Why this McDonald's All-American-less Final Four may offer a blueprint for the future

HOUSTON — Shortly after his former school fired its men’s basketball coach about a year ago, Tristen Newton decided that he was leaving too.

“I said if I was going to have to play for a new coach, I should get to pick the one I play for,” the high-scoring 6-foot-5 guard said.

Newton submitted the necessary paperwork to East Carolina's compliance office on a Monday in late March to allow coaches from other schools to contact him. By the time Newton exited the office and walked down two flights of stairs, his phone was already ringing.

Wichita State reached out first. UConn, USC, Arkansas and Florida were part of the next wave of calls. By 11:30 p.m. that night, coaches from more than 30 schools had contacted Newton to show interest in a 17.7-points-per-night scorer with two seasons of eligibility remaining.

UConn coach Dan Hurley stood out instantly to Newton because he FaceTimed instead of calling. The video element gave Newton a clearer sense of “how genuine he was and how passionate he was about the game.” Newton also liked the R.J. Cole-esque role that Hurley envisioned for him. Whereas other coaches wanted Newton to play off ball, UConn envisioned him as a lead guard who was hardwired to score, the perfect complement to catch-and-shoot specialist Jordan Hawkins and to pass-first wing Andre Jackson Jr.

“That was enough to bring me on the visit,” Newton said. “Then I just needed to figure out how the guys were, if they were good people or not. When I saw they were great people, I knew it was the right fit.”

Connecticut's Tristen Newton (2) and Jordan Hawkins (24) react during a game against Gonzaga on March 25. (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

This weekend’s Final Four is unique because the teams in Houston made it by building around players like Newton instead of heralded high school prospects. This is the first Final Four since the NCAA began seeding teams in 1979 that doesn’t feature a single former McDonald’s All-American or former top-30 recruit. Only UConn has former top-50 prospects on its roster. Several key players at San Diego State and Florida Atlantic finished high school without receiving a scholarship offer.

The knee-jerk reaction from that eye-catching stat is that elite freshmen aren’t as valuable as they once were, but every year there are top prospects who prove otherwise. Jalen Suggs nearly carried Gonzaga to an undefeated national title in 2021. Paolo Banchero spearheaded Duke’s Final Four run last March. Brandon Miller elevated Alabama to a No. 1 seed and a SEC title this season.

The proper takeaway from this year’s McDonald’s All-American-less Final Four is that better options are now available to programs who aren’t able to consistently attract top-tier incoming freshmen. The transfer portal has been stocked with more talent than ever since the NCAA abandoned its rule requiring transfers to sit out their first year at a new school. And coaches are getting sharper at sifting through the available players to find pieces that complement their returning core players.

The way UConn built this season’s roster is the ideal example. Hurley envisioned Hawkins, Jackson and ultra-productive low-post scorer Adama Sanogo as the Huskies “big 3.” Next he added stretch forward Alex Karaban and mobile 7-footer Donovan Clingan from the 2022 high school class. And finally he scoured the transfer portal for complementary pieces to fill the remaining holes in his roster — pieces like Newton, sharpshooting reserve guard Joey Calcaterra and NCAA tournament-tested wing Nahiem Alleyne.

“We knew going into the portal we needed specific things, especially perimeter shooting and older players,” Hurley said. “We had a vision for how we could put it together.”

Just like Hurley has provided a blueprint for how to build a title contender without McDonald’s All-Americans, his fellow Final Four coaches have done the same.

San Diego State’s fortress of a defense gave it a high floor, but the Aztecs needed additional scoring punch in support of leading returning scorer Matt Bradley. That’s why coach Brian Dutcher targeted Darrion Trammell, a dynamic 5-foot-10 scoring guard who averaged 17.3 points as a junior at Seattle and put up 39 points in his final game with the Redhawks.

San Diego State's Keshad Johnson (0), Lamont Butler (5), Darrion Trammell (12), Matt Bradley (20) and Jaedon LeDee (13) may not be bluechip recruits, but they've carried the Aztecs to their first Final Four. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)
San Diego State's Keshad Johnson (0), Lamont Butler (5), Darrion Trammell (12), Matt Bradley (20) and Jaedon LeDee (13) may not be bluechip recruits, but they've carried the Aztecs to their first Final Four. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

When Trammell entered the portal and began hearing from coaches, he said he “studied rosters, recruiting classes, a lot of things.” There were power-conference programs who showed interest in Trammell, but he said, “in the end I went where I felt needed.”

Miami became the face of name, image and likeness last spring when it landed two of college basketball’s most coveted transfers. Businessman John Ruiz’s checkbook certainly contributed to guard Nijel Pack and former Sun Belt Conference player of the year Norchad Omier picking the Hurricanes, but both players insist money was not the only factor.

Pack liked that coach Jim Larrañaga wanted him to play point guard and that the Hurricanes could surround him with lots of returning talent. Omier considered Miami because of his previous ties to the city but he was sold when he visited and witnessed firsthand the team’s camaraderie.

“I was like, damn, I want to be part of this,” he said.

Ask Larrañaga his reaction to the lack of McDonald’s All-Americans at this year’s Final Four, and he immediately points out, “This is certainly an unconventional group of four teams.”

“The blue bloods get the McDonald's All-Americans,” Larranaga continued. “If the blue bloods are back here next year, you'll have McDonald's All-Americans in the Final Four.”

This year, the blue bloods got bounced early. In their place are older teams, more experienced teams, teams whose coaches used the transfer portal to supplement high-upside existing cores. For programs who can’t consistently land McDonald’s All-Americans, that might be the blueprint to mimic moving forward.