GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Final Four this week delivers the last entry in college basketball’s heartwarming yearbook, an annual assortment of legendary longshots, coaches looking for hugs and magic oozing from every corner of the bracket.

Only problem with the 2024 version: UConn doesn’t believe in magic.

The lone thing that has come close to stopping the Huskies on their march to a second straight title so far has been the uncooperative airliner that was supposed to fly them to Phoenix. Coach Dan Hurley and his players, who have won their four tournament games by an average of 27.8 points, finally arrived at 3:15 a.m. Thursday after a nightmare mix of mechanical issues, then bad weather, left them hanging on the tarmac for hours.

“It was therapeutic to watch the de-icing,” Hurley said.

Awaiting the Huskies once they finally arrived — nothing but feel-good stories.

• Purdue, led by 7-foot-4 Zach Edey, is back at the Final Four for the first time since 1980, trying to win a title a season after becoming only the second team in history to be bounced in the first round as a No. 1 seed.


• Alabama, which plays UConn on Saturday, is in the program’s first Final Four after a complete rebuild of a roster that was supposed to make a deep run last season, then lost nine players to the pros, the transfer portal and graduation.

• And then there’s North Carolina State. The Wolfpack is back in a reboot of 1983, only instead of Coach Jim Valvano rushing the court, looking for someone to hug after winning the title, this year’s mascot is 6-foot-9, 275-pound DJ Burns Jr., the center with the mile-wide smile and, some say, potential in both the NFL and the NBA.

“We expected to be here. I know people don’t believe that,” Coach Kevin Keatts said. “But in our mind as a team, this is not a fluke.”

The Wolfpack did the same as the ’83 squad, staring down a weekend’s worth of must-win games in the ACC Tournament simply to qualify for the NCAAs. That ’83 squad might have been the first to inscribe “Cinderella” into the March Madness dictionary, though it’s hardly the only team that rode momentum and dreams en route to a championship no one saw coming.

Some might say Alabama fits the same mold. Crimson Tide Coach Nate Oats had only three players returning from last year’s top-seeded team, which went out in the Sweet 16.

In came Grant Nelson (North Dakota State), Latrell Wrightsell Jr. (Cal State Fullerton) and Aaron Estrada (from Hofstra, via Oregon and St. Peter’s). By the time March rolled around, Alabama was getting it together — taking a football school to a place it has never been in basketball.


“We had to sell our guys that we can make the run before the tournament,” Oats said. “Now that we made the run, get to the Final Four, I want our guys playing loose and free, but I want them thinking they’ve got a chance to win.”

Purdue has the reigning Player of the Year in Edey, but a year ago, that didn’t prevent the Boilermakers from joining the 2018 Virginia team as only the second No. 1 seed to exit in the first round. A lot of teams might have rebuilt. Purdue mostly decided to stand pat.

“I’ve always dove into what we’re doing and tried to pick at what we’re doing to make improvements,” Coach Matt Painter said. “When you get beat in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by a 16 seed, that doesn’t change anything.”

Great as all these stories are, the stark reality is that nothing — other than the airplane — has been making much of a dent in UConn this year. The Huskies are 35-3. They have won their last 10 tournament games, dating to last season, by 13 points or more. They have had at least a 30-point lead in all four March Madness games this year.

Even with the short night’s rest on the way in, they are an 11 1/2-point favorite against the Crimson Tide on Saturday and a heavy favorite (minus-185) to win it all.

UConn lost five of its top seven scorers from last year’s championship team. The Huskies are back thanks to, according to Hurley, trusting freshmen (Stephon Castle), player development (Donovan Clingan, Alex Karaban) and what the coach called “strategic portal” (Cam Spencer).

All in all, nobody is navigating the chaos wreaked on college hoops by the transfer portal and NIL better than UConn.

“This tournament is the hardest thing to do. The programs, the best resources, biggest brands, have a hard time getting here because of the changes in the game recently,” he said. “We’ve made an incredibly hard tournament to advance in look easy. Probably a lot easier than it really is.”

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