Pat Wareham ‘20
After another action-packed month of March in the college basketball world, four teams remain in the fight for the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. Hey blue-bloods, step aside. There’s no room in this party for you Kansas, or you Duke, or even you Kentucky. Here’s how these four squads punched their tickets to Minneapolis.
#1 Virginia (33-3, 16-2 ACC)
The Cavaliers are the sole remaining 1-seed in the tournament. While they are certainly not as flashy as Duke, North Carolina, or Gonzaga, they are most consistent. Following last year’s historic loss to UMBC in the first round, Virginia finds itself in its first Final Four since 1984. With close wins over Oregon and Purdue, the Cavs have proved they can perform down the stretch and hit clutch shots (see Mamadi Diakite’s season-saving buzzer-beater at the end of regulation vs. Purdue). According to BPI, they rank 2nd in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and have the tendency to wear teams down at both end of the floor. To beat them, you’ll have to hit a ton of three-pointers, but even that might not work (just ask Carsen Edwards, who made 10 triples in Purdue’s OT loss). On paper, they are the best team remaining, but we know that being the best team on paper means nothing at this point.
#5 Auburn (30-9, 11-7 SEC)
Auburn is the hottest team in the country right now, having won twelve straight. Their last loss came on February 23, against a Kentucky team that the Tigers defeated last week in the Elite Eight. They have been excellent on offense, where they love to play a fast-paced game, but their success over this stretch speaks to their improvements on the defensive side of the ball. To hold a dominant Kentucky offense to just 71 points in an overtime game is no small feat. The Tigers have beaten the best of the best to get to this point (Kentucky, North Carolina, and Kansas), so a matchup with another one seed in Virginia will not phase this team that is brimming with confidence.
#3 Texas Tech (30-6, 14-4 Big 12)
Texas Tech caught everyone’s attention with their drubbing of #2 Michigan in their Sweet Sixteen matchup, holding a talented Wolverines team to 44 points. Jarrett Culver has done just about everything for Chris Beard’s squad, leading the Red Raiders in scoring, rebounds, and assists. They are the best defensive team in the country, however their Achilles’ heel has been foul trouble, as they play aggressively on defense. Offensively, Culver must continue to dazzle if they are to compete with the rest of these teams, who do not lack offensive firepower.
#2 Michigan State (32-6, 16-4 Big Ten)
Cassius Winston and Michigan State claimed the biggest victory of the tournament to date with their 68-67 victory over Duke. The Spartans rank in the top ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency, highlighted by their dominant interior defense led by Xavier Tillman and Nick Ward. However, the Spartans have struggled mightily on the boards and have suffered from giving their opponents second chance opportunities. The Spartans’ offense revolves around Winston’s creativity, so teams must hone in on him in order to limit their point of attack. Easier said than done, though.
#1 Virginia vs. #5 Auburn
This matchup will be especially interesting as the teams play with such different styles. Auburn loves to run up and down the court, while Virginia likes to play at a far slower pace. Look for Auburn to penetrate the middle of the Cavaliers defense and kick the ball to open shooters, as they did against Kentucky.
#2 Michigan State vs. #3 Texas Tech
The shot blockers of Texas Tech cannot afford to get into foul trouble, but Cassius Winston is a wizard at drawing fouls. The Red Raiders are not particularly deep and have relied on their starters for the majority of their minutes all tournament long. The Spartans will make it a point of attack to challenge the Tech bigs and get to the line. I like Michigan State in this one.
Pick: Michigan State
#2 Michigan State vs. #5 Auburn
This is where Auburn’s magic will run out. Auburn has not faced a team this talented on the inside as Michigan State, and the Tiger bigs will struggle down low. Tom Izzo wins his second national championship, and his first since 2000.
Pick: Michigan State