So, the Final Four has been decided. One top seed made it, followed by a #2 seed, a #3 seed, and a #5 seed. Two teams make their first ever appearance in the Final Four, one team for the first time in 35 years, and another team who has been a relative mainstay in the Final Four in the past 20 years but only one national championship to show for it.
We saw Virginia solve their nightmares from UMBC last year as being the only #1 seed to be brought down by a #16 seed. Michigan State as well solved some of their demons after their last Final Four appearance where they failed to see a Sweet Sixteen and end up taking down one of their national rivals who has been their demon in Duke in a close battle to get in. Texas Tech had to out-physical Michigan and Gonzaga to make their first appearance in the Final Four. Auburn took down three blue-bloods of Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky to get in, and they did it probably with their best player missing in the Kentucky game. To say these teams don’t belong, well, is ridiculous. And if you want to know why the big boys of Kansas, Duke, and Kentucky (though not really THIS year), aren’t in, look at the rosters of the teams in there. Something does have to be said for the one-and-dones.
So let’s take a look at the teams remaining, and I’m ranking them by order of who has the best shot, and who may have to overcome everything to cut the nets in Minneapolis Monday night.
#1 MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
HOW THEY GOT THERE: The Spartans had some hiccups in beating pesky Bradley, and really until the Elite Eight match-up with powerhouse Duke, gave them the toughest challenge of the tournament. Michigan State pulled away late but given how the Spartans have been in the past few years of being bounced early (really something they haven’t been accustomed to in March), there were some questions. They answered it by taking down Minnesota with relative ease and then pretty much had the lone blowout in the Sweet Sixteen in thumping LSU. And then came the Duke game where they went back and forth like the two heavyweights often do. The experience of Michigan State won out over the electric freshmen group the Blue Devils had.
WHY THEY WILL CUT THE NETS: Tom Izzo is probably the best coach left in the tournament (and the only one who has cut the nets down on the final game), but Michigan State is a seasoned group. They have played through adversity and there is never any panic towards them being down (take a look at the last two Michigan games and the Duke game). They are also to play a fast-paced game against teams who can play fast paced. They can slow it down. They can play physical. They can do whatever. Adding on, Cassius Winston is probably the best point guard probably in the nation. And the last time Michigan State has had a point guard that is tops in the nation was 1979 and 2000 (Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves). Both years Michigan State won the national championship.
WHY THEY WON’T CUT THE NETS: Any time Michigan State has been beaten in March, including the last few years, you had three reasons: 1. Izzo gets out-coached (some of it is who he faces like Coach K, Self, or Roy Williams). 2. The opposing team shoots the daylights out of it (Middle Tennessee in 2016) 3. Teams pretty much have a flawless gameplan. Michigan State has never been one to often get the five star recruits like Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, or Kansas largely in part because they aren’t even dominating the scene in their home state of Michigan. But why they are still mentioned is how they play (because they can get those next rank of players who can stand toe to toe with the Williamsons, Barretts, and Reddishes as we saw against Duke). Talented teams can beat Michigan State, but talented teams who play near-perfect will always beat Michigan State. But talented teams who have off-games WON’T beat Michigan State. Ever.
OUTLOOK: Michigan State is presumably the favorite by many to win it all this year. If you look at it, they are probably the team that will have any sort of homecourt advantage as it is in Minnesota. If they play their game, play physical against Texas Tech and/or Virginia, they have it. If nobody stops Winston, then it will be hard-pressed to take down Sparty.
#2 VIRGINIA CAVALIERS
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Virginia had deja vu of last year when Gardner-Webb built a big lead in the first half before the Cavaliers dominated the rest of the way. Oklahoma proved to be no match for the Cavaliers in the second round. The Cavaliers survived a scare from #12 seed Oregon in the Sweet 16 and needed a semi-miracle to take Purdue down in the Elite Eight and silence critics (me included) in the Final Four.
WHY THEY WILL CUT THE NETS: Virginia has been a little more sound on offense than the past few seasons where the mentality was, once the Cavaliers scored 60, game over. They can score (though probably not as much as their ACC foes of Duke, UNC, Louisville, etc. and the likes of Michigan State or Auburn who are both left) and still play defense. They have a seasoned group such as De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy, and Mamadi Diakite while bringing in Alabama transfer Braxton Key. If they can keep teams from running away with it or clamp down on the guards of opposing teams, Virginia is going to have a great shot.
WHY THEY WON’T CUT THE NETS: Two things that if you are the Cavaliers that you have to be scared about: 1. Michigan State. 2. Auburn. Auburn plays more of an up-tempo game and Bruce Pearl has really gotten a good program rolling down on the Plains. He’s gotten quality players and the teams Virginia struggles with the most are the ones who have those athletes all-around. They lost to Duke twice this past year because they just didn’t have the horses to run with them and Michigan State took down Duke. Also, if Bryce Brown shoots the lights out of the ball against Virginia Saturday, will they be able to fend off Auburn’s crew as a whole like they did against Purdue or will the game get away? Or will they survive and get Cassius Winston in the National Championship game, a guy who can take down physical minded teams like Duke and others? And can Virginia do anything against the likes of Michigan State’s monsters?
