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HOUSTON — It’s a stark contrast between the 2023 Final Four and the 2022 Final Four. Last year featured blue bloods everywhere. Duke, North Carolina, Villanova, Kansas. Sixty-one combined Final Four appearances, 18 combined national championships.

This year? Three of the four teams had never been to a Final Four before this season. One had never even won an NCAA tournament game before this season.

It’s not all that dissimilar to the 2011 Final Four in Houston, which featured a 3-seed, 4-seed, 8-seed and 11-seed. This year, we have 5-seed San Diego State facing 9-seed Florida Atlantic — don’t call them Cinderellas! — on one side (6:09 p.m. ET, CBS), and 5-seed Miami battling 4-seed UConn on the other (8:49 p.m. ET, CBS). The Huskies enter the national semifinals carrying the torch for historical value, with five Final Fours and four national titles in program history. They’re also the favorite to cut down the nets this season.

There are more secrets than there were between last season’s quartet, given that these four teams rarely face one another during the regular season. There is no Duke vs. North Carolina Part 3 on the agenda.

So we spoke to several coaches who have faced them this season to get a feel for what to expect Saturday — and on Monday in the national title game.

Why is San Diego State so tough defensively? What has sparked this special FAU run? How can you slow down Miami’s guards? Why has UConn been so dominant in the NCAA tournament?

Answers to those questions and more:

How they win

On balance and depth: “I don’t think they have any holes. I don’t think they have any glaring weaknesses. In March, if you can defend, rebound and execute, you have a chance. And they have depth. Conference USA isn’t a nine-deep league, it’s a seven-deep league. And they have nine guys. I think that plays a role. Mike Forrest doesn’t start, he comes off the bench and was an all-league guy last year. Alijah Martin started the year not starting, he’s emerged on a national scale. [Nicholas] Boyd makes shots, [Bryan] Greenlee makes shots. Johnell Davis is a stud. He’s just a matchup problem, gets better as the game goes on, makes big shots. They’re a connected group, they believe in each other and Dusty [May] never gets rattled.”

On Johnell Davis: “He makes plays. Nothing that he does will make NBA executives be like, that translates to the next level. But it translates to winning at a high level. He’s an elite finisher. He can finish in a variety of ways. He’s just really good at basketball and I think he gets better as the game goes on. He’s a calming influence.”

On second-half runs: “Sometimes you think it’s over, and it’s not over. Just them sticking with it. I don’t think Dusty loses [his cool]. He places no additional pressure on them. The game brings enough pressure and Dusty handles that. He handles the pressure of the game and just conveys confidence, man. He’s working the officials and working his guys, but it’s all done in a way where the message is, ‘We’re going to win the game.'”

On Vladislav Goldin: “That size, he impacts the game. He’s their second- or third-leading scorer. You can throw it to him, he can get a basket the old-fashioned way. He takes up so much size around the basket from a defensive standpoint. You get in there and it’s different when you’re dealing with this guy compared to 6-7 guys. He protects the rim very well. He just takes up a lot of space in the lane.”

On their size: “Goldin and [Giancarlo] Rosado are advantages. Terrific size, high-major size. High-major strength, they both can finish, they both can play in screen-and-roll. They’re skilled at protecting the basket. There’s no other Goldin in our league. People just don’t have two big guys like that in Conference USA. On a national level, it’s translated.”

On their defense: “They’re physical, they get into the ball, they’re physically strong as a team. They’re in drop coverage, so they really got to get into the ball and blow up screens because if not, those guys are coming off and shooting. I don’t think they’re hounding the ball but they’re into the ball. I think it’s bothersome, and off-the-ball I think they’re where they need to be. Defensive positioning is good, on-ball defense is very good.”

On winning close games: “They’ve got an older team, an experienced team. Obviously they’ve got a mentally tough team. They’re well put together and they play together very well. They don’t get fazed. Look at December and January. December 29th, four-point win, next game two-point win, next game four-point win, four-point win, four-point win. They’re well-coached.”

