Step aside, blue bloods. Make way for the new bloods. The Auburn Tigers and Texas Tech Red Raiders will make their first appearances in the NCAA tournament’s final weekend at the 2019 Final Four in Minneapolis on Saturday. Both squads are vying to become the first team to win a national title in its initial Final Four appearance since UConn did it 20 years ago.
Joining them will be the Michigan State Spartans — the only team left in the field that has won a national championship — and a Virginia Cavaliers squad that will make its first Final Four appearance since 1984.
Will a school from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 or SEC cut down the nets at U.S. Bank Stadium on April 8? Let’s size up the challengers:
Final Four matchup: vs. Virginia
2018-19 record (conference record): 30-9 (11-7 SEC)
Road to the Final Four: New Mexico State, 78-77; Kansas, 89-75; North Carolina, 97-80; Kentucky, 77-71 (OT)
Coach (record): Bruce Pearl (100-71 in five seasons at Auburn, 562-216 overall)
National championships (team): 0
Final Fours (team): First
Leading scorer: Bryce Brown (15.8)
Leading rebounder: Austin Wiley (4.2)
Assists leader: Jared Harper (5.9)
Most 3-pointers made: Bryce Brown (137)
Offensive rank (BPI): 8th
Defensive rank (BPI): 35th
Experience (KenPom): 2.18 years (37th in Division I)
How they beat you: Auburn wants to run. Pearl is a firm believer in owning tempo with pace, particularly with Harper (15.2 PPG) at the controls. Harper’s diminutive size underwhelms, but he plays with no fear and understands exactly how to get downhill. Harper’s speed helps open things up for Brown, whose flurry of triples helped bury Kentucky in the Elite Eight. Remember, Auburn ranks sixth in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom. Even without the versatile Chuma Okeke (38.7 percent 3s, 1.8 SPG and 1.2 BPG), Auburn was able to match up athletically against the Wildcats’ physical front line of PJ Washington and Reid Travis.
Defensively, however, is where the Tigers have made the most significant strides in this tournament, and really since the SEC tournament. To hold a juggernaut like Kentucky to just 71 points in an overtime game — and worse than 24 percent from deep — along with the same number of turnovers as assists (14) was the difference. Help defense has been great, but more important has been Auburn’s individual defense, proficient enough to avoid over-helping — and in turn avoid open triples.
How you beat them: You must limit Auburn’s possessions because its offense helps predicate the tone it sets defensively. Auburn got back in the Kentucky game because of defense, but it wasn’t until a barrage of triples and quality half-court offense that the stops eventually came. When the Tigers get in the half court, the key is forcing the ball out of Harper’s hands. His creativity in pick-and-roll often bails out the lack of offensive weapons and also creates clean looks for Brown (40.7 percent 3s and a team-high 15.8 PPG). Auburn is fourth nationally in scoring and ranks in the top 25 in 3-point percentage. Ice all of the Harper ball-screens and make somebody else beat you, preferably inside. Both he and Brown earned second-team All-SEC honors. Even limiting one of them significantly alters the Tigers’ ability to score points. — Jordan Schultz
Final Four matchup: vs. Texas Tech
2018-19 record (conference record): 32-6 (16-4 Big Ten)
Road to the Final Four: Bradley, 76-65; Minnesota, 70-50; LSU, 80-63; Duke 68-67
Coach (record): Tom Izzo (606-231 in 24 seasons at Michigan State)
National championships (team): 2 (2000, 1979)
Final Fours (team): 10 (seasons above plus 2015, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2001, 1999, 1957)
Leading scorer: Cassius Winston (18.8)
Leading rebounder: Kenny Goins (9.0)
Assists leader: Cassius Winston (7.5)
Most 3-pointers made: Cassius Winston (82)
Offensive rank (BPI): 6th
Defensive rank (BPI): 8th
Experience (KenPom): 1.79 years (140th in Division I)
How they beat you: Winston and interior defense. Those two forces of nature haven’t been the whole story, but they’ve been a very big part of Michigan State’s getting to the Final Four. Winston is a master with the ball in his hands, scoring on either side of the arc, drawing fouls and, especially, delivering pinpoint assists to waiting teammates. He has no single preferred speed and can lull you to sleep just as easily as blow by you.
As the season has progressed, more and more of Winston’s assists have been going to Xavier Tillman, the consistently underrated sophomore who was last seen delivering a thunderous and pivotal dunk late in the Michigan State’s win over Duke. On the other end of the floor, MSU has been elite all season at forcing misses in the paint. Not many defenses can throw Tillman, Nick Ward and Goins at you and (almost) always have two of those guys on the floor.
