Zach Gotlieb & Tanner Tripp| April 6th, 2019
After another year’s worth of drama, suspense, and, of course, madness, the best 4 teams have been sussed out of the original 68 and we have two more games to go from one of the best four teams to THE best team in the country. The Final Four will take place in Minneapolis and feature (2)Michigan State vs. (3)Texas Tech and (1)Virginia vs. (5)Auburn. There are 15 appearances between the four teams, Michigan State owns 10 of them, while Texas Tech and Auburn are reaching their first ever Final Four in school history. There’s a ton of great talent and NBA caliber talent looking to go and show out in front of the nation.
University of Virginia
Number 1 seed Virginia has made an impressive run this year to remedy the embarrassing and historic first-round loss to the 16 seed UMBC last year. They started with a disappointing first half in the first round that many feared could lead to losing to a 16 seed for the second year in a row. A very impressive 25-5 run to open the second half was the key to coming back and making it to the round of 32. While the big run to open the second half of the first round was impressive, but their defense is the trademark of this team. They are +9 in turnovers in the tournament, forcing 43 turnovers, while also only allowing 57.7 points/game compared to scoring 66.7 points/game which is an impressive +9 as well.
While they are an excellent defensive team, they are painful to watch offensively. The team can produce points and score, but for a sport that is becoming increasingly fast-paced, the slow, methodical offense of the Cavs is pretty boring to watch. They are led by junior guard Kyle Guy, averaging 15 points/game this season and was instrumental in their overtime win against Purdue in the Elite 8, putting up 25 points. In the last three games of the tournament, their bench has produced very little, scoring only 19 points total including a measly zero points against Oregon. That can be misleading since the starters virtually play the entire game, but if Virginia wants to keep going, they could really use some production, even if it’s not with points, from the bench guys with the depth that Auburn produces 1-9.
The Cavaliers have a legitimately talented team; one that has the potential to not only get into the National Championship but even win it all. The biggest key for them is to continue to play the same lockdown defense that they are known for and have done all year.
Auburn has proven to be much more formidable than I ever gave them credit for. To get to their first-ever Final Four, they’ve had to go through North Carolina in the Sweet 16 and Kentucky – despite not being as great as they have in years past – in the Elite Eight, and that is no small feat. They’ve shown signs of sheer dominance, shooting lights out against UNC and signs of not-so-good as they did barely defeat New Mexico State in the opening round of the tournament. However, with 8:08 left in the second half in their Sweet 16 matchup against North Carolina, Auburn’s leading rebounder and third-leading scorer, Chuma Okeke, fell to the floor hard after his left knee buckled as he planted his foot on the way to the basket. Okeke was assisted to the locker room by the Auburn training staff. It was later determined that Okeke has suffered a season-ending tear of his ACL. After the injury, Auburn overcame a six-point deficit to finish their upset of North Carolina and won an overtime thriller against Kentucky. We will see if the loss of Okeke will affect their Final Four performance.
The Auburn offense is run the opposite of Virginia’s. They love to get out and run, averaging 71.6 possessions per game. They are also in the top 50 in scoring, sitting at 79.5 points per game, shooting about 45% from the field and a true shooting percentage of 65% in the tournament. In their game against North Carolina, they posted an extremely efficient 131.1 offense rating as well as a 108.1 defense rating, which equates to an incredible +23 net rating.
While they are outstanding offensively, defensively, they are less impressive, allowing 68.5 per game. They are an okay rebounding team, but nothing earth-shattering. Given that Virginia has won the rebound battle in every game this tournament so far, Auburn will have to crash the boards and run in transition if they want to make it to the championship game.
Texas Tech University
The journey to the Final Four for the Red Raiders started in Tulsa, Oklahoma against a Northern Kentucky, who had 26 wins out of Horizon League. Thanks to a 29 point performance from sophomore guard Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech moved to the second, where many people selected them to go down against six seeded Buffalo. However, this wasn’t much of a game at all. The Red Raiders silenced the doubters with a 78-58 victory over Buffalo. The sweet 16 brought them their first Power Five challenge in the Michigan Wolverines.
