8:49 PM EST, CBS – Line: UConn -5.5, Over/Under: 149.5
The final ticket to Monday night’s National Champion is set to be punched, as the fifth-seeded Miami Hurricanes face off against the fourth-seeded Connecticut Huskies in what is clearly the more anticipated of these two Final Four matchups from NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. As we’ve seen year after year, some coaches are simply better prepared for March than others, and (Head Coach) Jim Larranaga is one of those men, as he has led Miami (29-7, 15-5 in ACC) to their first Final Four in school history. Of course, Larranaga rose to prominence back in 2006 when he guided George Mason to one of the most celebrated Cinderella runs in the history of the NCAA Tournament, knocking off THREE bluebloods, including Michigan State, North Carolina, and ironically (top overall seed) Connecticut. With his name cemented in the memory of the national consciousness, the Bronx native would eventually take his talents to South Beach, where he has been a boon to the Hurricanes’ basketball program, winning both the ACC Regular Season and Tournament Titles in just his second year on the job. In the ten years that have passed, Larranaga has taken the U to the big dance five times, including back-to-back trips to the Elite Eight, before participating in their first National Semifinal tonight. The experts will tell you that you want to be playing your best basketball during the tourney, and while that sounds like an obvious statement, it’s absolutely true, and the ‘Canes appear to be peaking at the right time; the newly-minted ACC Champions are building quite the head of steam, beating their opponents by an average margin of 11.0 points on 47.2% shooting from the field, though have really gutted them from downtown, where they’ve netted a razor-sharp 37.8% of their treys, while putting in plenty of work on the defensive end of the hardwood in allowing just 42.1% shooting overall, including 32.4% from three, and outrebounding the opposition 34.8-29.5. Furthermore, they’ve been getting to the charity stripe with ease, knocking down 18.8 free-throws per contest in comparison to 10.8 from the opposition, with that differential weighing HEAVILY in their latest effort. When we last saw Miami, they followed their stunning blowout of top-seeded Houston with another upset of a Lone Star State resident, besting (2 Seed) Texas, 88-81. Unlike their throttling of the Cougars, the Hurricanes were put in a corner by the Longhorns, who led by as many as twelve points early in the second half, only for the U to finish the affair on a decisive 30-13 run over the final ten minutes of action. The key here was their defensive pressure and their ability to lengthen the game by getting to the charity stripe; the ‘Horns were relegated to only five field goals during that span, while EIGHTEEN of the ‘Canes thirty points came at the line, including eleven within the final four minutes of play. This proved to be the difference in a game in which both teams shot 50.0% or better from the field, with Larranaga’s troops netting an insane 59.2% overall, including 27-of-42 within the arc (65.9%) and 28-of-32 free-throws (87.5%), outscoring their opponent by SEVENTEEN points. All five starters scored in double-figures, ironically led by (Senior Guard) Jordan Miller (pictured above), a George Mason transfer who erupted for twenty-seven points on a perfect 7-of-7 shooting and 13-of-13 from the stripe. Sunday’s victory marked the third straight game in which a different player tallied twenty-six or more points, with (Sophomore Guard) Nijel Pack shredding Houston from the perimeter for twenty-six on Friday night, after (Junior Guard) Isaiah Wong posted twenty-seven points in their 85-69 romp over (4 Seed) Indiana in the second round. From a betting perspective, Miami is a stellar 22-14 overall this season against the spread, having covered the spread in each of their four outings in the big dance. The Hurricanes have reveled in being an underdog, outright winning all but three of their ten games this season when given points by the oddsmakers, which has been the case in each of the three previous rounds of this tournament. They’ve also THRIVED away from home this season, covering all but one of their last ten trips away from Coral Gables, including each of the last five. As a former member of the Big East, the ‘Canes and Huskies have butted heads on twenty-five occasions, though tonight will mark just their third encounter since leaving the conference back in 2004. The U have won just eight of these meetings, with their most recent coming in 2003. The aforementioned Wong is the only player to have featured in their most recent matchup, a 55-80 blowout back in 2020, with the newly minted ACC Player of the Year totaling seven points and three assists in twenty minutes off the bench. Finally breaking through to their first Final Four in school history, Larranaga & Co are looking to go the distance, setting up a potential all-Sunshine State matchup in Monday night’s National Final against (9 Seed) Florida Atlantic, who battle (5 Seed) San Diego State earlier this evening.