How you beat them: Attack the offensive glass. The name “Izzo” is supposed to be synonymous with rebounding, but, for whatever reason, this particular group has been known to struggle on its defensive boards. Sometimes one of the best offenses against the MSU defense is a missed shot; LSU and Duke were able to pull down a combined 37 percent of their chances. When the Spartans do get a defensive board, invest early in the possession in denying Winston the ball. Don’t let the Spartans’ offense devote that first 10 seconds of the shot clock to Winston probing in the half court, because he’s lethal at it. Never guard Tillman beyond the arc, and don’t be afraid to put Aaron Henry on the line. — John Gasaway
Final Four matchup: vs. Michigan State
2018-19 record (conference record): 30-6 (14-4 Big 12)
Road to the Final Four: Northern Kentucky, 72-57; Buffalo, 78-58; Michigan 63-44; Gonzaga 75-69
Coach (record): Chris Beard (75-30 in three seasons at Texas Tech, 171-60 overall)
National championships (team): 0
Final Fours (team): First
Leading scorer: Jarrett Culver (18.9)
Leading rebounder: Jarrett Culver (6.4)
Assists leader: Jarrett Culver (3.8)
Most 3-pointers made Davide Moretti (69)
Offensive rank (BPI): 33rd
Defensive rank (BPI): 1st
Experience (KenPom): 1.92 years (102nd in Division I)
How they beat you: Chris Beard reached his school’s first Final Four with America’s most effective defense. The Red Raiders’ secret is in their personnel. With Tariq Owens (6-foot-10), Matt Mooney (6-3), Culver (6-6), Moretti (6-2) and Norense Odiase (6-8) — plus guys such as Brandone Francis (6-5) and Kyler Edwards (6-3) coming off the bench — Beard has the size and athleticism (Owens is averaging 2.4 blocks per game) to avoid defensive mismatches and support one another when they get beat off the dribble. When opposing players drive, they have to get through two or three capable Red Raiders. When those attempts fail over time, they settle for perimeter shots. Here’s the problem: Texas Tech often recovers to contest those shots. See: Owens blocking Rui Hachimura‘s jump shot late in Saturday’s win over Gonzaga. Michigan settled for deep 3-pointers (1-for-19) in its loss to Texas Tech in the Sweet 16.
“Defensively, they read the scouting report,” Michigan’s Isaiah Livers said. “They knew what guys liked to do. They knew who the shooters were and the drivers were, and you got to tip your hat off.” On offense, the Red Raiders play through Culver, a projected NBA draft first-round pick who demands extra defenders and opens the floor for his teammates. They’ll go iso and attack the mismatch. Mooney realized early in the Gonzaga game that he could post Josh Perkins. Mooney, Moretti and Owens can all score. Proof? Culver finished 5-for-19 in the win over Gonzaga.
How you beat them: Everything starts with Culver. In the Red Raiders’ losses, he has been frustrated. Against Gonzaga on Saturday, he had a hard time finding good looks with Hachimura and others defending him. Once he gets going, however, Texas Tech is difficult to stop. In all, Culver committed 30 turnovers in Texas Tech’s six losses. With Culver struggling, Texas Tech made fewer than 45 percent of its shots inside the arc in five of the six losses.
It’s also important to have a good point guard who can both facilitate the action on offense and get defensive stops. The teams that beat Texas Tech this season had this list of quality point guards: Tre Jones, Nick Weiler-Babb, Devon Dotson, Jordan McCabe, Kamau Stokes and Makai Mason. Opponents also have to take advantage of their perimeter looks and finish on second-chance opportunities. Anything a team can do to get Owens, their most important defender, off the floor is encouraged, too. He has fouled out four times and finished 11 games with four fouls this season. Overall, you can’t beat Texas Tech without a consistently efficient offensive effort and a defensive attack that corrals Culver. Easier said than done with this group, though. — Myron Medcalf
Final Four matchup: vs. Auburn
2018-19 record (conference record): 33-3 (16-2 ACC)
Road to the Final Four: Gardner-Webb, 71-56; Oklahoma, 63-51; Oregon 53-49; Purdue 80-75 (OT)
Coach (record): Tony Bennett (252-89 in 10 seasons at Virginia, 320-122 overall)
National championships (team): 0
Final Fours (team): Three (1981, 1984)
Leading scorer: Kyle Guy (15.2)
Leading rebounder: Braxton Key (5.4)
Assists leader: Ty Jerome (5.3)
Most 3-pointers made Kyle Guy (114)
Offensive rank (BPI): 2nd
Defensive rank (BPI): 2nd
Experience (KenPom): 1.60 years (203rd in Division I)
How they beat you: Ask any coach in the ACC and they’ll say it’s just draining to face the Cavaliers. Bennett’s team takes any opponent out of its rhythm due to its grind-it-out, half-court style. The Cavaliers play the slowest tempo in the country. Virginia’s calling card is still on the defensive end of the floor, where the Cavaliers rank in the top seven in adjusted defensive efficiency for the sixth straight season. They pack the paint, closing off driving lanes and essentially try to force opponents to take contested 3-pointers.
But this season’s Virginia team is slightly different — the Cavaliers can score. They actually rank higher in offensive efficiency than defensive efficiency. Jerome is one of the most confident guards in the country, capable of getting shots for himself or others. Guy runs relentlessly off pindowns and back screens, looking to get open for jumpers. The key is De’Andre Hunter. The future top-10 pick brings a dimension to the offensive end of the floor that Virginia hasn’t had very often under Bennett. They wear teams down with their style, they take care of the ball, they make shots and they force teams to make tough jumpers. It’s awfully tough to beat the Cavaliers.
How you beat them: Having Carsen Edwards on your team is a good start. Well, considering Purdue still lost despite a superhuman effort from Edwards, maybe that doesn’t even work. Look, Virginia is very difficult to beat. The Cavaliers have lost only six times in the past two seasons, including twice this season to Duke and the 16-over-1 shocker to UMBC in last season’s tournament. They’re not perfect, though.
The offense, though improved from past seasons, can still struggle if the guards aren’t making shots. After a stretch in February and March in which Virginia shot 40 percent or better from 3 in five straight games, the Cavaliers have shot 33.3 percent or worse in each of their past five games. Guy’s second-half perimeter resurgence Saturday is the primary reason Virginia is still playing. Hunter had been relatively anonymous for three full games until Saturday’s overtime session.
Now, how do you score on Virginia? The easy answer is simply to make 3-pointers. Purdue made 14 on Saturday, and Duke buried 13 in a win earlier this season. It’s not the only way, though. Virginia still can be beaten by teams with significantly more length and athleticism. As mentioned, Duke did it twice, and Florida State handled the Cavaliers by double digits in the ACC tournament. — Jeff Borzello