Why they’ve lost

“Put Goldin in ball screens, run them. Try to be aggressive pressuring the ball. Take away the 3, force them to play faster, they take good care of the ball. I think it’s a good matchup for San Diego State. They pressure the ball, they get up in passing lanes, they’re disruptive, they force action away from the basket. They’re not great individual offensive players, they thrive off ball screens, driving and kicking. They’re not great one-on-one players.”

“They can be vulnerable to size. They play a smaller lineup. I really, really like Johnell Davis. But if you have a 6-10 guy and a 6-7 guy, maybe a little bit of size [can bother them].”

“If Goldin gets in foul trouble, that’s not ideal. I don’t think Rosado can play 30 minutes a night from a conditioning perspective. He’s well-served as a backup.”

“If you have a dynamic guard that can score a lot. If you play through the post a little bit. I don’t know where I’d consider them vulnerable. If you press them, they’ve got guards. They’ve got a handful of guys that can bring it up the court, they switch a lot on defense. It makes it hard.”

X factor

“Johnell Davis. I don’t even know if he’s their best player, but he just seems like he always makes big plays. You look up and he’s got his numbers. For being their best player, he makes all the little plays that best players don’t always make.”

“I would say Johnell Davis. He’s a hard-playing guy, man. He’s always around the action.”

Plays to stop

“They play with a smaller lineup, but they do run a lot of ball-screen stuff. So you’re constantly making sure you have the right guys in the right help position from a defensive standpoint. They run a lot of good stuff. So many other teams, you can find someone where it’s, ‘Oh, he’s a 4-man, he’s not going to be able to shoot it.’ When you play with these guys, it’s hard to always figure out who you’re going to help from because you’re nervous about helping off a shooter.”

What happens on Saturday?

“I think FAU finds a way to win. Because they always do. I just think they have so much belief right now.”

“I wouldn’t have bet you anything that they would still be where they are, but they are — so I don’t know why we would think they couldn’t move forward.”

How they win

On their toughness and physicality: “The first thing is you better get your hard hat on. They are as physical as any team you’ll play in the country at any level. And they’re men. You look at them, they’re fifth- and sixth-year guys. They’re strong, they’ve played together. They’re elite and unique defensively. They’re elite, but it’s a completely different style than people are used to seeing. Their ability to switch 1-5, veer switch pick-and-rolls, veer switch, double switch actions — it becomes very, very difficult to create an advantage on them in the half court. They have so many great individual defenders and they’re so connected as a team. And they’ve got one of the best defensive players in the country at the 5 in Nathan Mensah. He can guard smaller guards, he’s an elite shot-blocker. He’s a weapon defensively. And then you have one of the best defensive guards in the nation in Lamont Butler. And then their depth. They come in in shifts. They go to the bench and bring in four guys and sometimes get better. It’s such a unique thing.”

On their tempo: “They can get the game at their pace. They’ve been able to get into a rock fight. Alabama, Furman, you name it. They’re able to get these games where they want them. Physical, rock fight kind of game. And that can become frustrating.”

On their defense: “They don’t want to give up 3s. You can get 3s off against them sometimes, but their 3-point defense is elite. Sometimes you can attack them at the rim. Their 2-point defense isn’t as good as it was last year, but they do an unbelievable job of defending the 3. They don’t get two to the ball very often on ball screens and handoffs. They don’t commit on those actions and so it becomes very difficult to create advantages. Your advantages have to come one-on-one and they’ve got elite one-on-one defenders. It’s not like they’re no middle or no baseline, they just do an unbelievable job of guarding the ball and making you shoot over them. And they just communicate and switch.”

On their switchability, defensively: “What makes it different is you have guys like Mensah, Jaedon LeDee, Aguek Arop. When those guys play the 5, it’s their ability to switch and have great feet and guard on the perimeter. A lot of people switch one through five, but those guys can actually do it effectively and guard. There’s not much of a difference from their 2-man to their 5-man. They’re big and athletic as s— and they can all move.”

On their offensive rebounding: “It doesn’t matter what you do against their offense, their best offense is their second shot. They just crush you on the offensive glass. You look up at the end of the game, and they’ve got 16 offensive rebounds and they scored on 14 of them. You can defend their first-shot offense. It’s their second-shot offense — eventually it just breaks your will.”

