Home » March Madness: Final Four guide for UConn, San Diego State, Florida Atlantic and Miami

March Madness: Final Four guide for UConn, San Diego State, Florida Atlantic and Miami

What began with 68 teams is now down to just four, as the men’s college basketball season enters its final weekend.

And although the Final Four is without a top seed for the first time since 2011, a quartet of Cinderella schools are still vying for a national title: Florida Atlantic, in just its second NCAA Tournament appearance ever, will square off San Diego State in the early semifinal before former Big East rivals Miami and UConn tangle in the late game.

Of course, the Final Four is not just a basketball event, but one of the biggest days on the sports gambling calendar. An estimated $10 billion will be bet on this year’s tournament, much of which will be wagered on Saturday’s Final Four and Monday’s championship.

And as if that’s not enough juice, Saturday’s Final Four will be attended by more than 70,000 fans, dwarfing any crowd these schools have played in front of all season.

Here, DailyMail.com breaks down all the key details of basketball’s biggest weekend…

San Diego State practices ahead of Saturday’s Final Four matchup with Florida Atlantic 

WHO IS PLAYING? WHEN? WHERE? AND HOW CAN I WATCH?

No. 5 San Diego State (31-6) vs. No. 9 Florida Atlantic (35-3), Saturday, 6:09pm EDT (CBS)

The Florida Atlantic Owls — Who? — extended their second appearance in the tournament with a 79-76 victory over Kansas State. The Conference USA champs are the winningest team in Division I and will face San Diego State in the national semifinals. The Aztecs beat Creighton when Darrion Trammell hit the second of two free throws with 1.2 seconds left. The Aztecs are the first Mountain West team to advance this far. The Owls are the lowest seed left in the field.

It marks just the second time two mid-majors will meet in the Final Four since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

‘I love to see it just because it’s an opportunity for those outside of the national spotlight to be on the big stage and show what they can do,’ FAU coach Dusty May said.

FAU had never been to the NCAA Tournament since joining Division I in 1993. The Owls flew through the regular season, earning their first AP Top 25 ranking while racking up 31 wins. They have continued to soar in the NCAA Tournament, taking out Memphis and fellow March darling Fairleigh Dickinson the first weekend, then fending off physical tests against Tennessee and Kansas State to reach their first Final Four.

May joked FAU was probably picked fifth in the Final Four. That may play right into the hands of a team that’s been doubted all season.

‘We’re not scared of any challenge,’ FAU guard Bryan Greenlee said. ‘We love playing under the bright lights.’

Florida Atlantic forward Brenen Lorient waits during a promo in preparation for the Final Four

Florida Atlantic forward Brenen Lorient waits during a promo in preparation for the Final Four

Florida Atlantic Owls head coach Dusty May looks on during a practice session at NRG Stadium

Florida Atlantic Owls head coach Dusty May looks on during a practice session at NRG Stadium

So have the Aztecs.

San Diego State became a mid-major power under Steve Fisher, earning six straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 2009-15. His longtime assistant, Brian Dutcher, has pushed the Aztecs to unprecedented heights for the program.

San Diego State was likely headed toward a No. 1 seed before the pandemic canceled the 2020 NCAA Tournament and has been a physical menace all season.

The defensive-minded Aztecs may not play a pretty game, but they make teams play their game, a method that has taken them to the Mountain West Conference’s first trip to the Final Four.

All that’s left is reaching the summit.

‘We believed if we did what we were supposed to do, we could make a Final Four, we could win a national championship,’ Dutcher said.

The last time two mid-majors played in the Final Four was 2011, when Butler beat VCU in, you guessed it, Houston.

Nathan Mensah #31 of the San Diego State Aztecs practices ahead of Saturday's Final Four

Nathan Mensah #31 of the San Diego State Aztecs practices ahead of Saturday’s Final Four

San Diego State Aztecs players arrive for a practice session the day before the Final Four

San Diego State Aztecs players arrive for a practice session the day before the Final Four

No. 5 Miami (29-7) vs. No. 4 UConn (29-8), Saturday, 8:49pmEDT (CBS)

UConn has looked unstoppable since the NCAA Tournament began, winning its four March Madness games by at least 15 points. The Huskies put on a show in Las Vegas in the Elite Eight, overwhelming Gonzaga at both ends in an 82-54 rout. They figure to get a stiffer test against Miami. Jim Larrañaga’s Hurricanes have plenty of experience after playing in the Elite Eight last season and reached the Final Four by beating No. 2 seed Texas 88-81.

