Article by: Harrison Weaver
Let me just take a minute to sum up this March and go over some of our favorite moments. All the one and two-seeds survived to see the Sweet 16. Which is a little shocking, given that the last time that every one-seed made the Final Four was back in 2008. The opening days got a little crazy, with both UNC and Virginia trailing their 16th-seed opponents at halftime. LSU struggled with Yale, and Tennessee almost stumbled to Colgate. 13th-seed UC Irvine was the lowest seed to advance to the second round. We had the short-lived Ja Morant blow-up, when he scorched Marquette with a triple-double. However, he could not save them from a second round beat down from Florida State. Duke survived some of the most thrilling finishes we have ever seen.
First, in the highly-anticipated Zion versus Tacko Fall matchup, Duke ended up surviving by mere inches. Then against ACC rival Virginia Tech, in which the Hokies missed a point-blank tip-in to tie the game. 12th-seeded Oregon got red hot right at the perfect time, as they made their improbable Sweet 16 run, and almost downing Virginia in the process. Purdue came extremely close to a Final Four run, where sparked by a wild finish against Tennessee, which featured Boilermaker guard Ryan Cline, shooting an insane 7-10 from three, including a late shot to help get the game into overtime, in which Purdue then put the game away.
Following that game, Purdue took on Virginia in perhaps the craziest game in the tournament, with both sides trading three’s back and forth. Purdue looked to have it put away, when the Cavaliers somehow recovered a long rebound off a missed free throw, threw it ahead, and flipped up a miraculous game-tying shot, which resulted in stealing the game in overtime. Michigan State took down college basketball's Goliath in the final minute, who some considered to be the best college basketball team of all time. Dark-horse Texas Tech is busy showing the world that they are certainly in it to win it, as they will face the Spartans to punch a ticket to the National Championship, and inspiring Auburn will take on Virginia. I believe that covers all the action so far, so on to the games on slate for Saturday.
Michigan State vs. Texas Tech
Michigan State versus Texas Tech features two red hot teams. You may ask, “Is not every team in the Final Four red hot?” The answer to that is yes, since it requires a team to win 4 straight games against tough opponents just to get here. However, Michigan State and Texas Tech are two teams in the Final Four that many did not expect to be there, and that was obviously a big mistake. Let us start on Michigan State, who have been winning big games all year. They went 3-0 against Michigan this year, they won both games they played against Iowa, they beat Purdue, Maryland, Wisconsin twice, and they won the Big 10 tournament. Let us also not forget the barn-burner of a game they just had against Duke as they upset the tournament-favorite Blue Devils. The same thing goes for their counterpart, Texas Tech, as they beat Oklahoma twice, split the season series against Kansas, and beat Baylor and Kansas State, both of whom were tournament teams. In the tournament, all they did was beat the #1 and #2 seeds in their region, Gonzaga and Michigan, to reach the Final Four, no big deal right?
This game will be headlined by a premier guard matchup featuring MSU’s Cassius Winston and Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver. Both averaging 18.9 PPG this season and leading their teams in assists, they have been absolutely lights-out the entire year. Despite missing fellow star guard Joshua Langford since the end of January, Cassius Winston has been incredible in picking up the slack, and is line for NCAA Most Outstanding Player. Jarrett Culver could be in the same position with a Texas Tech win, which will make for a very fun matchup. Where Michigan State has an advantage is their big men, in which they have forwards Nick Ward, Xavier Tillman, and Kenny Goins. Goins hit the game-winning three-pointer against Duke and has the big body and strength to crash the glass, and Tillman is a tremendous rim protector which matches up well against Texas Tech’s lack of depth down low. Texas Tech coach Chris Beard has even admitted that if they beat Michigan State, it would not be from out-playing them physically.
Where Texas Tech may have an advantage is from the perimeter. They have four players shooting at least 38% from three-point range. This is where Tech could use their guards Jarrett Culver, Davide Moretti, and Matt Mooney to spread the floor and neutralize Michigan State’s physical advantage with perimeter shooting. This is a game that could go many ways, but whoever wins is more than deserving of that spot in the National Championship game.
My pick: Michigan State
Virginia vs. Auburn
This game is the basketball equivalent of the tortoise and the hare. Virginia is in the Final Four thanks to their suffocating defense, and a very slow-paced, but efficient half-court offense. On the other hand, Auburn can credit their Final Four run to a scorching hot offense led by Bryce Brown, Jared Harper, and Chuma Okeke (until his ACL injury against North Carolina). Averaging an unbelievable 85.3 PPG during the tournament, the Tigers ran both Kansas and North Carolina right out of the gym. As surprised as most are to see Auburn here in the Final Four, it should not come as such a shock. This is a team who went 2-0 against Tennessee and Florida, they beat Washington, Murray State, and began the post-season with an impressive run to win the SEC tournament, in which they obliterated Tennessee in the championship game.
Despite lots of adversary this post-season, Virginia also finds themselves here in the Final Four. A lot of people are looking at this as a revenge tour, after being knocked out of last year’s tournament by 16 seed UMBC. This time around, they battled back from a double-digit deficit against 16 seed Gardner-Webb to win that game by a comfortable margin. They also fought their way through to win very tough games against a dangerous Oregon team, and a Purdue team who had been lights out from three-point range. In fact, Virginia barely survived that game, in which they got a miraculous offensive rebound at half court, passed it ahead for a last second game-tying two pointer, and then survived a shootout in OT to defeat the Boilermakers. Yet, here they are, vying for a spot in the National Championship.
As I noted before, this matchup will come down to who can control the pace and flow of the game. This is especially important for Auburn, who will be missing their best player on the team Chuma Okeke. The key for them will be to get out ahead early, get a good rhythm from behind the arc, and get Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, and the Cavaliers frustrated and playing outside of their game plan. This would be a very similar tactic to what UMBC did to them in the first-round last season, when they beat Virginia by 20. For the Cavaliers, the key will obviously be the exact opposite. They will want to get ahead early so they can use their shut-down defense to take the air out of the Tigers’ tires, and get that offense frustrated and taking some contested shots. Once Virginia gets ahead, they become a very difficult team to beat, especially with all their players healthy and firing at the perfect time. They have the number one ranked scoring defense, allowing 56.7 PPG, and they also have the most efficient offense, scoring 1.14 points per possession. That is a dangerous combo for a team that likes to get ahead, and then clamp down on their opponents. This will be a very fun game against two polar-opposite teams, and I anticipate it coming down to the final couple of minutes for an absolute thriller. After all, this is March.
My pick: Auburn
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