On Matt Bradley: “He hasn’t done anything. When he gets rolling, he’s hard to stop. If he gets going — and I could see some of these teams taking him lightly — that dude can go get 20 in a half. He’s an isolation guy, he’s big. He’s struggled and they’re still winning.”

On Darrion Trammell: “You come in as a transfer. Different level, different league, the transition isn’t easy. It takes time. They’ve got such a deep team. He didn’t have it going for a while, so somebody else stepped up. As the season has gone on, he’s picked up confidence, learned where he can score, how he can score. He’s turning it on at the right time. He’s always been a shot-maker, he’s always been confident. He can be a tough shot-taker, tough shot-maker. He can make three or four tough shots in a row.”

Why they’ve lost

“They can be pretty vanilla offensively. It’s a little old school in that they’re going to play two bigs that are non-shooters at all times. Their spacing can get hurt at times. Their bigs don’t shoot the ball from the perimeter. Whether they’re playing Arop or Keshad Johnson, they can’t shoot. They struggle to make shots at times. If Bradley isn’t going, they don’t have guys who can go and get their own and sometimes they struggle with their spacing and shooting. They really rely on having to get to the offensive glass to get going. You know what’s coming. They’re going to try to bully you and if that’s not working, they can get bogged down.”

“If you have the horses, you can press them. They don’t have the greatest ball handlers or decision-makers. They’re not skilled. Are they going to try to play faster? Nobody does that to them.”

“The easy answer is they don’t have a ton of shot-makers. They don’t have playmakers who can create easy shots. I love Butler, but it’s not like he’s coming off ball screens and operating and creating open shots for other dudes. They run about eight things, and they just try to get the ball to certain spots.”

“Trammell is who we tried to get into switches. They do a good job of hiding him, and showing and getting under. They don’t want to switch with him, but they will. He’s small. Good perimeter defender, but you can go at him.”

“Keep them off the glass and force them to take tough shots. You can’t let them score in the paint and destroy you around the basket. Those are the two biggest keys. Bradley is a tough shot-maker. Micah Parrish has tough shot-making ability. Trammell has tough shot-making ability. Force them into tough shots and then get the rebound.”

“I don’t see any weaknesses defensively. Sometimes you can take advantage of their switching in the paint. In a switch, they may not have their rim protectors or shot-blockers in the lane. You’ve got to be willing to put the ball on the floor against them and attack. You can get them in the paint that way. But they don’t have a lot of weaknesses in the half court. They are really, really good.”

“The best way to attack them is in transition. So you’ve got to get stops and end possessions with rebounds. They’ll throw it up on the glass and go get it. That’s their best offense. If you can rebound and get stops, then you’ve got a chance to attack them in transition. The first shot you get against them is often the best shot and you have to be willing to take it.”

X factor

“When Bradley is good, you’re not beating them. It’s easy to say Trammell. I think the X factors are Micah Parrish and Keshad Johnson. Those are the guys, if they only give them seven points, they struggle to score. But when Parrish is really good, makes a jumper, a couple lobs, he gets nine and seven, that’s when you have problems. When those two combine for 20 points.”

“Lamont Butler. He’s so dynamic defensively. When he gets it going offensively, too, he’s really good.”

Plays to stop

“When you play San Diego State, you need to figure out how you’re going to handle their zoom action. It’s a staple of what they do in transition and in the half court. They’re going to run zoom action to a weakside duck-in with the opposite big. When they’re doing those actions, how do you want to handle that? How do you want to handle their zoom actions? That’s a decision defensively.”

“The thing people sleep on, they don’t bring the big high like in a ball-screen continuity offense. They keep them down and duck them in. If you duck them in, they don’t throw it in a bunch, but they seal driving lanes for guys to get downhill and go score. If you don’t play that right, they’re going to kill you there. And then Bradley on the right slot area, that’s a big go-to. They call it Utah, Utah duck, Oregon. You have your defensive principles, when you get ready to shift, he’s already ducked you in. Front the duck-in. Step across the duck-in. They’re not going to beat you throwing lobs. And you’ll take away the drive and fill the space.”

What happens on Saturday?

