2019 Final Four preview


Hayden Davidson

This March was a bit more predictable, with the majority of better seeds moving on.

Hayden Davidson and Tom Mueller

What, when and where:

1 Virginia vs. 5 Auburn, 5:09 p.m. CT

2 Michigan State vs. 3 Texas Tech, 7:49 p.m. CT

Saturday, April 6

Minneapolis, MN


Last year’s March Madness did not disappoint, from Loyola-Chicago’s run to the Final Four to UMBC taking down Virginia for the first-ever 16-1 seed upset. This March was a bit more predictable, with the majority of better seeds moving on. But fans have certainly received their fair share of excitement, whether it be 12-seed Oregon in the Sweet 16, only one 1-seed in the Final Four or Duke’s too-close-for-comfort wins.

In the first round, 12-seeds had a 3-1 record against 5-seeds, with the only advancing 5-seed winning by one point. But after barely squeaking past a 12-seed, that 5-seed, Auburn, has reached the Final Four. Here’s a look at each of the four remaining teams who will carry the madness into April.


In the Elite Eight, the Spartans knocked off the Duke Blue Devils, who were projected to win the tournament in 39.2 percent of brackets in the NCAA’s Bracket Challenge Game. Michigan State scored 78.3 points per game and allowed just 65.1 points per game during the regular season, good enough for the 12th-best scoring margin in college basketball. Their elite offensive and defensive capabilities are evident in their Basketball Power Index (BPI) ratings, which list them in the top 10 in both categories.

The Spartans run their offense through junior guard Cassius Winston, who averaged 18.9 points and 7.6 assists per game. Winston’s sense for making creative passes has established him as one of the best guards in the country. Matt McQuaid and Joshua Langford have played key roles as supporting guards to Winston, each shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc, but an injury in late December sidelined Langford for the rest of the season. The team’s top three bigs, Nick Ward, Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman, have also been key components of the team’s success. Combined, they average 54 percent of the team’s rebounds, 40 percent of the team’s points and 78 percent of the team’s blocks per game. Although Michigan State had some trouble keeping LSU and Duke from getting offensive rebounds, the Spartans have largely had success utilizing their size and controlling the glass. 

Limiting turnovers is vital for a team ranking 318th in the country in turnover margin (2.4). Michigan State will need Winston to dissect the Texas Tech defense and create open looks for Ward, Goins and Tillman down low to create more space for the Spartans’ three-point shooters. 


Defense, defense and more defense. This has been the foundation of the Texas Tech Red Raiders team making its first appearance to the Final Four in program history. Coached by Chris Beard, 2019 AP Men’s College Basketball Coach of the Year, the Red Raiders have allowed the third-fewest points per game (59.0) in the country, forced their opponents to make the second-lowest percentage (36.9) of shots per game and have the top-rated defense according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI).

Keeping teams from scoring in the paint has been one of senior forward Tariq Owens’ strong points, as he averages 2.4 blocks per game. The team’s perimeter defense has also been showcased in their first four games, holding Northern Kentucky, Buffalo, Michigan and Gonzaga to a combined 23.4 percent from beyond the arc. Additionally, Texas Tech has allowed just 57 points per game over the first four games.

The unequivocal leader of the team is sophomore Jarrett Culver, who has averaged the most points (18.5), rebounds (6.4) and assists (3.8) per game on the team. He is a projected top-10 pick in the upcoming NBA draft and Big 12 Player of the Year. Culver’s performance in Texas Tech’s matchup against Michigan State may dictate the outcome of the game, as the team has struggled when their leader shoots poorly. Look for Texas Tech to run their offense through Culver and to get him in rhythm via some easy shots early. The three-point shooting of guards Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney (46.3 percent and 38.1 percent, respectively) is also crucial in generating enough offense to get past Michigan State’s tough defense.


Prediction: Texas Tech 65, Michigan State 60

Looks like the Red Raiders will get to play “Old Town Road” one more time in the post-game locker room celebration that has typified their tournament run. The game should be a classic defensive battle and will ultimately come down to whether Culver outperforms Winston or vice versa. Turnovers by Michigan State will cost them, though, and Texas Tech will squeak out a five-point win to beat the Spartans.



Virginia will always be known as the team that lost to a 16-seed. This year’s first round opponent, 16-seed Gardner-Webb, surprised college basketball fans with a six-point lead over Virginia at halftime, and Virginia’s Sweet 16 game against 12-seed Oregon came down to the wire. If it weren’t for the desperation shot against Purdue to force overtime in the Elite Eight, this section would cover the Boilermakers. Virginia has won by a narrow margin twice this tournament already. But they are back from last year with something to prove.

Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter were the team’s leaders in minutes per game and points per game. The Cavaliers lack a solid post presence, which is why these three wing players are so important. Guy and Hunter will draw the most attention from Auburn’s defense, largely due to their shooting percentages (over 42 percent) from three-point range. Hunter, a future NBA early first-round draft pick, has been uncharacteristically cold during the NCAA tournament, and Virginia will need him to find his touch in order to outlast Auburn. In the first three games, Guy couldn’t get shots to fall either, but he returned to form in Virginia’s biggest game to this point vs. Purdue, posting 25 points and 10 rebounds.

Defense and turnovers are some of the best indicators of a team’s success. Well, those categories just happen to be Virginia’s bread and butter. Virginia was the number one team in the nation in both points allowed per game and fewest turnovers per game, at 55.4 and 9.0, respectively. Perhaps those statistics can lead Virginia to their first national title in program history.


12-seed New Mexico State almost downed Auburn in the first round, but they missed two chances to win at the end. That game must have whipped Auburn into shape because since then, the Tigers have handled three college basketball dynasties, beating Kansas by 14, North Carolina by 17 and Kentucky by 6. Auburn has endured the toughest schedule in the tournament of any of the remaining teams.

The first team to reach the Final Four in Auburn school history features players with a variety of skill sets. Bryce Brown and Jared Harper make up one of the most effective backcourts in college basketball, with each of them averaging over 15 points per game. The two guards shouldered the majority of the weight in their game vs. Kentucky, combining for 50 points and six steals. Brown puts away opponents with bunches of three-pointers and Harper, standing at 5-foot-11, uses his incredible speed to get to the rim. The Tigers suffered a blow when their top forward, Chuma Okeke, tore his ACL during their big win over North Carolina. Despite Okeke’s absence, Auburn held back Kentucky’s future NBA player PJ Washington just enough to advance.

Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl has used depth to his advantage, as eight players have played at least 38 games this season. The key to beating Virginia is to control the pace and speed up the tempo, which is where the depth comes into play. Auburn displayed togetherness and a will to win against Kentucky, during which they also learned how to play without Okeke.


Prediction: Virginia 75, Auburn 68

What will make this game fun to watch, but also harder to predict, is the polar-opposite styles of play between the two teams. Virginia is not necessarily the most entertaining team to watch, applying a half-court offense and one of the slowest tempos in the country. Auburn plays the type of game with a final score of 90-85 and Virginia could very well defeat a team with a final score of 60-55. The outcome of this game will lie somewhere in the middle.

Virginia will edge out Auburn, though, with the Cavaliers’ defense outworking Auburn’s offense. If Auburn loses, they would finish the season with double-digit losses, while Virginia has only lost once to a team other than Duke this season. But who knows? No 5-seed has ever won the NCAA tournament since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Maybe Auburn will decide to change that.


Which team are you rooting for to win the 2019 NCAA championship game?


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