Although some new teams have made it to college basketball’s biggest stage, don’t count them out just yet.
This March Madness has been unlike any other year. Not only are two teams making their first ever Final Four appearances, but this is the first time in history that the Final Four features a #1 seed, a #2 seed, a #3 seed and a #5 seed. The combination of these four teams make it even more interesting because of the ways these teams have been able to get where they are. Each team has had a unique journey.
Let’s start with the opening matchup on Saturday night (afternoon on the West Coast) between Auburn and Virginia. This matchup is interesting in so many ways. The styles of both teams couldn’t be more different.
First let’s talk about Virginia. This is a complete Virginia team and their biggest strength might be their play style. They slow the game down, play great defense, set the tone of the game and use their veteran leadership to guide them down the stretch in close games. Don’t get me wrong, Virginia’s offense is much better this season to past years, as Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome form a three-headed monster that compliment each other well on the offensive end. All three can score with the very best in college basketball.
A prime example of the difference the offense has made this season for Virginia is they are currently ranked fourth in the nation in offensive efficiency this season. Their offense has been so efficient and much better this season than some people give them credit for. This Virginia Cavaliers team very well could be the most well rounded team left in the tournament.
On the other side of the matchup, making their first ever Final Four appearance is Auburn. Auburn has fought their way to the Final Four by being the up-tempo, fast-paced, score in transition team that wins with their offense. This team did it despite losing one of their best players in Chuma Okeke in the middle of their Sweet Sixteen matchup with North Carolina. But since then, Jared Harper has taken the reins of this Tigers squad and they haven’t looked back.
Auburn has been one of the most exciting teams in this year’s tournament because their style of play is one that is fun to watch. After escaping a first round scare against New Mexico State, the Tigers have responded in a big way, winning their next three games against three of the most historic programs in the history of college basketball. They first beat Kansas in the second round before beating the number one seed in the region and the third best team in the country in North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen. The Tigers then topped things off by beating an athletic Kentucky team in overtime to reach their first Final Four ever. Auburn has been fighting against history all throughout this tournament, still questions remain. Can they beat another one seed? Can they be the first ever five seed to win a National Championship? It doesn’t seem like Bruce Pearl’s team is going to back down at this point.
One of the biggest challenges Auburn will have to overcome in this game could be the slow pace. Although the pace in the overtime game against Kentucky was much slower at the end and they performed well during that span, this will be extremely difficult and uncomfortable for them to play this style for a full game. Although I have enjoyed seeing Auburn be successful in this tournament, I’m going to side with history on this one. I’m picking Virginia to beat Auburn by a score of 70-64.
In the second game of the doubleheader on Saturday night, Texas Tech and Michigan State will square off. Michigan State has been here before, while Texas Tech is making their first Final Four appearance. This matchup is very interesting because Texas Tech has gotten this far because of defense while Michigan State has reached this point with good coaching and heavily relying on their veteran players to carry them down the stretch in games.
Texas Tech came into the tournament with the most efficient defense in all of college basketball and that hasn’t changed one bit in the tournament. They might have the best player left in the tournament in Jarrett Culver who has seen his NBA Draft stock rise more than anyone in college basketball this season. Culver could be a top-five pick come June, and this weekend could put a stamp on those hopes. Culver and his team just have that ability to find a way to win games, they rely on their defense to win the game down the stretch. Since losing in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament, Texas Tech is undefeated. This includes wins over Buffalo, Michigan, and Gonzaga, three teams that have a lot of experience and terrific coaches. Their size and athleticism is real and should be feared by every team that comes across their path.
Michigan State comes in riding high after beating the number one ranked Duke Blue Devils and college basketball’s player of the year, Zion Williamson. Tom Izzo and his team did it by relying on Cassius Winston who has proved he is one of the best players in college basketball throughout this tournament. Although Winston has a massive role, Xavier Tillman, Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins have played well in the tournament thus far and will have to make an impact in a big way if they want to win this game. This Spartans team is deep and has been through a lot this season but once again, they might just be lucky to have gotten to this point.
History tells us that three seeds in the Final Four have made it to the championship game 69 percent of the time (11-16). I am going to stick with history once again in this one. I am going to say that Texas Tech’s season continues on into Monday and they upset Michigan State 68-65 because I am betting on Jarrett Culver and that intense defense to disrupt Cassius Winston and the Spartans offense.
That leads us to the National Championship game between Texas Tech and Virginia. What a matchup this would be between two teams with incredible defense. It definitely would not be the most exciting of championship games, but these two teams simply get after it on defense and on the boards. I would love to see this matchup as would any real basketball fan.
Once again I will turn to history in this matchup. History states that no team has ever won the National Championship after getting bounced in the first round of their conference tournament. This would obviously apply to Texas Tech who has an opportunity to change that this weekend. But, I am going to lean towards Virginia. I think they are the best team left in the field from top to bottom. The three headed monster will show why their style of play works in college basketball.
Head Coach Tony Bennett has quickly become one of my favorite coaches in the country after his response to being the first ever one seed last season to lose to a 16 seed. He celebrated the team that beat him that day because they made history, not many coaches would be able to do that in that moment.
In addition, it would be great to see this Virginia team go from the lowest of lows in the tournament last season to winning it all this year . I felt Virginia was meant to win it all this year when Mamadi Diakite hit the buzzer beater to send their Elite Eight matchup with Purdue to overtime. Virginia truly is the best team in the country and it is their time to shine on the biggest stage amongst a Final Four group that is somewhat like a group of misfit toys. I’m predicting Virginia to beat Texas Tech 62-61.