San Diego State out to prove it can defeat heavy favorite UConn for NCAA title

San Diego State players run onto the court before a game
San Diego State faces a dominant UConn team with a chance to shock the oddsmakers and win historic NCAA men’s basketball championship.
(Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Oddsmakers generally defer to predictive computer metrics to set betting lines for college basketball games. The respected metric, which rates Connecticut as the nation’s No. 1 team, forecasts that the Huskies will beat San Diego State in the NCAA championship game Monday night at 72,000-seat NRG Stadium by five points, 69-64.

The opening line: UConn minus 6 points.

Within minutes, so much money had been wagered on the Huskies that it moved to 6.5 points. And then 7. And now 7.5.

If it gets to 8, and it’s certainly trending that way, the Aztecs would be the biggest underdogs in an NCAA final since 1999.

San Diego State puts together 14-0 run early in half, then loses it — and the lead — before rallying to a 72-71 victory over Florida Atlantic in the Final Four.

April 1, 2023

The eye test is hardly a deterrent. The Huskies have rolled through the tournament with victories by 24, 15, 23, 28 and 13 points. The 23 was against an Arkansas team that had just knocked off No. 1 seed and defending national champion Kansas. As media entered the Aztecs’ locker room interview session Sunday afternoon, one of the assistant coaches was sitting in the hallway watching film of UConn’s Elite Eight game against Gonzaga. The video was paused in the second half. The score: 77-45.


Miami, which has two NBA prospects and knocked off No. 2 seed Texas in the Elite Eight, was down 20 in Saturday’s other semifinal.

The Aztecs? Had 11 turnovers in the first half and needed clutch jumpers from Matt Bradley and Micah Parrish to hold off Charleston in the opening game. Came from nine down inside 12 minutes to go to beat Alabama. Got a controversial whistle and free throws with 1.2 seconds left to beat Creighton. Trailed by 14 in the entire second half against Florida Atlantic and won on a buzzer-beater from Lamont Butler.

UConn: three and possibly four projected NBA draft picks in Adama Sanogo, Jordan Hawkins, Andre Jackson Jr. and 7-foot-2 freshman center Donovan Clingan.

San Diego State: none currently.

UConn: $24 million annual men’s basketball budget, charters, NIL, high-profile recruits, the works.

San Diego State: $7.2 million budget, commercial, minimal NIL, under-the-radar recruits, humility, work ethic.

UConn: four national titles and the most by any program since 1999.

San Diego State: zero NCAA Tournament victories before 2011, zero against better seeds until last week.


The one caveat, the one qualifier, the one yeah, but

Doubt these Aztecs at your own peril.

San Diego State's Lamont Butler (5) celebrates with teammates after making the game-winning shot
San Diego State’s Lamont Butler (5) celebrates with teammates after making the game-winning shot to to beat Florida Atlantic 72-71 in the Final Four.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

They’re old, they’re deep, they’re resilient, they’re persistent, they’re confident. They look positively pedestrian for 30 or 35 minutes, but then you look at the scoreboard and they’re still hanging around and … wait … did they just take the lead?

Saturday, they got roasted on defense in the first half and were 4 of 12 from the free throw line over the final seven minutes. And won. It was the first buzzer-beater in Final Four history by a team trailing, not tied.

“Whether we’re making or missing shots, we’re going to stick to our game plan of what we’ve been doing all March,” Bradley said. “We haven’t shot the ball pretty, but we’ve been good at winning games.”

That, then, might be their best chance. Muck up the game. Hang around. Give the Huskies a false sense of security. Watch the pressure of expectation increase exponentially on the prohibitive favorites as a tight game lurches into the closing minutes.

It worked against Alabama, which took a nine-point lead inside 12 minutes to go, figured it was over and crumbled.


Could it work against the four-time national champs?

“They haven’t had to worry about close games so far (in the tournament),” Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher said. “So I hope we can give them one, and we’ll see what they do in a close game. They’ve been fantastic. They’ve run through the field.”

The Huskies look impermeable right now. It hasn’t been that way all season, though.

San Diego State  forward Aguek Arop puts up a shot.
Aztecs forward Aguek Arop is fouled by Florida Atlantic center Vladislav Goldin during the second half of Saturday’s game.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A 14-0 start with wins against Alabama, Iowa State and Oregon got them to No. 2 in the Associated Press poll. But then they nearly dropped out completely, falling to No. 24 following a stretch of six losses in eight games in January. Since then, they’re 14-2 with the lone losses by three at Creighton and by two against Marquette in the Big East tournament.

“We’re just going to try to ignore that (favorite) tag,” coach Dan Hurley said. “I just think it helps us a lot what we went through in January. We know that if we get away from our identity for a tick, we become very vulnerable.

“With the experience and the physicality and the age and just how well-coached the San Diego State team is, and the teams they’ve beaten to get here, we expect a much different type of game, much more of a fight.”

For Dutcher, there are obstacles other than defending the shifty Hawkins and the 6-9, 245-pound Sanogo. They must guard against human nature, the natural let-down following the emotional outpouring when Butler’s shot tickled the net and an entire city back home erupted.


In many respects, the Aztecs have already won. They have gone further than any team in school or Mountain West history. They eliminated No. 1 overall seed. They have captivated a nation with a pair of dramatic, come-from-behind, last-second wins.

They’re long past the it’s-all-gravy phase, the cherry-on-top phase.

“That’s it,” Dutcher said. “We have a national perception now. I think everybody out west has always known we’ve been good. But now that we’re playing on the biggest stage, and we’re winning on the biggest stage, I think a lot like when Gonzaga made that step, they did it on a national stage. That’s how they gained respect.

“Hopefully this national stage will give us national respect. That’s what I think it will do.”

The point spread keeps creeping up.