A look at the unexpected Final Four lineup in the NCAA men’s tournament

If there was ever an NCAA tournament that earned the name “March Madness,” this one is it. For the first time, all four No. 1 seeds in the men’s tournament failed to reach the Elite Eight or the Final Four, and no one expected the teams that remain. Nicole Auerbach, senior writer for The Athletic, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss what might explain some of these results.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    If there was ever an NCAA Tournament that earned the name March Madness, this is it, particularly on the men's side.

    For the first time, all four number one seeds failed to reach the Elite Eight or the Final Four. In fact, it's the first time since 1979 that a number one, two or three seed failed to make it to the Final Four.

    No one expected the teams that remain, Miami, San Diego State, the University of Connecticut, and Florida Atlantic. The Florida Atlantic Owls never even won an NCAA Tournament game before this run.

    Let's talk about the men's tournament so far and what might explain some of these results.

    Nicole Auerbach is a senior writer for The Athletic. She joins me now.

    Nicole, welcome.

    And the first thing I just have to ask you, out of curiosity, is, how is your bracket doing? Because mine is terrible, but you do this for a living? How's it going?

  • Nicole Auerbach, The Athletic:

    Oh, it's going probably even worse than yours.

    I always like to pick a couple upsets, but I picked the wrong ones this year. I had no Final Four teams alive as of last weekend. So, at that point, I just root for the underdog, just like most of America in this situation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Help us understand what's going on this tournament.

    We saw a 16 seed knock off a number one seed, first time since 2018 that' happened, when Fairleigh Dickinson beat Purdue. That was in the first round. There's been a number of other upsets. What's going on? What explains this chaos?

  • Nicole Auerbach:

    It's a great question.

    And I think, depending on which coaches or athletic directors you talk to you, they will come up with different answers. But we have seen a lot more double-digit seeds pulling off upsets. And we have now seen three 15 seeds in recent years make it all the way to the Sweet 16.

    And you can look at the parity in the sport and look at the transfer portal. You're seeing a lot of player movement in men's college basketball. And one player makes such a big difference in this sport. You're seeing coaches turn over rosters when they make changes.

    So Jerome Tang at Kansas State only had two players this time last year and brought in everybody else that ultimately built an Elite Eight runs. So it's part of that, is, you're having talent dispersed to more places, because guys are not just going to sit on the bench.

    And maybe they're also going to move down a level or up a level or laterally. But it's creating some interesting teams in interesting places, as well as name, image and likeness payments, creating maybe more opportunities at schools that are outside of the blue bloods, where you can have your value, you can put some money in your pocket and maybe take a team to the NCAA Tournament.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tell me a little bit more about the NIL rules and how they have impacted the game, because I think there was a lot of questions around how that would change team makeups and how that could change a tournament in the end.

    Where have we seen that make a difference?

  • Nicole Auerbach:

    Well, the rich are getting richer in certain places, for sure.

    But if you're a hometown kid, and there's a school closer to home that has some NIL opportunities, maybe you could be the biggest deal in town. We have also seen some of the programs that are still left, including Miami, be something of a poster child for NIL, because they have a mega-booster who really jumped into this space with both feet.

    And we know that there were deals made for the men's basketball team and for the women's basketball team. So you know that these players are being compensated for their NIL deals, while also playing. And people worried that it was going to tear locker rooms apart, but we have seen with Miami they have been able to get to their first Final Four even so.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, when you look at the teams in the Final Four now, you have got Florida Atlantic playing San Diego State, Miami playing UConn. What are you expecting from these games?

  • Nicole Auerbach:

    Well, anyone who says that they know how this is going to go is probably wrong. We have seen that repeatedly over and over, over the last couple of weeks.

    But I do think UConn will be the heavy favorite here. This is the one program of the four that has actually been to this stage before. And last time they made it to the Final Four, they won it all. They have been playing really, really well. They have been steamrolling their opponents throughout the tournament.

    But it's so hard to count out a team like at FAU or a San Diego State with the defense and the style of play that they play. They have presented unique matchup problems for each of their opponents so far.

    So I would say it's UConn's tournament to lose. But I have said that about a few different teams at different points throughout this tournament. So that means that chaos could still reign.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nicole, big picture, when you take a step back and you look at how this tournament has unfolded, is the reign of the blue bloods teams, is that over?

  • Nicole Auerbach:

    Well, it's probably not, because we had a basically all blue blood final for the last year.

    So it's hard to say that one year is a trend or it's just an aberration. But I do think this tournament has reminded us why we love this tournament so much. We have seen the early round upsets, but you don't always get a team like a Florida Atlantic that gets all the way this far. They had never won an NCAA Tournament game until a week-and-a-half ago.

    And so to think about them on this stage, that's something that's unprecedented. And this is one of the collections of Final Fours, as you mentioned, without a one, two or three seed. That's never happened. But the seed totals are also incredibly high, except for some of the years that we have seen the Butler and UConn make the Final Four before.

    You don't usually get this much chaos, but I think you can make an argument, based on a 15 seed getting to a Sweet 16, a 16 beating a 1, and then so many of these thrillers, overtime games, just the quality of matchups that we have seen, that this is one of the greatest NCAA Tournaments ever.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A lot of great games. They have been a lot of fun to watch.

    That is Nicole Auerbach, senior writer for The Athletic, joining us tonight.

    Nicole, good to see you.

  • Nicole Auerbach:

    Yes, thanks for having me.

    And, later this week, we will have much more on the women's NCAA Tournament, in which history was made last night. Caitlin Clark propelled Iowa to the Final Four with 41 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists, the first 40-point triple-double ever in any NCAA Tournament game, men's or women's.

    The rest of the women's Final Four will be decided in tonight's games.

    Go, Maryland.


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