College Basketball
Final Four predictions: Keys for each team to win, players to watch, more
College Basketball

Final Four predictions: Keys for each team to win, players to watch, more

Updated Mar. 27, 2023 6:46 p.m. ET

It seems like it was just the other day that we had 68 teams eager to dive into March Madness and show their championship mettle. Suddenly, there are only four left standing.

And the remaining field is composed of an interesting mix that will gather in Houston later this week — a traditional blue blood (UConn), two strong-but-unheralded 5-seeds (San Diego State, Miami) and a classic mid-major Cinderella (9-seed Florida Atlantic).

[2023 March Madness scheduled, times, TV info and more]

What should we make of it all? What must each team do to win its semifinal matchup? Which players must shine brightest on the biggest stage? Who will ultimately bring home the hardware?


Our college basketball writers Andy Katz, John Fanta and Michael Cohen share their thoughts, analysis and picks below.


What San Diego State must do to win this game …

Andy Katz: Impose their will. The Aztecs aren’t going to wow anyone offensively. But they did a great job of holding Creighton in check with 23 second-half points and 2-for-17 on 3s. FAU did make nine 3s against Kansas State. Of course, San Diego State has to score and that means Matt Bradley must get out of his slump. He only had two points in the Elite Eight win over Creighton. Nathan Mensah was a quality rim protector but he also needs to make an impact on the offensive end. This team has some offensive challenges that need to be met if they are going to play for the national title Monday night.

John Fanta: The Aztecs need to impose their defensive toughness on the game and make FAU uncomfortable on the perimeter. The Owls have the ability to get hot from the outside, converting on at least eight 3s in each of their NCAA Tournament victories. When the Owls are in sync offensively, it's imperative that Brian Dutcher's team finds enough in the halfcourt to score. That's been the ongoing question with this SDSU team, and while its defense has led the way, shot-making from Darrion Trammell and Lamont Butler will be key. 

Against a defense as strong as the Aztecs, you need some individual playmaking. FAU star Johnell Davis can be that guy for the Owls, although they have other options who can step up as well, with Alijah Martin and Bryan Greenlee combining for 33 points in the win over Kansas State. Entering Houston, Matt Bradley will be looking to snap out of a slump. In the last three games, SDSU's leading scorer has shot 6-for-27. Yes, it's a reflection of this team that they have more options to find offense when Bradley is cold, but Dutcher needs his lead man to respond.

Michael Cohen: San Diego State's coaching staff will have noticed how stout Florida Atlantic's interior defense was in a suffocating win over Kansas State at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. The discipline from head coach Dusty May's guards and wings to stick with their assignments and leave 7-foot-1 center Vladislav Goldin to protect the rim played a critical role in frustrating K-State point guard Markquis Nowell, who missed 13 of his 21 shots from the field. What this means is that a San Diego State squad ranked 179th in 3-point percentage (33.9%) and 277th in percentage of points scored from beyond the 3-point line (27.9%) will need to find ways to score in and around Goldin's hulking presence. The Aztecs have made 66.7% of their shots at the rim this season, a modest 4.2% improvement over the Division I average. Their numbers in the lane but away from the rim are even more pedestrian: a 43% conversion rate that is just 1.8% above the mean in college basketball this season. Those numbers will need to increase if San Diego State wants to play for the national title on Monday night. 

What Florida Atlantic must do to win this game …

John: Match San Diego State's physicality. On Sunday against Creighton, the Aztecs made the Yum! Center feel like it was hosting a steel cage match rather than a basketball game. It's imperative that FAU — much like it did against Kansas State — hangs in physically and doesn't get intimidated by Nathan Mensah, Aguek Arop & Co. on the interior. Goldin must battle with the Aztecs on the interior. 

It's also important that FAU uses its depth of scoring options in this game and generates tempo off stops. Facing San Diego State's halfcourt defense is a daunting task, as the Aztecs have held their four NCAA Tournament opponents to 16-for-88 from beyond the arc (18%). Dusty May needs to ride the hot hand of one of Davis (17.3 PPG in NCAA Tournament), Martin (17 vs. Kansas State), Greenlee or Nick Boyd. The Owls need to find ways to get on some scoring spurts. There's a 51-slot difference in KenPom (24 vs. 75) between these two programs, and I just don't think you're beating San Diego State at its own defensive game. Finding a way to eight 3s or more is pivotal.

