The Final Four is here, and Michigan State, Virginia, Texas Tech and Auburn will vie for a spot in the national title game. We asked ESPN.com’s panel of basketball writers to talk about what they’re expecting from Saturday’s games.
Virginia, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Auburn — while there was reason to recommend all these teams, essentially no one had them in this combination. Which member of this group do you feel most differently about than you did when the tournament started?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: Auburn. I was impressed by its run to the NCAA tournament. That 20-point win over Tennessee in the SEC tournament title game, the Tigers’ second win over the Vols in 10 days, solidified them as a real threat. But I questioned whether they could sustain the momentum, especially after they squeezed by New Mexico State in the opening round. Even when they beat Kansas in the second round, I figured that had more to do with the shaky, short-handed Jayhawks than anything Auburn had done.
But when the Tigers held off North Carolina in a lopsided win in the Sweet 16, despite losing Chuma Okeke with eight minutes to play, I knew this team was for real. And then the win over Kentucky without Okeke in the Elite Eight proved that point again. In the Final Four, the Tigers shouldn’t beat Virginia, a team with talent and a defensive style that should minimize Jared Harper‘s impact. But they continue to prove doubters wrong. I won’t be surprised if Auburn wins it all in a pair of impressive performances.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball Insider: Michigan State. I had Virginia and Texas Tech in the Final Four, and Auburn is just shooting lights-out and playing terrifically. But Michigan State just wins, man. I’ve doubted the Spartans for most of the latter portion of the season, mostly because I don’t see how they can keep scoring so efficiently without Joshua Langford, without Kyle Ahrens and with a limited Nick Ward. But the answer to any question about Michigan State begins and ends with Cassius Winston (and Tom Izzo). Winston is arguably the best point guard in the country, and he has consistently come up with big plays and big shots throughout the tournament.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: Auburn. I picked Virginia and Michigan State to get this far, and I knew I was living dangerously when I included Texas Tech as one of the 345 teams that won’t win the title. (That’s not looking so smart.) But the Tigers really showed me something with that win over Kentucky. After just burying Kansas and North Carolina with speed and made 3s, Bruce Pearl’s guys won an absolute rock fight on an afternoon when they made just seven 3s in 45 minutes. Bryce Brown was his usual amazing self in that game (4-of-7 outside the arc), and he has had arguably the best tournament on offense of any player at the Final Four. It has been an outstanding run by Brown and Auburn, one that has changed my thinking.
Jordan Schultz, Insider/analyst: Auburn has been something of an enigma this season. The key for the Tigers is the 3-pointer, and the offense seems to click no matter how stingy the opponent is defensively. Auburn, which has defeated three blue-blood programs already, ranks third in the nation with 11.5 made 3-pointers per game and has upped its average to 12.8 on 40 percent shooting since the start of the SEC tournament. Pearl would probably prefer a few more possessions — his team is averaging a modest 70.4 during the NCAA tournament — but it’s a testament to how efficient the Tigers have been, especially against both Carolina and Kentucky.
If Auburn can keep this game close, the pressure will shift back to Virginia; we all know that. But if the Tigers can open up any type of lead, they have proved they can hold on to it with a defense predicated on quickness, even without defensive ace Okeke.
Courtney Cronin, college basketball/NFL reporter: Texas Tech. The Red Raiders dismantled Michigan by holding the Wolverines to their fewest points in NCAA tournament history and then followed up on that performance by stifling Gonzaga‘s high-tempo offense and dominant frontcourt. We knew this defense would present a challenge for any team it encountered in March, and it is a major reason that Tech is embarking on its first Final Four. It’s intriguing to think about how some of the smaller lineups that coach Chris Beard has employed might be able to limit the explosiveness of Michigan State’s guards.
Auburn and Texas Tech are here for the first time. When we look back on this Final Four in 10 years, will their presence look like a strange anomaly or the start of something bigger?
Medcalf: Anomalies, and for different reasons. The SEC will keep growing, especially after adding Buzz Williams at Texas A&M and Nate Oats at Alabama, so a team like Auburn will continue to fight for the quality wins that will lead to a favorable seed in the NCAA tournament. Everything kind of worked out for Auburn this season, in terms of its path to the Final Four. That won’t be the case in the coming years. As for Texas Tech, this will be an anomaly because Beard will be gone. And it’s hard to bet on a team that has advanced to the second round just five times since 1976. Ten years from now, I think we’ll look back, win or lose, and say, for both teams, “That was their chance.”
Borzello: Little bit of both? I don’t know if either team will make a Final Four again in the next decade, but I think much of it depends on whether both teams can keep their respective coaches for an extended period of time. Beard has been the best coach in the country this season, and he has now led the Red Raiders to an Elite Eight and Final Four in back-to-back seasons. But Beard is going to be connected to a number of jobs on the coaching carousel until he either signs a huge-money extension or leaves for an elite, elite job. As for Pearl and Auburn, I think he’s less likely to leave — but I also think Auburn caught a little bit of lightning in a bottle this season, and it could be hard to replicate.