In the Big 10 championship game, Michigan fell to rival Michigan State, but their season resume spoke for itself, with wins over defending champions Villanova, and top-seeded North Carolina, launching them into the two seed in the West region. Michigan was favored by two headed into the Sweet 16 matchup. A defensive battle was expected, and it is what we got. Only 107 points were scored between Michigan and Texas Tech, but Texas Tech had more. They earned their spot in the Elite 8 with a 19 point victory over the Wolverines.
The Elite 8 brought them the number one seed in the West region, The Gonzaga Bulldogs. Gonzaga had a signature win against Duke at the beginning of the season and climbed the ranks to number one for five weeks during the regular season. However, as this matchup proved, defense wins championships. Texas Tech, one of the top-rated defenses in the country, and Gonzaga, one of the top-rated offenses in the country, tipped off at Honda Center in Anaheim and the suffocating defense of Texas Tech went to work. Gonzaga took a two-point lead into half time and the second half remained close for the entire 20 minutes, but with less than thirty seconds on the clock, Texas Tech had taken a 69-64 lead over the Bulldogs. A steal leading to a three-point basket by Josh Perkins got Gonzaga within two. After two made free throws by Texas Tech and a layup by Gonzaga, the score was 71-66 with just over 10 seconds remaining. On the inbound attempt by Matt Mooney, Josh Perkins reached over the line, hitting Mooney on the hand. Perkins was given a technical foul, sealing the deal for Texas Tech.
Texas Tech relies heavily on their lockdown defense, ranking 3rd in the country in points allowed, at 59 points per game. They will face a tough challenge trying to slow down a Michigan State team led by one of the best scorers in the country in Cassius Winston. Keeping Winston at bay is going to be one of the most important keys to winning the semi-final and making it to the National Championship.
Michigan State University
Michigan State has the most experience of the remaining teams in the Final Four, with 10 appearances in their history. It has been an impressive run for the Spartans this year, winning their last nine games. Say what you want for the methods in which they’ve won the games, but it’s been working. The controversy over Tom Izzo’s methods for getting his players to play at a high level, including screaming and getting in the face of his players, was short-lived and despite the nasty backlash and support for what Izzo did, the team has played really well since then. Their win against the overwhelming favorite to win the whole thing, Duke, to make it to the Final Four, was one of their best games of the year. They did just enough at the end of the game to finish off Zion Williamson and the rest of the Blue Devils showed that the team can execute at the end of games, play situational offense and situational defense which is significant as the games get bigger and closer.
As far as the options for Michigan State go on offense, it begins and ends with Cassius Winston. It wouldn’t be too far fetched to make the statement that there is not a more valuable player for any of the teams than Winston is for the MSU offense. The junior guard leads the team in both points and assists per game this season with 18.9 points and 7.6 assists. His 26-point performance was the key to surviving their first-round game against Bradley. “He just wouldn’t let us lose,” said Tom Izzo about Winston’s performance and that’s how it’s been for most of the year. If the Spartans want to continue to move forward on their trek to the National Championship game, Winston will have to keep up his brilliant play, and other guys like Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman will have to step up and produce to open up opportunities against the extremely tough defense of Texas Tech.
During their winning streak, only twice has the team defensive rating gone above 100, including a very impressive 76.9 rating against Minnesota in the round of 32. They’re also among the top teams in the country in rebounding, averaging around 40 rebounds per game. Controlling the tempo and keeping Texas Tech off the offensive glass is going to be vital for them if they want to make it to the championship game.
While the Final Four may not include one of the most polarizing players in recent memory in Zion Williamson, there is still a ton of excitement, drama, and, dare I say, madness left to come from one of the most entertaining sporting events of the year.
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Main Credit Image: Jamie Schwaberow, NCAA Photos via Getty Images, 2019 NCAA Photos.