The beginning of April marks the biggest stage of the NCAA tournament: Minneapolis for the Final Four.
If your bracket went anything like mine did, you weren’t expecting college basketball’s final weekend to look like this at all. Only one top seed advanced out of the Elite Eight, and it wasn’t Duke. Two programs are making their first ever appearances, and the other is led by a legendary coach who has been there seven times before.
Of the millions who completed brackets, less than half a percent of those correctly predicted the last four. Perhaps the largest contributor to that comes in the form of Michigan State that ousted the top-ranked Blue Devils in the finals of the east region. The Spartans are led by Cassius Winston, a gritty junior guard who is a testament to the player development savvy that coach Tom Izzo has long been heralded for. Their experience has proved to be one of their biggest assets, and no program in the nation is more consistently tough than the Spartans, who always seem poised to make a potential run this time of year. Winston, who averages a team-high 19 points and eight assists per game, will have his work cut out for him against their semifinal opponent, Texas Tech.
The Red Raiders are playing in their first ever final four, a huge accomplishment for coach Chris Beard, who less than five years ago was coaching at a Division II school. In the Sweet Sixteen, they suffocated the most efficient offense in the country in their win over Gonzaga only to go on and allow a mere 44 points to the second seed Michigan in the west regional final. Their team defense is as relentless and physical as it is calculated and fun to watch. Jarrett Culver has blossomed into an AP All-American and is now squarely in the mix to be one of the first five players to hear his name called at the NBA draft in June. Fueled by their less glamorous style of play, Tech is a headache for any offense that must face them.
From the south comes the last number one seed remaining, the Virginia Cavaliers. It has been a run all about redemption for the Hoos, who now find themselves only two victories away from hoisting a championship. Tony Bennett’s group is not one that will be mistaken for a high-scoring juggernaut, but instead their throwback, grind-the-game-out mentality makes them difficult to beat for anyone. De’Andre Hunter was recently dubbed defensive player of the year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC), and Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome both have repeatedly displayed their shot-making poise in the game’s biggest moments. While the Cavaliers may not tend to light up scoreboards in their wins, their semifinal matchup makes for what could be the most interesting contest of the entire tournament.
The Auburn Tigers, winners of the Midwest, are the closest thing left to a true underdog in the field. However, their results in the games that got them to this point would highly suggest the fifth seeded SEC champions should not have been doubted at all.
Behind the play of Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, a pair of upperclassmen guards, the Tigers have rained three-pointers down on whoever has been unfortunate enough to take the floor with them, including the likes of blue-bloods Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky all in their region alone. Bruce Pearl, who is coaching in his first final four, has installed a modern NBA-like system that emphasizes quick, efficient shots that speed up the game and run up the scoring totals.
The clash of styles against Virginia is one that will be determined by their success from beyond the arc. If the threes are falling for Auburn, the Tigers just might ride that momentum all the way to a national title.
Michigan State comes prepared offensively and overcomes a strong effort from Texas Tech. On the other side of the bracket, Virginia and Auburn play a game for the ages that ultimately comes down to Auburn’s success from three. Virginia narrowly squeaks by the Tigers, and then goes on to win a national championship over Michigan State in the ultimate redemption story after last season’s 16 seed debacle.