BY HUNTER DONELSON
After a crazy weekend featuring the super-favorite Duke Blue Devils going down and taking everyone’s bracket down with them (except mine), the NCAA tournament hits the road to Minneapolis for the Final Four. The unlikely quartet left just 0.4% of ESPN brackets with each team advancing out of their respective regions. Now we take a look at how each team did it and how they stack up against one another.
No. 1 Virginia
The Virginia Cavaliers have gained a reputation for being defensively driven over the past few years and this group of athletes could be the best of all. Giving up just 55 points per game to opposing teams (1st in the nation), allowing a low 3-point percentage at 28% (4th in the nation), and also a 38% field goal percentage which ranks 5th in the nation. But the difference with this team really shows on the opposite end of the court. In past seasons Virginia played smothering defense but offensively they lacked. Take last season as an example, each game the Cavaliers gave up just 54 points per game, but on offense they scored just 65 points per game. Now obviously you’re probably thinking, “that’s great, an average 11-point margin of victory.” Yes, that is true and yes, it led them to a 31-3 record with the #1 overall seed. But as we all remember from last season, they became the first #1 seed to lose to a #16 seed when they fell to UMBC. The final score of that game? 74-54. All it took was one game of not so great defense and bad offense in the tournament. Averaging 72 points per game, this year’s Virginia team was built to go far, also ranking top 5 in both offensive efficiency (2nd) and defensive efficiency (5th). Finally reaching expectation, they find themselves in the Final Four and heavily favored going into their game against 5-seeded Auburn.
No. 2 Michigan State
Michigan State has always been in the same category as the blue blood schools (Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, UNC) and if you don’t consider them on top then there’s only one good reason. In Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo’s 24-year tenure, the Spartans have reached the Final Four 8 times (great, actually) but in those 8 Final Four appearances Michigan State has managed to win just 1 national championship. This year is Izzo’s chance to change his somewhat shaky tournament coaching reputation as he led his Michigan State team to a huge win over the college basketball super-team, the Duke Blue Devils. How did they do it? Outplaying Duke on the defensive end and working the post on the offensive end. Michigan State was able to get future #1 pick Zion Williamson in foul trouble early which sat him down much more than I’m sure Coach Mike Krzyzewski intended. Duke started the game with an early 12-0 run that put them up 9. Immediately after Michigan State was able to go on a 13-0 run of their own to take a 4-point lead at halftime. After that, it was all back and forth until Michigan State pulled out a one-point victory to go to the Final Four. Finishing with a 32-6 regular season record led by star point guard Cassius Winston, Michigan State brought home the Big 10 title and the Big 10 tournament championship also. Another big thing to note, an undefeated 3-0 record against rival Michigan. We’re also talking about a team battling injuries all throughout the season including a stretch without 3 of their starting 5. Many would argue that Michigan State should’ve been a 1-seed in this tournament, and they proved that over and over.
No. 3 Texas Tech
Texas Tech has had a great season led by star Jarrett Culver and AP Coach of the Year, Chris Beard. Becoming the first non-KU team to win the Big 12 title in over 10 years by defeating Kansas themselves twice in the regular season. Texas Tech has earned every bit of this Final Four appearance going all the way back to the very beginning of the season. Sophomore guard Jarrett Culver had himself a breakout season putting up 19 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. All while shooting 47% from the field and 38% from three, Culver could easily be the most complete player in all of college basketball. The Red Raiders started this tournament run by blowing out 14-seed Northern Kentucky as Culver put up a near triple-double at 29 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists. They would then move on to face 6-seed Buffalo who looked strong coming in. This time led by 5th year senior, Norense Odiase (14 points, 15 rebounds) Texas Tech would breeze through to the Sweet Sixteen with a 20 point win. Next came what looked like their two toughest games on the road to the Final Four. The first one coming against the West Region’s 2-seed, the Michigan Wolverines. Michigan was a great all around team, especially when it comes to March. It looked like they could make a run of their own in the tournament again this year but that was all halted by the worst half of basketball any team has seen in tournament history scoring just 16 points and shooting a painful 28% from the field including an 0-9 three point dry spell. Texas Tech made ease of Michigan’s pitiful game scoring basket after basket in what would result in a 19-point victory. With the win, the Red Raiders moved on to play 1-seed Gonzaga. The Zags showed they were a little fragile in the blowout loss to St.Mary’s in the West Coast Conference tournament, but they put up a good fight against the red hot Texas Tech Red Raiders. It was a battle all game long until Texas Tech was finally able to pull away in the final minutes of the game a move on to their first Final Four in school history.
No. 5 Auburn
Although Texas Tech has had an unbelievable tournament run, the Auburn Tigers have had the best. Whether it’s the monster schools they have knocked off or the unpredictable way they have done it, it may very well be one of the best tournament runs we’ve seen in a long time. Many people accumulating brackets this year didn’t even pick Auburn to escape 12-seed New Mexico State in the round of 64, yet they did. Then the Tigers moved on to play the Kansas Jayhawks. Kansas didn’t have a great season by any means but come tournament time they were still pretty well respected. Auburn came in and made it look easy, defeating the Jayhawks by 14 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. At this point nobody thought Auburn would stand a chance. Up against one of the most decorated coaches in college basketball history and one of the most historic schools in college basketball history, the North Carolina Tar Heels. Not only were they a one seed yet again this year, they had the second best odds of winning the National Championship. Auburn came out strong yet again and caught UNC slipping. The Tigers got a huge lead to open the game and never looked back. Putting all of America in shock, the SEC tournament champions had just ousted one of the most favored teams in the NCAA tournament. Now moving on to SEC rival and yet another legendary blue-blood school, the Kentucky Wildcats. Hall of Fame Coach John Calipari’s career record against Auburn? 11-1. Again, Auburn doesn’t stand a chance right? Wrong. Although it was more of a fight than what they faced against North Carolina and Kansas, the Tigers were able to outplay Kentucky on the offensive end led by guards Bryce Brown (24 points) and Jared Harper (26 points). Harper remained ultra-calm in the final minutes of play sinking free throw after free throw to put the Wildcats out. Auburn won 77-71 and advanced to their first Final Four in school history.
The Final Four this year couldn’t be set up any better for an action-packed weekend. Two storied schools who have won more than their fair share of tournament games and championships, each facing schools who have never even seen the big stage. The games will also feature two future top-10 NBA draft picks, Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver and Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter. Each of these games are bound to be great and I’m sure that’s exactly what everyone is hoping for.
Game: No.2 Michigan State vs No. 3 Texas Tech
Winner: Michigan State
The Spartans are the strongest team left and coming off of a huge win against Duke, I would expect them to come out with the same energy. It will be a close one but I think Michigan State pulls it out led by Cassius Winston and head coach Tom Izzo.
Game: No. 1 Virginia vs No.5 Auburn
Although Auburn is the hottest team right now, Virginia’s efficiency on both the offensive and defensive end will be too overwhelming to handle. I don’t believe this game will be as close as the other game either, but I don’t expect a blowout either. Maybe Auburn can prove me and everyone else wrong yet again and advance to the National Championship, but I’ll take Virginia.