Both teams have their obvious strengths and weaknesses.

UConn lost six of eight during a slump that began December 31 and lasted through much of January. Aside from that, the Huskies are 27-2. They rank third in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency and 11th on defense. While they have many strengths, they’re especially tough on the glass, ranking second in the country in offensive rebounding percentage.

Conversely, the Huskies have basically two warts on an otherwise pristine statistical profile. They turn the ball over a lot (232nd nationally in turnover percentage) and they aren’t very good at getting to the free throw line or keeping opponents off it.

And UConn’s weaknesses haven’t really gone away. The Huskies are at minus-14 in turnover differential in this tournament and minus-12 in free throw attempts. But it hasn’t made much difference at all since they’ve been so dominant in other ways. It’s probably not a great sign for the other three teams that UConn reached the Final Four so easily without really overperforming in these areas.

Head coach Dan Hurley of the Connecticut Huskies looks on during practice in Houston

Head coach Dan Hurley of the Connecticut Huskies looks on during practice in Houston

Hurricanes forward A.J. Casey (0) and teammates react during a practice session in Houston

Hurricanes forward A.J. Casey (0) and teammates react during a practice session in Houston

Jim Larrañaga waves to Miami fans as the team departs for the Final Four in Houston

Jim Larrañaga waves to Miami fans as the team departs for the Final Four in Houston

Meanwhile, the Hurricanes have several efficient offensive options in Isaiah Wong, Nijel Pack, Norchad Omier and Jordan Miller. As a team, they can score in a variety of ways — they’re shooting 36.9 percent from beyond the arc, 54.5 percent inside it and 78.0 percent on free throws.

Unfortunately, Miami is 104th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, although there have been some signs of defensive improvement for the Hurricanes. They held Drake to 56 points in the first round and then limited Indiana to 69. Houston scored 75 in the Sweet 16 but shot just 37.5 percent from the field. In the Elite Eight, however, Miami needed to be excellent on offense to beat Texas 88-81. That may be the type of game the Hurricanes will have to win if they’re going to prevail this weekend.

Houston’s NRG Stadium

Both Saturday’s semifinal and Monday’s final will be played at the home of the NFL’s Texans, NRG Stadium, which previously hosted the Final Four in 2011 and 2016.

The venue can hold roughly 80,000 for special events, such as basketball games, but it’s unclear how many will actually be in attendance this year.

In 2016, NRG Stadium set multiple attendance records for the NCAA, which reported nearly 150,000 fans for the two-session Final Four.

The championship game alone was seen by 74,340 fans.

The Final Four returns to CBS… but who will be tuning in?

Cinderella teams make for great stories and busted brackets. They don’t necessarily make for great television ratings, though.

After getting a dream Final Four field last year, CBS and Turner Sports have something very different this weekend with Florida Atlantic, Miami, San Diego State and Connecticut making it to Houston.

Signage for the upcoming Final Four is seen at NRG Stadium on Tuesday in Houston

Signage for the upcoming Final Four is seen at NRG Stadium on Tuesday in Houston

The lack of recognizable names could affect the ratings.

Upsets during the first two weeks have seemingly already taken a toll. The tournament is averaging 9.11 million viewers through the regional finals, which is down 6 percent from last year. This after the first round on March 16-17 averaged 9.2 million, a record for the most-watched round of 64.

Last year’s Final Four of Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Villanova resonated even with casual fans because it was loaded with national brands. It also included Mike Krzyzewski’s final tournament as Duke’s coach.

The Florida Atlantic Owls mascot poses

The Florida Atlantic Owls mascot poses

This year’s group doesn’t have the same cachet.