Michael: It sounds simple, but the Owls need to make their free throws in what could be a low-scoring, grind-it-out affair between two teams ranked among the top 30 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Because Florida Atlantic relies so heavily on perimeter shooting, May's team doesn't get to the free-throw line very often and shoots a fairly pedestrian percentage (71.9%) in its limited opportunities. The Owls' average of 17.4 free-throw attempts per game ranks 200th nationally, and they've finished below that number in two of their four NCAA Tournament games thus far. But outside a Round of 32 win over Fairleigh Dickinson in which they shot 11-for-18 from the line, FAU has overperformed at the stripe on the sport's biggest stage. The Owls shot 8-for-11 against Memphis, 12-for-16 against Tennessee and 18-for-22 against Kansas State, including four critical makes from guard Michael Forrest to seal the win in the waning seconds. In a game against SDSU where points might come at a premium, Florida Atlantic will need to be much closer to the 77.6% mark from its three tournament wins than the 61.1% clip against FDU that might have harmed the Owls had they been facing a more dangerous opponent.

Andy: I was blown away by how tough Florida Atlantic was in the wins over Tennessee and Kansas State. Martin was extremely hard to guard and dunks with a ferocity not seen this season. The pieces fit for FAU. Everyone contributes. This is an incredibly selfless and resilient team. Dusty May has done a great job of keeping everyone in check. To beat SDSU they have to make 3s. They did it against Kansas State. They’re going to have to do it to beat the Aztecs. That means Davis and Greenlee making shots. Goldin needs to keep Mensah in check. This will be a bruising battle.

Prediction time! Who moves on to the championship game?

Michael: Having watched FAU in person at Madison Square Garden last week, there's a lot to like about the Owls. They play with remarkable confidence for a team without a bona fide NBA prospect and whose head coach is leading a team through the NCAA Tournament team for the first time. They have six players with at least 40 made 3-pointers and aren't afraid to let it fly. But perhaps most impressive is their size and physicality across the board. They have a genuine rim protector in Goldin and enough versatility to switch the other four positions on defense when opponents run screen-and-rolls. They're a mid-major team with the traits of a high-major winner, and that will get Florida Atlantic to the national championship game.

Andy: This is tough. I’m picking San Diego State, only because I think the Aztecs beat better competition to get to this point. Still, the Aztecs' inability to make shots scares me here. The moment might be a bit too big for FAU. They haven’t played on this stage. The Aztecs haven’t either, but they’re at least used to more packed houses and a big-time environment at home and on the road. I will lean SDSU.

John: I fully expect this game will go down to the wire, and that comes down to shot-making. As great as Trammell and Butler have been for San Diego State, there's just something about FAU. The Owls are a team of destiny, and the way they gutted out a win over a Kansas State team that had the top star of this tournament in Nowell, was yet another display of their composure. I'll take the Owls to hit a late 3 and come away with another magical win in an unprecedented run for the school.


What UConn must do to win this game …

Andy: UConn just have to be themselves. That means having Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan stay in their lane — rim protect, block shots, run the floor. Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson will have their hands full with Isaiah Wong and Nijel Pack. The bench for the Huskies is much deeper and more productive. Joey Calcaterra was a scorer for UConn and should be able to do the same thing. Alex Karaban also could be an X-factor for UConn. This is going to be a physical game as well, but the Huskies can play uptempo or in a grinder.

John: Keep defending at the level they've been on for the last month. Over the last seven games, Dan Hurley's Huskies have allowed just 61.7 points per game. As much as Sanogo, Hawkins and the playmaking ability of Jackson have powered this group offensively, that's become a given for Connecticut. Against Miami, the nation's No. 5 offense according to KenPom, staying glued to Wong, Pack, Jordan Miller and Wooga Poplar is going to be paramount for this team. The Hurricanes can be scary on that end of the floor, and have the ability to ride the hot hand of any one of those guys. Just look at Miller, who scored 27 points on 7-of-7 from the floor and 13-of-13 from the free throw line in Sunday's Elite Eight victory over Texas

The way Jackson serves as the head of the snake defensively can't be overstated, and UConn's ability to protect the rim with Sanogo and 7-foot-2 freshman Clingan makes them difficult to score on, but the point of the national semifinal contest is that you can't allow Miami to simply get comfortable and run its offense. If the Huskies contain Norchad Omier, they shouldn't have issues commanding the glass. It really comes down to keeping the Hurricanes' guards from getting to the places they want. The Huskies should not have issues scoring on the Hurricanes, but Jim Larrañaga's team wouldn't mind a playground-style game. That's where UConn's physicality comes into play.

