In just two days, Virginia and Auburn will play for a spot in Monday’s national championship game, with Michigan State and Texas Tech squaring off right after to see who will face the winner. But who’s going to come out on top in the 2019 Final Four in Minneapolis? Will Virginia reach its first title game, or will the Tigers keep up their incredible NCAA tournament run? Will the Spartans ride the momentum of their win over Duke, or will the Red Raiders’ No. 1 defense prevail?
We asked our writers to make their pick for each game, as well as explaining their decision, reflecting on what could go wrong and naming an under-the-radar x-factor that will be key to the result. Virginia-Auburn is below, while Michigan State-Texas Tech is further down.
Why I’m Picking Auburn: The Cavaliers are favored with good reason, but I think the Tigers’ ability to space the floor, shoot at a high clip, and play with speed could be the right ingredients for an upset.
If I’m Wrong, It’s Because…Virginia makes Auburn play its type of game rooted in long halfcourt possessions, and the Hoos are able to match the Tigers’ every three.
X-Factor: J’Von McCormick. Auburn’s backup point guard, generously listed at 6-feet, has taken on a larger role during the team’s 12-game winning streak and was an underrated part of why the Tigers were able to take it to Carolina. He can drive, shoot, and shed defenders and will keep Auburn’s backcourt strong if Jared Harper and Bryce Brown need any time on the bench.
Why I’m Picking Virginia: Virginia forces teams into long possessions on both ends of the floor. Many teams can deal with it for 20 minutes, some can deal with it for 30, but few can deal with it for 40. This version of Virginia has shooters all over the floor, including one who can take over a game in Kyle Guy. Chuma Okeke’s absence adds a degree of difficulty Auburn doesn’t need. It all adds up to a Virginia win.
If I’m Wrong, It’s Because…Guy burns himself out chasing around Bryce Brown on defense, leading to one of his worst shooting performances of the season.
X-Factor: De’Andre Hunter is going to pull his defender out to the perimeter, softening an Auburn frontline that is already without Okeke. We could see an outsized scoring effort from Mamadi Diakite and/or Jack Salt.
Why I’m Picking Virginia: Auburn’s ball pressure shouldn’t faze Virginia’s experienced backcourt, and I expect Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy to take care of the ball and dictate the tempo of this game. Both players can handle themselves, and if they’re hitting from outside and limiting turnovers, this should be their game to lose.
If I’m Wrong, It’s Because…This turns into a track meet. Auburn’s ball pressure and athletic, deep frontline could cause real problems. A halfcourt game favors Virginia, but it’s not guaranteed that’s what we’ll get.
X-Factor: Kihei Clark is the weak link in the Virginia backcourt and is going to have to stay composed, lest he be eaten alive by Jared Harper. If he hands in quality minutes, Virginia will be okay. If he can’t stay on the floor, this will get tricky fast, and potentially early in the game.
Why I’m Picking Virginia: If the Cavaliers hadn’t just withstood a three-point barrage to get past Purdue, I might like Auburn’s chances of catching the only No. 1 seed remaining by surprise. But Carsen Edwards’s legendary night forced Tony Bennett to empty his clip of defensive strategies to slow down hot shooters on the perimeter: pestering them with Kihei Clark, sticking future NBAer De’Andre Hunter on them, having a big man hedge every screen. With a full six days to prepare for the Tigers’ gunners, UVA will have a plan, a backup plan and a backup to the backup plan on the defensive end.
If I’m Wrong, It’s Because…Kyle Guy comes out cold. His 25-point effort in the overtime win over Purdue more than doubled his point total over the first three games of the tournament, and he hadn’t shot better than 30% from the field since the Cavaliers’ ACC tournament quarterfinal win over NC State. He needs to set the tone early in Minneapolis.
X-Factor: Mamadi Diakite. This may be a tough game for center Jack Salt, given the quickness and versatility of Auburn’s big men, so I expect Diakite’s late-season surge in importance to continue. His instincts have noticeably improved from his first two seasons, and if he stays out of foul trouble, he can dissuade the Tigers from taking the fight inside.
