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The Breakdown: Nathan’s Final Four Predictions

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The Breakdown: Nathan’s Final Four Predictions

Nathan Hawkins, Managing Editor

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The four teams in the Final Four have all taken unexpected routes to end up here.

The lone 1 seed remaining, Virginia, is just a year removed from being the first 1 seed to lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, with their stunning loss to 16 seed University of Maryland-Baltimore County last year.

To get to the championship, they’ll have to beat the lowest seed remaining in the tournament, the 5 seed Auburn Tigers. The Tigers are coming off of a win against 2 seed Kentucky, a team which they lost two twice in the regular season (including their worst loss of the season, an 80-53 beatdown). They also lost Chuma Okeke to a knee injury after their Sweet 16 win, the player who coach Bruce Pearl tearfully described as “the best player on the court.”

On the other side, 2 seed Michigan State is coming off a defeat over the overall No. 1 seed, the Duke Blue Devils. The Blue Devils were the most favored team in the entire tournament, with the projected number one pick in the NBA Draft and another two players expected to be picked in the top 10. Duke was picked to win in 37.7% of brackets in the ESPN Tournament Challenge, while Michigan State was only picked to win in 4.9% of them.

Their opponent is Texas Tech, who has a transformed basketball program. Head coach Chris Beard is in his third season, and last year the Red Raiders made it to the Elite Eight, to compliment their Final Four this year. Before that, Texas Tech had not made it past the first round of the NCAA tournament since 2005.

In total, a whopping 0.04% percent out of the 17.8 million brackets submitted to the ESPN Tournament Challenge predicted this Final Four correctly.

I am not one of those elite members, but my original champion, Michigan State, is still standing strong. The Final Four is a chance for any slim bet of redemption. Three more games to potentially fix all the wrongs in my bracket (Such as Syracuse as a Final Four team instead of losing in the first round as they did). Here’s the predictions:

 

No. 1 Virginia over No. 5 Auburn

What a story for this Virginia team. A year after making history for all the wrong reasons, the team has come back on a mission. The Cavaliers have only lost three games this year, two of which came against the overall No. 1 seed Duke. They have a few of the better players in all of college basketball, with two Associated Press All American Third Team selections in sharpshooting junior Kyle Guy and stout defender sophomore De’Andre Hunter. Hunter was awarded for his defensive efforts, as the 6’7 guard was named Defensive Player of the Year by by the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

Great players is far from the only reason Virginia is set up to succeed. The team is incredibly efficient, and not only on one side of the ball. According to Pomeroy’s metrics, Virginia is the only team in the top five for both adjusted defense and adjusted offense. By those metrics, Virginia is overall the most efficient team.

Auburn stands as one of the best possible opponents for Virginia. They have one of the strongest backcourts in the nation behind senior Bryce Brown and junior Jared Harper. After struggling with Purdue backcourt player Carsen Edwards, who scored 42 points including 10 three-pointers, it is clear that Virginia will have some adjusting to do to stop the dynamic Auburn duo. Ultimately, it will be the defense that saves the day for the Cavaliers. They’ve been able to be clutch late in games, including their Sweet Sixteen win over Oregon in which they held the Ducks scoreless in the last five minutes.

In all, there isn’t a more complete team in college basketball. They’ve had a week to gameplan for this fast paced Auburn team, and their defense will be a refined machine come Saturday. Expect Virginia to win in a blowout over the SEC Champions, and head to the championship game for the first time in school history.

 

No. 2 Michigan State over No. 3 Texas Tech

 

Texas Tech’s program turnaround has been almost unprecedented. A third year coach has taken a team that just four years ago was scraping for mediocrity all the way to the Final Four. The team’s star player is a sophomore who was a lightly recruited three star recruit just two years ago.

The coach is Chris Beard, and that sophomore star is Jarrett Culver, and if you don’t know them yet, you’re bound to soon. Beard has already been named Associated Press Coach of the Year, and more awards are expected to follow. Culver was named a Second Team All-American by the Associated Press, and he is expected to be a top ten selection in this coming NBA Draft. Texas Tech has gotten hottest at the right time, not having any games that came right down to the final buzzer in this tournament, the only team remaining with no such game.

Texas Tech has been able to make it this far primarily behind their defense. Their defense is ranked the best in the entire nation, as they allow only 84.1 points per 100 possessions, the lowest mark for any team since 2002.

With defense being a key for the remaining teams in the tournament, Michigan State will have its hands full with the Red Raiders on that side of the ball. Therefore, the key for Michigan State to win the game will also be on the defensive end. Michigan State isn’t quite at Texas Tech’s caliber of defense, but they’re still ranked 9th in the nation.

Offensively, they’re ranked 5th, and they have more tools to score with than Texas Tech. The Spartans are led by Cassius Winston, the junior point guard who was recently named a First Team All-American by the Associated Press. Contributing also on offense is senior Kenny Goins and sophomore Xavier Tillman, the latter of which had the daunting task of matching up with Associated Press College Basketball Player of the Year Zion Williamson and came out on top scoring 19 points.

Coaching wise, Michigan State sports a coach who is also considered one of the best in all of college basketball in Tom Izzo. Izzo’s veteran experience in these coaching situations will also help, with this being his 8th (!!!) Final Four.

Also not to be overlooked is Michigan State’s schedule. This year, they have a record of 30-6 while sporting the second hardest schedule in basketball. The team is tough and gritty, and should match Texas Tech’s physicality pound for pound. Expect a close game, where ultimately Cassius Winston comes up with some late free throws to clinch the Spartans spot in the championship.

 

No 2. Michigan State over No. 1 Virginia

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said it after the Spartan’s upset win over Duke: “To be the best you’ve got to beat the best.”

Izzo conquered past demons against the Blue Devils in the Elite Eight, as he entered the game only 1-11 against Duke in his illustrious coaching career. It is clear just how important that win against the presumed best team in college basketball was. The Spartans will enter the championship game with even more momentum after beating a very good Texas Tech team, and they will ride that home to a National Championship win.

Virginia and Michigan State is the National Championship game we deserved. Two evenly matched, overall balanced teams with their fair share of star players and big moments in this tournament alone. Even the coaches are big names, with Tom Izzo competing against Virginia coach Tony Bennett, who has been with the team since 2009 and sports a 252-89 record with the program. Ultimately, experience will thrive, and few current coaches have more than Izzo.

Expect Cassis Winston to shine for Michigan State, ultimately winning Final Four Most Outstanding Player, with Xavier Tillman coming through late once Virginia puts their focus all on Winston. Virginia will keep it close until the end, with Michigan State pulling away late.

In a year in which Izzo has been criticized for being too aggressive and confrontational to his players after an incident went viral just weeks ago, the hardened Michigan State team will prevail for their coach who they have defended vehemently since the situation occurred. And Izzo, joined by all of his players, will stand on the podium come Monday night, hoisting the third title in school history.

 

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