The repeated phrase during the first round and Selection Sunday has always been, “the road to the final four begins”. The goal of each team that gets into the tournament is to stamp their ticket to Minneapolis which is the site of the final four this year. Teams have to play their best basketball and hope for a bit of luck. Here is how the remaining four teams have managed to get to this point:
South Region: 1 Virginia
Talk about quite the turnaround. Tony Bennett and Virginia quickly went from losing to a 16 seed to appearing in a final four-the school’s first since 1984. Tony Bennett has been the man at Virginia since 2009, but has only had one elite 8 appearance to show for it, and after losing to a sixteen seed the criticism grew of his throwback style of play which relied on hard nosed defense and slow paced offense but he finally has the monkey off his back leading UVA to a final four berth after a classic showdown with Purdue in the elite 8. The stigma surrounding Bennett and Virginia for much of his tenure was that they are great in the regular season but flounder when March rolls around, which only catapulted with their loss to a 16 seed. They now find themselves in the final four and favored by Vegas to win it all. If you were to ask someone who they would pick as the remaining one seed in the tournament if only made the final four, Virginia would almost certainly be their last choice which makes this all the more spectacular. Enough of the underdog talk though, Virginia is a special team and has been a one seed in four of the last six tournaments. They hold the best defense in the country while having stars Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter running the show on offense. The road to the final four was a tricky one. They were challenged from the jump with another 16 seed in Gardner-Webb leading at the half, a close one with Oregon and needing a miracle to get to the final four over Purdue. The Cavaliers will look to complete the deal with a title win and write off the constant whispers of UMBC.
East Region: 2 Michigan State
This may be Tom Izzo’s best coaching job to get to this point with how badly the Spartans were hit with the injury bug. The team was without Nick Ward for five games and being banged up for much of the time, and will finish their season without both Joshua Langford and Kyle Ahrens. The expectations weren’t high for the squad after losing two lottery picks in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. but they would go on to win the Big Ten regular season and tournament title and are now in the final four. Michigan State has been led by their crafty, star guard Cassius Winston who runs the show and won Big Ten player of the year and earned most outstanding player of the region. The Michigan State offense is predicated on beautiful ball movement and off ball screens to set up their guys and make it easy on Winston, but he is undoubtedly the orchestrator. Winston has the ball in his hands for most of the time, but always makes the right play with a crafty finish or finding an open shooter. Up until the Duke game, the Spartans have for the most part had an easy time getting through the tournament. Bradley challenged in the first half but MSU pulled away in the second half while LSU and Minnesota never truly challenged. Duke’s talent provided a tremendous challenge but Izzo truly outcoached Coach K. The win felt good for Izzo who had been 1-11 against Coach K’s Bluedevils, but a late Goins three put the Spartans up two and a Barrett missed FT stamped their ticket an eighth final four in the Izzo era. Aside from Virginia, Michigan State seems to be the clear second favorite and could seal Izzo’s title as Mr. March.
MIdwest Region: 5 Auburn
The most shocking of the final four teams has to be Auburn. The Tigers have had to take down three blue bloods on their way to a final four blowing out Kansas then North Carolina but needed overtime to win a close one over Kentucky. Auburn finished the regular season 26-9 with only four of their losses coming to unranked teams and would then go on to make an improbable run to win the SEC tournament with a win over Tennessee with top teams LSU and Kentucky being knocked out early. Auburn is led by the phrenetic guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown and the team has fully embraced the NBA style of play. Small, but ever so quick guard Harper runs the show with smart decisions and penetration that gets open looks to Bryce Brown who can get hot in a hurry from beyond the arc. They will miss Chuma Okeke and can get overpowered by bigs but gave Kentucky fits all game, and stood up well against the frontcourt of PJ Washington and Reid Travis. The Tigers rely on big time shot making from three to stand a chance and have stayed hot throughout the tournament to steam roll both Kansas and North Carolina while doing enough to get by Calipari and the wildcats. The Tigers have averaged 12 threes a game and will need to do more of the same to win the title as a five seed.
West region: 3 Texas Tech
Much like Auburn, Texas Tech was far from a favorite as they completely locked down 2 seed Michigan while fighting off a Gonzaga comeback in the final seconds. Journeyman head coach Chris Beard has won coach of the year for back to back seasons but this year secured a spot in the final four after getting beat by Villanova a year ago in the Elite 8. The Texas Tech final four berth is the first in school history riding the back of an outstanding defense which has suffocated teams to this point in the tournament. They have holding the teams they played in the first three rounds to 53 PPG. No one gave the Red Raiders a chance against the best offense in the country in Gonzaga but they they pulled it off. The team’s star is undoubtedly Jarrett Culver but his supporting cast is good, with Matt Mooney playing well in the first half with Moretti helping seal the deal with two huge threes and Owens anchoring the incredible man defense that the play. They will be up against another offensive juggernaut in Michigan State and Cassius Winston but should be up for the challenge.