March Madness: What Each Men’s Final Four Team Needs to Advance to the National Championship

NC State’s DJ Burns and Alabama’s Donovan Clingan will be keys to watch during Saturday’s semifinal games.
NC State forward DJ Burns will be key for the Wolfpack in the Final Four.
NC State forward DJ Burns will be key for the Wolfpack in the Final Four. / Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
In this story:

The 2024 men’s Final Four is almost here. The race to cut down the nets in Phoenix is officially on, and four teams with unique journeys to this moment will play for a championship this weekend. From defending national champion UConn trying to make history to NC State looking to continue its Cinderella run through March, there are storylines galore to track. 

What’s the biggest key to each of the four teams left advancing to Monday’s national championship game? Here’s a glimpse into what to watch for each team. 

Purdue Boilermakers: Don’t Be Satisfied 

Reaching the Final Four for the first time in Matt Painter’s tenure was a massive weight off the back of the entire Purdue program. It was obvious in how the Boilermakers celebrated that moment how freeing it was to exorcize demons of past tournaments, including 2023’s disastrous loss to the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights. Is it possible that could cause a focus slip in Saturday’s game against heavy underdog NC State? Reaching the Final Four immortalized this Purdue team in the program’s lore, but breaking through to win a national championship would be among the greatest stories in the sport’s history. 

A potential slow start is the worst possible thing for Purdue in a game like this. The longer NC State hangs around, the more the Wolfpack will begin to believe they can pull the upset. The Duke Blue Devils learned this lesson the hard way in the Elite Eight against the Pack, failing to put away NC State early after taking a lead and then collapsing in the second half. But if Painter’s Boilermakers can deliver an early knockout punch, they should cruise to the program’s first national title game appearance since 1969. 

NC State Wolfpack: Keep DJ Burns Out of Foul Trouble

This tournament’s undisputed star has been DJ Burns, NC State’s burly center who has captured the hearts of the college basketball world (and profited plenty in the process) throughout the Pack’s miracle run to Phoenix. He’s the lynchpin of NC State’s offense: Guard him one-on-one and he’ll likely back you down for a layup, send a double-team and he’ll dice you up with his passing.

That said, if there’s one player Burns can’t back down, it’s probably Zach Edey. Burns is a crafty enough post scorer that he’ll likely still be able to score on the block against Edey, but the 7’4” Boilermakers star seems likely to neutralize some of Burns’s usual impact on the game. Making matters worse for NC State is no one in college basketball draws more fouls than Edey. While the Pack will likely get creative and send other bodies at Edey on the block, if Burns gets in foul trouble, it will severely hinder NC State’s ability to score. In all, Purdue’s ability to rack up fouls on opposing players is a significant concern for an NC State team that plays just seven players in its regular rotation, but Burns is the most important piece to be worried about. 

Alabama Crimson Tide: Run Donovan Clingan Off the Floor 

Donovan Clingan’s defensive performance in the Elite Eight against the Illinois Fighting Illini was among the most impactful individual games I’ve ever seen. His ability to single-handedly take away the rim for Illinois sparked the UConn rout, and the film of that dominant display had to keep Alabama coach Nate Oats up at night. The Tide have no match for Clingan on the interior, and it’s hard to envision a path to victory for Oats’ team if they allow Clingan to get rolling like he did in the Elite Eight. 

The solution: Run. Alabama already plays at a breakneck pace, and will have to do much of its work offensively before UConn can set its defense. Some of that requires Alabama’s defense to hold up its end of the bargain and get stops, but the Tide can partially neutralize Clingan’s impact if they can get up and down the floor quickly. In the halfcourt, Alabama’s best hope is to attempt to pull Clingan away from the basket with small-ball bigs Jarin Stevenson and Grant Nelson. If Alabama can play the game at the pace it desires and get hot early from three, the Tide could apply some game pressure on UConn. 

UConn Huskies: Weather the Inevitable Storm

When you play Alabama, chances are you’re going to give up a barrage of threes at some point. The Crimson Tide’s offense is explosive and tends to score in bunches once it gets going, and it seems likely that at some point Saturday, Alabama will make a flurry of threes and apply some game pressure to the Huskies. When the Tide played Purdue in December, Alabama made a ridiculous 13 threes in the first half and led by as many as 12 points. UConn hasn’t faced adversity like that in its 10-game rampage through the NCAA tournament the last two years, but Alabama’s combustible style makes it quite possible they’ll deal with some Saturday. How will UConn respond? 

UConn’s ability to execute high-level offense in the halfcourt makes it easier to avoid those disastrous runs that lose you games in March, and the Huskies have been surgical in running efficient set plays throughout this tournament. Will things break down if the Huskies are put under pressure to play from behind? We’ll see.


Published
Kevin Sweeney

KEVIN SWEENEY

Kevin Sweeney is a staff writer at Sports Illustrated covering college basketball and the NBA Draft, and is an analyst for The Field of 68. A graduate of Northwestern, Kevin is a voter for the Naismith Trophy and is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA).