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Five months of unrelenting competition comes to a conclusion Monday when the San Diego State Aztecs play the Connecticut Huskies in the March Madness championship game.
UConn is a heavy favorite, having dominated every opponent that it faced thus far—but the name March Madness was not bestowed upon the NCAA Tournament unfittingly, and the Aztecs are 40 minutes of solid basketball away from sending a reminder to the world.
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Connecticut has been a wrecking ball in the NCAA Tournament, delivering crippling blows to all of its opponents and bracket naysayers alike. That should come as little surprise to a team that ranked first in statistics site KenPom’s overall rankings and third in ESPN’s basketball power index (BPI) but only managed to earn a four seed in the West Region.
The Huskies are dangerous because they excel in every facet of the game. Their offense is well-drilled and executes sets to perfection, their defense is structured and active, and they are relentless on the glass. They also have the perfect blend of personnel to execute the tactics they set out to enact.
On top of that, UConn has at worst the two best players in the national championship: Adama Sanogo and Jordan Hawkins (more on them in a moment). That means that the team has an advantage player-for-player, in the coaching department, and has fewer weaknesses than SDSU. It isn’t hard to understand why they’re favored.
Sanogo is on a fast track to winning Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament if his team can secure just one more win. His season averages are 17.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, and a 60.7% shooting split from the field. He also went 2-3 from three-point land against No. 5 Miami in the Final Four, with both makes coming in the opening three minutes and change, which provided an early momentum boost for his squad.
Hawkins is Sanogo’s running mate and one of the best second options there is in college basketball. He averages 16.2 points and 3.8 rebounds per game and makes nearly 39% of his three-point attempts. He scored 13 points and went 3-7 from three in only 26 minutes in the Miami matchup.
UConn as a whole ranks favorably in important indicators of tournament success such as free-throw shooting, assist-to-turnover ratio, and offensive rebounding. It has an average margin of victory of 20.6 points and has not won by less than 13 in March Madness.
UConn started its March Madness campaign with a 24-point blowout of No. 13 Iona (87-63) then took care of No. 5 Saint Mary’s (70-55) two days later. In the next round, it breezed by No. 8 Arkansas (88-65) and then throttled No. 3 Gonzaga (82-54).
The Miami matchup was supposed to be tough for UConn. It was still favored but had to deal with the elite shot-making and improved defense of a red-hot Hurricanes team that reached the Elite Eight the year prior. It responded by holding its opponent to 32.3% shooting from the field en route to a 72-59 win and berth in the national championship game.
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San Diego State had never made the Elite Eight until a week and a few days ago. Now, it is one win away from its first national championship in school history, but it’s not going to come easy.
SDSU is a well-balanced team that favors defense. It often slows down the game and forces opponents to operate in the half-court, which is where it usually has an advantage with its brute physicality and presence on the interior. When it can, it likes to push the pace in transition to secure easy points and take the burden off of the offense after sustained defensive stands.
The Aztecs might not be defined by their offense, but they are not bad at it. They also just produced one of their most impressive offensive displays of the season in the Final Four against No. 9 Florida Atlantic just two days ago, which is key since the momentum and touch can be easily rolled over into the Monday night championship bout.
Fifth-year senior Matt Bradley is the only member of the Aztecs averaging double-digit points (12.7). He was a total nonfactor against Creighton in the Elite Eight with just two points but bounced back admirably for 21 in the Final Four. Darion Trammell and Lamont Butler, the second and third-leading scorers, average 18.4 combined points.
Both Trammell and Butler have come up huge in the tourney, whether it be the former sinking the game-winning free-throw against Creighton or the latter drilling a buzzer-beater against FAU to book a spot in the championship game. Any one of the Actecs’ big men can do a job on the glass or defensive interior.
SDSU has not been the same pulverizing force that UConn has by any stretch of the imagination. It kicked off its bracket run with a win over No. 12 College of Charleston (63-57) then knocked out No. 13 Furman (75-52). Its biggest win of the tournament was in the sweet 16 against No. 1 Alabama (71-64), and it took out No. 6 Creighton in the Elite Eight (57-56) thanks to Trammell’s free-throw with just over a second left.
The pride of the Mountain West Conference was given all it could handle by No. 9 FAU in the Final Four and needed a buzzer-beating mid-range shot from Butler to jubilantly sneak into the final round. SDSU trailed big in that game but used an uncharacteristically great night shooting the ball to rally and keep its championship dreams humming.
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Nearly all of the statistics and the recent results point to UConn coming away with a huge win in the championship game, which is why they are favored so heavily on the spread. However, conventional logic does not always apply in games of this magnitude.
SDSU’s path to victory could come from its ability to defend the three-point line. It ranks third in this area and allows opponents to shoot just 28.2% from beyond the arc, which is well off the 35.7% standard the Huskies enjoy. They also have big, strong bodies inside to combat Sanogo’s dominating presence.
With all of that being said, and despite how many fights the Aztecs have shown, the Huskies are the superior team—and with how hot their engine has been running in March Madness, it would not be a surprise to see them win in a blowout.
*Odds from DraftKings sportsbook*
No. 4 Uconn
Over 132.5 (-110)
No. 5 SDSU
Under 132.5 (-110)
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