College Basketball
Final Four 2023: It's a different kind of field this time, and that's good for the sport
College Basketball

Final Four 2023: It's a different kind of field this time, and that's good for the sport

Updated Mar. 29, 2023 10:57 a.m. ET

A year ago, all eyes were on New Orleans for a Final Four for the ages. 

North Carolina.

In what was Mike Krzyzewski's final act, what turned into Jay Wright's last dance, what was Hubert Davis' surprise run, and what resulted in Bill Self climbing the mountaintop again, the TV ratings and drama surrounding the weekend were massive for the sport.

This week in Houston won't land as the headline topic on debate shows. It doesn't have the same juice as last year. But it's in the sharp contrast of this season where college basketball can deliver what college football and others can't: an endless amount of parity.


In no other categorization would you see the University of Connecticut, the University of Miami, Florida Atlantic University and San Diego State University paired as a foursome. Who could have seen it coming? Nobody. 

But in a world of more than 1,700 transfers last offseason — that number isn't going to change much, by the way — and NIL entering the equation, winning in college basketball comes down to so much more than the one-and-done stars or the traditional blue bloods. Those big brand programs like Duke, Kentucky, UNC and Kansas? We'll see them in Final Fours again down the road, but for this season and this week in Houston, college hoops should be celebrated for the shot it offers programs that carry different statuses.

"This Final Four demonstrates the parity in college basketball," Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga said in his Zoom press conference on Monday. "It demonstrates the transfer portal in college basketball, and how you can get more experienced quickly." 

Sure, Larrañaga said that it's not a Final Four you would want to necessarily have every year because part of being a fan of college basketball is being able to identify with the top programs. But he went on to state that the situation gives everybody hope. 

"The portal allows you the ability to accelerate the level of experience you have," Larrañaga said. "Right now, in this sport, anybody can beat anybody." 

Just ask Purdue and Arizona, who bowed out to FDU and Princeton in the first round.

In college football, Georgia, Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Michigan will dominate the sport's hierarchy until further notice. In college basketball, we've seen 16 different schools account for the 16 spots in the last four editions of the Final Four!

The unknown is real, year in and year out.

Examining this edition of the Final Four, though, let's not act like there's an 11- or 12-seed that totally came out of nowhere to reach this point. All four of these teams are more than deserving of being in Houston, whether they move the needle for your fandom or not.

Connecticut started the season 14-0 and was ranked No. 2 in the country at one point. Larrañaga even said Monday that the Huskies are a blue blood program. And if UConn wins the national championship, it would be its fifth since 1999. Nobody else in the sport possesses more than three in that span. Dan Hurley's team has an elite big man in Adama Sanogo, a top-tier NBA Draft prospect in Jordan Hawkins and a core filled with firepower.

Miami was in the Elite Eight a year ago. I'm not sure if I have ever seen a team that went that far in the NCAA Tournament a year ago and only lose five times total in Atlantic Coast Conference play, then somehow be considered a huge surprise to advance a step further this year the following season. The Canes have as talented a backcourt as anybody in college hoops and that's been on display all season long.

FAU has played 38 games and won 35 of them. The Owls are 11-1 in games decided by five points or fewer. The program ranks in the top 30 in KenPom metrics measuring both offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency. They have knocked down at least eight 3-pointers in each NCAA Tournament game. Sure, they're a 9-seed, but the moment they were put in Purdue's region, one had to think they could be in an 8/9 situation to win multiple games.

San Diego State is a team of grown men, and Brian Dutcher brought virtually everybody back from last season while adding Darrion Trammell and Jaedon LeDee to the mix. Are the Aztecs pretty or glamorous in their style? No, but they aren't offended by that. They win their way, and aren't susceptible to getting blown out because of how hard they play. To be 31-6 on the season reflects just how difficult they've been to beat, and while the win over Alabama surprised us all, that record and their makeup serve as evidence to how they've done it. To hold four opponents to 18% from 3-point land exemplifies the fact that it's not coincidence that they are here — SDSU is genuinely a nightmare to face.

Will this collection of teams produce the same amount of discussion points as past Final Fours? Probably not, and nobody will argue otherwise. But if we're going to call it March Madness, it shouldn't be conditional for only the first weekend!

Often, the argument is made that early upsets make for a worse tournament down the road. But three of the four Elite Eight games this season were filled with drama. Creighton/San Diego State went to the final possession, as did Kansas State/Florida Atlantic. In Texas/Miami, the Longhorns were up 13 with as many minutes left in the game and the Hurricanes put up an all-time comeback.

These surprises and unexpected developments? Yes, they're happening, but it's not come with a lack of great finishes and heroic performances.

This year provides one of the sport's most successful programs in Connecticut, the program that's sprung off NIL in Miami, the program of "get old, stay old" in San Diego State and the balanced group with the former Indiana manager as the head coach in FAU.

It's different. It's not the norm. But it shouldn't be condemned.

College basketball should be celebrated for the twists and turns it has the ability to deliver that other sports have to wish they could replicate from time to time. If this tournament has been any indication, I'd be willing to bet that there are more on the way.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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