Monday, April 1, 2019 5:35 PM | CBN
It’s been a long long road but after a lengthy season filled with ups, downs, posterizing dunks, buzzer-beating shots, heartbreak, and triumph, we’re down to just four teams who will fight for a National Championship this weekend in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We have 2 seeded Michigan State representing the East region, 1 seeded Virginia representing the South region, 3 seeded Texas Tech coming out of the West region and 5 seeded Auburn from the Midwest. Let’s review these four teams season and path to Minneapolis.
Michigan State began their season off with a loss to Kansas, then they battled back by winning the Las Vegas Invitational beating UCLA and Texas by double digits. After that they fell to Louisville in a tough overtime battle on the road but then Sparty really came alive in conference play as they went 16-4, with losses to Purdue, Indiana twice, and Illinois. Three of those losses were part of a three game stretch in late January and early February. We were shocked, confused, and worried about Michigan State during that losing streak, wondering how they lost to Indiana at home and those barely fighting’ Illini! In hindsight this may have been the best thing to happen to this team... a tough stretch that got them back on track. They were more focused and played better as a cohesive unit after and look where it got them. The results speak for themselves. How about MSU beating Michigan three times including in the conference tournament championship! Super impressive. Sparty was dealt with arguably the toughest path to the Final Four for a 1 or 2 seed. They got pitted in the same region as Duke and met them in the Elite Eight. Before getting there they trailed at half to Bradley before beating them by 11, took out Minnesota by 20, and stifled LSU in a 80-63 win. Then we got one of the greatest games of the tournament. Michigan State and Duke in Washington DC, with the last spot in the Final Four going to the winner. This game was back and forth the entire way and it was only fitting that the game came down to free throws! Duke held a 3 point lead with 1:33 left, Michigan State was amidst a 2+ minute scoring drought. A timeout by Coach Izzo led to a layup by Xavier Tillman. Then with 39 seconds left, Kenny Goins splashed a wide open three to take the lead on an absolutely amazing play call. Duke had their chances but RJ bricked a three with 14 seconds left. Duke regained possession, RJ got the ball and drove, refusing to pass to a cutting Zion, was fouled and had a chance to tie the game. He missed the first free throw, made the following free throw on accident and that was that. Sparty advanced to the Final Four after a 68-67 win. Cassius Winston leads Michigan State to the Final Four as a junior averaging 18.9 PPG and 7.6 APG on 46.7% shooting. Michigan State has battled injuries all season long and it’s so great to see how far they’ve come through all the adversity. Sparty!
Nex up, Virginia. A 33-3 record is simply incredible. Wins include: Wisconsin, Maryland, Florida State, VA Tech twice, and UNC. Sure they didn’t beat Duke but they didn’t need to in the long run and those losses helped them identify their weaknesses. UVA struggled with FSU in the ACC Semis in a game that was honestly reminiscent of the loss to UMBC a year ago. FSU got hot and never looked back, UVA was rattled, lost, and confused. Then the NCAA Tournament arrived and UVA was dealt with another 16 seed to play! The college basketball world watched in shock and awe as Gardner-Webb led Virginia at half 36-30. But UVA regrouped and dominated the 2nd half. Why? Last years loss to UMBC helped prepare this team for the toughest moments they’d have to deal with. They were there before, stuck in the mud against an inferior team in a win or go home scenario. They then defeated Oklahoma 63-51, beat Oregon 53-49, and played in one of the betters games this tournament. In the absurd final minutes of their game against Purdue, Ryan Cline had a chance to put Purdue up 4 but missed a free throw with 17 seconds left. Ty Jerome grabbed the rebound and was intentionally fouled with 5 seconds left. After making the first free throw, he missed the second on purpose, Mamadi Diakite tapped the ball out, Kihei Clark corralled it and fired a strike back to Diakite who threw up a rushed, awkward jumper over a 7 footer in Matt Haarms… and it was cash. Tie game and overtime was on the way. That was one of the greatest sequences I’ve ever seen in college basketball and I’ll remember it forever. UVA beat Purdue 80-75 in overtime and is Final Four bound just a year after they were on the wrong side of history. It’s hard to root against this team, a team that has embraced being the first 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed, taking it as motivation, using it as fire. UVA winning it all would be among the greatest redemption stories in sports.
