How the men’s 2024 NCAA championship game will play out

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The UConn Huskies and the Purdue Boilermakers.

After playing 66 games, we’ve gone from 68 teams to two teams that stood out as the best in the country for the balance of the 2023-24 men’s college basketball season. Their combined record is 70-7. They rank as Nos. 1 and 2 at KenPom, respectively. Meeting in the 2024 men’s national final feels like a fitting end to a special season.

On its way to Monday, UConn took down 16-seed Stetson, 9-seed Northwestern, 5-seed San Diego State, 3-seed Illinois and 4-seed Alabama. Purdue took down 16-seed Grambling, 8-seed Utah State, 5-seed Gonzaga, 2-seed Tennessee and 11-seed NC State.

This will mark just the ninth time that two top seeds have met in the title game since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. In other words, a collision like this on Monday night happens less than 25% of the time.

There’s a lot more on the line in this one, too. UConn is attempting to win back-to-back national championships — the first to do it since Florida in 2006 and 2007 — after one of the most dominant tournament runs.

Purdue has a chance to win its first national championship ever. In doing so, it could also break the Big Ten’s national championship drought: no team from the conference has won since 2000.

No matter what’s happened in the past three weeks, chances are we’ll remember this tournament simply as the year when the Huskies faced the Boilermakers for the championship.

As we approach Monday, ESPN’s Jeff Borzello, Myron Medcalf, Josh Weinfuss and John Gasaway look ahead to the potentially historic championship matchup in State Farm Stadium. — John Gasaway

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How UConn booked its spot | How Purdue booked its spot


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J-Will: Purdue-UConn may come down to supporting casts

Jay Williams and Seth Greenberg say the NCAA men’s final will depend on players other than Purdue’s Zach Edey and UConn’s Donovan Clingan.

No. 1 seed UConn vs. No. 1 seed Purdue: best title game ever?

Jeff Borzello: “Best ever” feels like a huge stretch, given the incredible matchups we had in the 1970s and 1980s. And we had a loaded 1-seed vs. 1-seed battle as recently as 2021 (Gonzaga vs. Baylor). But this title game is as good as we could’ve asked for this season. It’s the two teams that spent the most weeks atop the AP poll, and a matchup between the best player in college basketball (Zach Edey) and perhaps the best NBA prospect in college basketball (Donovan Clingan).

Myron Medcalf: I don’t think so. Twenty-five years ago, a Duke team that won 32 in a row ran into an elite UConn team and lost. There was also Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird in 1979 when Michigan State faced Indiana State. But UConn vs. Purdue is the best this season could have produced since both were widely viewed as the two best teams in the country.

Josh Weinfuss: I’m not ready to assign that label (maybe after) but it’s certainly worthy of consideration. You can’t forget 1993, when Michigan and North Carolina squared off; 1999, when UConn beat Duke; 2005, when North Carolina and Illinois slugged it out. Like those games, this one will be a heavyweight fight, especially in the paint. There will be eight other players on the court but all eyes will be on Edey and Clingan, which may be one of the best matchups all time.

John Gasaway: It’s the best in a while, that’s for sure. With all due respect to Baylor vs. Gonzaga in 2021 and North Carolina vs. the Bulldogs in 2017, I’m going to go back nine years. This is the best Monday night since Duke and Wisconsin squared off in 2015. That was also two No. 1 seeds, and the game that resulted was special. Let’s hope we get more of the same from UConn and Purdue.


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Lance Jones knocks down the transition 3 for Purdue

Lance Jones extends Purdue’s lead to 12 with a wide-open transition 3.

How does Purdue’s backcourt stack up against UConn’s? What impact will that have Monday?

Medcalf: UConn is a unique challenge because of the size and talent in its backcourt. Cam Spencer (6-foot-4), Tristen Newton (6-5) and Stephon Castle (6-6) can all create their own shots. And Alex Karaban (6-8) functions like a guard, who will challenge Trey Kaufman-Renn because of his versatility. Braden Smith, Fletcher Loyer and Lance Jones are a strong unit, but UConn has an elite trio that can control the pace of the game and overwhelm Purdue’s backcourt.

