March Madness: Ranking the Final Four starters from 1 to 20

For the past few years, we’ve heard men’s college basketball coaches complain that they can no longer build a title contender around one-and-done prospects, that the value of a five-star freshman has diminished.

Consider this Final Four affirmation of that theory.

Only one team features a freshman in its starting five. UConn’s Stephon Castle is the Huskies’ fifth-leading scorer.

Twelve of 20 Final Four starters have transferred at least once. A few are playing for their third program already.

More than half the Final Four starters are seniors. The average age of the starters on each team is over 21.

The Final Four tips off Saturday at 6:09 p.m. ET in Glendale, Ariz., with Purdue trying to end NC State’s charmed run, followed by a clash between UConn and Alabama. Here’s an attempt to rank the starters on all four teams from 1 to 20:

1. Zach Edey, C, Purdue

For a guy who insisted that he felt "no pressure" to help Purdue shed the unwanted label of March underachiever and get to its first Final Four in 44 years, Zach Edey sure had a visceral reaction after edging Tennessee in the Elite Eight. Edey, after outdueling Dalton Knecht and dropping 40 and 16 on the Vols, addressed Purdue's legion of haters with CBS sideline reporter Evan Washburn, "They thought they knew us, man," Edey began. "They thought they knew what we had in our hearts. I promise you they didn't. We're f—— winners. This is what we do."

2. Donovan Clingan, C, UConn

The best player in the NCAA tournament? That's Edey, the two-time national player of the year. The best prospect in the NCAA tournament? That could be Clingan, who produced maybe the best showing of his career in the Elite Eight. Illinois, according to ESPN Stats & Info, shot 3 of 25 inside the arc during Clingan's 22 minutes. In addition to his 22 points and 10 boards, Clingan altered the game with his rim protection. Clingan vs. Edey head-to-head in the national title game on Monday night? Yes, please.

3. Mark Sears, G, Alabama

The best guard left in this tournament is the small but mighty maestro of Alabama’s fast-paced attack. Sears is averaging more than 24 points per game in the NCAA tournament and has hit 17 of 38 attempts from behind the arc. Sometimes he plays point guard. Sometimes he’s off the ball. Either way, he’s looking for his shot.

4. Tristen Newton, G, UConn

The supposed weak link of UConn’s 2023 national title team has evolved into one of the best players on this year’s squad. Newton, a 2022 transfer from East Carolina, was named one of the five finalists for the Wooden Award this week after averaging team highs of 15.0 points and 6.1 assists.

5. DJ Burns, F, NC State

Only a few weeks ago, Burns was the little-known second-leading scorer on a 14-loss NC State team bound for the NIT. Now he’s smiling face of this NCAA tournament, a star so big that none other than Nikola Jokic was glued to a TV last Sunday night and was late to his postgame news conference as a result. “He’s amazing,” Jokic told reporters. “I think he’s so skilled.”

6. Braden Smith, G, Purdue

This isn’t the same Smith who sputtered to the finish line last March while showing signs of fatigue and waning confidence. The all-Big Ten point guard is averaging 9.5 assists per game in the NCAA tournament and added 14 points last Friday in the Boilermakers’ Sweet 16 victory over Gonzaga. When the shot clock ticks down, Purdue wants the ball in Smith’s hands to make a play.

7. Cam Spencer, G, UConn

Dan Hurley originally recruited Spencer to fill the void left by Jordan Hawkins. Spencer was supposed to run around screens, bury jumpers and stretch the gravity of the defense. What Hurley got in addition to that was a kindred spirit.

8. Alex Karaban, F, UConn

Here’s a perfect example of why UConn is the overwhelming favorite to win the national title: The Huskies’ effort never wanes. Not only did Alex Karaban force Illinois’ Marcus Domask into a tough shot last Saturday, the UConn sophomore then sprinted by a jogging Domask to set up a transition opportunity.

