- Only one team can win the 2019 national title, but there's good reason to believe any of Virginia, Michigan State, Auburn and Texas Tech will.
When it comes to the 2019 Final Four, opinions are varied. Some think higher seeds Michigan State and Virginia are destined to meet in Monday's national championship game, while others think upstart Texas Tech and Auburn, in their first Final Four in program history, can crash the party. Here at SI, we've broken down each team (Virginia, Michigan State, Auburn and Texas Tech), ranked all four remaining teams and locked in our expert picks. Now, we make the case for why each could win the whole thing—something that would be a first for the Cavaliers, Red Raiders and Tigers, while the Spartans look to cut down the nets for the first time since 2000.
The Case For…Virginia
Virginia’s characteristically clamped-down defense has remained a staple of the program’s success this season—it’s still the foundation, as head coach Tony Bennett told reporters after his team escaped with a four-point win over No. 12 Oregon in the Sweet 16, which included holding the Ducks scoreless for the last five minutes. But what has built this team up beyond its foundational Pack-Line defense and what makes it a true national title contender is the emergence of a versatile and exceedingly efficient offense powered by the trio of potential NBA lottery pick and ACC Defensive Player of the Year De’Andre Hunter (14.9 points, 5.0 rebounds), two-time All-America and the team’s leading scorer Kyle Guy (15.2 points, 4.6 rebounds) and their fantastic facilitator, Ty Jerome (13.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and a team-high 5.4 assists and 1.5 steals).
The three have formed a core for the Cavaliers that is unmatched by the rest of the remaining contenders, emerging as truly elite offensive weapons this season; all three are shooting 43% or better from the field and 40% or more from deep. Unlike years past for Virginia—and unlike teams like Texas Tech with Jarrett Culver—there is not a singular spark plug for the Cavaliers, as was the case in many of their previously uninspiring offenses. And their three talented players are surrounded by the likes of Mamadi Diakite, Kihei Clark, and even, in more than one game this season, Jack Salt, who have somewhat surprisingly developed into one of the strongest supporting casts a Tony Bennett team has seen in recent years, and the strongest of the Final Four teams. It’s the birth of this balance—an offensive and defensive dominance that hasn’t existed at this caliber in the Cavaliers’ current era—that makes their case for a national championship.
Balanced basketball is how they got here and how they’ll win. Against Purdue, Virginia held senior shooting guard Ryan Cline—the Boilermakers' second-leading scorer who had gone off for 27 points while sinking 7 of 10 threes two nights prior against Tennessee—to seven points. Carsen Edwards couldn’t be contained, which is more of a testament to his superstardom than to a defensive failure on the part of the Cavaliers, but he was the only Purdue player to score double digits. They limited about as much of the Boilermakers’ offense as one could ask. They forced nine turnovers and snagged six steals, but better yet, they shot at a 47.4% clip and 33.3% from three while four of their own players posted double-digit points. Finally breaking out of his shooting slump, Guy recorded his first career double double with 25 points and a sneaky 10 rebounds. If Virginia hadn’t been able to contain Cline or if it had failed to outperform 7’3” sophomore Matt Haarms on the boards, the game might not have gone the same way.
But the Cavaliers did—and they did it all. They did what they needed to do on both ends of the floor to earn the program’s first trip to the Final Four since 1984. And they’ll do it again in Minneapolis. They’ll lock in on sharp shooters, shut down potent scorers and frustrate the hell out of each opponent along the way. If De’Andre Hunter can’t get hot, Kihei Clark will step in. If Jack Salt has a bad night, Mamadi Diakite will step up. If Kyle Guy is in a slump, he has the freedom to shoot his way out of it because he has teammates who can compensate for him. Tony Bennett’s team has succeeded this year because it has created a complete team. It hasn't abandoned its identity and it's still built on the foundation of defense, but now it's got the offense to take it to the title. — Emily Caron
The Case for…Michigan State
The argument on Michigan State’s behalf begins with Cassius Winston, the most prolific of the Final Four point guards and arguably the top overall player left in the field. There’s no player with a bigger feel for the moment than Winston, who has weaponized his smarts and gotten the most out of his ability this season, elevating a Spartans team devoid of other shot-creators so effectively that an ostensible weakness hasn’t much mattered. He can score when it matters, he’s deadly from outside (40.4% from three) and posted the nation’s second-best assist rate (45.4) while effectively minimizing turnovers. Defenses have keyed on him all season, and Winston has been up to task.
Statistically, the Spartans play an effective brand of basketball on both ends, with the country’s fifth-most efficient offense and ninth-best defense (according to kenpom data). Winston has been a maestro, facilitating fast transition offense, but also having the wherewithal to pull it out and play methodically. Michigan State takes good shots, works hard to win back their misses on the glass, and has been at peak form lately. I mean, it did just beat Duke two days after blowing out LSU. There’s a reason the Spartans were Big Ten champions, and they’ve also played the toughest schedule of the four remaining teams.
Critical to Michigan State’s success has been the workmanlike play of Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins up front. Tillman, in particulary, has been a revelation since becoming a permanent starter in February, pounding the boards on both ends, coming up with timely blocks and steals, and consistently finishing inside while, crucially, making his free throws (73% on the year). He’s a dynamic athlete who matched up effectively with Zion Williamson, and should have either a strength or agility advantage (or both) against Texas Tech and whoever the Spartans play next. His effort has been infectious. Goins, a former walk on, hit a timely three-pointer to seal the win over Duke and has to at least be accounted for inside and out. There’s also Nick Ward, whose scoring ability on the block can be a problem.
