- Covers college basketball
- Joined ESPN.com in 2011
- Graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato
The Final Four is set, and it doesn’t resemble last year’s national semifinals. Or any other year’s, honestly.
Last year, North Carolina, Duke, Kansas and Villanova all battled for the national title. This year, UConn, SDSU, Florida Atlantic or Miami will leave Houston with a national championship Monday night at NRG Stadium.
Well, we had an idea as all the chaos unfolded: What if we created an all-star team for each Final Four squad?
We decided to limit our teams to players who competed over the last 20 years (2002-03 to 2022-23). Sorry, 1990s athletes. You were good. We know. But limits are a good thing.
After we assembled the teams, we decided to ask another question: What if they played each other?
We used this weekend’s matchups as our pairings for this fictional exercise. We’re certain people won’t be ridiculous about this.
PG Kemba Walker (2008-2011; 16.8 PPG, 4.1 APG, 1.7 SPG)
SG Ben Gordon (2001-2004; 16.9 PPG, 42% from 3)
SF Rudy Gay (2004-2006; 13.6 PPG, 38% from 3)
PF Emeka Okafor (2001-2004; 13.8 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 4.3 BPG)
C Hasheem Thabeet (2006-2009; 10.3 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 4.2 BPG)
Head coach: Jim Calhoun (1986-2012; 625-243 at UConn, 3 national championships)
Anchored by Okafor, one of the greatest college players in NCAA history, Jim Calhoun’s crew will be stacked at every spot with a future lottery pick and three players who led their teams to national championships (Walker, Gordon, Okafor). With two traditional big men, this group could get caught in mismatches on defense against a team that plays a more modern, small-ball style of basketball. But they also have an overwhelming collection of elite guards, a legit college basketball superstar and a couple of defensive erasers who will create problems for any opposing all-star team that could be assembled over the past 20 years.
Florida Atlantic Owls
PG/SG Greg Gantt (2009-2013; 16.3 PPG, 37% from 3)
SG Alijah Martin (2020-present; 11.3 PPG, 38% from 3)
SF Johnell Davis (2020-present; 8.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG)M
PF Mike Bell (2003-2005; 18.5 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.0 BPG)
C Vladislav Goldin (2021-present; 8.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.2 BPG)
Head coach: Dusty May (2018-present; 101-59 at FAU, first Final Four in school history)
It’s only fair that three members of the first FAU team to win an NCAA tournament game, also the first FAU team to reach the Final Four, are in this all-time starting lineup. Davis, Martin and Goldin provide the spark, cohesiveness and familiarity for May’s squad that will be the underdog in this field, too. But with Bell, the Atlantic Sun Player of the Year in 2005, and Gantt, a scoring machine who played more shooting guard than point guard, these Owls will have the size and offensive burst they need to stay competitive.
San Diego State Aztecs
PG Malachi Flynn (2019-2020; 17.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 37% from 3)
SG Matt Bradley (2021-present; 14.6 PPG, 38% from 3)
SF Jamaal Franklin (2010-2013; 13.7 PPG, 7.0 RPG)
PF Kawhi Leonard (2009-2011; 14.1 PPG, 10.2 RPG)
C Malcolm Thomas (2009-2011; 11.2 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.8 BPG)
Head coach: Steve Fisher (1999-2017; 386-209 at SDSU, 8 Mountain West conference titles)
Fisher’s shot to advance in this version of the Final Four centers on the presence of Leonard, an AP All-American second-teamer in 2011 and a future NBA superstar. But Flynn, who led SDSU to a 30-2 record during the 2019-2020 season that ended without an NCAA tournament, runs a team full of high-level contributors at every position and veterans. Fisher also has the ambidexterity to play a style that puts a playmaker and ball handler at four spots, and the size to switch defensive matchups when necessary.
PG Shane Larkin (2011-2013; 11.2 PPG, 38% from 3)
G Lonnie Walker (2017-2018; 11.5 PPG)
G/F Isaiah Wong (2019-present; 14.1 PPG, 81% from the free throw line)
F Bruce Brown (2016-2018; 11.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.4 SPG)
C Norchad Omier (2022-present; 13.3 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 1.2 BPG)
Head coach: Jim Larrañaga (2011-present; 255-148 at Miami, 2023 Final Four)
With this team, Larrañaga can call a lot of the same plays and schemes he’s used to lead the 2022-23 Canes to the first Final Four in school history. Larkin, a former second-team All-American, is one the best point guards we’ve seen over the past decade, while Brown and Walker were both solid college players, too. Add in Omier, whom Kelvin Sampson called the toughest post player Houston faced this season, and Wong, the 2023 ACC Player of the Year, and Larrañaga will have a squad that can run the floor and hold its own on defense.
National semifinal No. 1: UConn vs. Miami
Larrañaga’s squad is built to compete in the modern small-ball era. His squad would look a lot like this year’s team, and try to push the pace on UConn and play a physical style against the 6-foot Walker and the 6-3 Gordon. But this Huskies team, to quote Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang, just has “more dudes.” Calhoun has All-Americans and future NBA lottery picks. Even if Wong — who can do it all at 6-4 — creates some defensive challenges with his agility and skill, especially in transition, the Hurricanes can’t guard Okafor one-on-one on the other side. Brown will be the best individual defender on the floor, but the Huskies will win this one with a dominant effort.
Score prediction: UConn 89, Miami 73
National semifinal No. 2: FAU vs San Diego State
The resilience of this FAU team has been its greatest strength. The Owls have three members of a Final Four team that outplayed every opponent this season. The addition of Bell and Gantt will help them offensively against this SDSU team. But the Owls won’t have an answer for Leonard, who will have his way with May’s all-time squad. Remember, the SDSU version of Leonard is a dominant post player and one of the best defensive players in America. Flynn is better than any player FAU has, too. Franklin and Bradley — the latter is one of the catalysts for this year’s Final Four run — will get open looks, too. Plus, all of these SDSU stars played on exceptional defensive teams. This is a lopsided win for SDSU.
Score prediction: SDSU 77, FAU 63
National Championship: SDSU vs. UConn
Now, this might be fun. Both all-time teams have gaps in their defensive capabilities. This SDSU squad can stretch the floor with Flynn and Bradley, who both made at least 37% of their 3-point attempts in their collegiate careers. Okafor’s attempts to guard Leonard, who hadn’t found his 3-point rhythm as a college player, will demand a lot of energy. Then, SDSU players will work to get open looks on the perimeter and attack the paint.
But the latter is a problem. Because Thabeet doesn’t play that nonsense. He’s one of the greatest shot-blocking, shot-altering savants of the last 20 years. And with this team, it’s his only job. Plus, Gordon and Gay are explosive athletes, and their collective ability to push the pace on fast breaks with Walker will be a great challenge for SDSU — which still needs a plan to guard Okafor, one of the dominant big men in recent college basketball history. Both teams are very good. The issue is, this all-time SDSU team’s list of obstacles in this game is much longer than this all-time UConn team’s.
Score prediction: UConn 83, SDSU 73
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