OUTLOOK: The hope for Virginia right now is to take down Auburn and have Texas Tech bring down Michigan State right after. And when Virginia got their program rolling starting in 2014, it was Michigan State that brought them down in the tourney and against in 2015. But they are more than capable of cutting the nets down.
#3 AUBURN TIGERS
HOW THEY GOT THERE: Auburn had a massive scare against New Mexico State in the opening round and nearly gave that game away late. However, similar to Michigan State, the Tigers rolled on through in the second round, destroying Kansas and then smacking North Carolina in the Sweet 16 (but lost Chima Okeke in the game) and then taking SEC foe Kentucky down in overtime in the Elite 8 to get to their first Final Four
WHY THEY WILL CUT THE NETS: A few reasons. 1. Bruce Pearl is a great coach. Say what you want to say about him, but the guy can coach and he has cleaned up his act in Auburn. That will play into a close game. 2. Auburn is deep and has plenty of experienced players. Yes, the Tigers haven’t seen a lot of tournaments since last year, but they are building up to show they can not only run with the big boys but beat the big boys. 3. They are pretty deep considering. And that will bode well against Virginia and also Michigan State, assuming they play the Spartans
WHY THEY WON’T CUT THE NETS: Losing Okeke hurts especially against a team like Virginia. If Auburn is to beat Virginia, they need to make sure they have some guys really taking it to the Cavaliers down low. We know the guard play will be huge as well for Auburn in the final games, but the one guy who needs to step up will have to be Austin Wiley. He’s going to have to be a monster the rest of the way. Danjel Purifoy and Horace Spencer has to step up as well. If Auburn loses, this is probably the reason why.
OUTLOOK: Losing Okeke is a problem. However, Auburn keeps fighting like a team and that really doesn’t bode well for the other three teams. However, can the Tigers get enough down low against the rest of their opponents assuming they can escape Virginia Saturday?
#4 TEXAS TECH RED RAIDERS
HOW THEY GOT THERE: Texas Tech hadn’t been challenged until Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. They disposed of Northern Kentucky, obliterated Buffalo, and then embarrassed Michigan before edging out the Zags. They take a page out of Virginia’s book of being a stout defense which should throw a scare into everyone left, including Virginia.
WHY THEY WILL CUT THE NETS: Defense. To me, the Red Raiders probably have a stronger defense than that of Virginia. They are aggressive and pretty physical (pretty opposite of their football team, isn’t it?). Again, like Virginia, will they have enough offense assuming if Michigan State has a field day from shooting? They have a great offense. And they may have the “we are not supposed to be here, but show we will belong argument.” They turned it on at the right time which should be very scary.
WHY THEY WON’T CUT THE NETS: At times, they can have those little hiccups on defense, thus making problematic for them to put up points. Michigan State poses a major problem for them as they can beat the Red Raiders in so many ways. They can outrun them if they want or if that doesn’t work they can play a physically dominating game which could punch Texas Tech in the mouth. If they do end up seeing Virginia, they may also get a lesson in how to play defense and that could hurt.
OUTLOOK: Texas Tech deserves to be in the Final Four. And the more I think of it, the more they pose a serious threat to Michigan State. However, it will be a whole new world for the Red Raiders of having a national spotlight and I don’t know if there is anybody who can really stop Cassius Winston, whether on Texas Tech or anywhere else.
OVERALL OBSTRUCTED TAKE: Disclaimer: I am a Michigan State fan and have been one all my life. I know I have absolutely jinxed them for this. The Spartans have been on a roll since they had an embarrassing road loss to Illinois (15-1 since that point). I think Texas Tech will keep it low scoring but I think Izzo, Michigan State, and Winston figure it all out and run away late in that game.
Virginia and Auburn have clashing styles. Virginia likes to keep a slow pace while Auburn is up-tempo. But what makes me come back is the Okeke injury. Auburn needs to find easy scores and attack the rim. That’s where they will miss him the most. I think the game will be coming down to the last seconds but Virginia, playing in big games where most people are watching them against Duke, UNC, Louisville, etc. will have that experience pay off.
For the Championship, I just think Michigan State has too many horses for Virginia to handle. It is a similar way to Duke and how the Cavaliers struggled to keep Duke’s stars from having a game. It will be close again, but I think for Michigan State seeing those defensive-minded dogs like Michigan and others (and Texas Tech) gives them more of an advantage. And Izzo cuts the nets for the second time in his coaching career.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat