Texas Tech v. Virginia (-1.5)
Tonight’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game will pit the highest-rated defense of the KenPom era against a program that has finished in the top 8 defensively in each of the last six years. Indeed, Texas Tech and Virginia are two programs who symbolize what college basketball means from a purist’s perspective: defense, character, coaching, and chemistry. While Texas Tech has steamrolled everything in its path on their journey to the season’s final contest, Virginia has more of the feel of a team destiny… if you simulate the Purdue AND Auburn game finishes 100 times, I’m not sure they win both of them more than once or twice. But, nonetheless, they are here, and they’re favored too.
With two teams that mirror each other in so many ways, it can be difficult to find an edge that elevates one team over another. It is a bit wild how similar these teams are. Each subscribe to philosophies on the defensive end that have been made famous by their respective runs through the tournament. We knew about Virginia’s packline; Texas Tech’s emphasis on “no-middle” is executed to perfection every night. Neither team wows you offensively, but both do enough to let their defensive domination speak for itself. Personnel-wise, too, it is shocking how interchangeable the two teams are. Ty Jerome and Matt Mooney are both heady point guards who can feel a game and do whatever it takes to win; both have been relied on in this tournament to provide extra scoring pop and both have delivered. Kyle Guy and Davide Moretti are both vintage shooting guards who don’t need a lot of time and room to feel comfortable. And while neither are high-level athletes, both have the functional athleticism to be non-liabilities within an elite team defense. DeAndre Hunter and Jarrett Culver are both fundamentally sound wings who found themselves with NBA bodies. Both are sophomores who have grown tremendously on both ends and should find themselves in the NBA draft. Mamadi Diakite and Tariq Owens are both in the top 25 nationally in Block Rate and protect the rim like it is their only child.
With such similar teams, I’m interested in what the market thinks. A brief search of the free sites that offer bet/ticket splits shows a consensus slight majority of bets and dollars on the Red Raiders. I’m leaning that way as well. I have a hard time understanding why Virginia is favored in this game; how many damn lives are they going to get? Virginia was the better team for a majority of the season, for sure, but there’s no denying that they’ve been dead in the water in back-to-back games while Chris Beard & co. just went through Beilein-Few-Izzo with relative ease. Texas Tech is playing better basketball right now and it’s not particularly close.
On the court, the matchup is fascinatingly uncomplicated. There is no great clash of styles creating a battle to dictate game flow and pace; both teams are essentially trying to do the same thing here. The ridiculously low total of 118 tells you everything you need to know about that. The first team to 65 will almost definitely win this game (if either even makes it that far). Both teams will struggle to score in the half-court, which puts a heavy emphasis on isolation scoring and 3-point shooting.
With two defenses that are this locked into the team concept, it can be better to be selfish than to share. I’m not sure Texas Tech has a more obvious advantage than the fact that Culver will be the best player on the floor and they might stand to start the game by throwing him the rock and saying “get us some buckets.” While DeAndre Hunter is an NBA player, I’m not sure he has that in him. I prefer his offensive game in the softer ACC than against a junkyard defense like he’ll be facing Monday night. He also doesn’t have nearly the same drive-and-kick ability that Culver has developed this season. Culver is more athletic and better with the ball in his hands, while Diakite presents a far less intimidating challenge at the rim than Owens does on the other end. If one of these guys is going to have a 20-5-5 type game, my money is on Culver.
Once the eventual slog implied by the low total becomes the reality of this game, 3-point shooting and general toughness take center stage. Both teams have shooters who can get hot, and I’m not a meteorologist out here… either could do so. With regard to toughness, though, I think Texas Tech has a MAJOR advantage. This is a team that Tom Izzo just admitted he got out-toughed by, and a team that has low-key embarrassed everyone its played to this point. They control the paint and control the feel of the game. While Tony Bennett’s style certainly has its merits, I have no clue how he and his team will respond to getting truly punched in the mouth. Like truly punched in the mouth: Tariq Owens just sent a shot into the 7th row, Kyle Guy looks a little bit concerned, you’re shooting 25% from 3 and no one knows where our next bucket is going to come from… what gear does Virginia kick it into at that point?
What I see is…
The blueprint for Texas Tech: Culver plays at least above his average, you get some shooting out of Moretti/Mooney and the bench guys, and Owens/Odiase do what they’ve been doing all tournament long in the paint.
The blueprint for Virginia: Hunter puts up at least 15 points, Guy shoots it better than he’s been shooting it, find a way to get to Texas Tech’s energy/toughness level, and Salt/Diakite/Key take ownership of the paint against Tech’s bigs.
Both these teams are great because of their extremely high floors. That is what happens when you play defense at such a high level. In this matchup, though, it seems to me that Virginia will need to access their ceiling in a lot more ways than Texas Tech does in order to win this game. Virginia needs to get more out of Hunter, needs to get more out of their bigs, and needs to match the intensity level of a team that is just about as intense as any team I can remember. That’s a lot to ask on this stage.
When the going gets tough, Texas Tech oddly seems to become more comfortable. Virginia, meanwhile, has choked away its last two games before being saved by one miracle and one whistle. The buck stops here. The total is 118… don’t overthink this one. Texas Tech is the tougher team and the team you will feel more palpably on the floor Monday night. In a close, low-scoring affair, Texas Tech finds a way to pull away midway through the 2nd half.