‘The public is telling us that they would rather see the bluebloods. The ratings support that,’ said former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, who now runs his own sports television consulting company. ‘I think it’s because they’re not familiar with teams like San Diego State, Miami or FAU. There was relatively little press attention paid to those teams during the year. Connecticut has a history, but they’re the only one of the four that really has had national exposure.’

College basketball also isn’t different from other sports when it comes to marquee teams translating to bigger audiences.

Two of last year’s Final Four games rank among the three most-watched college basketball games in cable TV history. The semifinal matchup between North Carolina and Duke averaged 18.5 million on TBS and ranks second, while Kansas’ comeback victory over North Carolina averaged 18.1 million.

According to Sports Media Watch, which tracked Final Four ratings to 1975, the Baylor-Houston game from two years ago ranks as the least-watched semifinal at 8.36 million (individual semis started being tracked in 2002).

The low for a title game on CBS is 2004, when 17.09 million watched UConn defeat Georgia Tech. The overall low was in 2018 on TBS, when 15.99 million viewed Villanova’s win over Michigan. CBS and TBS began alternating Final Fours in 2016.

Who’s the favorite?

UConn is far and away the favorite, and the Huskies have been of the few things bettors can count on, winning all four tournament games by double digits. They are minus-125 favorites to cut down the nets April 3, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Someone would need to bet $125 to win $100. All the other teams are in the plus-range, thus better value picks — if you’re willing to take a chance against UConn.

Who’s the biggest underdog?

Florida Atlantic is a plus-600, and Owls coach Dusty May joked his team would be picked fifth in the Final Four.

What’s the biggest spread?

UConn is favored by 5 1/2 points over Miami.

What’s the biggest over/under?

The UConn-Miami game is listed at 149 1/2.

How have fans faired gambling this March?

A bettor in December placed $500 on Florida Atlantic at 400-1 odds to make the Final Four, costing Westgate Las Vegas $200,000.

That was a clear win for one bettor, but who actually has come out between the sportsbooks and those on the other side of the counter during this most unusual NCAA Tournament is much more murky.

While Westgate absorbed a tough loss, Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas came out in decent shape even as upsets ruled the first two weeks of March Madness and set up a Final Four that begins Saturday with UConn at No. 4 as the highest seed.

‘We’re still in really good shape on, especially, San Diego State and Florida Atlantic,’ said Chuck Esposito, Red Rock race and sportsbook director. ‘I’ve heard that there there are some places that have some liability with Florida Atlantic, but we don’t. We do still do well on UConn and Miami. Both those schools seem to be the the kind of two schools that are getting some future play. But, overall, we’re pretty good shape with all four teams.’

Aguek Arop #33 of the San Diego State Aztecs tries on a cowboy hat during media availability

Aguek Arop #33 of the San Diego State Aztecs tries on a cowboy hat during media availability

A UConn victory likely would be the best outcome for sportsbooks, and the Huskies have rolled through the NCAA Tournament, winning by an average of 22.5 points.

Their odds before the tournament at Westgate were 20-1 to win the championship. As for the rest of the field, Miami was at 50-1, San Diego State at 60-1 and FAU at 100-1.

‘It doesn’t look like a Final Four,’ said Jay Kornegay, Westgate vice president of race and sports operations. ‘It looks like an NIT final.’

Kornegay said he could see the FAU run to the Final Four coming, but there was little Westgate could to do mitigate the damage.

As for future NCAA Tournaments, Kornegay said discussions already are under way about lowering the odds for the long shots and increasing them for the favorites. It will be among many tweaks as more parity hits college basketball, in part because of the transfer portal.

‘Believe me, we’re keeping an eye on it,’ Kornegay said. ‘We’re not going to make a knee-jerk, dramatic change. … I do believe there are going to be more Cinderella stories than we’ve seen in the past.’

Esposito said even more work will go into breaking down rosters in the future, making special note of schools with veteran players.

Nahiem Alleyne #4 of the Connecticut Huskies speaks to reporters on Friday in Houston

Nahiem Alleyne #4 of the Connecticut Huskies speaks to reporters on Friday in Houston