Michael: Defend, just like John said. The Huskies will arrive at the Final Four ranked 11th in the country for defensive efficiency after clamping down in the second half of the season to resemble a prototypical Danny Hurley team at precisely the right time. But anyone who watched Connecticut during a mid-year stumble in which the Huskies lost five out of six knows the first thing that slipped was defense. Hurley's team, which allows just 64.4 points per game (12th in the country among schools from power conferences), surrendered 83 to Xavier, 73 to Providence, 82 to Marquette and 85 to St. John's in a little more than two weeks — all of which were losses — as outsiders began to wonder if a 14-0 start was merely a nonconference mirage. 

For as capable as Sanogo is defensively, Connecticut's most stifling lineups during their recent stretch of 13 wins in 15 games have featured true freshman Clingan at center. Clingan's combination of immense size and high-level timing make him an elite shot-blocker capable of dissuading what feels like twice as many shots as he swats. He offers Hurley an impact substitution on the defensive end of the floor, which is a luxury most teams don't have. The Huskies have married their explosive offense with an incredibly stingy defense that's allowed just 59.3 points per game against Iona, Saint Mary's, Arkansas and Gonzaga thus far. That's the kind of effort they'll need against a Miami team with four players averaging 13 points or more this season.

What Miami must do to win this game …

John: Find a way to keep Jackson and Tristen Newton from making plays for others. Yes, Hawkins and Sanogo have been fantastic for the Huskies, with Hawkins going for 44 points in the last two games and Sanogo averaging 20 and 10 in the Big Dance. As great as they've been, Connecticut's moving the ball so well collectively, and that goes back to Newton and Jackson setting people up to score. The duo combined for 14 of the team's 22 assists in the Sweet 16 rout of Arkansas. Jackson tallied 10 assists in the Elite Eight romping over Gonzaga. Teams sagging off on him defensively are now paying the price because Hurley has moved him around in the offense.

"We figured that out," Hurley said after Saturday's Elite Eight win. "That doesn't work anymore. To be honest with you … just took me too long to get Andre to the places where he could still be one of the biggest impact players in terms of winning and losing. There's not many players in the country that impact the game like this guy does. Once I got better as a coach and Andre, I wasn't putting him in a position to be successful. And since we've unlocked that code, he's been unbelievable."

Miami is going to have to find a way to dig in defensively in the halfcourt and keep UConn's playmakers from becoming comfortable running their offense. The other one is clear: Omier has to play big-boy basketball and attempt to negate Sanogo or get him in foul trouble. Finally, UConn's weakness can be point guard play. The ability of Pack and Wong to score in bunches and initiate the Hurricanes' attack comfortably is critical.

Michael: The Hurricanes need to prove that three is greater than two — as in, they need to make enough 3-pointers to offset whatever production Sanogo and Clingan can generate in the paint and, ideally, keep pace with UConn's bevy of perimeter shooters. Between Hawkins (104 made 3s), Alex Karaban (63), Joey Calcaterra (47), Newton (43) and Nahiem Alleyne (32), the Huskies are likely good for a minimum of 24 points from beyond the arc, which is already more than the Hurricanes' average of 22.5 points off 3-pointers this season. 

Their most reliable shooter is Pack, who made seven of 10 from 3-point range in the upset of No. 1 Houston in the Sweet 16. Pack has buried at least four 3s in 10 games this season, though he shot just 1-of-4 in Sunday's win over Texas. He's one of only two Hurricanes with more than 40 made 3s this season, with the other being Wong (59 made 3s). What they'll need on Saturday against Connecticut is an above-average showing from players like Miller (35.6%) and Poplar (38.4%), both of whom shoot reasonably effective percentages from beyond the arc, but whose attempts are far more scattered. If challenging Sanogo and Clingan in the paint is something Miami wishes to avoid, they'll need more than just Pack and Wong to get hot from beyond the arc.

Andy: The ‘Canes must have their guards win the battle of the perimeter. Pack and Wong have to be dominant on the ball. Omier is going to have his hands full. If the ‘Canes could get another big-time performance out of Miller (27 points) then they’ve got a real shot. Look, Miami won a piece of the ACC title. They just matched and beat Houston before taking down Texas. They ruined the Houston party. They can spoil UConn’s run to a championship in Houston again. There is no reason to doubt the ‘Canes ability to do it again.

Prediction time! Who moves on to the championship game?

Michael: It's unlikely Hurley and his staff will admit which team they preferred to face in the Final Four, either Texas or Miami, but it's fair to assume a group of Hurricanes ranked 104th in defensive efficiency was probably their choice. The Huskies are playing so well offensively that it's hard to imagine the seventh-best defense in a historically poor Atlantic Coast Conference giving Connecticut much of a problem. UConn continues to roll.

