After ten days of absolute madness, only four teams are still left standing from the ring of chaos known as March Madness, all four of these teams had to overcome unlikely odds, and rise above lofty expectations to get here. On Saturday, all four of these teams will be competing for the chance to head to the U.S Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota in order to battle it out for the chance to call themselves the undisputed national champions, but only two of these teams will walk away from Saturday victorious. So without further ado, here’s a preview of each of the upcoming games, and a prediction on who I think will move on past Saturday’s game to reach the national championship.
No. 5 Auburn Tigers (30-9) vs. No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers (33-3), Saturday at 5:10 PM
When I say this, it applies to all four teams in the Final Four, otherwise, they wouldn’t be here right now, but when I tell you the Tigers are a tested tournament team, they are a TESTED tournament team. No other team can stake the claim that they’re the only team that has defeated the Kansas Jayhawks and North Carolina Tar Heels in consecutive games in NCAA history, and then go on to pull out a close overtime victory over the Kentucky Wildcats during the weekend while they were at it. Who else can say consecutively they defeated three teams who were ranked in the top 10 AP preseason poll? Absolutely nobody.
The Tigers have been unbelievably resilient throughout the tournament, barely escaping the No.12 seed New Mexico State Aggies 78-77, and pulling out the win over the Wildcats two days after Auburn’s leading rebounder and third-leading scorer Chuma Okeke tore his ACL against the Tar Heels. The news was devastating to hear, but the way Auburn rallied around each other to put the game away against the Tar Heels was inspiring, and that victory was one of two very improbable upsets that occurred over the weekend, don’t worry I’m going to make plenty of time to talk about the second one. Auburn then followed it up with a hard-fought victory over Kentucky, the first half was a hard fought defensive battle, but the Tigers who were led by Jared Harper (26 points) and Bryce Brown (24 points) spearheaded the Tigers effort, with Harper tying up the game with a layup with 38 seconds left. Then Harper went on to explode for 12 points in overtime to get the Tigers to this point.
The Cavaliers made it here too, but not without some toughness involved, they managed to avoid another UMBC-like upset after two easy wins against the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs and Oklahoma Sooners, however the Oregon Ducks didn’t make it easy on Virginia. The Cavaliers had to use their trademark defense in the final minutes to get out of the door with a 53-49 victory. Then Virginia had to overcome an explosive 42 point performance from Carsen Edwards (the next closest Purdue player had seven points by the way), before Indiana native Kyle Guy remembered how to shoot the basketball, pouring in 25 points in order for the Cavaliers to walk away with an 80-75 win in overtime.
Throughout the tournament, the Cavaliers offense has relied on Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome who’ve had to step up at different times throughout the tournament, this Virginia team isn’t known for its offensive performance as much as it is for its defensive prowess, but it does know how to work together. It’s notorious “Pack Line Defense” has is the name of their game only giving up 55.0 points per game, best in the country, entering the tournament. After these past two close games, Virginia believes it’s ready for the Tigers in what is sure to be a very impressive battle between two very motivated sides.
I believe Auburn’s biggest strengths going into this game will be making a majority of their shots from behind the arc and taking advantage of second-chance scoring opportunities, about 43.4% of their points have come from behind the arc, and they pulled down double-digit offensive rebounds against three of their four tournament opponents, which says a lot considering the competition they’ve faced so far.
On the other hand, Virginia’s biggest calling cards involve keeping the ball moving against the Tigers, they’ve averaged 12.5 assists through their first four tournament games, and getting good opportunities around the basket, considering Guy, Jerome and Hunter are shooting at least 37% from the arc on or with at least 99 attempts. Disrupting the passing lanes will be another key for this team, the Cavaliers have a combined 26-14 advantage in steals over their last four opponents, highlighting one of the clear strengths of their defense.
While both of these teams display very effective intangible assets such as toughness, aggression, and focus, those things won’t get them to Minneapolis, only the final score will. I have Virginia’s smothering defensive style proving to be too much for Auburn’s aggressive style of play in the paint, they’ll have to rely on shots from behind the arc making them one dimensional, while Virginia’s talented duo of Guy and Jerome will find ways to punish the Tigers from beyond the arc, and inside the paint. Expect to see the Cavaliers coming away with a victory in this matchup.
