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UConn, Purdue, Alabama, NC State ride transfer portal additions straight into the Final Four

Connecticut and Purdue needed the right fit. Alabama needed more bodies. North Carolina State had big holes to fill in the backcourt.

They all mined the transfer portal effectively enough that those pieces are key reasons that they’ve reached the Final Four, headed to the desert with a chance to hoist a trophy. It’s a reminder that finding experienced help has become a essential piece of building a top team in today’s game — each added at least one player in his fifth college season — and meshing new pieces into different personalities is a high-reward part of the equation.

“Getting players with a lot of life to them,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said before the reigning champs beat Illinois in the Elite Eight. “Avoiding zombies and dead-heads on your roster. Outgoing, different types of personality. It helps you in these bigger moments.

“I think that’s something that we spend a lot of time thinking about with a couple of the years where we didn’t play our best in March. Get guys that are alive, that aren’t going to shrink when the lights get bright in March.”

The Huskies have one in 6-foot-4 guard Cam Spencer.

Spencer — who had played three seasons at Loyola Maryland and last year at Rutgers — found a home in the starting lineup alongside Associated Press first-team All-American Tristen Newton and returning big man Donovan Clingan for a roster that lost some major pieces from last year’s title run.

Spencer is the team’s No. 2 scorer (14.4 per game) while shooting 44% from 3-point range and 92% from the foul line. He will celebrate his 24th birthday Saturday, the same day the Huskies face the Crimson Tide in the national semifinals.

“He’s super easy and super fun to play with on offense,” UConn teammate Alex Karaban said.

Alabama coach Nate Oats brought in four transfers after losing four starters, including No. 2 overall NBA draft pick Brandon Miller. One of those, lanky 6-11 forward Grant Nelson from North Dakota State, played a huge role in getting the program to its first Final Four, going for 24 points and 12 rebounds i n the Sweet 16 win against No. 1 region seed North Carolina.

Another is 6-3 guard Aaron Estrada, a 6-3 guard who arrived as a two-time Coastal Athletic Association player of the year at Hofstra. Alabama is his fourth school in a five-year career, and he’s an every-game starter as the team’s No. 2 scorer (13.4).

“I think I adjusted pretty well,” Estrada said. “I just want to win. So whatever the team needed me to do, whether to score that night, rebound, get assists, play defense, I’m going to do it. I think coming to Alabama was an easy adjustment for me.”

At Purdue, the Boilermakers found veteran help by adding a 1,500-point scorer in Lance Jones, a 6-1 guard with 113 starts in four seasons at Southern Illinois. And while 7-foot-4 Zach Edey was the star (40 points, 16 rebounds), Jones came through with one of the biggest shots of the Elite Eight matchup against Tennessee, rattling home a 3-pointer from the right wing with 2:42 left to give Purdue a 66-60 lead.

It took some nerve, too, considering Purdue was just 2 of 13 shots from beyond the arc to that point.

“Coach (Matt Painter) tells us: just be ready to shoot the ball when it comes your way and you’re wide open,” Jones said. “I put a lot of work in my shot, and I have a lot of confidence in that. And my teammates have a lot of confidence in me.”

It is the second consecutive year that N.C. State has bolstered its roster through the portal — though this time to improbable heights.

Fifth-year guard DJ Horne spent two years at both Illinois State and Arizona State, and he’s the team’s top scorer (16.8) after the departures of last year’s Jarkel Joiner-Terquavion Smith backcourt tandem. Stanford transfer Michael O’Connell has been vital at the point both as a steady playmaker with only 17 turnovers in the current nine-game winning streak, as well as a shot maker going back to his banked-in 3 to force overtime against Virginia and extend N.C. State’s unexpected Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament title run.

Throw in last year’s portal addition of big man DJ Burns Jr. — who has made himself the face of this year’s NCAA Tournament with his nimble post moves and big personality — and the Wolfpack’s run is comparable to that last Final Four trip in 1983 under the late Jim Valvano.

“I’m glad he’s here,” Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts said of Burns. “I’m glad he’s on my team. I don’t know how you guard him. I’m excited, and I hope nobody figures that out.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

By AARON BEARD
AP Basketball Writer

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