Welcome to the Final Four. It has been an unbelievable season in college basketball and one perfectly summarized by its remaining contenders. The battle for the soul of the sport was on full display this year more than any other. Fortunately for us, not everything has changed. We still have upperclassmen guard play, we still have elite coaches, and we still have special groups of guys coming together to create special moments in March.
Cassius Winston is what it’s all about. Chris Beard is what it’s all about. Chuma Okeke getting hurt and his guys rallying around him is what it’s all about. Surviving and advancing is what it’s all about. The four teams in this Final Four are (for me, at least) what college basketball is all about. I couldn’t be more excited, and hope you will feel the same. What we lost in Zion dunks, we gained in programs that have legitimate identities. There are ZERO one-and-done prospects in this year’s Final Four, and really only two high-level NBA guys in Jarrett Culver and DeAndre Hunter. Culver was a consensus 3-star recruit and a hometown kid; he stayed home in Lubbock, worked his butt off, turned himself into a top-10 pick, and helped his team to a Final Four. Hunter was a top-100 recruit who could have gone pro last year. He stayed after UVA’s crushing upset against UMBC and now has a chance to finish what he started when he committed to Tony Bennett in the first place.
We have four outstanding coaches, four experienced point guards, and four programs who are all on the front lines of the battle against Duke, etc. over the definition of what college basketball should be. You won’t hear about guys “shutting it down to preserve their earnings potential.” You’re gonna see Matt McQuaid laying his body on the line for Spartan Nation. You’re gonna watch Tariq Owens block a shot and let out a scream that will have Red Raider fans all over America breaking things in their home. I’d put it at -400 that we see a coach cry. The contrast of Bruce Pearl’s emotion and Tony Bennett’s stoicism will be pointed out by Dads to sons across the country. The battle between Chris Beard and Tom Izzo to see who can make their face more red will be as highly contested as any matchup we’ve seen in recent sports history.
3. Texas Tech v. 2. Michigan State (-3)
Total — 132.5
Texas Tech has pretty much squashed everything in its path to this point, embarrassing teams on the defensive end and scoring at at least a high enough clip to do the same on the scoreboard. Michigan State, meanwhile, has had a far rockier road to this point. They have played in two close games, but also have what is arguably the best win of the tournament against Duke in last weekend’s Elite Eight.
I can’t stress enough how impressed I am with Texas Tech defensively. It’s just about the best defense I’ve ever seen, and the numbers agree — their 84.1 adjusted defensive rating is the best of any team since 2002 (and possibly beyond, as KenPom only goes back to 2002). Philosophically, they are incredibly sound both on the ball and off it. They lock up at the point of attack and are technically elite in help.
Before we get to stats, though, and complementary to how fundamentally strong they are, what I love most about this team is just the confidence and swagger that they play with on the defensive end. They get in their grill and they love it. They shut down everything you do and relish it. They block your shot and remind you that they did so. Texas Tech is flying all over the court defensively in this tournament and has the nastiness that you just love to see at this level. Chris Beard gets guys to buy in on the defensive end, and that investment is coming to full fruition on the biggest stage. The combination of length, quickness, toughness, and basketball IQ that this group has is the best in America.
This is a team that forced Michigan (5th in America in not turning the ball over) into 14 turnovers on 62 possessions (22% TOV) and Gonzaga into 16 turnovers on 71 possessions (23% TOV). They’ve forced turnovers at an elite level all season and just backed that up against two of America’s best offenses. Against Gonzaga, four different Red Raiders recorded a steal and five different players recorded a block. Turnovers are such a big factor in this game because Michigan State has had issues in that department this year. Despite recording just seven turnovers in each of their last two games, the Spartans are very susceptible to lapses. Texas Tech is 11th in KenPom in Defensive TOV % at 23%; meanwhile, Florida (17th — 22.4%) and Illinois (24th — 21.7%) are the only other teams Michigan State has faced that are in the top 30 in this statistic. The Spartans turned it over 24 times against Illinois and 16 times (on just 61 possessions) against Florida. Both those teams profile similarly to Texas Tech on the defensive end — long, high-intensity, aggressive, multiple-scheme, etc. Look at Chris Beard or Brad Underwood on the sideline and you know how their teams defend.
Scoring on Texas Tech won’t be easy, but neither is defending Cassius Winston, the best player in America. Winston is the heart and soul of Michigan State Basketball, a certified killer with the ball in his hands with an absolutely uncanny ability to control a game. He is one of the best pick-and-roll decision-makers I have ever seen at the college level and is battle-tested as a Spartan. He just put up a 10/1 AST/TO game against Duke and is playing this offense like a violin right now.
To say this team has gotten this far on the shoulders of Cassius Winston would be an understatement. That’s less of a slight to how good the rest of this team is than it is more of a nod to the greatness of Winston, but other guys will need to step up against a defense of this caliber. While he isn’t the only one doing the scoring, Michigan State’s bread and butter is just putting faith in Winston’s decision-making and letting him pick apart a defense off high ball-screens for 40 minutes. Putting all your eggs in one basket is extremely difficult against a good defense, and even more difficult against a team like Texas Tech that can be multiple in its schemes and achieve the same defensive ceiling in a variety of ways. They can go to their abstract zone or press looks to disrupt the rhythm of a Winston-centric offense, putting more of an emphasis on the rest of the Spartans. I am respectful of the enormous impact contributed by guys like Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins, but I fear their ability to contribute offensively when run off the 3-point line. This is a Texas Tech team that just held Michigan and Gonzaga to 8/45 3-point shooting combined and has the 9th best 3-point defense in America; time and room are not on the menu. The Spartans will likely need more than the mere six 3-pointers they against Duke.