Texas Tech is on their way to the Final Four for the first time in school history. Good on you Red Raiders. Chris Beard did an absurdly good job this season and deserves to be National Coach of the Year. Texas Tech lost 6 of its top 8 scorers from last season! That includes Zhaire Smith who was a first round pick and Keenan Evans an All-American. Last season's team made it to the Elite Eight for the first time ever where they fell to Villanova. Texas Tech proved why preseason polls are overrated as this team was unranked and picked to finish 7th in their conference. After a 6-0 start that featured wins over USC and Nebraska, Texas Tech found themselves ranked. They were #12 when they fell to Duke by 11 at Madison Square Garden. Conference play was interesting as Tech went 14-4 with losses to Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, and Iowa State. Like MSU, three of those losses were apart of a losing streak, this one in January and against Iowa State, Baylor and K-State. I love that the Red Raiders avenged all these losses. They slipped up in the conference tournament by losing to West Virginia, nobody knows why or how WVU played the way they did in the Big12 tournament but they were trying to steal a bid and nearly did. In the West region, Tech beat Northern Kentucky 72-57, Buffalo 78-58, Michigan 63-44, and Gonzaga 75-69. That defense is simply NUTS! NKU, Buffalo, and Michigan were held to their lowest point totals of the season. Do you know how impressive that is to do in a win or go home game? Texas Tech absolutely suffocated those schools en route to the Elite Eight and they were unreal against Zaga. Tech gave Rui Hachimura, Zach Norvell Jr., and Josh Perkins a ton of trouble and if Texas Tech wants to take out Michigan State they’ll need to contain Winston and limit Matt McQuaid. Should be an outstanding game.
Lastly is Auburn who could very well be the hottest team in the nation but we’ll start at the beginning of their story. A dominant win over Washington impressed us all and then they defeated Xavier and Arizona in Maui with a loss to Duke sandwiched in between. The game vs Duke was very interesting as Auburn lost 78-72, shot 36.4% from the field and only shot 9 free throws to Dukes’ 34 attempts. To even be in that game is impressive. Conference play got off to a shaky start as they got thrashed by Ole Miss, then fell to Kentucky, South Carolina, and Mississippi State, back to back to back. A 3-4 start in conference play and Auburn found themselves unranked and fighting for their seeding everyday. A 80-53 loss to Kentucky woke this Auburn team up. Everything is earned and not given and the message was clear... work harder. Bruce Pearl fired his team up and they have not lost since that embarrassing showing to Kentucky on February 23rd. They rattled off four straight going into the SEC Tournament and then won four more games in four days as they beat Mizzou, South Carolina, Florida, and demolished Tennessee. Things started off crazy as New Mexico State had a chance to knock Auburn out, shooting three free throws with 1 second left and down 2, Terrell Brown made the first and then happily for War Eagle they missed the next two. Trevelin Queen missed a three as time expired and Auburn was moving on to the Round of 32 after a narrow 78-77 win. They throttled Kansas 89-75 then raced past UNC, 97-80. 11 straight wins and a matchup with Kentucky in the Elite Eight. The school that last beat Auburn was the only thing standing in the Tigers way. Auburn trailed 35-30 at half, a half that Kentucky led from start to finish. Many counted Auburn out after a 17-7 start. But with an easy, 10-2 run to start the 2nd half, they were up 3. The teams went back and forth, punch for punch, a heavyweight battle that was tied with under 2 minutes to play. PJ Washington went out and got UK the lead with 57 seconds left but Jared Harper answered exactly 20 seconds later with a layup. Horace Spencer rejected a PJ shot with 11 seconds left and helped Auburn reach overtime. Auburn climbed up 7 in overtime and never looked back as Jared Harper and Bryce Brown combined for 50 on 15-30 shooting and 5-13 from 3. Impressive guard play. Auburn is scorching hot going into the Final Four and oh boy this team has been fun to watch. Well done Tigers, as Auburn advances to their first ever Final Four.
I honestly can’t wait to watch this Final Four. It’s a very unique finish to the tourney with two powerhouses year in and year out and two teams reaching the biggest stage in the spot for the very first time. Michigan State gets Texas Tech. Virginia faces Auburn. I’m taking Michigan State to beat Virginia in the National Championship, 67-62. Who do you have winning?