Virginia The Favorite Heading Into 2019 Final Four
by Rick Bouch Scores & Statson
At 33-3 and coming off a huge overtime win over Purdue in the Elite Eight, the Virginia Cavaliers head to Minneapolis as the odds-on favorite to win this year’s NCAA tournament and the national championship. Head coach Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers are +130 favorites one year after becoming the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 16 in the first round of the NCAA tourney. This year, they will have a chance to lock up the school’s first-ever national title.
It’s Virginia’s first trip to the Final Four since the Ralph Sampson-led Cavaliers represented the school back in 1984. Virginia will take on Auburn in one semifinal while Michigan State entertains Texas Tech in the other. It is the Red Raiders and Tigers first trips to the Final Four in their respective school’s history.
Can Virginia Get Past Auburn? The Tigers (30-9) are the Final Four underdog at +750 to win the national title. Head coach Bruce Pearl’s team has been the surprise of the tourney thus far knocking off blueblood programs North Carolina (97-80) and Kentucky (77-71 in OT). Pearl is big on owning the tempo of a basketball game. The Tigers rank eighth in the nation in offensive BPI (Basketball Power Index), which essentially means they can score and do it well.
For Pearl and the Tigers though, they will face the absolute best defense in all of college basketball. The Cavaliers play the slowest tempo on offense in the nation and Bennett’s Pack Line defense is notorious for holding opponents in the 50s. Auburn has scored 78, 89, 97, and 77 points in their four games prior to the Final Four. Take away Virginia’s 80-75 overtime win over Purdue in their regional final and the Cavaliers gave up 56, 51, and 49 points.
Auburn will be without 6-8 Chuma Okeke, who tore an ACL in the Tigers win over North Carolina. His presence was missed against Kentucky, which shot 55 percent on 2-pointers in the paint. Okeke is also one of Auburn’s better 3-point shooters, which brings us to how Auburn can beat Virginia.
The bottom line is this – The Tigers have to shoot 3-pointers and make them. That is something they did in the win over the Tar Heels, but then they shot only 30 percent from behind the arc against Kentucky. While Virginia is outstanding defensively, they also have guys that score including Kyle Guy, who has been somewhat quiet during the tournament. Guy is Virginia’s leading scorer averaging 15.2 points per game. He’s not the only one that can score. De’Andre Hunter is an NBA talent that averages 14.9 and Ty Jerome chips in with 13.3 a game.
Sparty and the Red Raiders While Virginia is the nation’s best on defense, Texas Tech is not far behind. The Red Raiders gave up just 59 points per game this season, third-best in the country. Head coach Chris Beard does it with personnel. He’s got size with Tariq Owens (6-10) and Norense Odiase (6-8) and athleticism with Matt Mooney, Davide Moretti, and the team’s leading scorer Jarrett Culver (18.9 ppg).
Like the Virginia-Auburn matchup, Michigan State is going to have to launch some 3-pointers and make them. Their in-state rival Michigan did not fare so well against Texas Tech in the Sweet 16. The Wolverines put up 19 3-pointers. They made just one. That cannot happen for head coach Tom Izzo and the Spartans.
Don’t expect it to. This is the tenth trip for Michigan State to the Final Four, the eighth under Izzo. The Spartans have been here before and they excel on both ends of the floor. The offense is led by point guard Cassius Winston, the team’s leading scorer with 18.8 points per game. MSU’s interior defense is as good as any in the nation with 6-8 Xavier Tillman, 6-8 Nick Ward, and 6-7 Kenny Goins, the Spartans leading rebounder.
Izzo and company are as comfortable playing a game in the 50s as they are playing a game in the 80s. Michigan State went toe-to-toe with Duke in their regional final and came away with a 68-67 victory. The Spartans blew out LSU 80-67 in the Sweet 16 and also got the best of Minnesota in a relatively low-scoring 70-50 win in the second round of the tournament.
The key matchup will be that of the two point guards – Culver for Texas Tech and Winston for Michigan State. In the Red Raiders six losses, this season Culver committed 30 turnovers. The teams that beat Texas Tech this season – Duke was one – all had very good point guards. Winston might be the best of all of them, which he proved last Sunday scoring 20 points and dishing out 10 assists in the win over Duke.
Who Wins It All? While Virginia is favored to win it all, the interesting bet is on Michigan State which is the only school in the Final Four that has ever won a national title. Should the Spartans and Cavaliers win their respective semifinal games, an MSU-UVA final matchup would be the third tournament meeting between the two schools since 2014.
Michigan State has won both previous meetings with Virginia in the NCAA tourney. The Spartans won 61-59 in 2014 in a regional semifinal and 60-54 in 2015 in the second round of the tournament. Surprisingly, it was MSU and not Virginia that clamped down on defense in those two games. Izzo’s Spartans held Virginia to 35 percent shooting in 2014 and 29.8 percent shooting in 2015.