by Joseph Declan Moran – April 5, 2019 – 10:50 p.m.
And then there was one – one No. 1 seed, that is.
After an exciting and great Elite Eight, only the Virginia Cavaliers survived and advanced as a No. 1 seed in the March to Minneapolis.
The other three top seeds – Duke (overall No 1), North Carolina and Gonzaga – were all summarily dismissed in their matches by Michigan State, Auburn and Texas Tech, respectively.
The busted Final Four bracket has no Duke or even Kentucky (No. 2 seed), which I’m sure has upset the executives at CBS Sports. For a second straight year, the overall No. 1 seed has gone down in flames.
Still, each of the nation’s top conferences will be represented in Minneapolis. The Atlantic Coast Conference (Virginia), the Southeastern Conference (Auburn), the Big Ten (Michigan State) and the Big 12 (Texas Tech).
Only East Region champ Michigan State has Final Four bonafides, as it appeared in the 2015 event. It is the eighth time a Tom Izzo-coached team has advanced this far. For a program like MSU and a Hall of Fame coach in his 24th season, this is old hat. But Izzo will tell you that it never gets old. The Spartans were the last Big Ten team to win it all in 2000. That was also Izzo’s first and only title.
Big Ten champion MSU defeated a No. 15 (Bradley), a No. 10 (Minnesota), a No. 3 (LSU) and a No. 1 (Duke), just beating the Blue Devils by one point.
Contrast that with West Region and Big 12 Champion Texas Tech, appearing in the Final Four for the first time in program history and in just the third season of coach Chris Beard – a Bob Knight disciple and assistant under Knight and his son Pat, back when the Knights were coaching the Red Raiders.
The upstarts from Lubbock, Texas, have made their mark this year after an Elite Eight run last season. To get here, Texas Tech beat a No. 11 (Arizona State), a No. 6 (Buffalo), a No. 2 (Michigan) and a No. 1 (Gonzaga). It hopes to be the first Big 12 team to win a national title since Kansas in 2008.
Auburn, champion of the Midwest Region, is also here for the first time in program history (much to the delight of former Tiger Charles Barkley). It is considered the Cinderella this weekend as the highest remaining seed (No. 5).
The Tigers were third place finishers in the SEC and had a rocky road on their way to Minny. Coach Bruce Pearl’s assistant, Chuck Person, was a casualty in the fallout of the FBI scandal. He recently pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. While the investigation continues, Pearl has repeatedly professed his innocence.
Once the War Eagles reached the Big Dance, they escaped with a one-point win over No. 12 seed New Mexico State. A defeat of No. 4 Kansas and a stunning upset of No. 1 North Carolina followed. Auburn connected on 17 three-pointers that game, but lost starting forward Chuma Okeke to a blown ACL. Pearl then rallied the Tigers to win one for Okeke, which they did by upsetting fellow SEC member Kentucky. The Wildcats had defeated Auburn twice during the regular season.
The fact that South Region champ Virginia made the Final Four for the first time since 1984 (third time overall) and a first in Tony Bennett’s tenure, helped get a big monkey off the program’s back. Just the fact that the team made it after making a different kind of history last season (losing to No. 16 seed UMBC) is an accomplishment all on its own. (Dick Bennett, Tony’s father, brought the University of Wisconsin-Madison to his only Final Four in 2000.)
Virginia’s run through the South Region included wins over another No. 16 (Gardner-Webb), a No. 9 (Oklahoma), a No. 12 (Oregon) and a No. 3 (Purdue). The Cavaliers were fortunate to get past the Boilermakers and Carsen Edwards, who torched Virginia and ACC Defensive Player of the Year De’Andre Hunter for 42 points.
Saturday evening’s first game between Auburn and Virginia could very well be an upset in the making. The matchup between the Tigers’ backcourt of Jared Harper (reportedly under the weather) and Bryce Brown and Virginia’s Pack Line defense will be interesting to watch. Virginia will dare the guards, who like to speed things up, to attack the paint.
Both players were the leading scorers on a team that gets 49.5 percent of its points from three-point-land. The are complemented by their teammates who are all capable of scoring from deep, which will challenge Virginia’s perimeter defense. The key for Auburn will be to not settle for shots. It is not likely the Tigers will hit 17 three-pointers again like they did against UNC.