Why I’m Picking Virginia: Without Chuma Okeke on the floor, it’s not going to be as easy for Auburn to play against Virginia’s Pack Line. Jared Harper and Bryce Brown have shown us that they can go to work for the Tigers, but Okeke was one of their most versatile assets. When you’re going against a team that can do anything from hold you to 50 points (unlikely against this fast-paced squad, but you get the point) to drop 80 of their own and features a trio like De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, you need every weapon you’ve got to win. Add in that Mamadi Diakite is finally emerging at the big man that Virginia badly needed and it’ll be tough for the Tigers to keep up without Okeke.
If I’m Wrong, It’s Because…The turnover bug is back for Virginia. The Cavaliers have been pretty good about ball protection but there have been a few games where they’v been hit bad (see: an OT win against NC State in the regular season where they had 16 turnovers, 14 in their second loss to Duke) and it showed.
X-Factor: Auburn’s ability to force turnovers. With as few possessions as Virginia’s pace allows, if the Tigers can force a lot of turnovers it could turn the tide of this game. On the flip side, Auburn won’t have as many opportunities to push the pace with turnovers and transitions which is where they tend to find some extra points.
Why I’m Picking Virginia: Even 42 points from Carsen Edwards couldn’t knock off Virginia in the Elite Eight, and I’m skeptical Bryce Brown and Jared Harper will shoot well enough to race past the Cavaliers. The loss of Chuma Okeke may finally catch up to Auburn. The Tigers will be limited on the offensive glass. One year after losing to UMBC, expect Virginia to reach the national title game, with a chance to claim the school’s first national championship.
If I’m Wrong, It’s Because…Auburn forces a string of turnovers. The Tigers lead the NCAA in forced turnovers, feasting on mistakes to set up their transition attack. Virginia provides a direct antidote, deliberate and stingy with the ball. Auburn will need to swarm Virginia’s undersized guards, perhaps trapping in the backcourt if it needs an offensive jolt. Duke forced 13 turnovers in a February win over the Cavaliers. Auburn will need to pull off a similar feat to win on Saturday.
X-Factor: Auburn is 9–0 when Samir Doughty scores 10-plus points. The Philly native is making 42.6% of threes this season, joining Brown and Harper to form a sharpshooting backcourt trio. A few triples from Doughty will go a long way to sending Auburn through to the national title game.
Why I’m Picking Virginia: Because I’m convinced that this epic story of winning the championship a year after being the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed is going to happen.
If I’m Wrong, It’s Because…Auburn is red-hot from three, Virginia is ice cold from three or Virginia has major turnover issues.
X-Factor: Virginia has had some issues with turning the ball over this season. In its first round game against Gardner-Webb, the Hoos had 15 turnovers (23.8% of possessions), which was a big reason behind their slow start. Auburn has the highest defensive turnover percentage (24.9) in the country, and if the Tigers are getting easy buckets in transition, this could be a tricky battle for Virginia.
Why I’m Picking Auburn: Back in our Sweet 16 roundtable, I said the Tigers had the best chance of winning it all out of teams seeded No. 3 or lower—and I’m not backing off that now. Auburn then went out and showed the height of its power in a 17-point rout of North Carolina, a popular pre-tournament title game pick (including by yours truly), but its win over Kentucky might have been even more impressive, since it did it against a top-10 defense while shooting 30% from three. The Tigers are going to get looks from the outside against the Pack Line (the Cavaliers’ four tournament opponents have averaged 25.5 attempted threes), and the range and quick trigger of Bryce Brown combined with Jared Harper’s lightning-quick ability to beat defenders and kick the ball out could help stretch Tony Bennett’s defense beyond where it’s comfortable. Also, Auburn may play fast on offense, but its defensive possession length ranks 334th nationally, per kenpom. It won’t be fazed by Virginia’s methodical pace.
