With the Final Four finally upon us, that means two things; March Madness is coming to an end, and so is basketball in general. Sigh. A lot of you are probably upset because your bracket has been “busted” due to Duke being knocked out, but I can’t say that I feel for you. If you’re willing to bet your odds on the back of a team led by all freshmen, then that’s on you. Only once in the history of the sport have a group of freshmen led a team to the National Title and that was the 2011-2012 Kentucky Wildcats who finished the season 38-2. That team was led by all-world defensive center Anthony Davis. That’s it, that’s the only team ever. So to bet on a group of freshmen to accomplish that again is never recommended. While it’s possible, it’s unlikely, and any smart money knows that you never want to bet with your emotions. People grew attached to the notion that Duke was unstoppable throughout the season because they had the most publicized player, the most notorious coach, and was regularly featured on ESPN’s highlight reel. But Duke was never once the best team at any point throughout the year. Screw the rankings – watch the games. They have flaws all over the place. Offensively, they’re a terrible shooting team. Defensively, they constantly struggled to defend the pick-and-roll and pick-and-slip (Michigan St. exposed that during the entire Elite 8 matchup). Then, in the clutch, they had no closer that can get a bucket by all means possible. Zion is one dimensional, with no dribble pull-up in his arsenal. Tre Jones can’t hit a jump shot to save his brother a roster spot on the Timberwolves, Cam Reddish disappears for large spells of games, and RJ Barrett goes 0-9 in the final minutes of the game with Duke down by at least one. Luckily, I don’t have to worry about my bracket being busted because I played the odds of how basketball has been proven to play out, instead of the odds of what the media wants us to believe. I had Michigan State beating them from the day the brackets were released. I also have Virginia winning it all. So fortunately my bracket is very much still intact. I did have Gonzaga and Kentucky in my Final Four instead of Texas Tech and Auburn, but that didn’t affect me to severely. No one had Auburn getting past Kansas, UNC, and Kentucky. Pretty much, everyone, had them losing somewhere in those three matchups. There were a substantial number of brackets that had Tech in the Final Four, and rightfully so. But, the majority of those people also had Duke making it there, so it evened out. With the Final Four set, let’s explore each team and go over why they each have a shot at becoming crowned the 2018-2019 NCAA Champs. Here’s a case for each of the Final Four Team’s.
#2 Michigan State Spartans – East Region Champions
To put into perspective how long Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo has been running the Spartan program, just think about this: When Izzo advanced to his first Final Four 20 years ago, Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard was an assistant coach at North Texas, Auburn’s head coach Bruce Pearl was coaching division ll basketball at Southern Indiana, and Tony Bennett was with the North Harbour Kings in New Zealand. Izzo is trying to win his second ever National Championship, a feat he hadn’t accomplished since the 1999-2000 season when he had the player of the year in Mateen Cleaves. Midway through the season, no one expected the Spartans to be here. They were battled through injury after injury and even lost their star shooting guard Joshua Langford for the season. Langford was averaging 15 points per game before a stress fracture in his foot ended his season back in December. In early February the Spartans suffered three straight losses to the likes of Illinois, Purdue, and Indiana. Everyone had written them off. But then something changed, it was almost like they flipped a switch. Which much of the credit is deserved to be given to the brilliant head coach that Izzo is. The team is 14-1 since that early February 3-game losing streak and split the Big 10 regular season champion title with Purdue before going on to winning the Big 10 Tournament. This Spartans team is firing on all cylinders, and they have the most essential ingredient in winning a title; The nation’s best point guard. Obviously, that title is always going to be up for debate, but after newly being named a First-Team All-American, the Big 10 Player of The Year, and knocking off the tournament’s #1 overall seed in Duke, the Spartans junior point guard Cassius Winston deserves to be recognized. Winston won’t overwhelm you athletically by any means or even shoot you out of the gym. But what he will do is continuously make the right play, always put his team in position to make plays, and come up clutch time and time again. And those things right there put a ton of pressure on any and every opponent. He’s the prototypical Michigan State/Tom Izzo point guard. Izzo is one of the only coaches left (who coaches at a blue-chip program) that doesn’t aim to recruit all of the highest rated prospects, but instead the right prospects who fit his system. He generally has a 3-4 year All-American caliber point guard, an elite four-year shooter on the wing, and a ton of huge upperclassmen battling in the paint. He builds teams with championship ingredients that possess defensive grit, rebounding prowess, and a fine-tuned offense that can beat teams with outside shooting, in the paint, or with both. All of the above is precisely why the Michigan State Spartans can be cutting down the net come Monday night.