Gasaway: Purdue’s backcourt makes 3s and feeds the ball to Edey. The star of that backcourt against NC State was Jones, who came up big with timely makes from beyond the arc. Smith was off his game, and it didn’t matter one bit. The Boilermakers won’t have that luxury against UConn. I’m looking forward to the matchup of Castle guarding Smith. Every opponent knows the pick-and-roll is coming with Edey and Smith, but it doesn’t make it any easier to guard.

Borzello: The biggest tactical question on the perimeter is about which guard Castle will end up guarding. If he defends Smith, that could be disruptive to the Boilermakers’ halfcourt offense, and perhaps make getting the ball to Edey more difficult. NC State bothered Smith in the semifinal, and Jones had to take on a bigger ballhandling role in the second half. Smith can’t have a repeat of Saturday — 1-for-9, with five turnovers — on Monday.

Weinfuss: In theory, the Huskies could use their size to overwhelm the Boilermakers’ backcourt but I just don’t see that happening. I do, however, think Purdue will want to get the ball into Edey quicker and more often and let the game run through him. If he gets going and UConn starts to collapse on the paint, Purdue’s guards had better be ready to shoot — and make them — because if they’re not, UConn will be off to the races.


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Zach Edey’s 20-point double-double sends Purdue to NCAA men’s final

Zach Edey’s 20 points and 12 boards power Purdue past NC State and into the NCAA tournament championship game for the first time since 1969.

What does the Clingan-Edey matchup say about the state of the big man in college basketball?

Borzello: Edey is having a historically dominant NCAA tournament, becoming the first player with six straight 20-point, 10-rebound performances since Houston’s Elvin Hayes in 1967 and 1968. Meanwhile, Clingan has been stellar at both ends, averaging 16.2 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.6 blocks in his five games. And while both teams have dominant bigs, they’re still producing efficient offenses via the 3-pointer. Purdue made 10 3s against NC State and is No. 2 nationally in 3-point percentage, while UConn surrounds Clingan with at least three 3-point shooters at all times.

Weinfuss: Is this “Back to the Future”? Are we in 1994 — long before any of these kids were born? This matchup shows that college coaches aren’t shying away from recruiting true bigs — which means they’re not completely influenced by the NBA game, in which the true center has gone the way of the dinosaur. And it shows that teams can still win with offenses that run through the block. Clingan and Edey have talent but they still are rooted in the paint.

Gasaway: The 3-point line did this. Look at all that space in the paint now. The line was even pushed out to a greater distance before the 2019-20 season. There has never been a better time to be a big man. What’s interesting about Edey is that his rate statistics have stayed so similar year to year, as his team’s 3-point shooting has improved dramatically. Clingan meanwhile is the best rim defender we’ve seen in a long while.

Medcalf: The narrative about elite big men in college has largely centered on their collective potential at the next level. The positionless trend in the NBA has minimized the role of a traditional center, but the top college basketball teams this season proved you can still win while playing through a center who mostly hangs around the basket. Clingan, David McCormack and Jahlil Okafor have been impactful players for national title teams over the past 10 years.


Edey excels at getting opponents into early foul trouble. How can Clingan avoid a similar fate?

Weinfuss: Don’t guard Edey! I kid … kinda. Edey’s a master at using his body on the block and using his hands around the rim. He’s also patient, a sign of maturity beyond his 21 years. Clingan will have to also be patient and not try to anticipate too much, otherwise Edey will be collecting and-1s like he’s collecting player of the year trophies (though not American NIL money). The less the ball is in Edey’s hands, the better for Clingan.

Gasaway: Look for UConn to try to take a page out of NC State’s book here. DJ Burns Jr. did pick up two early fouls, but one of them was at the logo and didn’t involve Edey. On the evening, the Wolfpack limited Edey to just two free throw attempts, his lowest number all season. It didn’t do NC State any good, but the Huskies would love to keep him at a number in the low single digits like that.

Medcalf: Clingan is different than most of Edey’s peers at this position, using his length to disrupt and alter shots. The bulk of the players who’ve tried to defend Edey have given up so much size they’ve only been able to lean on him and try to stop him from establishing position. But the 7-2 Clingan can avoid foul trouble by doing more to affect Edey’s shots and prevent him from getting to his spot in the post. Plus, Clingan has picked up only four fouls in four games this year.