No. 3 Texas Tech Raiders vs. No. 2 Michigan State Spartans
Remember how I said I was going to address the second improbable upset? Last night myself, along with millions of other fellow Americans just stood with our mouths open, probably with a slice of pizza falling out of it, as Cassius Winston dribbled the ball away from the Duke Blue Devils, to end the game and upset arguably one of the best college basketball teams of all time. The Spartans had to overcome a squad filled with the top three ESPN 100 recruits in the country all on the same team, and somehow they did it. After Michigan State came out strong and established a solid lead over Duke, the Blue Devils quickly stormed back before the game went neck and neck for virtually the entire game, before a Kenny Goins three-pointer put the game away for good.
By some measures, the Spartans shouldn’t have even made it to this point, in their first game the No.15 seed Bradley Braves kept the game within one possession until about three minutes left in the second half. Then in the Round of 32, the Spartans committed 22 turnovers and somehow managed to beat the Minnesota Golden Gophers by 20 points, before coming together and putting together a very convincing win against the LSU Tigers, where freshman Aaron Henry led the way with 20 points. However, Cassius Winston (19 points per game in four tournament games) and Xavier Tillman (15 points and nine rebounds in four tournament games) have been the glue that has held the Spartans together during this tournament run. The win against Duke definitely displayed their toughness and ability to compete on a very high stage, which should hopefully give them a lot of confidence heading into this matchup.
Now don’t hop on the SPARTY BEAT DUKE SO THEY’RE GONNA WIN IT ALL HYPE TRAIN just yet, the Spartans are going to have their hands full with a Texas Tech unit that boasts the best defensive efficiency and field goal percentage defense in the country according to KenPom. That stellar defense was on display against the No. 2 seed Michigan Wolverines who went into the half against this team with 16 points, an NCAA tourney record low. The next game, they held the No.1 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs to 69 points, their second-lowest scoring output in a game all season.
The defensive effort is led by future NBA draft pick Jarrett Culver who along with 21.5 points per game in the tournament is also averaging just over two steals per game, forward Tariq Owens who has averaged almost three blocks per game in the tournament, as well as senior Matt Mooney who has also had at least two steals in every tournament game this year, that included three against Gonzaga. The offensive side is mainly based around Culver who took 32.3% of his team’s shots and uses 31.7% of their possessions during the regular season. Culver will receive his offensive assistance from Mooney (11 points per game shooting 38.1% behind the arc) and Davide Moretti (11.6 points per game shooting 46.3% from behind the arc on 149 attempted threes in the regular season).
The Spartans biggest key to winning this game will be to attack the rim and shut down Jarrett Culver, they are capable of shooting the three-pointer shooting 40% or better from the arc against Minnesota and LSU, but that plays right into Texas Tech’s strength of perimeter defense. Against Duke only 27 of their 68 points didn’t come inside the paint, which was a big key in their win, outside of their game against LSU, they didn’t knock down more than 10 three-pointers in any other tournament game. On the defensive end of the ball, in order to shut down Culver, they must keep him out of the paint and limit his mid-range shots, as that is where he thrives the most. They also must shut down Mooney and Moretti behind the arc, but shutting down shooters behind the arc hasn’t proven to be too much of a problem, considering Bradley was the only tournament opponent that shot over 40% from behind the arc against Michigan State.
The Red Raiders best chance to beat the Spartans lies in keeping them out of the paint and limiting turnovers by a LARGE AMOUNT. Texas Tech has averaged almost 12 turnovers in their first four tournament games, which is frankly why we’re all pretty surprised that they’re even here, taking care of the ball will make or break their chances in my opinion. They must also keep the Spartans out of the paint and force them to play their game outside of the arc, which is where the Red Raiders defense thrive, they haven’t allowed any of their opponents to shoot over 35% from the arc during the entire tournament.
Both of these teams have special skills that have allowed them to overcome glaring weaknesses in order to get here, such as being able to show up in the clutch when it matters. I expect this game to be a very close one, but I believe Texas Tech’s defense will prove to be too much for the Spartans, if they can keep Winston in check on the offensive end, and manage to get the ball into Culver’s hands in order to create offensive opportunities for not only himself, but for his teammates too, then I expect the Red Raiders to get the best of Michigan State on Saturday. I have the Red Raiders reaching the national championship for the first time in program history behind a very impressive defense.
Winner: Texas Tech