“I think it’s going to be a heck of a game with two well-coached, tough-minded teams. They’re both deep. And maybe I’m biased, I feel like San Diego State is going to find a way because of their defensive style being so unique. They’ll find a way to make enough shots and play on Monday night.”

“I think San Diego State is going to win because they’re going to limit some of those easier looks Florida Atlantic has been able to get. I think they’re going to be a little bit too big because their size can move. Other teams have size, but their size can’t move. Lower possession game, not as much transition.”

How they win

On their offense: “Within their offense, those guys have the freedom. They’ll run the same thing eight times in a row and get eight different looks out of it. The freedom they play with stands out. It’s only three or four sets, but good luck guarding it. If it’s in the 90s, you’re going to lose. Because they’re going to get 100. It’s just so much firepower. You’ve got to score with them, you have to hit shots.”

On their offensive balance: “They are exceptional. The looseness and the freedom and confidence [with] which they play is remarkable. Doesn’t matter when they get down or up. They don’t worry much about the scoreboard. They play their game. They can really score. I think they’re the best team in the country at getting up and down. Their guards are phenomenal, play together really well, everyone shines in their role. [Jordan] Miller is the Swiss Army knife, [Isaiah] Wong is the dude, [Nijel] Pack can make shots, [Wooga] Poplar takes on the toughest defensive matchup. [Norchad Omier] Omier is just a dog in there, rebounds it, scores around the basket. They can play offense through him. They’re a really good team, they have really good individual pieces and they play really well together. In a lot of ways, it’s a coach’s dream.”

On their fearlessness: “They play like they don’t give a f—. That’s their superpower. They’re loose and confident. They are not afraid to miss.”

On Isaiah Wong: “He’s always under control. He plays on balance better than anyone in the country. He plays at his pace only, all the time. He has tremendous fundamentals.”

On Norchad Omier: “He’s a manchild. He’s so strong, he’s so athletic, he can get to the rim and get over the top of you. He can also step out and drive the ball on the opposing 5-man and get to the rim. He’s really hard to guard.”

On Jordan Miller: “He’s capable of making a shot, but it’s not really his thing and he doesn’t try to make it his thing. He can put it down, he makes everyone better. Really lets the game come to him. Nobody is out there forcing s—. By doing that, everybody plays well because they’re in sync and the ball is shared and everyone is the recipient of the other guys’ talent.”

On their defense: “They’re really handsy defensively, really mobile and really quick to the ball. They rebound. They pursue the ball relentlessly, whether it’s in the pick-and-roll defensively or a loose ball. Toward the end against Texas, that was Miami defense to a T. It was a loose ball and they’re getting it. They may not get off the bus and look the part, per se, because they’re undersized, but when the ball goes in the air, you’re in for a not-so-fun night.”

Why they’ve lost

“I think UConn could destroy them with their screening action. They struggle against screening action. Wake Forest made 15 3s [against them]. Drake tried to screen them down the stretch and got some buckets. They don’t spend a ton of time working on that. You can screen them. And they’re small. They’ll struggle with Jordan Hawkins. They struggled with Virginia Tech because of all the screening and movement and misdirection. Like if your offense is based on dribbling the ball, isolation and pick-and-roll, you can score but it’s going to be hard over the course of 40 minutes. They’re good in pick-and-roll. They’ll put two on the ball, Omier will hedge. They switch. They have good athletes and they’re smart.”

“You want to go under everything and turn it all into pick-and-roll. Be up on Miller and Pack and make someone else make a play. You want to keep them off the backboard and make them make tough shots, which they can do. But the midrange stuff, you want to take your chance with that. No way are you guarding everything. We felt like that was our best chance. Go under, because they’ll just turn into pick-and-roll. You don’t want to get behind the play.”

“If Omier is not on the floor, they can struggle at times. His splits are telling. They don’t have a ton of depth, but the depth they do have is fine. Just the foul trouble. UConn can probably match them athletically and they’ve got size at the rim so it will be interesting to see.”

“I think you can go at Jordan Miller in the post. UConn has the ability to do that. He’s slight. Makes it hard to guard him, but you can go at him. If you have a guard that can post Pack and get him in foul trouble. Get Omier in space, drive him and get him in foul trouble. [Adama] Sanogo and [Donovan] Clingan can score on Omier in the post, that’s going to be a big deal. The game completely changes when Norchad is out. He’s different. Get him to guard.”