#3 Texas Tech Red Raiders – West Region Champions
The Texas Tech Red Raiders head coach Chris Beard is the definition of toughness, grit, and perseverance. From Division ll coaching to Semi-Pro – it’s all on there. A dozen total coaching stops in all on the Red Raiders coach’ resume. Three years ago he was trying to get a win in Division ll, fast forward three years and now he’s trying to win a national championship on the biggest stage. The toughness and grit Beard possesses has been instilled into his Red Raider team, and it shows game in and game out. The Red Raiders are a team full of dogs who make it difficult for any opponent to make good decisions offensively. They pressure you from the 3-pt line extended and always have help-side defense waiting on the weak side. In the West region, the Red Raiders defeated two of the best coached offenses in the country, one of which holstered the highest scoring offense in the nation. Michigan couldn’t function, and Gonzaga found its usual productive drives turning into blocked shots and turnovers. The Wolverines were held to the lowest scoring half in the history of the tournament when they faced the Red Raiders in the Sweet 16. What Tech has become isn’t the results of a single, miracle underdog story. These are the results of a head coach setting the blueprint for the program and instilling mental toughness into each one of his players. On offense, Tech has one of the nation’s most talented players in superstar wingman Jarrett Culver. The 6-5 sophomore is a pure shooter who can also knife his way to the basket and dunk over whoever decides to get in the way. South Dakota senior transfer Matt Mooney shoots with unlimited range and passes with intelligence. Point Guard Davide Moretti can score when needed and is creative around the basket, and then there’s senior forward Tariq Owens who is one of the country’s best rim protectors and also an elite rebounder. When you look at this team on paper, many wonder where their points are going to come from offensively, but, when you watch a Red Raider game live or on television, you’ll quickly find yourself wondering: How is the opponent going to score? The Red Raiders are by no means an elite offensive team, but their good enough to score more points than they’re going to allow defensively and that’s what makes them scary. Anytime you have a time that can lock down an opponents offense for long stretches at a time, they’re always going to be in the game with a chance to win at the end. That’s the formula for Chris Beard’s Red Raiders.
#1 Virginia Cavaliers – South Region Champions
Want to know a fun fact? The Virginia Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett is the NCAA’s all-time career 3-point percentage leader at 49.7%. Probably a huge reason why the Cavaliers have consistently been a deadly 3-point shooting team since Bennett took over the program. This team is resilient. The Cavaliers could have easily let last seasons tournament debacle define this one, and they almost did as they found themselves down 14 in the first half to the 16th seed Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs. Then whatever Tony Bennett said at halftime settled these Cavaliers down, and they shut down the Bulldogs for the rest of the game in route to their comeback easy victory. This team is elite, just look at their resume. They’ve only lost three times all year, and two of those came against the Dukies. This Cavaliers team is a prototypical version of what all of Tony Bennett’s teams are: The nation’s best defensive team, and one of the nation’s slowest paced offensive teams. Out of 353 D1 teams, the Virginia Cavaliers rank dead last in tempo. AKA they play the slowest pace of anyone in the country. Those two play hand-in-hand. Virginia’s elite defensive abilities combined with their dead last offensive pace, make for a super low-scoring game, which in return makes it extremely hard for anyone to ever build a lead against the Cavaliers. The difference this season compared to all of the rest for Tony Bennett’s team is that his offense is finally every bit dependable as his defense. Virginia entered this years postseason as the #2 most efficient offensive team in the entire country. The Cavaliers have shooting all over the perimeter headlined by their three stars Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and DeAndre Hunter and shoot the 3-ball at a 41% clip as a team. They don’t turn the ball over and play a selfless brand of basketball passing up good shots for great ones. While Bennett has built NBA players out of Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon, he’s never had an NBA lottery-caliber talent as he possesses in Hunter. Hunter is the teams best pro prospect since Ralph Sampson. Hunter is the prototypical 3-and-D wing who possesses size, length, strength, and quick feet that have built the foundation for his defensive potential at the next level. He’s also become an elite offensive talent this season, hitting 47% of his 3-pointers and showing time and time again that he can score inside from the post. Then there’s Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. Guy was the most elite shooter in the ACC the entire season and can fill it up offensively. The junior was a First-Team All-ACC selection, and rightfully so. He’s instant offense in a flash. While Jerome, on the other hand, is as steady of a point guard as you’ll find in the country who continually makes the right play time and time again. He’s controls the entire offense, and the Cavs generally go as he does. Virginia is the nation’s best team at defending the 3-ball, holding opponents to 27% from behind the arc, the best in America. They’re going to need every bit of their 3-point defense come Saturday as they face the Auburn Tigers, a team that lives and dies from beyond the arc and took more 3s as a team than anyone else in the country this season.
#5 Auburn Tigers – Midwest Region Champions
Kentucky. Kansas. North Carolina. Does anyone know what those teams have in common? Oh, they only rank as the top-3 winningest programs in college basketball history. Auburn trounced them all. Well, Kentucky took them to overtime. But you get my point. The Tigers spot in the Final Four is no fluke. They’ve won 12 straight games, including the SEC Tournament. They’re firing on all cylinders and are currently the hottest team in the country. No backcourt in the country is playing at the level of Auburn’s duo Jared Harper and Bryce Brown. The duo has taken turns carrying the Tigers on their back at times, and together are the most lethal shooting duo in the tournament. Off-the-dribble, catch-and-shoot, or off a screen, it doesn’t matter: These two are letting it fly. The duo combined for 50 points in the regional final against conference foe, Kentucky Wildcats. They’re instant offense, and as long as they’re playing the way they’ve been during the Tigers 12-game winning streak, they can beat anyone. The Tigers are also playing with house money, being the underdogs and playing for injured teammate and sophomore star Chuma Okeke. When you watch them play you see a team who’s rallied behind head coach Bruce Pearl’s passion and fire. Literally. Every single Tiger is playing in unison, leaving it all on the court by any means necessary. They’ve embraced the next man up mentality and aren’t afraid to challenge anyone. They’ve come together to make game-changing defensive plays over their winning streak, and have been rebounding with a vengeance. If the Tigers continue shooting the 3-ball the way they’ve been and playing defense at an elite level, they’re the scariest team in the tournament. They can either shoot their way to the title or shoot their way back to the Auburn, Alabama. Virginia will be their toughest test in the history of the program, and also the biggest. But, who’s to say these kids won’t be ready? I certainly won’t count them out, as they’ve already proven me wrong.