Gasaway: I’ll second a portion of what Borzello said: Beard staying in Lubbock could well mean this is just the beginning of great things for Texas Tech as a program. Conversely, if he leaves, then you may be looking at more of a Calipari-at-Memphis kind of moment where the coach stays successful but his former program is less so.
As for Auburn, don’t tell Charles Barkley, but getting to the Final Four can be something of an anomaly even for really strong programs (which is what Pearl is building). Just look at Virginia. The Cavaliers were at the top of the ACC for years with zero Final Fours to show for it until now. If Pearl stays with the Tigers, we will look back on this in 10 years in about the same way that we now look at West Virginia getting to the 2010 Final Four, as the best year for a good program and a good coach.
Schultz: Since 1985, 14 teams have made first-time appearances in the Final Four. And of those 14, eight were power conference schools (South Carolina in 2017, Maryland in 2001, UConn in 1999, Minnesota in 1997, Mississippi State in 1996, Florida in 1994, Georgia Tech in 1990 and Arizona in 1988). Maryland, UConn and Arizona are the only schools to have sustained national success, all of them having won championships.
While predicting future tournament success is an exercise in futility, I think Texas Tech probably has the best model to push forward. Beard has created a formula centered on elite defense with both players and personnel. This is not to discredit Pearl: He helped rebuild Tennessee, and he has quickly built Auburn into a national power. But Beard seems to have the upper hand because of his defense. As he lands better recruits in Lubbock, we can expect the Red Raiders to challenge Kansas in the Big 12 — and enjoy deep runs in March.
Cronin: Probably the latter. Beard got Texas Tech close a year ago. Despite Auburn’s roller-coaster regular season, it felt like the Tigers had been poised for a deep tournament run under Pearl for a while. Sure, both Texas Tech and Auburn ran into teams that stumbled (Gonzaga, Kansas) more than usual in the tournament, and their biggest test will be performing the way they have throughout March on a consistent basis. Neither team feels like a complete outlier despite never having reached this stage of the game. And of course that has to do, in large part, with coaching. While Beard and Pearl may draw bigger job offers beyond this season given the success they’ve achieved with their respective programs, no matter what happens to these teams beyond 2019, we won’t be looking back on either group as an anomaly 10 years from now.
Which team are you most shocked NOT to see in Minneapolis, and can you make a case for it reaching the 2020 Final Four in Atlanta?
Medcalf: Kentucky. In the Elite Eight, the Wildcats were facing the same Auburn team that they’d defeated 80-53 just last month. Yes, this Auburn squad just rattled off a series of impressive wins to reach this point, but when you beat a squad by that margin (and in the first matchup, too), you assume one team has a significant edge over the other, especially after Okeke’s injury and the Wildcats’ double-digit lead in the first half. It was right there. But Kentucky can make another run next season with Ashton Hagans most likely returning and five-star recruits Tyrese Maxey and Kahlil Whitney entering the mix. Plus, Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery, Jemarl Baker and Immanuel Quickley could all blossom in new roles next season. With Calipari and a top-rated recruiting class on the way, the Final Four will be an attainable goal.
Borzello: It has to be Duke, right? The Blue Devils were the overall 1-seed in the NCAA tournament and the biggest story in college basketball this season, and they will have three of the top five or six picks in June’s NBA draft. So yes, I’m shocked not to see Duke in Minneapolis. And I think it could be hard for Mike Krzyzewski to reload quickly enough to get the Blue Devils back to the Final Four next season. He doesn’t have a Zion Williamson or RJ Barrett coming in, and he’s going to lose both of them, plus at least Cam Reddish.
The recruiting class coming in is great, but there might not be an immediate All-American in the group. Vernon Carey should be a dominant back-to-the-basket player, while Wendell Moore brings toughness and scoring and Boogie Ellis can score. I think the key will be the maturation of Tre Jones as an offensive threat, assuming he stays in school, and whether Duke can land five-star recruit Matthew Hurt.
Gasaway: Gonzaga. The Bulldogs had it all this season, up to and including quite possibly the best frontcourt in the nation. Not to mention the Zags were blessed with ample helpings of the experience that everyone has fallen in love with after Kentucky and Duke lost Sunday. Depth, balance on both offense and defense, you name it: Mark Few’s guys had it. But they ran into one of the best teams in the country in Texas Tech, and, six Brandon Clarke turnovers later, here we are. Give credit to the Red Raiders; they were the superior team.
Schultz: Gonzaga, my preseason pick to win its first national title. Much of the Zags’ 2020 success will depend on the status of Clarke, Killian Tillie and Zach Norvell Jr., all of whom could become first-round picks in June. The losses of Rui Hachimura and Josh Perkins — the school’s all-time leader in assists — will hurt, but Few is a model of consistency. During the previous seven seasons, the Bulldogs have won 32 games or more five times, earning a No. 1 seed three times.
