2019 Men’s Final Four Preview
The Final Four begins Saturday, but the real prize will be decided Monday. Before getting there, though, four teams will fight for the two bids to the biggest game of the year. We have a unique and diverse group of Final Four attendees this time around. Let’s take a look at what to watch for this weekend:
NATIONAL SEMIFINAL #1
5 Auburn vs 1 Virginia (6 p.m., CBS)
How they got here:
Virginia – defeated 16 Gardner-Webb, 71-56 (1st Round), defeated 9 Oklahoma, 63-51 (2nd Round), defeated 12 Oregon, 53-48 (Sweet 16), defeated 3 Purdue in overtime, 80-75 (Elite Eight)
Auburn – defeated 12 New Mexico State, 78-77 (1st Round), defeated 4 Kansas, 89-75 (2nd Round), defeated 1 North Carolina, 97-80 (Sweet 16), defeated 2 Kentucky in overtime, 77-71 (Elite Eight)
This is Virginia’s third-ever Final Four and first since 1984. Last year, this same team was famously the first to lose to a No. 16 seed, and there have been plenty of other March heartbreaks the last few campaigns for head coach Tony Bennett and the Hoos that have kept them out of the final weekend of the season. Like most of the 2019 Final Four, the Cavaliers have never won a national championship, and it’s something that has pained Virginia fans for decades. This program is back to the biggest stage in the sport for the first time in 35 years, and Bennett has finally gotten over the Final Four hump. This has been one of Virginia’s best seasons ever, but that national title is looming large of its head.
Auburn had never been to a Final Four before now, let alone won a national championship. Before this run, the Tigers had only been to one Elite Eight, and that was back in 1986. This is already the best season in program history, but head coach Bruce Pearl won’t accept that as enough. In the locker room after the Sweet 16 win over North Carolina, he rallied his team telling it there were still three more games left to win. One of those three is out of the way, but now there are two that stand between the Tigers and the ultimate statement that Auburn is more than a football school.
What to expect:
Virginia plays with the slowest tempo in Division-I, and with how powerful Auburn’s offense is and how well it shoots from three, the Wahoos will place emphasis on limiting the game’s possessions to cut down on the number of shots the Tigers can get up over 40 minutes. In past years, Virginia was a dominant defensive team with offensive struggles, but it’s different this time around. Don’t let the minimal point totals fool you: the Cavaliers have one of the most efficient offenses in the nation, and the low scores are intentional. This team can score if it has to, which proved vital in the Elite Eight against Purdue as the Boilermakers (namely guard Carsen Edwards) forced their opponent to score 70 in regulation, and Virginia put up another 10 in overtime. Guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome hit big shot after big shot in response to Edwards and combined for 49 points with nine three pointers. Auburn is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the nation and have devoured teams this tournament with the deep ball. It will be crucial for Virginia to match with perimeter scoring of its own, even if the Wahoos can successfully control the pace of the game.
Auburn has the ability to push the pace, especially with guard Jared Harper. His small frame can blow by defenders and get to the rim at will, and he is fantastic at using the rim to his advantage and drawing contact from oncoming defenders. The other side to his drive is the opportunity to kick, and the Tigers have plenty of shooters waiting to punish a collapsing defense. Auburn hit 17 triples against Carolina in the Sweet 16, which is insurmountable for virtually any team to overcome. But the Tigers only went 7-of-23 from deep against Kentucky in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats held Auburn to 60 points in regulation, providing a solid blueprint for how to slow this offense. But the offense exploded in overtime, putting up 17 points in five minutes to win the game, and Auburn did it only scoring at the rim and free-throw line and missing its only three-point attempt of the period. That’s the versatility of this offense, and Harper is the focal point of it.
Virginia’s pack line defense has been one of the most dominant in the nation for years, and the team is second in Division-I in defensive three-point field goal percentage, holding opponents to just 27.8 percent shooting from behind the arc. Auburn shoots 37.9 percent from deep and has made the most triples of any team in the nation with 421. Controlling the paint is always important in any basketball game, but this one will be won or lost on the perimeter.
Key matchup: Ty Jerome vs Jared Harper
UVA’s Jerome is one of the best defenders in the nation. He’s active, aggressive and moves his feet exceptionally well. There aren’t many players more difficult to beat off the bounce than him. On the flip side, Harper is one of the most difficult players in the country to continue off the dribble. He uses his body incredibly well, and he epitomizes the “low man wins” mantra many sports have.
