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Nati Harnik/Associated Press
From Texas Tech’s historically great defense to Auburn’s insatiable love of threes, Virginia’s quest for redemption and Michigan State’s attempt to get over the national semifinal hurdle, the 2019 men’s Final Four is loaded with intriguing storylines.
But it’s just too much to keep up with, right? Plus, with incessant news of players transferring, coaches coming and going and high school all-star games, it’s tough to even separate the 2018-19 news from everything thereafter.
No need to sweat. We’ve got you covered.
Whether you’re looking for info on three-point shots and turnover rates, the importance of defense this weekend, draft prospect info or the Big Ten’s national championship drought, this is your one-stop shop for the stories and topics about which you need to know before the Final Four commences.
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Chuck Burton/Associated Press
We don’t often spend the build-up to the Final Four talking about what happened in the previous year’s tournament, but it’s impossible to avoid doing so with Virginia.
As you have undoubtedly been reminded a few hundred times over the past several months, Virginia lost to a No. 16 seed last March. Dating back to when the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, it was the first time in NCAA men’s tournament history that a No. 1 seed lost to a No. 16 seed. If you didn’t hear about it much during the regular season, you certainly did when the Cavaliers were down by 14 in the first half against No. 16 Gardner-Webb two weeks ago.
Whether they have somehow shut out all that noise or used it as motivation, it clearly hasn’t bothered the Wahoos.
After it ended up on the wrong side of history last year, Virginia is the only No. 1 seed in this year’s Final Four. It is now two wins away from its first national championship, which would fully exorcize those UMBC demons.
Sure, we’ll always remember the historic upset, but it would become a footnote of head coach Tony Bennett‘s run at Virginia rather than the defining moment in a decade of tournament failures.
This type of rebound from colossal disaster to the top of the mountain isn’t exactly unprecedented in college basketball, either.
The year before winning the 2015 national championship, Duke suffered its embarrassing first-round loss to Mercer. The season prior to winning both the 2011 and 2014 titles, Connecticut didn’t even play in the NCAA tournament—once due to ineptitude and once due to ineligibility. Before breaking through for two championships in three years, Villanova had been defined by its unceremoniously early exits from the tourney.
Translation: No good reasons exists to think last year’s nightmare will keep this team from achieving its dream.
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Jeff Swinger/Associated Press
What if “Press Virginia” shot and made a lot of threes? What if Villanova were relentless on defense?
Well, you would have 2018-19 Auburn.
Auburn leads the nation in steal percentage (13.3), ranks fifth in block percentage (15.7) and takes 49.5 percent of its field-goal attempts from three-point range.
That’s a combination unlike anything we have seen at the major-conference level during the KenPom era.
The last team to rank among the top 25 in steal percentage, block percentage and three-point rate was 2012-13 Denver in what proved to be the program’s most successful season ever. The Pioneers didn’t have a player on the roster taller than 6’9″, so they played aggressive defense and took a lot of threes to make up for all the twos and rebounds they gave up. They won 22 games in the process.
Even those three teams didn’t shoot the long ball or block shots nearly as often as Auburn.
It’s as if Bruce Pearl looked at the two aforementioned successful but unorthodox approaches from recent years and mashed them together in a laboratory, creating a Frankenstein-esque monster we might as well call “Pressanova.”
Basketball fans have maintained for years that the “Grinnell System” would never work at the D-I level, but this modified version of that threes-and-steals approach is clearly a viable one when you have the guards to make it happen.
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Texas Tech’s defense is impeccable.
The Red Raiders had eight games in which their opponent finished with more turnovers than field goals, three of which came during Big 12 conference play. Additionally, they’ve only allowed 70 or more points in a game five times, none of which have come during the NCAA tournament.
On KenPom, they rank 11th or better in all of the following: three-point defense, two-point defense, block percentage, turnover percentage, effective field-goal percentage and adjusted defensive efficiency. The only category in which they lead the nation is the last, but they currently have the best score in KenPom history.
This is nothing new for Chris Beard, though.