Perhaps most impressive has been Few’s ability to lure elite prospects from all over the globe: Tillie, Kelly Olynyk, Domantas Sabonis and Ronny Turiaf, to name a few. Hachimura will soon become the first Japanese-born player drafted into the NBA. This year’s recruiting class ranks 19th nationally, per ESPN, and features three top-100 recruits. Don’t sleep on 2018 center Filip Petrusev of Serbia, a multidimensional threat with tangible NBA upside. Make no mistake: The Zags will once again contend for their first national championship in 2020.
Cronin: I struggle with where to place Duke in this argument. In spite of as loaded a roster as the Blue Devils had and near-lock-type expectations for making it to Minneapolis, it’s difficult to expect that a freshman-laden team would win a championship no matter how good its players were. We were treated to a once-in-a-generation talent this year in Williamson. No matter how good at recruiting Coach K and the program itself are, players like that don’t come along every recruiting cycle. Even if Duke is able to pull in another historic recruiting class, it’s now difficult to envision a class of one-and-done talent being able to carry a team in March. The way Duke played in several nail-biters and its eventual loss to Michigan State was sort of a microcosm for what it went through most of the season.
Which one individual matchup are you most looking forward to on Saturday night?
Medcalf: Jarrett Culver versus Michigan State, a team full of 6-foot-6ish athletes to throw at the projected top-10 pick. Culver finished 5-for-19 against Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. He has 30 turnovers in six games this season. Can Matt McQuaid, an All-Big Ten Defensive Team member, and young Aaron Henry disrupt Culver? Culver is the best player in Minneapolis, and he has led a revitalized offense in the NCAA tournament. Michigan State has to force him into difficult shots in the national semifinals.
Borzello: Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy vs. Jared Harper and Bryce Brown. In general, I think the key will be how the perimeters of Auburn and Virginia match up. Kihei Clark took a lot of the responsibility of guarding Carsen Edwards last weekend, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him guarding Harper. That said, Harper’s defensive aggressiveness will be an asset against Jerome at the other end. Auburn’s guards will also have to be disciplined on the defensive end, chasing Guy and Jerome around screens and pin-downs for 30 seconds every possession. Harper and Brown do have a foot speed advantage on Guy and Jerome, though, and will look to put pressure on them at every opportunity.
Gasaway: Cassius Winston versus … does the Texas Tech defense count as one individual unit? The Red Raiders have been known to switch on occasion, so let’s just say that, regardless of which player picks up Winston initially on the first possession, I can’t wait to see the whole 40 minutes. Texas Tech was outstanding on D against the Gonzaga backcourt, and, while I think the world of Perkins and Norvell, facing Winston is a step up in degree of difficulty. He will simply take what you give him, and, unlike most prominent scoring guards, he has zero prior commitment to just one plan of action. Winston will drive and dish, drive and score, shoot the 3, whatever’s available. Meanwhile, the Raiders excel at making nothing available. It will be strength on strength.
Schultz: I can’t help but fixate on Winston, the Big Ten Player of the Year. How will Beard and Texas Tech’s No. 1-ranked defense counter the Wooden Award finalist, who Tom Izzo made clear on my podcast — Pull Up with CJ McCollum — was his team’s most important player? Matt Mooney is a tough on-ball defender, but I think Culver has to assume some of the responsibilities as well. He is arguably the most complete perimeter defender in the country, deft at deploying his length and quickness on smaller players.
I spoke with a former NBA head coach recently about Winston, and while he was complimentary, he worried about Winston’s quickness getting to his spots. As both collegiate coaches and players have told me, Tech does not break down defensively: The Raiders are too solid and too well-coached. Look for them to trap Winston in the half court to try to force sudden and potentially errant decisions, while turning the ancillary players into focal points. Then again, Winston averages a stellar 7.6 APG to go along with 2.9 turnovers, a low number considering his high usage and playmaking responsibilities. In other words, something has to give.
Cronin: I’m excited to see the Tariq Owens–Xavier Tillman showdown. Owens’ tremendous shot-blocking and ability to guard multiple positions helped Texas Tech limit Michigan’s half-court sets in the Sweet 16 and should be a big factor against the shooting ability of MSU’s guards. Tillman has been a major part of the Spartans’ rotation of bigs, and if he can replicate what he did against Williamson, Michigan State could be poised to advance to the national championship. These players are the spark plug for their respective teams, and I’m excited to see who holds his own the best in this matchup.
Score predictions for Auburn/Virginia, 6:09 p.m. ET, CBS (Virginia -5.5)
Medcalf: Virginia, 69, Auburn 64
Borzello: Virginia 72, Auburn 63
Gasaway: Virginia 75, Auburn 68
Schultz: Virginia 69, Auburn 59
Cronin: Auburn 76, Virginia 69
Score predictions for Michigan State/Texas Tech, CBS (Michigan State -2.5)
Medcalf: Texas Tech, 70, Michigan State 67
Borzello: Texas Tech 64, Michigan State 60
Gasaway: Michigan State 61, Texas Tech 60
Schultz: Michigan State 65, Texas Tech 60
Cronin: Michigan State 68, Texas Tech 65