- We're down to just four teams left in the NCAA tournament, but which one should be considered the top-ranked one heading into Minneapolis?
The 2019 Final Four is set—and it's a doozy. Every team that earned a trip to Minneapolis either is a No. 1 seed (Virginia) or beat a No. 1 seed (Michigan State, Texas Tech, Auburn) along the way, setting up what should be an exciting final weekend of the 2018–19 college basketball season. No, Zion Williamson and Duke won't be there, but there are plenty of other exciting and compelling storylines to dominate the scene.
Before things tip off at U.S. Bank Stadium, let's take a closer look at each of the last four teams standing, and rank them based on their tournament run, overall résumé and key strengths.
1. Michigan State
After beating overall No. 1 seed and national title favorite Duke, the Spartans take our top spot here heading into Minneapolis. Many felt Michigan State was snubbed on Selection Sunday when it was a No. 2 seed in Duke’s region, but in the end it got past the Blue Devils anyway, and can now put Zion Williamson and Co. in its rearview mirror. Before beating Duke, MSU cruised path both No. 10 seed Minnesota and No. 3 seed LSU, and appears to have fully put whatever happened in its first-round scare against Bradley behind it.
Cassius Winston has had a brilliant March dating back to the Big Ten tournament, but the emergence of sophomore big man Xavier Tillman in the last month has been pivotal in light of Nick Ward’s reduced role since returning from a hairline fracture in his hand. Michigan State is one of the country’s most balanced teams and boasts its best assist rate, largely thanks to Winston. Crucially, the Spartans have kept a recurring turnover problem in check in its last two outings against LSU and Duke, but it will need to maintain that ball control in the face of Texas Tech’s swarming defense this Saturday.
The first No. 1 seed to fall in 2018 (and in history-making fashion, to boot) is the last No. 1 seed standing in 2019. It took about 20 minutes of tournament action for Virginia to warm to the task—during which time No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb got the UMBC treatment—but the Cavaliers’ disciplined defenders and clutch shot-makers showed up when it mattered most to dispatch Oklahoma, Oregon and Purdue and clinch the program’s first Final Four trip since the year after Ralph Sampson left Charlottesville. After absorbing an unforgettable 42-point night from Boilermakers sharpshooter Carsen Edwards and responding with haymakers of their own, the Hoos have not just vanquished the March demons that haunted coach Tony Bennett but have proved their preferred methodical playing style can survive four rounds of tournament play.
Scariest of all, Virginia’s best players didn’t completely click offensively until the Elite Eight, when Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome combined for 49 points. The Cavaliers have been propelled forward by role players like Saturday’s hero Mamadi Diakite, who hit double figures in scoring just eight times all season but has done so three times in the tournament, and Kihei Clark, the pesky freshman who has grown from matchup liability to clutch contributor. Virginia is the new betting favorite to win the national title after proving their elite defense travels, but it will need to bring all of its scoring talent to Minneapolis, too.
3. Texas Tech
Head coach Chris Beard and the Red Raiders have defied the odds in a year when they were expected to take multiple steps back from their 2018 Elite Eight run, turning in three of the tournament’s best defensive performances in succession by slowing down Buffalo and Gonzaga’s excellent offenses and choking out Michigan in the Sweet 16. Texas Tech is a lethal combination of aggressive and smart at their own end of the floor, with big men who know how to play with foul trouble and guards whose hands are always in the perfect spot for clean strips and deflections.
This Final Four is filled with great players, but there’s a case to be made that none carries his team’s fate so squarely on his shoulders the way sophomore Jarrett Culver does. After his hot streak lifted the Red Raiders out of a slump early in Big 12 play, he has scored at least 16 points in all four tournament games and handled tough defensive assignments at every turn. It doesn’t take a crazy run for Tech to put a game out of reach, and if Michigan State’s turnover problems rear their head again on Saturday, Beard, Culver & Co. may be riding into the national championship game.
The most unexpected team to still be dancing, the red-hot Tigers may be fourth here, but they shouldn’t be overlooked. No. 5 seed Auburn’s march through the NCAA tournament has been incredibly impressive ever since a first-round near-meltdown against New Mexico State. The Tigers have knocked off three higher seeds—No. 4 Kansas by 14, No. 1 North Carolina by 17 and No. 2 Kentucky in overtime by six—and two of those games weren’t close. And while losing Chuma Okeke was a significant blow, Auburn’s already proven it can beat a high-quality opponent (with a big-time forward) without him, and it did it despite shooting 30.4% from three.
Outside of that Kentucky game, three-point shooting has been the biggest weapon for the Tigers in the Big Dance, including a 43.3% mark against the Jayhawks and 45.9% mark against the Tar Heels. They pull the trigger from deep early and often, and when they get hot, they can look nearly unbeatable (just ask UNC in that second half). Of course, Auburn’s path to success becomes considerably narrower when threes aren’t falling, and that’s going to be put to the test by Virginia’s Pack Line and No. 3 ranked perimeter defense—by far the best three-point D it’s faced this tourney. Still, with veteran guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper leading the way, it wouldn’t be wise to count the Tigers out.