Overall, there’s a lot working in the Spartans’ favor—they haven’t lost since March 2 and haven’t lost much all year, apart from a three-game losing streak at the end of January. They’re well-rounded, disciplined, and can beat teams inside and out—including on days when they don’t play a perfect game. Everyone on their team can shoot, everyone defends, and Winston ties it all together with poise. The last NCAA champion that didn’t have a dynamic, experienced playmaker running the show was Kentucky in 2012, (but they had Anthony Davis), and before that, there are scant exceptions to that rule. Take Tom Izzo and the Spartans with some confidence. —Jeremy Woo
The Case For…Texas Tech
In a season headlined by the greatest one-and-done player of all-time, can a three-star sophomore bring the national title back to his hometown? If the player in question is Jarrett Culver, then absolutely. The Lubbock native is built for a Final Four to remember and could very well play himself into the top-five of June’s NBA draft. Don’t be surprised if he’s named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player on Monday night.
Culver is the perfect star to pair with the nation’s top defense. There’s a ruggedness and toughness to his game, with a knack for making contested jumpers. Culver is thin, and he’s not explosive off the bounce, either. But he’s a determined driver, burrowing his way inside before creating space near the foul line. The Big 12 Player of the Year will be able to generate offense late in the second half as the possessions grind to a halt. Texas Tech will aim for a rock fight, relying on a few key Culver buckets to claim the national championship.
Texas Tech’s leading man may not have to light up the scoreboard for Texas Tech to take the title. Chris Beard has molded a truly elite defense, and not just compared to the 2019 field. The Red Raiders are allowing just 84.1 points per 100 possessions, the best defensive rating of any team in kenpom’s database dating back to 2002. Texas Tech meets the eye test, too. Guard Matt Mooney earned All Big 12 defensive honors this year, and Culver is an effective perimeter defender. Tariq Owens is the true anchor, though, patrolling the paint with his 7’4” wingspan. The St. John’s transfer was arguably the most impactful player on the floor against Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. Rui Hachimura was limited to 8 for 19 from the floor, and Owens blocked his corner three in the final minute. Owens went full Hakim Warrick but still kept the ball in bounds. It was a fitting cap to a fantastic performance.
It had been 12 years since Texas Tech’s last NCAA tournament win when Beard arrived in Lubbock in 2016. A 2005 Sweet 16 appearance marked the height of the Bob Knight era before his tenure ended in 2008. Pat Knight failed to keep the program competitive, and the Billy Gillespie era was a disaster. Tubby Smith brought more name recognition than wins. Beard’s success is unprecedented in the program’s 94-year history, and it appears sustainable into the next decade. Defense travels, and it will show up again for Texas Tech in Minneapolis. Paired with an elite half-court scorer in Culver, and Texas Tech will bring the national title all the way to west Texas. —Michael Shapiro
The Case For…Auburn
No sooner did the horn sound on the beatdown Villanova issued to Michigan in last year's national title game than the debate that accompanies all championships began: Should other teams be copying this model to win it all for themselves? In 2017–18, the Wildcats relied on the three-pointer more than any eventual champion had before, taking 47.5% of their field goal attempts from behind the arc, and it had worked terrifyingly well. Surely that strategy was only sustainable for a team with a rotation that was about to have four players taken in the first 33 picks of the NBA draft. Right?
While Duke, Tennessee, Gonzaga, North Carolina, Kentucky and other contenders flexed their muscles during this regular season with loaded frontcourts, slashers and cool-headed interior scorers, maybe there was a Villanova imitator lurking in our midst all along. Midwest Regional champion Auburn has allowed the three to account for 49.5% of its field goal attempts this season, the eighth-highest rate in Division I. The only Tigers player who shows up in SI.com's latest 2019 NBA mock draft is versatile forward Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL in the Sweet 16 win over North Carolina and could only watch from behind the bench as his teammates avenged their most embarrassing loss of the season in the Elite Eight against Kentucky. In Okeke's place, fearless guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper had emerged as the tireless bucket-getters, combing for 50 points.
But Brown and Harper have been the team's leading scorers all year, and even if you didn't know Auburn was a national championship sleeper, you almost certainly came into March knowing it liked to jack up threes. The separating factor in the Tigers' title hopes as the tournament wears on has been their statistical and schematic balance: So many players can make threes, and even the ones who can't believe that they can. That's how you get backup center Horace Spencer (2018–19 three-pointer count: three) taking and clanking the last shot with a chance to beat Kentucky in regulation or, more positively, Anfernee McLemore banking in a three to demoralize North Carolina.
The idea that all five players on the floor are considering pulling up from long range at any given time gets in defenses' heads, even elite defenses like the ones Virginia, Michigan State and Texas Tech will throw at Auburn in Minneapolis. It also takes the pressure off any one contributor to carry the mantle for the team's "hotness". Auburn has actually shot it worse from three during its current 12-game winning streak (38.6%) than it did during its 7–7 start to SEC play (40.2%). In an unfamiliar building with awkward football-field sightlines, it is nearly a given that not every Tiger will shoot the lights out at U.S. Bank Stadium. Bruce Pearl has emboldened his team to keep firing until that night's go-to guy reveals himself and stocked his roster with players who believe they all have a chance to be that guy, no matter how big the stage. In a Final Four light on bluebloods, that lack of self-awareness will be the separating factor for a team that has felled some of college basketball's biggest names on the way to Minneapolis. Pearl’s raving madness and Brown and Harper’s cold-blooded confidence are enough to keep Auburn rolling to its first national championship. — Eric Single