“You cannot let them get out in transition, can’t turn the ball over, can’t take bad shots. You got to have them in the half court. You know what plays are coming, but you’ve got to guard them.”

X factor

“When Miller plays well, they’re really hard to beat. But it’s Isaiah Wong. He’s got to be the guy. To win it all, you have to have a guard to put them on his back. And that’s him. But it’s really by committee.”

Plays to stop

“They have a couple. They’ll run box zipper to a handoff into pick-and-roll, then roll and replace with the point guard. They’ll run it for Miller and he’ll keep it when they need a bucket. They’ll run the sneak action where the guy comes off, the 5 is lifted and he turns and gets him again. They run that to get Pack a shot.”

“They have one play, it’s called ‘chop.’ [Jim] Larrañaga is literally over there doing a chop sign. One of the players zips up to the top of the floor, usually Jordan Miller. Fake handoff to Wong, then you’re worried about Wong, so you jump Wong. But if he hands it off, then Wong is coming off a ball screen. And it’s Norchad setting it, so how are you going to guard that?”

“We know every call, we play them twice every year, and you can’t stop it because they have good players. [Larrañaga’s] got those guys playing together, connected. You never see an ego, never see an ounce of selfishness, nobody gets pissed when they shoot bad shots. Look at the end of the Texas game, Norchad is squeezing Jordan Miller like it’s his girlfriend. I don’t know what the NIL dollars are, but that’s love. And that’s all Jim Larrañaga. He’s 70-something years old, and to not only embrace NIL, but bring them in and have them moving as one, that’s incredible. He deserves more credit.”

What happens on Saturday?

“I think UConn probably beats them. The screening action will bother them.”

“Miami, 85-82. I think late in the game, if it’s close, one of those guys will get the ball and be able to score. You have to keep them out of striking distance.”

How they win

On their offense: “I think they’re a really hard team to prepare for because they run more sets than any team we’ll play all year. Their sheer number of plays are more than anybody you’ll play against. They’re running something every time. And you have to put it into categories — off-ball screening actions for [Jordan] Hawkins, post stuff for [Adama] Sanogo, [Andre] Jackson in space, [Alex] Karaban in multiple actions. Then they have all these actions and they can do them interchangeably. They can run the same thing for Jackson and then Karaban. How do you go over everything? You can’t. You have to be able to put them into groupings of what’s important to go over. The first thing has to be how you’re going to guard Sanogo and then Jackson — even before Hawkins. Sanogo doesn’t shoot a lot of free throws, which is wild. He gets his points on angles. Teams have tried not to guard Jackson, but he’s improved.”

On their balance: “The biggest thing is everybody knows and plays their role. And they’re excited about their role. Hawkins, they’re going to run a lot of offense for him to get shots. They run stuff in the post for Sanogo. Jackson is a heck of a player. The thing about him is he’s someone who doesn’t specialize in shooting — Iona backed way off him, Xavier backed way off him — but not only did UConn expose that, they were able to exploit it. If you guard him tight, he can get by you and throw assists. If they back off him, he can make a shot and there’s no ball pressure. Karaban, you watch him on film, he’s kind of just a shooter. But in person, he cuts, he moves well, he’s deceptively athletic. Newton is a 6-foot-5 point guard and kind of gets lost in the shuffle. They’ve got guys off the bench. Joey California [Calcaterra] bought into his role as a 3-point shooter, basically a hired assassin off the bench. [Nahiem] Alleyne comes in. [Hassan] Diarra picks up 94 feet. A guy like [Donovan] Clingan, he’s completely bought into his role, he might be the best pro prospect on the entire roster. In their top nine, not a weakness there.”

On their NCAA tournament run: “It’s their confidence factor. They just play with so much swagger.”

