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Party crashers usher in a new Final Four era

party-crashers-usher-in-a-new-final-four-era

The notion that San Diego State and Florida Atlantic would meet for a spot in the NCAA Tournament title game would have been scoffed at earlier this month.

The Aztecs had never advanced past the Sweet 16 and the Owls didn’t own a single NCAA Tournament victory.

Both schools are now two victories away from the most unexpected “One Shining Moment” in college basketball history.

Fifth-seeded San Diego State and ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic, who play Saturday, are joined in the Final Four by fifth-seeded Miami and fourth-seeded UConn.

Not a single 1, 2 or 3 seed is alive. Not a single blueblood. Not a single team from the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC.

Welcome to the all-comers era of college basketball.

Having a Final Four filled with bracket wreckers is new ground but it likely isn’t an aberration. Once we’ve seen one Final Four like this, we can count on it happening again. To fuel it, we need epic upsets.

Having 1 and 2 seeds go down quickly (Purdue, Arizona in the first round; Kansas and Marquette in the second) helped create paths for the underdogs. No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson’s takedown of Purdue was a major development for Florida Atlantic.

In the Sweet 16, San Diego State (Alabama) and Miami (Houston) bulldozed through the remaining No. 1 seeds.

Bigger than the bracket disarray is that the transfer portal and the NIL (name, image, likeness) era are major equalizers. College basketball’s free agency, so to speak, is helping the little guys and mid-major programs who previously had trouble competing on the same level as upper-echelon schools.

The transfer portal has freed up constant movement where players can find better situations and coaches can fix recruiting misses, while NIL cleared the way for athletes to receive compensation for their services.

Elite programs no longer own a monopoly on top players.

“The biggest brands with the most national championships and the most NBA players, that was the huge advantage,” said UConn coach Dan Hurley, who got starter Tristen Newton (East Carolina) and three key reserves from the portal. “You don’t really have that in recruiting anymore with NIL, and with the transfer portal.”

Miami has scored big in the portal. The Hurricanes landed third-leading scorer Nijel Pack (formerly at Kansas State), helped by a company called LifeWallet giving Pack a two-year, $800,000 deal plus a car. Pack is one of three transfer starters for the Hurricanes, along with Jordan Miller (George Mason) and Norchad Omier (Arkansas State).

“I’m going to coach my team, my players to the best of my ability, and I hope they get as many great deals as they can because I think eventually they have to learn how to handle money,” said Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga, now the Wizard of Miami for leading the school to its first Final Four.

San Diego State advanced to the Final Four when Darrion Trammell made the winning free throw with 1.2 seconds left against Creighton. Trammell was plucked from the transfer portal. Four of San Diego State’s top five scorers are transfers, including leader Matt Bradley (Cal).

The school has a long history of drawing transfers. Malcolm Thomas (Pepperdine) was Kawhi Leonard’s running mate on the 2011 Sweet 16 team, Xavier Thames (Washington State) was the star of the 2014 Sweet 16 squad and All-American Malachi Flynn (Washington State) was the leader of the 30-2 team that didn’t get to play in the 2020 NCAA Tournament, which was halted by COVID-19.

“I think we’ve been ahead of the curve in the transfer market before the portal existed,” Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher said. ” The transfer portal has changed the game probably more than anything else. And, obviously, NIL. We’ll continue to see what happens with that as we move forward, what that does to the game and parity.”

Florida Atlantic has transfer starters Vladislav Goldin (Texas Tech) and Bryan Greenlee (Minnesota) as it tries to replace No. 8 Villanova in 1985 as the lowest seed to win the national title.

“Obviously we’re going to use it at times,” Owls coach Dusty May said. “We’re still going to recruit high school players, we’re going to recruit junior college players, we’re going to recruit the players that are best for us, whether it’s the transfer portal or whatever case.”

This surprise foursome is a product of the new era. The higher seeds may be back to running March Madness next season but the potential for multiple teams seeded five or lower to crash the Final Four is now real.

The Let’s Make A Deal era is just beginning, making it clear the occasional wacky Final Four is part of the landscape.

–Mike Sullivan, Field Level Media

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