Virginia’s triumvirate of Hunter (14.9 ppg), Kyle Guy (15.2 ppg) and Ty Jerome (13.3 ppg) are complemented by Mamadi Diakite under the basket and freshman guard Kihei Clark. As efficient as Virginia is on offense, the team does not have a go-to guy who can break down defenders and get baskets at crunch time, as do the other three teams. The Wahoos are a jump-shooting team that relies on perimeter shooting, Up to now, Virginia has not experienced its bad shooting night. If that happens Saturday night, Virginia will have to find other ways to put points on the board.
There is a psychological element at work for both of these teams, as well, that could affect the outcome. Auburn has ridden a roller coaster of emotions since the UNC game. As much emotion as the Tigers have expended to get to Minneapolis, how much more is left in the Tigers’ tank, with at least one game to play? Pearl has done a masterful job of motivating his players during the tournament. But can he will the team to win just one more for Okeke? During the course of a six-game tournament, emotion and adrenaline can take a team just so far, and then it has nothing left.
Virginia has had its own issues with getting the UMBC monkey off its back from last season. Up to now, Virginia has been successful in getting rid of that monkey. While Bennett and the team can now breathe a sigh of relief that it overcame last season’s debacle and reached its first Final Four, will that mindset be enough to win a title? Teams getting this far want to win it all. Can the Wahoos overcome the mindset that a Final Four was good enough?
In the nightcap Michigan State will face off with Texas Tech in a matchup of the two best guards left: MSU’s junior Cassius Winston and Texas Tech’s 6’6″ sophomore Jarrett Culver.
Winston, like Culver, can get his own shot and set up his teammates Xavier Tillman, Nick Ward, Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid. He shoots the three at a 40.4 percent clip and his assist rate of 45.4 percent is the second best in the nation. He showed the importance of upperclassmen at the guard position in tournament play by outplaying Duke freshman Tre Jones. According to Kenpom.com, the Spartans have the fifth most efficient offense and ninth most efficient defense in the country
Big 12 Player of the Year Culver has scored at just over 21 points a game in the Big Dance, and has put on quite a show for NBA scouts at each stop of the tournament. His backcourt mate Matt Mooney of Wauconda, Illinois, and forward Davide Morretti have shown great proficiency from three-point range in clutch situations when Texas Tech needed big baskets. And Tariq Owens, late of St. John’s, has given the Red Raiders that rim protector who can block shots with the best. Owens leads the nation’s top defense, a stingy, smothering defense that has not let opponents breathe.
Texas Tech’s key will be dealing with all of the distractions that come with a first-time trip to the Final Four. Students, alums, donors, ticket requests and the increased media demands, all can take away from preparation, rest and concentration on the task at hand. Coaches and players will always insist that they are not just happy to be here, but are here to win it. For programs getting to the Final Four for the first time, which nowadays is akin to winning a national title, it is easier said than done.
MSU has been here in Minny before, back in 2001. This season is also the 40th anniversary of Michigan State’s first title. The last three seasons the Spartans exited in the first, second and second rounds of the Big Dance. It could be said that MSU has already played its national championship game against Duke, but this team has endured injuries and come through tough times to reach this point. It has played the toughest schedule of the other three teams. It has endured season-ending injuries to Josh Langford, Kyle Ahrens, and Nick Ward’s injured hand is still not 100 percent. But the Spartans have prevailed every step of the way to reach this point. Based on their history, MSU knows how to handle the distractions and Izzo knows how to push all the right buttons. He also has Earvin Johnson on board to remind the players of everything of the magic that took place in 1979.
One other player to watch for the Spartans Saturday night is Aaron Henry. When MSU was on the ropes in its opening round game against Bradley, Izzo confronted Henry on the sidelines for which he was roundly criticized. Henry has come around to play better since that game, and that sideline confrontation could be what Spartans fans look back on as the turning point of the tournament.
While it may not be much consolation for Texas Tech to console itself with its first Final Four. Or Chris Beard may not be able to console himself with AP Coach of the Year honors. Or Jarrett Culver may not be able to console himself as a lottery pick in this June’s NBA draft, but they will never forget the memories they made as they achieved those accomplishments and a Final Four experience that will bind them and stay with them forever.
While luck and adrenaline always play a part in helping teams get to the Final Four, this is the place where talent and experience come to fore.
And then on Monday night there will be one – one team, that is, cutting down the nets while they watch the highlights of One Shining Moment.