Texas Tech ranked fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency last season and has gotten even better despite losing most of 2017-18’s key contributors. Beard immediately improved this defense, just like he did during his one season at Arkansas-Little Rock. It would only be fitting if Texas Tech faced Virginia in the national championship because Beard is coming for Tony Bennett’s title as college basketball’s leading defensive mastermind.
Speaking of which, Texas Tech is just one of the great defenses in play here.
Virginia and Michigan State aren’t quite as efficient, but the Cavaliers rank fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Spartans are ninth. Michigan State has held six consecutive opponents to 67 points or fewer, and the 80-75 overtime game against Purdue was the first time Virginia had allowed 70 points since Feb. 9.
And while Auburn’s adjusted defensive efficiency brings up the rear, the Tigers might have the most fearsome D of all, given their propensity for steals and blocks.
Long story short, defense is going to play a huge part this weekend. We aren’t necessarily headed for a trio of 59-55 hard-to-watch grinds, but don’t bank on any repeats of last year’s 95-79 showdown between Villanova and Kansas.
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Pat Semansky/Associated Press
Neither Auburn nor Texas Tech has ever been to the Final Four before. Virginia has made it twice, but not since 1984. Thus, it seems a little silly to bring up Michigan State’s championship drought, since it has played in eight of the last 21 Final Fours.
But as good as Tom Izzo has been at getting to this point, sealing the deal has been a struggle.
In Michigan State’s last Final Four appearance (2015), it lost to Duke by 20 points. The Spartans were blown out by the North Carolina Tar Heels in the 2005 Final Four and got smashed by the Arizona Wildcats in the 2001 national semifinals. They also lost a close one against the Butler Bulldogs in the 2010 Final Four.
Since winning it all in 2000, Michigan State is 1-4 on this final Saturday of the tournament. The one win was immediately followed by a 17-point loss to North Carolina in the 2009 championship.
All told, that’s six games in either the Final Four or the national championship in the past 19 years, and four were losses by at least a 16-point margin.
Can these Spartans succeed where others have failed, finally ending the Big Ten’s infamous title drought in the process?
From 2001-18, the Big Ten had 13 teams (six different schools) reach the Final Four without a single championship to show for it. Considering two Big Ten teams played in both the 2005 and 2015 Final Fours, the odds of coming that close so many times and never breaking through are a little ridiculous.
The Pac-12 also has a well-known title drought that dates back to 1997 (Arizona), but that league has only sent one team to the Final Four in the past decade (Oregon in 2017). At some point, the Big Ten has to get another championship. Michigan State has a great chance of doing so this year.
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For the fourth consecutive year, the Final Four is devoid of obvious one-and-done candidates. A few freshmen bolted immediately after playing on college basketball’s greatest stage in previous seasons, but Malachi Richardson (2016), Zach Collins (2017) and Tony Bradley (2017) were hardly locks to make that leap.
Nobody is even a viable candidate for that type of career move this year. Virginia’s Kihei Clark and Michigan State’s Aaron Henry are the only freshmen likely to start on Saturday, and Texas Tech’s Kyler Edwards is the only other first-year player who figures to receive a good chunk of playing time.
That doesn’t mean the one-and-done approach can’t produce a title. Kentucky won in 2012. Duke won in 2015. Both those teams were inches away from the Final Four this year. This is just a tough tournament to win no matter how much talent you have.
But the lack of marquee freshmen doesn’t mean NBA scouts will stay away from Minneapolis. Rather, they’ll be coming out in droves to watch sensational sophomores Jarrett Culver and De’Andre Hunter.
Hunter has struggled in the past three games, averaging just 10.3 points and 4.0 rebounds. Even factoring in Virginia’s glacial tempo, those are unusually low numbers for him. Most mocks have him projected as a top-10 pick, but we’ll see if that holds true should he continue to underperform.
Culver, on the other hand, has been outstanding in the tournament and continues to improve his draft stock, though his three-point stroke remains a bit of a concern. He is an elite defender and scorer who’s more than capable as a rebounder and passer.