Borzello: Remember, Illinois was 0-for-19 on shots contested by Clingan in the Elite Eight. He’s also been highly effective at walling up and staying straight up when trying to block shots. The key to defending Edey is to not allow him great position and clean catches. Clingan staying on the floor is arguably more important than Edey getting an easy basket. Here’s a stat: Edey is averaging 25.0 points in Purdue’s four losses … and 25.0 points in Purdue’s 34 wins. He’s going to get his. UConn has to cut off everyone else.


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Alex Karaban drains trey to put UConn up by double digits

Alex Karaban drills the 3-pointer from the top of the arc to extend UConn’s lead.

Who will be key on Monday night?

Gasaway: Stephon Castle. He was key on Saturday night against Alabama. His defense has been outstanding throughout the tournament and his size has the potential to pose a challenge for Purdue’s backcourt. The Crimson Tide chose to give Castle space to shoot 3s and he made two of his attempts early before recording a 2-of-6 effort for the game as a whole. There’s little doubt he will be able to hit that shot eventually in his playing career. Will “eventually” include Monday night?

Medcalf: Edey and Clingan are the obvious answers here. But Purdue won’t have a chance if its 3-point attempts don’t fall. That’s why Lance Jones (38% from 3, 4-for-9 on Saturday) will be important. But the Boilermakers will also need his defensive presence. He’ll be asked to stick to one of UConn’s elite perimeter players, which could have a pivotal impact on Monday’s game.

Weinfuss: Zachry Cheyne Edey. The two-time AP Player of the Year showed Saturday he’s not one to cave and crumble under the immense lights of a Final Four when he dropped 20 and 12 against NC State. He has the composure to do it again against UConn and Clingan. What stands between Purdue and its first national championship is, no pun intended, Edey. How he goes Monday night, so goes Purdue’s chances of winning a title.

Borzello: I’ll go with Alex Karaban. I thought he would be pivotal on Saturday against Alabama, and he did come up big at both ends of the floor — and I think he’s going to be a factor again on Monday. His transition 3s always seem like backbreakers for opponents, he’s improved dramatically on defense and he’s become more assertive attacking the rim. He also found his shooting stroke again, after a mini-slump earlier in the tournament.


Who will win the 2024 national championship?

Medcalf: UConn. Dan Hurley’s team is playing in a different dimension right now. He has a seven-man rotation Purdue can’t match. The Huskies have defensive fortitude that can slow Zach Edey and Purdue down. And their offensive firepower means the shots come from all angles. You have to be flawless against UConn to win right now, and the Huskies won’t allow that.

Score prediction: UConn 79, Purdue 73

Weinfuss: Oh, how this pains me to write. I hope my fellow Hoosiers won’t disown me, but I’m going with Purdue. I want to see Edey win on behalf of all bigs, to show that teams can still win with true centers. He has the talent to put the Boilers on his back and carry them to the championship, especially with his ability to stay out of foul trouble while hitting free throws.

Score prediction: Purdue 74, UConn 72

Gasaway: UConn is too much, even for Edey and Purdue. At least now we know a close game is possible with the Huskies. Alabama proved that for much of the evening before losing by 14. The Boilermakers will keep it close, and you can put Edey down right now for a double-double with 20-something points, even against Clingan. But UConn’s constant motion on offense wears down opponents, and this team’s last 11 NCAA tournament games do suggest a pattern.

Score prediction: UConn 79, Purdue 75

Borzello: UConn is the most dominant college basketball team I’ve seen in some time. Clingan can make life difficult for Edey, and if Castle is tasked with defending Smith, I worry how effective Purdue will be getting into its offense. UConn also simply has more shot-makers on the perimeter. Its two best players have been Newton and Spencer, and they’ve barely been mentioned in this conversation. That just shows how deep and versatile and relentless the Huskies are. Hurley and the Huskies are going back-to-back.

Score prediction: UConn 77, Purdue 71

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Newton lobs it up to Castle for UConn slam

Tristen Newton throws it up to Stephon Castle for the big slam early in the second half.

HOW UCONN BEAT ALABAMA 86-72

What was key in Connecticut’s win?

After giving up multiple eight-point leads in the first five minutes of the second half and getting tied at 56 with 12:41 left, UConn used an 8-0 run to take control. And the Huskies never looked back.

