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The Final Four is set, and while brackets weren’t busted over the first two rounds, it’s safe to say that the teams heading to Minneapolis were not a popularly selected quartet two weeks ago. Virgina will meet Auburn in the first semifinal, and Michigan State will face off with Texas Tech in the nightcap. Each of the top four conferences on kenpom.com has a representative in the Final Four, and all of them won at least one, if not both, of their conferences’ regular season and tournament championships.
What factors will determine who advances to the national championship? Let’s take a look at both games.
Virginia vs. Auburn (6:09 p.m. ET, CBS)
Forget about being the hottest team in the country. Auburn has put together arguably the most impressive winning streak of any team this season. Going back to the SEC championship game, the Tigers have defeated Tennessee, Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in the last two weeks. And to think, they narrowly escaped the first round with a one-point win over New Mexico State. Such is life in a single elimination tournament.
Virginia, too, had its fair share of scares on the way to the program’s first Final Four since 1984, beating Oregon by four in the Sweet 16 and needing a buzzer beater to force overtime against Purdue in the Elite Eight. Of course, Virginia’s hot streak dates back to about November, so it’s no surprise to see them among the national semifinalists.
Get ready for a three-point barrage in this game. Auburn relies heavily on the three, with nearly half their shot attempts and 43.4% of their points coming from behind the arc. Virginia isn’t quite as dependent on the three-point shot but does rank eighth in the country in three-point percentage. This game will feature five players—Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter for Virginia, and Jared Harper and Bryce Brown for Auburn—shooting at least 37% from distance on at least 99 attempts. Three of them—Guy, Harper and Brown—have put up 261 or more threes, and each member of that trio shoots at least 41% on triples. The three-point shot could very well determine which team advances to the championship game.
Another huge storyline will be how Auburn adjusts without Chuma Okeke. The sophomore tore his ACL in Auburn’s Sweet 16 win over North Carolina, robbing the team of its best frontcourt player. With Okeke out against Kentucky in the Elite Eight, Anfernee McLemore played 30 minutes, while Danjel Purifoy played 32. The Tigers held Kentucky to 0.96 points per possession in the win, though much of their success was matchup-dependent. Auburn was content to let Kentucky fire away from three, and the Wildcats connected on just five of their 21 attempts. That same strategy won’t work against Virginia. The Tigers will have to extend their defense above the three-point line in this one, and that, combined with Okeke’s absence, could make them vulnerable on the inside. The fact that Hunter is such a dangerous shooter at 6'7" should be especially troubling for Auburn.
At the offensive end of the floor, the Tigers will continue to lean heavily on Harper and Brown. The guards combined for 50 of the team’s 77 points in the win over Kentucky and are even more important offensively with Okeke out. The reliance on them in this particular matchup is two-pronged. The fact that they must have big scoring games goes without saying, but their activity on offense could also have spillover effects on the defensive end by forcing Guy to expend energy chasing at least one of them around the floor. Freshman Kihei Clark should draw primary duty on Harper, which means Guy will likely spend most of his time on defense manning up Brown. Whoever gets the better of the one-on-one matchup between Brown and Guy could send his team to the title game.
Michigan State vs. Texas Tech (8:49 p.m. ET, CBS)
Texas Tech has been the best defensive team in the country for the balance of the season, and anyone who didn’t know or believe has learned quickly this tournament. Buffalo ended the season ranked 20th in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency; the Bulls scored 58 points and 0.88 points per possession in a 78–58 second-round loss to the Red Raiders. Gonzaga’s dance has ended, but the Bulldogs are still the No. 1 team in offensive efficiency. In their Elite Eight loss to Texas Tech, they scored 69 points and 0.97 points per possession. Michigan made its way on defense, too, and it got absolutely run off the floor by Texas Tech in the Sweet 16, totaling 44 points and 0.71 points per possession. The Red Raiders can render any offense completely ineffective.
Michigan State, on the other hand, is arguably the most balanced team in the country. After knocking off Duke in the Elite Eight on Sunday, the Spartans are ranked fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency and eighth on the defensive end of the floor. They’re one of two teams in the top 10 in both; the other is Virginia. That balance keeps the Spartans in every game, no matter the style. Five of their six losses have been by five points or fewer, and two of those were in overtime.
What’s been so impressive about Michigan State is that it has played at less than 100% for most of the season, missing at least two regulars for much of the year. Joshua Langford suffered a season-ending injury in December. Nick Ward missed the last five games of the regular season with a fractured hand. Kyle Ahrens hasn’t played since the opening minutes of the Big Ten tournament championship game after spraining his ankle. Yet here the Spartans are, two wins from a national championship.
What sets the Red Raiders apart from other defensively oriented teams is the singular offensive talent in Jarrett Culver that makes them dangerous at the other end of the floor. Texas Tech may do its best work on defense, but that wouldn’t matter if Culver weren’t capable of taking over games. The likely lottery pick will see a healthy dose of Aaron Henry and Kenny Goins, but he’ll have the advantage in any individual matchup. Throwing multiple bodies at Culver will be the Spartans’ best hope of countering the best offensive player in this game.
Cassius Winston was the Big Ten Player of the Year, and his steady hand at the point guard position will be critical if the Spartans are to advance. However, their greatest offensive advantage may come on the interior. Xavier Tillman has emerged over the last few weeks, averaging 15.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game in the tournament. With him alongside Ward, the Spartans can dominate on the inside and use the Red Raiders’ preferred pace of play against them. And then, of course, it always helps having a veteran point guard like Winston steering the ship, especially when he shoots it at better than 40% from behind the arc. Add in Matt McQuaid, who has connected on 42.2% of his three-point attempts this season, and the Spartans have more than enough offense to counter Texas Tech’s dominant defense.
• What Zion Williamson accomplished this season is undeniable, but determining success and failure when it comes to Duke as a whole is a trickier task. (By Jeremy Woo)
• Auburn went through the three winningest teams in college hoops history to reach its first Final Four. The Tigers are still dreaming of more. (By Dan Greene)
• Michigan State slayed Duke as experience trumped talent in Sunday night's thriller. (By Michael Rosenberg)
• Virginia needed to survive the best game of the tournament and a legendary performance, but the Hoos have vanquished their March demons. (By Andy Staples)
• Attention gamblers: The opening lines for the Final Four are out.
• Get these folks to pick your lottery numbers. They correctly predicted this Final Four field.
Pick ’Em: Early Final Four Predictions
No. 2 Michigan State over No. 3 Texas Tech: The combination of Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman on the inside and Cassius Winston and Matt McQuaid on the outside will be enough for Michigan State to get by the best defense in the country.
No. 1 Virginia over No. 5 Auburn: The Tigers put together an incredible run to win the SEC tournament and get to the Final Four, but Virginia has imposed its will on every team it has played this season. That will continue with the triumvirate of Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter leading the Cavaliers to the national championship game.
Cassius Winston picks up where fellow Big Ten star point guard Carsen Edwards left off, averaging 25 points per game in the Final Four while leading Michigan State to a national championship.
At the Buzzer
I don’t live by too many hard and fast rules, but one of them is that if you celebrate a win that sends your team to the Final Four and knocks out your bitter rival that happens to be a blue-blood program by singing Sam Cooke, you’re getting a Morning Madness shoutout. Cheers, Malik Dunbar. (Watch here if the video doesn't display below)