If he played for a more noteworthy program than Texas Tech, people would be talking about him as the second-best prospect in the draft. Then again, were it not for Chris Beard’s tutelage, he probably never becomes this much of a standout.
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We’ve already discussed Auburn’s intense love of the three-ball, but all four remaining teams stroke it well from deep.
Virginia leads the way with a 39.4 percent mark that’s good for eighth in the nation. Even with his struggles in the first three rounds of the tournament, Kyle Guy is shooting 42.7 percent on the year and has made 114 threes. Ty Jerome (73 makes at 39.9 percent) and De’Andre Hunter (42 makes at 42.4 percent) have combined for one more trey than Guy. Kihei Clark, Braxton Key and even 7’1″ Jay Huff are ready, willing and able to shoot it, too.
Auburn is next with a conversion rate of 38.3 percent against D-I opponents. The Tigers lost Chuma Okeke to a torn ACL, but they still have six other guys who have made at least 20 threes this season. Bryce Brown (137 makes at 41.0 percent) and Jared Harper (96 makes at 37.1 percent) get most of the attention, and rightfully so. But this team is loaded with players who can bury you from the perimeter.
Not far behind Auburn is Michigan State, tied for 23rd in the country at 38.0 percent. Despite losing starting shooting guard Joshua Langford in late December, the Spartans have continued to thrive. Both Cassius Winston and Matt McQuaid shoot better than 40 percent from deep and average at least two makes per game, and that huge triple from Kenny Goins in the Elite Eight win over Duke was no fluke. He only took 15 attempts in his first three seasons in East Lansing, but he is 56-of-159 this year.
Even the worst team of the bunch is still more than capable of catching fire. Texas Tech is shooting 36.5 percent for the season, but the Red Raiders are sitting at 40.5 percent over their last 13 games. Davide Moretti (46.3 percent) is their primary sniper, but like Auburn, they have six guys with at least 20 makes on the year.
Now consider that Michigan State and Texas Tech rank second and third in the nation in two-point field-goal defense, Virginia’s pack-line D encourages three-point attempts and Auburn ranks fifth in block percentage.
Think we might see a ton of deep attempts Saturday?
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Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
The turnover battle should be another major factor in the outcome of both Final Four games.
Auburn leads the nation in turnover percentage on defense and has a year-to-date turnover margin of plus-214. During their 12-game winning streak, the Tigers have committed just 8.4 cough-ups per game while opponents nearly double that (15.5). Dating back to the beginning of February, Auburn is 16-0 when getting at least eight steals and 0-3 when it falls shy of that mark.
But generating steals against Virginia won’t be easy; the Cavaliers rank 12th in turnover percentage on offense. Over their last seven games, they have committed 7.4 turnovers per contest—3.1 of which came via the steal. No opponent during that stretch recorded more than five steals. Purdue only got one swipe in that entire 45-minute Elite Eight affair.
Granted, Purdue is nowhere near the turnover-forcing juggernaut Auburn is, but the moral of the story is that Virginia takes care of the ball. It has 15 games this season with seven or fewer turnovers, compared to 11 games with 11 or more.
Hang onto the ball, and the Cavaliers will play for the title.
A similar story emerges in the other semifinal, where Texas Tech ranks 11th in turnover percentage on defense while Michigan State has a year-to-date turnover margin of minus-91. And it’s not like the Spartans have suffered due to a barrage of tough defenses. This entire season, they have only faced two teams that rank in the top 75 for turnover percentage. They did OK in one of those games (at Florida), but they coughed up the ball 24 times in the other (at Illinois).
The Spartans don’t force many turnovers, either. Only two of their last 12 opponents turned it over at least 10 times, and Texas Tech has averaged 9.5 turnovers in its last dozen games.
If MSU is able to keep the possession battle under control, it should win. But if Texas Tech forces something like 15 turnovers while only committing seven, advantage Red Raiders.
Kerry Miller covers men’s college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.