9. DJ Horne, G, NC State

He may now be known as the “other DJ” at NC State, but Horne has been the Wolfpack’s best player for most of this season. The 6-foot-1 Raleigh native is averaging 16.8 points and shooting above 40% from behind the arc. He has been at his best in NC State’s toughest games, delivering 29 points against North Carolina in the ACC title game and a combined 39 against Marquette and Duke in the South Region semis and final.

10. Stephon Castle, UConn

The long, athletic UConn wing is the only one-and-done-caliber freshman who made this Final Four. His 3-point shot is a work in progress, but he’s already a perimeter stopper and a slasher who can do stuff like this when he gets to the rim:

11. Aaron Estrada, G, Alabama

Even though Estrada is now the second-leading scorer on an SEC team that is two victories away from a national title, the former Hofstra standout still has the mentality of an overlooked recruit with a chip on his shoulder. “I've been doubted like my whole life, under-recruited, looked down upon,” Estrada said after Alabama’s Elite Eight win over Clemson. “That just added more fuel.”

12. Lance Jones, G, Purdue

When Matt Painter assessed his program after its ghastly loss to Fairleigh Dickinson last year, the Purdue coach came away convinced that the Boilermakers needed another ball handler and a lockdown perimeter defender. Enter Jones, a Southern Illinois grad transfer who has taken pressure off Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer and improved Purdue’s supporting cast around Edey this season.

13. Rylan Griffen, G, Alabama

On one side of Alabama’s victorious locker room on Saturday night, Nick Pringle cradled the West Regional trophy like a baby. On the other side, Griffen displayed a shiny Alabama-themed championship belt sent to Alabama from the WWE. Said an excited Griffen, “This is almost better than the trophy!”

14. Fletcher Loyer, G, Purdue

Forty-four years in the making, and Loyer botched the moment.

Thankfully for Purdue, the sophomore sharpshooter has been better when it counts, drilling 6 of his 13 attempts from behind the arc.

15. Mohammed Diarra, F, NC State

Look no further than Diarra if you’re trying to understand why NC State has been so much better since the postseason began. Diarra recorded four double-doubles in 31 regular-season games. Then the ACC tournament started and he turned into Ben Wallace 2.0, tallying seven double-digit scoring games and five double-doubles, all while fasting until sundown for Ramadan.

16. Grant Nelson, F, Alabama

The unlikely hero of Alabama's Sweet 16 upset of North Carolina is from a town so remote that even other North Dakotans say it's in the middle of nowhere. It wasn't until the summer before Nelson's senior year in high school that he first drew the interest of in-state colleges. Now he's one of the pillars of Alabama's run to its first Final Four.

17. Casey Morsell, G, NC State

The long-armed fifth-year senior does a little bit of everything for NC State. He’s the Wolfpack’s emotional leader, third-leading scorer and best perimeter defender. He has shown the ability to erupt for big numbers on occasion, piling up 28 points against BYU earlier this season and 25 against Louisville.

18. Trey Kaufman-Renn, F, Purdue

The highest-rated recruit at Purdue? Believe it or not, it’s Kaufman-Renn. The former top 40 prospect and 2021 Indiana Mr. Basketball runner-up redshirted as a true freshman and bided his time last season. He has shown flashes of big-time potential this season playing alongside Edey or in place of him. Kaufman-Renn is a big reason the Boilermakers could be in the title mix again a year from now.

19. Nick Pringle, F, Alabama

Inserted into Alabama’s starting five after sharpshooting guard Latrell Wrightsell went down with an injury, Pringle has brought some semblance of rim protection to an Alabama team that has lacked it all season. Charles Bediako, he is not, but Pringle plays with grit and energy, rebounds and is a presence in the lane.

20. Michael O'Connell, G, NC State

It’s a testament to the strength of these four teams that O’Connell is last on this list. He scored at least 10 points in all five of NC State’s ACC tournament victories. His banked-in 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime against Virginia in the ACC semifinals kept the Wolfpack’s season alive and paved the way for this unlikely story.

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