Expect Michigan State and Virginia to emerge from Final Four

  • Virginia head coach Tony Bennett answers questions Thursday after a practice session for the Final Four in Minneapolis.

    Virginia head coach Tony Bennett answers questions Thursday after a practice session for the Final Four in Minneapolis. Associated Press

Updated 4/4/2019 1:50 PM

After one of the chalkiest first and second rounds in NCAA Tournament history, No. 2 Michigan State is the lone blue-blood program appearing in the Final Four, upsetting No. 1 Duke to get there. The Spartans' opponent, No. 3 Texas Tech, will make its first appearance ever in the national semifinals. No. 1 Virginia will face another first-timer in No. 5 Auburn. Of those four, only Michigan State has ever won a title.

So who has the edge? Here's a preview, and pick, for each game on Saturday.


No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 5 Auburn (5:09 p.m. Central, CBS)

Winner: Virginia, 74 percent win probability

Pick: Virginia -5.5

The oddsmakers at the Westgate SuperBook in Vegas are bullish on Virginia, installing the Cavaliers as 3-to-2 favorites to win the title among this year's Final Four teams and favorites over both Michigan State and Texas Tech if they make it to the national title game. And they should be.

The Cavaliers are all about dictating pace of play. Virginia's pack-line defense slows the game to 59.2 possessions per contest, the slowest tempo in the nation, and the offense makes sure to take care of the ball, turning it over just 15 percent of the time, the 12th best rate in the country. If Auburn is going to beat Virginia and move on, the Tigers must do two things: make it rain 3s and push the pace in transition.

Auburn relies heavily on the 3, with half their shot attempts coming from behind the arc, and they are successful 38 percent of the time. However, their effective field goal rate on catch-and-shoot opportunities drops from 62 percent on wide-open shots to 43 percent on contested attempts, which includes going 8 for 36 on contested 3s in the tournament.

Virginia's defense, meanwhile, has allowed less than a third of all catch-and-shoot opportunities against them go uncontested, holding opponents to a 50 percent effective field goal rate against, good enough to place them in the 88th percentile of all college programs this season.

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As for transition opportunities, those come few and far between against Virginia. The Cavaliers have only allowed teams to convert one out of every nine transition possessions since the start of the season and their defense against those possessions has improved dramatically, allowing 0.96 points per possession in the tournament compared to 1.12 points per possession during the regular season and ACC Tournament combined.

No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 3 Texas Tech (8:49 p.m. Central, CBS)

Winner: Michigan State, 54 percent win probability

Pick: Michigan State -2.5

It is no surprise the Spartans are one of four remaining teams in the NCAA Tournament. The perfect bracket considered them as a strong choice for the national champion once the field of 68 was announced, citing their overall balance on both sides of the court and the presence of Cassius Winston, the Big Ten Player of the Year and one of 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Trophy, awarded each season to the top player in the nation. Winston is averaging 18.9 points and 7.6 assists per game this season, flashing skill as the ballhandler on the pick and roll (90th percentile for points per possession), as a spot-up shooter (84th percentile) and in isolation (90th percentile).

Texas Tech, meanwhile, has Jarrett Culver, a projected high lottery pick in the 2019 NBA draft. He's averaging 18.9 points and 3.7 assists per game with an ability to dismantle teams in isolation, whether that's calling his own number (scoring almost a point per possession) or dishing it out to teammates (1.4 points per possession). Defensively he holds opponents to a mere 0.6 points per possession, placing him in the top five percent of college defenders.

The difference maker will be Michigan State's superior ability to create second-chance opportunities off the offensive glass. The Spartans grab over 34 percent of their misses this season, 24th best in the nation, and score 1.1 points per possession on their putbacks (69th percentile, nice). Texas Tech hauls in 28 percent of their misses (188th) and converts putbacks into 1.0 points per attempt (28th percentile).

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