Final thoughts on the Final Four: Can Auburn win it all?
Four teams, 3 games, 1 national championship.
Did that give you some Final Four goosebumps? Ah, oh well. I tried.
Within a few short days, a new champion in college basketball will be crowned. There’s a 3 in 4 chance that it’ll be a first-time national champion. At the very least, the winner be a team who hasn’t won it all since 2000 (Michigan State).
So before you place your bets/try to sound smart in front of your friends, remember a few of these final thoughts ahead of the Final Four (or don’t):
The coaching experience thing makes me wonder
In case you haven’t heard, Tom Izzo is the only coach remaining who has been in a Final Four. The rest — Chris Beard, Tony Bennett and Bruce Pearl — are all first-timers. Well, sort of.
Beard went on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt and dropped this little nugget:
Chris Beard with just a next level quote on SVP tonight when asked about him going to his first Final Four compared to Tom Izzo's eighth.
"I've been to like 24 Final Fours, I was drinking draft beer in the lobbies….but I've been to the Final Four." pic.twitter.com/tpdIwjq2Mo
— Eric Kelly (@EricKellyTV) April 4, 2019
Here’s something to think about, though. In the 21st century, there have only been 2 coaches who won it all in their first trips to the Final Four. That was Bill Self with Kansas in 2008 and Kevin Ollie with UConn in 2014. During the 21st century, first-time Final Four coaches have a record of 2-9 in national championships against coaches who had been to at least 1 Final Four.
In other words, yeah, there’s a reason this subject keeps getting brought up. I’m sure it’ll be a constant topic of conversation throughout the weekend.
Obviously it’ll be a different story with a couple of first-timers in Pearl and Bennett. Both are in the same boat in terms of being extremely experienced coaches who are finally getting the opportunity on this stage. They’ve both had top-5 teams before, but their squads got to this point because they took their strengths — defense for Virginia and a high-powered offense for Auburn — to another level.
With a week to prepare, it’ll be interesting to see how each team looks out of the gate. And on the flip side, which first-timer can make the key adjustments on such a big stage with so much on the line?
The New Mexico State blunder looks like it served a key purpose for Auburn
The last 73 second of the Tigers’ first-round game was the stuff of legend. And not in a good way. They did everything in their power to lose that game, but they won. Somehow.
It still baffles me that this guy passed up the layup:
— Mitch Levy (@Mitch_Seattle) March 21, 2019
I wondered how Auburn was going to respond to that game. Between errant passes, offensive fouls, missed free throws, fouling jump shooters and fouling before trying to force a turnover, Pearl’s squad basically provided the blueprint for how not to close a game.
After the game, Pearl said the locker room looked like Auburn had lost. Like, the team wasn’t just counting its lucky stars to be alive. It was almost like that game gave Auburn a little taste of defeat, and it completely changed the tone of how to handle late-game situations.
Did that actually benefit the Tigers in the long run? It’s hard to argue with that. Auburn played loose in blowout wins against Kansas and UNC. And against Kentucky, Auburn had 58 points and was down 2 with 37 seconds left. Including overtime, the Tigers scored 19 points in the final 5 minutes and 37 seconds to clinch their first Final Four berth.
From the second half on, Auburn outscored UNC and Kentucky by a combined 26 points (that wasn’t necessary against Kansas with a 26-point halftime lead). In the final 2 minutes of regulation plus overtime in those 3 games, Auburn went a combined 14-for-16 from the free-throw line without a single turnover while forcing 4 turnovers, including 3 against Kentucky.
Those numbers would suggest that maybe Pearl did get himself the ultimate teachable moment in the first round.
Will we get reminders of there being just two freshmen starters in the entire Final Four?
A lot of people piled on Duke and Kentucky for losing in the Elite Eight because no 2 schools are more synonymous with the one-and-done era. The salt in the wound came when everyone realized that only 2 of the 20 starters in the Final Four are freshmen.
Auburn starts all juniors and seniors without the injured Chuma Okeke (a sophomore), while Virginia is 3 upperclassmen along with sophomore NBA talent De’Andre Hunter and 5-9 freshman Kihei Clark. Texas Tech starts 3 seniors and a couple sophomores, including their NBA talent Jarrett Culver while Michigan State is 3 upperclassmen, a sophomore and freshman Aaron Henry.
In case you forgot, Henry was the dude who caught Izzo’s wrath in the first round:
Tom Izzo goes after Aaron Henry pretty hard. pic.twitter.com/A4KUMT6XWa
— Jordan Heck (@JordanHeckFF) March 21, 2019
In the 3 games since that incident, Henry put up 11 points per game, which was nearly double his season average.
But I digress.
What’s interesting about this Final Four field is that it isn’t loaded with a bunch of NBA guys. Seventy percent of the starters are upperclassmen. There aren’t any one-and-dones, and each team prides itself on having these savvy veteran guards.
Does that mean guys like Cassius Winston and Jared Harper will make smart, well-executed plays down the stretch? Or will we see bad decisions made because no player in this field has been to a Final Four?
I don’t know. I hope it yields high-quality basketball and not just a few, drag-out defensive struggles that provides fuel for the anti-college, pro-NBA crowd.
Just give us all a repeat of the Elite Eight and we’ll be good, right?
What I think will be the key for Auburn
What the Tigers have shown especially lately is that they can win a variety of types of games. Again, they were sitting on 58 points with 40 seconds left against a Kentucky team that did what UNC and Kansas couldn’t. That is, slow Auburn down.
Obviously Virginia stands an even better chance at doing that with the top-ranked defense in America. And combined with their snail-like pace on offense, this probably won’t be a game in which Auburn gets into a track meet.
So what’s the key for Auburn? It’s the same thing that it’s been during this 12-game winning streak. Let the defense fuel the offense. That means turning long rebounds into transition buckets, and getting steals and deflections to speed up the tempo. That’s when Auburn is at its best.
During the tournament, Auburn forced an average of 15 turnovers per game with at least 14 in each contest. Against a Virginia team with experienced guards like Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, that won’t be easy. The Cavaliers are tied second in America in fewest turnovers per game (9.1).
But as any coach would say, forcing a bad shot is like forcing a turnover. There could be opportunities for Auburn to do that, even without an elite defender like Okeke.
So … who wins?
I’m on record saying I believe Auburn will beat Virginia. I’ll double down there because I feel like the Tigers don’t rely on inside scoring and they find creative ways to get shots off, which will bode well against a team as defensively sound as the Cavaliers.
And on the other side of the bracket, it’s awfully tempting to pick Texas Tech. The Red Raiders have been arguably the best team in the tournament so far. I could easily see them stymying Michigan State and moving on to their first national championship in program history.
But I think this game goes down to the wire and it takes something like Izzo dialing up the perfect set that results in a Matt McQuaid 3-pointer to give MSU the edge.
Is everybody on board for a Michigan State-Auburn national championship? Because I am.