Castle scored four in a row to begin the surge before Samson Johnson added a dunk and Karaban hit a jump shot to put the Huskies up by eight. From there, Alabama never got closer than six. — Weinfuss

What surprised you the most about this game?

UConn won by outscoring Alabama instead of by shutting down the Crimson Tide. Yes, the Huskies are ranked No. 1 for offense at KenPom, but we’re talking about a team that got to the Final Four by completely stifling opposing offenses. Just ask Illinois. Against the Tide on the other hand, Stephon Castle had an outstanding scoring night and UConn committed just four turnovers. — Gasaway

Who was the most outstanding player?

Castle entered rare air when he joined Carmelo Anthony and Patrick Ewing to become the third Big East freshman to score 20 points in a Final Four game. He added five rebounds to his career-tying 21 points. When he finished an alley-oop from guard Tristen Newton with 15:43 left, he kick-started the run that gave the Huskies the lead they didn’t relinquish. — Weinfuss

Does UConn look a little less unstoppable after this game?

These things are relative, right? No, UConn never had a 30-point lead on the Crimson Tide. That’s a laughably high bar this team has set for itself. We’re still talking about a team that has won 11 straight NCAA tournament games by double digits. That’s unreal. The Huskies are stoppable because history confirms even the most amazing teams can be stopped. But UConn is still looking very tough to beat. — Gasaway

What will be the legacy of Alabama?

Nate Oats again created an offensive juggernaut that made the school’s first run to the Final Four — proof he could enjoy even more success in the future. His formula works. His teams take a lot of 3-pointers and avoid midrange shots. They play fast and dare teams to match their pace. That worked for a half against the Huskies — though not the full game. But Oats’ system led Alabama to the biggest stage in college basketball — and could continue to do so in future seasons. That matters. — Medcalf

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Braden Smith drills the trey to put Purdue up 18

Braden Smith knocks down the triple to extend Purdue’s lead to 18.

HOW PURDUE BEAT NC STATE 63-50

What was key in Purdue’s win?

Well, besides having the two-time AP Player of the Year play like a two-time AP Player of the Year, Purdue advanced to the national championship game because of its outside shooting. The Boilermakers made 10 3-pointers (40% from behind the arc) while holding NC State to 28.8%. This — despite 16 turnovers, their most of the tournament — was a vast change from Purdue’s past two NCAA tournaments, when it shot just 26.7% from 3. The Boilers’ shooting helped them prevent a fifth loss when committing at least 14 turnovers. — Weinfuss

What surprised you the most about this game?

There were about 30 or 40 total points that went missing in this one, and I did not see that coming. Purdue arrived at the Final Four with easily the best offense in the tournament, one that scored 1.29 points per possession in its four wins. This time, though, the Boilermakers put up 63 points in 64 trips down the floor. NC State did well to force the Boilers into 16 turnovers, but the Wolfpack just couldn’t hit their shots. — Gasaway

Who was the most outstanding player?

Who else? This Purdue team runs through Zach Edey one way or another, and it happened again. Edey finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds for his sixth straight double-double dating to last year’s NCAA tournament — while becoming the first Big Ten player with five double-doubles in an NCAA tournament. He also was able to single-handedly affect the game beyond his scoring and rebounding. Edey touched the ball on 41 possessions, which produced 36 Purdue points and just six turnovers. — Weinfuss

What can Purdue’s next opponent take from this game?

Don’t foul Edey. Holding the Wooden Award winner to a 20-12 double-double qualifies as a win for NC State; the Wolfpack just couldn’t follow up on it and score enough points. Still, making Edey score from the field is your best option in a situation that doesn’t have any good options. Edey will get his points no matter what, but don’t put him on the line and don’t deplete your frontcourt. — Gasaway

What will be the legacy of NC State?

NC State’s run to the Final Four is still historic. The Wolfpack were just the sixth 11-seed to reach a Final Four, and their streak of nine consecutive elimination-game wins was simply remarkable. Stories of Jim Valvano and NC State’s incredible 1983 championship run came out of the archives, and Burns emerged as one of the NCAA tournament’s breakout stars. Keatts has plenty of job security now, and he has proved Raleigh is a spot where transfers can make an immediate impact. — Borzello

First appeared on www.espn.com

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