The college basketball season has revolved around Zion Williamson and the Duke Blue Devils. Williamson captured the attention of sports fans around the country with his incredible dunks, blocks and force of will. But the surprising elimination of Duke at the hands of Michigan State has left a void in the NCAA Tournament. What is left to watch in this Duke-less Final Four?
Fortunately for us, an abundance of top talent remains on the Spartans, Texas Tech University, University of Virginia and Auburn University squads. The last three games of the season should be battles, but who will take home the crown?
Let’s start with those Michigan State Spartans, who defeated Duke in the Elite Eight. Under Tom Izzo, the team resembles an “old-school” college basketball team — no one-and-done players and a group of upperclassmen who know each other’s tendencies inside and out. Izzo is looking for his second national championship, and beating Duke, his long time nemesis, was a big step in the right direction. Cassius Winston, a gritty junior point guard who gets the job done, leads Michigan State. He uses herky-jerky movements to throw defensive players off balance, scoring at will even if it may not look pretty. The key for the Spartans may be Nick Ward, a junior with an injured left hand. He provided a major post presence for Michigan State this season, but has had trouble adapting to his new hand brace, missing plenty of open shots.
Texas Tech will present an enormous challenge for Michigan State. The Red Raiders will use plenty of Jarrett Culver, a projected top-seven pick in June’s NBA draft. The sophomore possesses dynamic athleticism, which stands out on defense, where his long arms and supreme jumping ability threaten any offensive player who seeks to make a move toward the basket. The entire Texas Tech team wants to limit offense. The Red Raiders muck up the game, slowing the pace down and forcing teams to grind for every bucket. Texas Tech would love to see a game with scoring in the 50s: ugly basketball, but tremendously effective at rattling and frustrating opponents.
In the end, Michigan State can overcome Texas Tech with Winston at the helm. A college basketball veteran, he won’t be shaken by the Red Raiders as easily as some of Texas Tech’s earlier tournament targets. I’m expecting the Spartans to emerge from this side of the bracket.
But who will win the other semifinal to face Michigan State in Monday’s championship game? Virginia is the favorite. We all know that the Cavaliers became the first one seed in tournament history to lose to a sixteen seed last year. But this season’s group has returned hungrier and better overall.
Kyle Guy is prone to inconsistency, but when he gets on a scoring roll, he becomes virtually impossible to stop. De’Andre Hunter will be picked in the NBA draft and provides a stabilizing force for the Cavaliers on both ends — able to guard opposing teams’ best players and calm Virginia’s offense with a steady scoring touch. The Cavaliers haven’t even played their best basketball yet. They have struggled to dispatch Gardner-Webb, Oregon and Purdue so far, and they are still in the Final Four. Watch out.
Auburn can accurately be called the year’s most unexpected Final Four team. They’ve already defeated Kansas, UNC and Kentucky, so Virginia certainly won’t scare them. The Tigers survived the absence of Chuma Okeke (to a torn ACL) last game, but as time goes on, Auburn will miss its best player more and more. The Tigers relied on guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown against Kentucky, with no one else providing much scoring punch. UVA, using the famed pack line defense, will allow Harper and Brown to shoot three-pointers. If enough go in, then Auburn can win. But if Harper and Brown go cold for any extended stretch, the Tigers will have trouble keeping up. Still, Auburn is used to this — the team has prioritized three-point shooting this entire season and has made enough shots throughout the tournament. They just need the magic to last for two more games.
I expect Virginia to win, though. For the Auburn Tigers, the loss of Okeke and a return to the mean in shooting percentage spell danger. Virginia is the more complete team, with a number of players who can contribute on offense, serving them better in the long run than Auburn’s current one-dimensional scoring style. Harper and Brown will need to play almost perfectly for Auburn to put up enough points to win against the Cavaliers.
That means we have Michigan State against Virginia in the championship game — a battle of two heavyweights. I’m picking the Spartans to win. I have more trust that they will bring their best Monday night. Virginia always seems to disappoint in big moments, so will their propensity to choke come into play? If anyone can solve UVA’s pack line defense, it’s Winston, who will poke and prod to find holes. When the game reaches the final minutes, no one on Virginia can match Winston’s ability on offense. Taking all of this into account, it seems probable that the Spartans will capture another championship.
George Klein ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.