Meanwhile, it’s been a while, but Connecticut (29-8, 13-7 in Big East) is back, ladies and gentlemen, and they have designs on reaching the heights that they routinely secured throughout the first fifteen years of the century. Indeed, when thinking about powerhouse programs, the Huskies may not immediately come to mind, but few were better from 1990-2014; amassing a stellar 634-217 record (.745), UConn won TEN Big East Regular Season Titles, SEVEN Conference Tournaments, advanced to FOURTEEN Sweet Sixteens, and FIVE Final Fours, with FOUR National Championships to their credit, which is more than UCLA, Kentucky, Kansas, and North Carolina during that span, trailing only Duke in terms of supremacy on the hardwood. Now in his fifth campaign in Storrs, (Head Coach) Dan Hurley has successfully awoken this sleeping giant, steering them to their first season with at least twenty-eight victories since 2014 and their first trip to the Final Four in nearly a decade. Momentum is a key ingredient for success in the NCAA Tournament, and this team has that in spades at the moment, for you would be hard-pressed to find a group left in the field playing more impressive basketball than these dogs. Winners of ten of their final thirteen games heading into the big dance, the Huskies have been something else in this competition, hammering the opposition by an average margin of 22.5 points, shooting a white-hot 49.6% from the field and 41.8% from beyond the arc, while dishing out a very healthy 20.5 assists in comparison to committing 10.8 turnovers, and owning the glass on a +12.3-rebounding differential. As was the case with past incarnations of this team, Hurley has size and length throughout the roster, particularly in the frontcourt, where opponents have only been able to muster 45.0% shooting within the arc (16th Overall) this season. There are playmakers in the backcourt too, with (Sophomore Swingman) Jordan Hawkins looking like a future NBA talent, with 18.7 points on 47.1% shooting, including a scintillating 54.2% from downtown, along with 2.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists over the last three contests. When we last saw Connecticut, history repeated itself as they bested Gonzaga in an Elite Eight matchup to advance to the Final Four. Indeed, these two schools met in the 1999 West Regional Final, though the roles were reversed: the Huskies were the heavy favorites, while the Zags were the inspiring underdogs. Whereas that affair was a tightly contested one, this one was not, as UConn embarrassed the WCC Champions in an 82-54 drubbing that continued to open eyes to how good this team has become. Despite shooting just 41.7% from the field, Hurley’s troops dealt in quantity over quality, manhandling the Bulldogs on the glass (45-36), with a 13-3 advantage on the offensive end that helped lead to twelve more field goal attempts. They also were convincingly more effective from the perimeter, where they knocked down 11-of-31 treys (35.5%), outscoring their opponent by TWENTY-SEVEN points. However, it was their defense that made the biggest difference, as one of the best offensive teams in the country would have failed to throw the ball into the Pacific Ocean on 33.3% shooting overall. After torching Arkansas for twenty-four points, the aforementioned Hawkins (pictured above) did it again, shredding the Zags for twenty points with all but two coming from beyond the arc on 6-of-10 shooting (60.0%). (Junior Forward) Adama Sanogo and the Huskies’ other bigs neutralized Drew Timme, who had averaged 28.3 points on 62.1% shooting coming into Saturday night’s affair but could muster just a dozen points on 5-of-12 shooting (35.7%) when this one was finished. From a betting perspective, Connecticut is an excellent 25-11-1 overall this season against the spread, having won and covered all but one of their last ten games regardless of the venue, including each of their four outings in the big dance. Being a favorite has been good to the Huskies and those who have wagered on them, as they have covered a near-perfect nine of their last ten games when laying points to their opponent. Furthermore, UConn is 5-0-1 in over their last six NCAA Tournament affairs in which they’ve been favored by 0.5-6.5 points, which is the case tonight. As we touched upon earlier, these schools used to meet on a regular basis when they were both residents of the mighty Big East before the conference was picked apart (thanks, College Football). Connecticut has taken seventeen of the twenty-five encounters, including each of the last three with none of them being particularly close; these matchups have been decided by an average of 17.0 points per game, with the most recent, an 80-55 blowout in an early season invitational, is the only one to feature Hurley and Larranaga matching wits with each other.