Andy: UConn. But I won’t be surprised if Miami pulls this off. The difference here for the ‘Canes is that coming back against Texas is easier than doing it against UConn. If Miami gets down to UConn then they are in real trouble. UConn has proven it can put the clamps on a team and run away. They’ve been dominant during this run to the title. This has been akin to North Carolina in 2009.

John: While Miami is the best all-around offense team that UConn has faced — no, I don't care what the metrics say about Gonzaga, the Canes have more options — I can't see the Huskies team that I watched in Vegas falling. UConn has the defensive edge in this game and will be the more physical team. If Jackson stays hot, Connecticut will win this game going away. Give me UConn by 10-15.


Give us your predictions for an All-Final-Four starting five.


Adama Sanogo, center, Connecticut
Jordan Hawkins, guard, Connecticut
Alijah Martin, guard, Florida Atlantic 
Vladislav Goldin, center, Florida Atlantic
Jordan Miller, guard, Miami


Jordan Miller, Miami
Adama Sonogo, UConn
Jordan Hawkins, UConn
Johnell Davis, FAU
Nathan Mensah, SDSU


Isaiah Wong, guard, Miami 
Jordan Hawkins, guard, UConn 
Johnell Davis, guard, Florida Atlantic 
Adama Sanogo, center, UConn
Nathan Mensah, center, San Diego State 

Who will ultimately be the face of this tournament?

John: Adama Sanogo. The Connecticut big man is not only producing at a high level, but his personality lends itself to taking over the national headlines next weekend in Houston. Don't believe me? On Saturday, he said his plan was simple: to win two more games for the national championship, then head into the next chapter of his career wherever that may be. Even though he was quieter in the scoring column on Saturday, Sanogo still showed off his total skill set with 10 points, 10 rebounds and four assists against the Zags. In four games on the Big Dance floor, he's tallied 80-and-40. I'm calling for Sanogo to be the face of One Shining Moment this year! 

Michael: The UConn program. Given the incredible regression during the last few years of former coach Kevin Ollie's tenure — a stretch in which the Huskies never finished better than fifth in the American Athletic Conference and, eventually, were mired in an NCAA scandal — it's easy to forget Connecticut has won more national titles (four) than anyone else in the last 25 years. The nature of this year's run through the NCAA Tournament has reminded college basketball fans what this program was like at its best under Hall-of-Fame coach Jim Calhoun, whose teams advanced to the Elite Eight or better eight times between 1995 and 2011. Three of those years resulted in national titles: in 1999 with Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin; in 2004 with Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon; in 2011 with Kemba Walker. Now Hurley is in charge, and blitzing through the first four games has catapulted the Huskies back to the sport's biggest stage.

Andy: Sanogo. There is no one like him in the Final Four. He’s a dominant post player who can also take his game outside. He can block shots, he’s got great size, strength and will be the difference maker.

Who wins it all?

Michael: No team has been more impressive during the first two weeks of the tournament than Connecticut, a program on the verge of bookending its season with remarkably efficient demolitions of quality opponents. The high-level play they exhibited in nonconference blastings of Oregon (83-59), Alabama (82-67), Iowa State (71-53) and Florida (75-54) has resurfaced during four breeze-like performances in the NCAA Tournament with a scoring margin of plus-90. Miami, Florida Atlantic and San Diego State all made it to Houston for a reason, but that doesn't mean they're good enough to upend the Huskies. Hurley will become the third straight coach at UConn to win a national title. 

Andy: UConn. The Huskies will have their coach win a national title. Jim Calhoun won in 1999, 2004 and 2011. Kevin Ollie did so in 2014 — in Houston. Dan Hurley will/should win in 2023 in Houston, as well. They are the best team. Being the best team hasn’t equated to winning a single game in this event. Still, none of the teams in the Final Four have been as dominant as UConn. This is the Huskies' title to lose.

John: It's interesting that 17 years after Jim Larrañaga and George Mason stunned Jim Calhoun's Huskies in the Elite Eight, the 73-year-old leads Miami into the Final Four against … UConn.

FAU, San Diego State and Miami are all great stories, and nothing would surprise me next weekend in Houston because look at the season we have had. For the first time since 1970, there are three members in the Final Four participating for the first time. There are four combined national championships within the group. All of them belong to the same program, which will win its fifth this week in my opinion.

Dan Hurley climbs the mountaintop and Connecticut re-establishes itself as king of the college basketball world on Monday night in Houston.

Andy Katz is a longtime college basketball writer, analyst and host. He can be seen on the Big Ten Network, as well as March Madness and, and he hosts the podcast "March Madness 365." Katz worked at ESPN for nearly two decades and, prior to that, in newspapers for nine years.

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.

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

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