If I’m Wrong, It’s Because…Virginia’s shooting slump comes to a thunderous end. The Hoos have shot 30%, 29%, 27% and 33% from three this tournament, though Kyle Guy’s second half against Purdue certainly points to a potential breakout from him. If UVa has a big night from the outside, its defense should do plenty enough to have it playing for a title on Monday night.
X-Factor: Auburn center Austin Wiley. With Chuma Okeke out, Wiley could see more time inside as the Tigers look to limit Mamadi Diakite, who has had an excellent tournament, and Jack Salt. As great as the Cavaliers’ backcourt is, its frontcourt shouldn’t be overlooked, and if Wiley can step up defensively and on the boards it will be a huge lift for Auburn.
Why I’m Picking Texas Tech: I’m not picking against that defense right now. All four of the Red Raiders’ tourney opponents had their worst or second-worst offensive efficiency of the season; the Spartans just had one of their weakest of the year against Duke, who is not Texas Tech. Chris Beard has his team doing something special.
If I’m Wrong, It’s Because…Recency bias has blinded me to the fact that Texas Tech can be scored on (most recently by lowly West Virginia, in the Big 12 tournament) and the novelty of Chris Beard’s national coming-out party overshadowed the fact that Tom Izzo can coach a bit too.
X-Factor: Rim protection. During their respective conference schedules, both teams blocked opponents’ shots and avoided having their own shots blocked at their league’s best rate. It’s going to be strength vs. strength on both ends.
Why I’m Picking Michigan State: Look at Texas Tech’s last two wins. The Red Raiders beat an elite defensive team in Michigan in the Sweet 16, then took down an elite offensive team by knocking off Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. Michigan State, on the other hand, is well-rounded, equal parts offense and defense. Additionally, the offense is diverse, which is critical when going up against the best defense in the country. That balance will carry the Spartans through to the championship game.
If I’m Wrong, It’s Because…Jarrett Culver went all soon-to-be-top-five NBA draft pick on the Spartans.
X-Factor: Xavier Tillman has emerged over the last few weeks, averaging 15.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game in the tournament. With him alongside Nick Ward, the Spartans can dominate on the inside and use the Red Raiders’ preferred pace of play against them.
Why I’m Picking Michigan State: The Spartans are playing their best basketball at the perfect time and won’t be fazed at the prospect of a defensive-minded contest. They’ll aim to push the pace and pack the paint to slow down Jarrett Culver, and Cassius Winston will come through again when they need him. It’ll be tight, but MSU has earned my trust.
If I’m Wrong, It’s Because…Michigan State struggles to hit threes. The Spartans are tough enough up front, but they need good showings from Matt McQuaid, Henry and Gabe Brown to capitalize. It’s hard to waste open looks and survive against a team as defensively staunch as Texas Tech.
X-Factor: Aaron Henry. Henry will probably spend a lot of time on Culver, and will be needed to knock down open shots on the other end. If he plays like a freshman, the Spartans are in trouble, but at this point in the season, I don’t think the moment will be too big for him.
Why I’m Picking Texas Tech: The Red Raiders’ defense has passed a variety of tests this March, besting the nation’s most efficient offense (Gonzaga), one of the nation’s fastest offenses (Buffalo) and a methodical Big Ten mirror image of itself (Michigan). Michigan State won’t out-tough Texas Tech or shake its confidence with one of Cassius Winston’s patented one-man scoring runs.
If I’m Wrong, It’s Because…Matt McQuaid takes over, which I will concede is not a regular occurrence but feels more and more likely with each passing game. McQuaid eviscerated Michigan with 27 points (including seven made threes) in the Big Ten title game, and his posterization of Javin DeLaurier against Duke was one of the most impressive dunks of the tournament. The Spartans have plenty of other options, but if their sharpshooter’s presence can be felt all over the floor, Texas Tech would need to have one of their own backcourt regulars get hot to stay in range.
X-Factor: Norense Odiase. The undersized senior center got into foul trouble against Gonzaga, and while the Red Raiders trust their technique in those high-risk situations more than some other teams, Odiase needs to be an offensive rebounding force against a Spartans frontline that is not easily pushed around, as Zion Williamson and Duke learned.