Cassius is probably good for 20 in this spot, leaving Tom Izzo searching for probably 45-50 points between Ward, Tillman, McQuaid, Goins, and Henry. When you put it that way, that’s honestly a lot to ask against this Texas Tech defense that just held Michigan’s entire team to 44 points. It’s looking more and more likely to me that Cassius will have to go absolutely NUT offensively for the Spartans to get the win here. Definitely a possibility, though, and I honestly wouldn’t kill you if were willing to bet on that happening (and lay 3 points).
On the other end of the floor, who guards Jarrett Culver? Aaron Henry is a freshman, while Matt McQuaid is an elite senior defender who lacks the NBA size to really match up with Culver. Tom Izzo has a massive decision in front of him, as Culver can really go (I detailed his rise in an article last week). I don’t doubt that McQuaid will battle, I’m just not sure Culver will be bothered. Henry has the athletic profile, but does Izzo really trust him to guard this man in a Final Four game?
Michigan was the best defense that Texas Tech has faced all year, and they performed admirably. They scored over a point per possession despite only shooting 31% from 3… about as much as you can ask. They also only had six turnovers in that game. I expect more of the same here as Michigan State does not force turnovers. While they forced 17 turnovers against Duke, that was an aberration. They are the 11th worst team in America at turning over their opponents, doing so on just 15% of possessions. Texas Tech is 9-1 this season when it turns the ball over on less than 15% of its possessions.
Texas Tech is what it is offensively, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. They have a legit high-usage star in Culver, high-level shooters/ball movement guys in Moretti and Mooney, and above-the-rim finishers in Owens and Odiase. They also bring legit contribution off their bench. While this isn’t a team that will wow you in any one category offensively, they have quietly crept all the way up to 29th in KenPom offensive efficiency. They have scored over a point per possession in every game since January 22nd, and when the going gets tough in conference/postseason play, that’s certainly something to be proud of.
Davide Moretti is molten-hot right now from three. The dude literally just stabbed a flaming hot dagger into Gonzaga’s heart. He’s been doing that all year long as a 46% 3-point shooter which puts him in the top 25 in America. Mooney shoots it at 38% as well and they bring two guys off the bench who both shoot it at 40%+. Culver gets to play in space and is lethal attacking the cup; he can also drive-and-kick or drive-and-lob while playing downhill, evidenced by his 26.5% Assist Rate that is in the top 150 nationally.
Michigan State is an elite defensive team and it’d be a mistake to assume that Texas Tech is just going to walk their way into 70 points in this game. The Spartans have the 2nd-best two-point defense in America and lock in as a synchronized group. They protect the rim at will without fouling and refuse to be out-executed. This is a quintessential Tom Izzo team and embodies what comes to mind when you think about Michigan State Basketball: guard play, defense, NBA bodies, toughness, and Izzo.
However, I think the turnover advantage that Texas Tech has on both ends will lead to better rhythm and more control over the game. The Red Raiders should be able to force turnovers defensively, leading to easy buckets in transition. They should also be able to protect the basketball on offense and keep possessions on the right track.
Of course, there is also the matchup between Chris Beard and Tom Izzo. This is Izzo’s eighth freaking final four. The dude is a legend, and one of my favorites in the sport. Chris Beard, meanwhile, is building an NCAA tournament legacy of his own. It started with a first-round upset over Purdue while he had the Little Rock job, and his story continues with his first Final Four. I doubt the moment will be too big for him. While of course a slight coaching edge should go to Izzo based on experience alone, he has had a really good year. The Spartans have navigated injuries all year long, have had to navigate reintegrating Nick Ward while Xavier Tillman has blossomed in his absence, and have been fabulous in 2nd-half adjustments all year. This beauty was the first thing Izzo called coming out of the half against Duke:
While Beard’s lack of experience naturally makes him the coaching dog, other intangibles favor Texas Tech. Michigan State has legitimate depth issues to be concerned about here. Against Duke, Michigan State had Winston, McQuaid, Henry, and Goins all play 38+ minutes. Tillman and Ward mostly split minutes at the 5-spot. Is this really a game in which the April 5th version of Nick Ward can be on the floor for more than 10 minutes? I don’t think so, and I suspect the back of Izzo’s mind agrees with me. Texas Tech, meanwhile, goes legitimately three deep with Edwards, Francis, and Corpew.
There’s probably no program better suited in America to beat Duke than Michigan State. Michigan State toughness means something in this sport and it is one of the few programs left with a really strong identity. As much as America knows what Michigan State is, Michigan State knows what Michigan State is. It was a foregone conclusion that Matt McQuaid would do crazy things he’s never done before against that Duke team, and it makes perfect sense that a 5th-year former walk-on who had made four threes in his career prior to this year knocked down the biggest shot of the college basketball season. But as much as I believe all of that, facing a similarly hard-nosed Texas Tech has a much different feel to it. Having the perfect mental/emotional makeup to get an edge when it’s David v. Goliath doesn’t mean you have the same edge when it’s David v. David. Texas Tech has a chip on their shoulder and will be ready for a dogfight. Coach Beard relishes the underdog mentality and will have these guys going. It should be an unbelievable game.
In the end, I think Texas Tech’s defense and ability to protect the basketball are enough to cover and win this game. Cassius might even be good for 25 or 30, and I wouldn’t blink an eye if he does go off. I still don’t think the rest of Michigan State’s offense can put up the 40 other points that the 133-total suggests they’ll need to win this game. I have far more confidence in Texas Tech putting a 70-piece on the scoreboard than I do in Michigan State. The Red Raiders are the toughest and most energetic team in the tournament, and will prove it once again on Saturday night.