the best player in college basketball all season. Purdue is reliant on Edey, and UConn is one of the few teams that can come close to matching his size. Neither Clingan or Edey get in foul trouble generally, so either or both bigs can go off for big nights or one can get in foul trouble and take the other team out of their game plan. Worst case scenario is they both get in foul trouble and the game becomes ugly as both teams have to adapt on the fly. My guess? This is a high level game that leaves no doubt that both of these teams are good enough to win a title. My original prediction was UConn to win it all, and as good as Purdue has looked, I’m not going away from it now.
Prediction: #1 UConn 85 – #1 Purdue 80

Top 5 Prospects

1. Stephon Castle, UConn
It might seem a bit strange that the best prospect didn’t even get mentioned above, but that goes to show how deep this UConn team really is. Castle is a 6’6” freshman guard that averages 10.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game. He has an NBA frame for a wing player and projects to develop into a good wing player. He doesn’t shoot the ball very well, making only 26% of his 2 attempts per game, so he will need to develop his shot to be viable long-term, but he scored double digits in 18 of his 32 games despite being unable to score from outside reliably. Castle has some very real ability, he just needs to continue to develop.

2. Donovan Clingan, UConn
Clingan has the size and skill to be a rotation player in the NBA. While the league has gone away from giant post players, he could provide shot blocking as he blocked 2.5 shots per game this year. He showed progress this year as his role on the team expanded after Adama Sonogo left. He shot 64% from the field this year and was efficient around the rim because of his good positioning on that end. He could be a Jakob Poeltl type center for a team in the league, or even a slower version of Walker Kessler.

3. Zach Edey, Purdue
Again, while the league is moving away from post-centric big men, it’s difficult to watch what Edey is doing to the best college teams in the country and not see him being able to have a role in the league. Is he a starting caliber center in the NBA? Probably not, as there will be some matchups where it becomes difficult to play him. But his size and strength is exceptional and he has a soft touch on his shots from the low post, and is really good at going over either shoulder. He will need to have more of a focus on protecting the rim than what’s shown in college, but in college the team can’t afford to have him on the bench. He will have more freedom to look to block shots at the next level when he’s a role player instead of the main attraction. He will need to find the right fit, but he’s an intriguing prospect.

4. Tristen Newton, UConn
A 6’5” guard that lead’s UConn’s attack, leading them in scoring and assists, while also being second in rebounding. He’s got the kind of mentality that will help him find a role at the NBA level. He can do a lot of things well and while his three point shooting has been up and down over his collegiate career, he has shown the ability to knock down shots. He’s a reliable guard that projects as a guard that can come in off the bench and be a jack-of-all-trades type.

5. Alex Karaban, UConn
A 6’8” sophomore forward, Karaban is a smooth shooting wing that has the type of build NBA team love. He’s scoring 13.5 points per game, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.4 assists. He’s not likely to ever be a star player at the next level, but he could absolutely be a Corey Kispert style of player. He is still young and knows how to win and play a role. With his length, he should be a prototypical 3-and-D wing for somebody this time next year.


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