Why I’m Picking Michigan State: Cassius Winston can seemingly will the Spartans to a win, but he’s not their only X-factor. Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry are finding their form at the right time and the trio could consistently score against Texas Tech’s insane defense. Michigan State can play decent defense of its own and is a great rebounding team with the toughness it will need to go against the Red Raiders. Add in Tom Izzo’s experience and it’s a winning formula.
If I’m Wrong, It’s Because…of Jarrett Culver. He’s the sparkplug to Texas Tech’s offense. Its defense can do it all, but without Culver, its offense can’t. If he goes off in a Carsen Edwards-esque performance, State could struggle to keep up.
X-Factor: Tom Izzo. His experience is unparalleled and he’s somehow gotten Michigan State through LSU and Duke, who arguably held talent and athleticism advantages over the Spartans. After both wins his players praised his preparation and game plan, which is what you need to win it all.
Why I’m Picking Texas Tech: Jarrett Culver is primed for a strong scoring night after struggling from the field in the West regional. The likely top-10 pick in June’s NBA draft poured in 20-plus points against Duke, Iowa State and Kansas in 2018–19. He should be in for another quality performance against the Spartans. Texas Tech’s NCAA-best defense will show up regardless of its opponent, and a few late buckets from Culver will vault the Red Raiders to the national final.
If I’m Wrong, It’s Because…Texas Tech’s secondary scorers struggle from the field. Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney both average over one three per game—led by 1.9 makes on 46.3% from Moretti—spacing the floor as Culver isolates atop the key. If the perimeter duo can’t convert from beyond the arc, Michigan State could pack the paint, sending multiple defenders at Culver on every possession. A crowded interior may end Texas Tech’s impressive season before Monday night.
X-Factor: Tariq Owens’s minutes. Texas Tech needs its backline anchor to avoid foul trouble and patrol the paint against Michigan State. The St. John’s transfer is averaging 2.4 blocks per game in 2018–19, serving as one of college hoops’ premier rim deterrents. But at 4.5 fouls per 40 minutes, a couple of early cheapies could leave the Red Raiders vulnerable in first half. Owens will need to embrace his verticality to stay on the floor against the Spartans.
Why I’m Picking Texas Tech: Chris Beard is a defensive mastermind, and his team just shut down the top offense in the country in Gonzaga. Giving Beard a week to prepare for this Final Four matchup against Michigan State is borderline unfair.
If I’m Wrong, It’s Because…A Cassius Winston takeover game. Culver is the best NBA prospect in this one, but Winston is the best player on the floor on Saturday. He had 20 points and 10 assists (versus just one turnover!) against Duke, and can easily replicate a similarly incredible performance here.
X-Factor: Texas Tech guards Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney need to make big shots. Jarrett Culver can’t do it all by himself on offense and expect to carry the Red Raiders into the title game. Michigan State has the second-best two-point defense in the country, so Texas Tech will likely need to rely more on its perimeter game in this one.
Why I’m Picking Texas Tech: The Red Raiders have a real argument that they’ve been the nation’s best team over the last couple months (a case backed up by the fact that analytics site T-rank literally has them No. 1 since Feb. 1). A significant improvement in their three-point shooting turned their offense around, and they’re now one of the most complete teams in the country, rivaling the balance of Michigan State itself. After limiting the nation’s most efficient offense in Gonzaga, Chris Beard’s team is battle tested for the Spartans’ O. This should be a close one, but the hunch here is that Texas Tech pulls it out.
If I’m Wrong, It’s Because…Foul trouble hurts the Red Raiders, who have a hard time scoring inside against Michigan State’s second-ranked two-point defense. The Spartans keep Tech’s shooters from catching fire outside and Jarrett Culver from taking over.
X-Factor: The battle of the paint. MSU might have the No. 2 two-point defense, but Texas Tech is right behind it at No. 3. Neither team is going to want to budge in the middle, but with so many talented big men in this game and the abilities of Cassius Winston and Jarrett Culver, it’s hard to picture this turning into a simple three-point shooting contest.