- The 2019 national championship game is set. Who will win their first-ever men's title in Minneapolis on Monday? It comes down to these strategic factors.
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Two weeks ago, 68 teams began the dance toward Minneapolis. Now, we are down to the final two. It’s Virginia vs. Texas Tech for the national championship. What will determine which team cuts down the nets? Let’s dive into the Xs and Os of what promises to be a stirring coda to this phenomenal season of college basketball.
First, we have to get the obvious out of the way. Yes, this is likely to be a slow, defensively-driven game. Texas Tech ranks first in the country in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency. Virginia ranks fifth. Texas Tech ranks 228th in adjusted tempo and 267th in average possession length. Virginia ranks 353rd, also known as last, in tempo, and 352nd in possession length. Get ready for a lot of long possessions, few transition opportunities, and a game that’s likely to be played in the 60s.
O.K., with that necessary bit of housecleaning taken care of, we can now quell your fears that we’re in for a plodding national championship game that’s completely devoid of offense. Both teams have a feature that makes that undesirable outcome highly unlikely. Virginia is an elite shooting team, and has been all season, ranking eighth in the country in three-point percentage. Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter shoot a combined 41.7% from distance, and all of them have attempted at least 100 threes. Texas Tech, meanwhile, has Jarrett Culver, who’s likely to be a top-10 pick in this year’s NBA draft. Add to the mix good shooter Matt Mooney, and great shooter Davide Moretti (46.3% three-point percentage), and you get a Red Raider squad that has plenty of offense to go along with its top-rated defense.
So, where does this game swing? I think it comes when Virginia has the ball. The overarching strategy of Texas Tech’s defense is to keep teams out of the middle of the floor, and that means it will switch a lot of screens. That can create mismatches in the post, which the Red Raiders typically counteract by doubling, or even tripling, the big once he gets it on the block. That’s a large reason why the Red Raiders rank third in the country in two-point percentage allowed. It’s also a dangerous tactic against Virginia, which has Guy, Jerome and Hunter on the floor together for 30 minutes per game. The Cavaliers’ best avenue for exploiting this tendency may be to use Hunter and Braxton Key as on-ball screeners for Guy and Jerome, forcing the switch and mismatch. They’re the team’s two best passers out of the post, which makes them the right players to draw the double for a kick out to Guy or Jerome. Hunter would also be a handful on the inside for Mooney, Moretti or Brandone Francis, the three players most likely to be guarding Guy and Jerome.
If Virginia goes this route and it works, it would take a lot of the bite out of Texas Tech’s defense. As good as Culver is, Texas Tech needs that bite to be at full strength to win the first national championship in program history. When the Red Raiders have the ball, the Cavaliers are going to have to be ready for a heavy dose of Culver. If that seems simple, it’s because it is. When a team has a guy who’s a couple months away from being a top-10 pick, it’s going to lean on him heavily. That doesn’t make it any less true, though, and certainly doesn’t mean we should shy away from diagnosing what Virginia needs to do to slow down Culver.
Two of Virginia’s three losses this season were against Duke. In those two games, Zion Williamson scored a total of 45 points on 15-of-22 from the floor. Now, to be clear, Culver is not Wiliamson. However, he is a swingman who technically slots as a power forward and does his best work attacking from the perimeter and slashing to the hoop. Virginia’s defense has been vulnerable to that this season, which is why Culver is even more important in this matchup than he typically is. Primary defensive responsibility for Culver will fall to Hunter, though it’s unlikely he’ll have to deal with him on his own. The Cavaliers will likely dare anyone other than Moretti to beat them from behind the arc.
Virginia has too much shooting for Texas Tech’s defense, and too strong of defensive chops to get bowled over by Culver. The Cavaliers will bring the national championship to Charlottesville for the first time ever.
• The ending of Auburn-Virginia will hang over The Plains for a long while (by Jeremy Woo)
• Get to know Texas Tech’s Final Four breakout star Matt Mooney (by Emily Caron)
• Notre Dame and Baylor will play for the women's national title on Sunday (by Ben Baskin)