On Jordan Hawkins: “He’s got the quickest shot in college basketball. It takes a millisecond for him to get his shot off. He shoots the same shot every time, whether it’s catch-and-shoot, on the move, two guys in his face, it’s the same shot every single time. When you look at his makes, the net doesn’t move, that’s how you know he’s a pure shooter. But he’s more than a shooter, he keeps you honest with basket cuts. He’s a really tough cover. You can run him off the line or deny, but he’s a good basket cutter, so he’ll beat you back door once or twice. You give him room and that gives him space to get his shot off.”

On Adama Sanogo: “He’s as good a one-on-one post player as there is in the country. You throw the ball to him, but you can’t leave your big on an island and you can’t help off Hawkins. If he helps at all, it’s a spray-out 3-ball back to Hawkins. If they overload a side to Sanogo, the guy guarding Hawkins is supposed to be the help guy, they skip for a 3. It puts you in a dilemma. Do you help when he gets put in the post, do you double the post?”

On their defense: “Earlier in the year, they mixed things up, they would play a 1-3-1, they would play a 2-3. Now they’re strictly man-to-man, but they do a good job, they guard their positions. One through five, they don’t really have a bad defender. You could see earlier on in the year, the guy you would go at was Calcaterra. But to his credit, he’s improved as a defender.”

On their transition game: “They really feed off when they can get a transition 3. It only counts as three points, but from a momentum perspective, when you give up a transition 3 to them, it’s almost like you’re giving up five points. They get so juiced and so excited. Their defense gets locked in. I don’t know if there’s a stat for it, but I would sense that next possession, teams rarely score against them.”

On offensive rebounding: “They’re No. 1 in the country for offensive rebounding. They crash three guys, even [Tristen] Newton at times.”

Why they’ve lost

“They’re most vulnerable with a team that can match them from 3. Can you match them from 3, and can you get to the free throw line? They’re a high foul team. Can you get into the early bonus with them? Can you attempt more free throws than them?”

“Go at them. Go at Sanogo and Clingan in pick-and-roll defense. Get him moving on defense. Sanogo wants to sit in the paint, Clingan drops. Don’t let them be stationary.”

“You need to push Sanogo out. If you front him or three-quarter him, they throw over the top and he’s so good at the rim.”

“Keep them out of transition 3s. They make more than any team in the country. Jackson’s pitching it ahead, all those guys off the bench, Newton can make 3s.”

“A team that can pick up in the backcourt and turn them, maybe speed them up a bit. But you have to have multiple guys. If you pick up Newton, they’ll have Jackson bring it up. Or Hawkins bring it up. They can all initiate offense.”

X factor

“Tristen Newton is the biggest thing. During that [losing] stretch, the bench guys were struggling, Alleyne was struggling, but Newton has really improved. He went from a guy who was up and down to a guy that could really impact the game in a positive way. His ability to get to the foul line is a big deal. But he fouls a lot and turns the ball over a lot.”

Plays to stop

“Box iso is one of their favorites. Jackson cuts on a diagonal cut from the left block to the right wing, they throw it to Jackson, they’ll space it and Sanogo hunts for an angle.”

“I wouldn’t say there’s a set, but I would say the hardest thing they do is post overloads. You’re in a dilemma, you’re on an island with Sanogo and there are shooters and playmakers all over the floor, so you’ve got to pick your poison. Whenever they run their overload stuff, you’re susceptible to a 3 or an and-1. You’ve got to make up your mind, what are you willing to live with? Play the percentages out. You can’t do both.”

What happens on Saturday?

“UConn [wins]. I think they’re far and away the best team left in the tournament. I think if we have a UConn-San Diego State final, I think San Diego State can junk up the game enough to turn it into a rock fight. But UConn can win a high-scoring game, they can win a regular-paced game, they can win a slow, grind-it-out game. They’ve been able to have a tremendous amount of success because they play different styles. They were tied with Iona, blew it open. Saint Mary’s was a slow-paced game, they dominated in the second half. Arkansas and Gonzaga played right into their hands, they annihilated both at their own game.”

“I think UConn’s a better team but I can see Miami’s guards giving UConn trouble defensively because they’re able to get in the paint, space it, drive-and-kick 3. They get downhill and get in the paint. My biggest concern would be them creating for themselves and others. But UConn doesn’t have a lot of holes. If they don’t foul or turn it over, they’re tough to beat.”

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