Both teams are going to whatever they can to control the tempo of this game. The team that successfully does so is almost definitely going to win. Auburn does that through Harper and his quickness, court vision, scoring and passing abilities. If Jerome can lock him down, or at least relatively, the Tigers will have a very difficult time speeding this game up. If Harper can get to the rim and play the game he wants, it’ll be a long day for Virginia. In large part, this game will come down to how well Jerome can contain Harper.
NATIONAL SEMIFINAL #2
3 Texas Tech vs 2 Michigan State (8:30 p.m., CBS)
How they got here:
Michigan State – defeated 15 Bradley, 76-65 (1st Round), defeated 10 Minnesota, 70-50 (2nd Round), defeated 3 LSU, 80-63 (Sweet 16), defeated 1 Duke, 68-67 (Elite Eight)
Texas Tech – defeated 14 Northern Kentucky, 72-57 (1st Round), defeated 6 Buffalo, 78-58 (2nd Round), defeated 2 Michigan, 63-44 (Sweet 16), defeated 1 Gonzaga, 75-69 (Elite Eight)
Michigan State is the only of the four national semifinalists with a lot of familiarity with playing in April. The Spartans have now been to 10 Final Fours and eight since 1999, and head coach Tom Izzo has proven time and time again that he’s one of the best in the business. But the Final Four has been a major roadblock for Izzo’s Spartans, having finished the job only once in their previous seven appearances in the national semifinals. It was 19 years ago that Mateen Cleaves was jumping up and down with Izzo celebrating their conquest of college basketball, and East Lansing hopes the near two-decade long drought will come to an end in 2019.
Like Auburn, Texas Tech had never been to a Final Four before now, let alone won the whole thing. Last year was the program’s first-ever Elite Eight, and the 2019 Sweet 16 was the seventh-ever time the Red Raiders had made it that far. It has been a quick rise for this program under head coach Chris Beard, who has taken Texas Tech from perennial postseason-misser to back-to-back Elite Eights and a Big 12 regular season championship in only three seasons. This is traditionally a football school, but Texas Tech isn’t a powerhouse in that sport, either. Winning a national championship in 2019 would mean the world to Lubbock and could even swing the pendulum closer to Tech being considered a basketball school. That’s how big of a deal this is.
What to expect:
You know what Texas Tech brings to the table: one of the best defenses in recent memory that will do everything it can to keep opponents out of the middle, ridiculous length and a handful of talented scorers. Tech will get the ball to guard Jarrett Culver, and he will score. Even against the best defenses, he will score. Guards Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney are the other two main scorers for the Red Raiders, and they’re much more reasonable to stop or slow down than Culver. For as fantastic as Texas Tech is defensively and for as well as its offense has been the last month or so, the offense is the weaker of the two and where Michigan State can exploit. The Spartans will try to deny Culver the ball as much as possible, but otherwise, containing Moretti and Mooney would put Texas Tech in a difficult situation. It doesn’t really have the personnel to feed the post, and Michigan State is so strong defensively in the interior that it has a clear advantage there. If most of the burden to score is on Culver, he would need a Carsen Edwards-like performance of 30 to 40 points for Tech to win. He’s capable of that, but it’s not wise to rely on one player to score that much.
For Michigan State, getting into the middle with guard Cassius Winston will be crucial. Tech’s defense is smothering, but if you get into the middle, that’s where you can break it down with drives and kicks to open shooters as the defense collapses. Now, that’s easier said than done when dealing with this elite of a defense, but Winston is good enough to make it happen, at least enough for the Spartans to score in the 60s, maybe even 70s. The entire offense goes through Winston, and keeping him in check is crucial to beating Michigan State. Again, easier said than done, but a team like Texas Tech is the kind capable of doing what has seemed impossible for most defenses all year.
Key matchup: Cassius Winston vs Texas Tech’s defense
This is more of a broader matchup, but with how much Tech switches and with how quick Winston is, there will be a lot of Red Raiders tasked with slowing him down. Winston is so good that it takes a full team effort to stop him, which Texas Tech is capable of accomplishing. But it will require the perimeter defenders to keep him from driving into the middle and interior defenders to swat and alter any looks he gets at the rim. Texas Tech is one of the best teams in the country at drawing charges, and it might be able to get Winston to pick up a cheap one here or there that can throw him off his game, although Michigan State’s point guard is much too smart and in control to let Tech get him in foul trouble through charges. It’s not all about his scoring, too, so you have to do anything possible to keep him on his toes and confuse him, either with different looks, high pressure, blowing up plays as they progress and things like that. Not to mention how important it is to clean up the glass when playing Michigan State. There will be many factors that determine this game, but how Texas Tech handles Winston will be the biggest one.