(1) Virginia vs. (3) Texas Tech
Initial Thoughts: How many lives does Virginia have? After the Cavaliers appeared dead in the Elite Eight, they improbably battled back via one of the gutsiest plays in college hoops history and ultimately won in overtime. Seemingly unimpressed with their own Undertaker-like ability to resurrect themselves, the Hoos went even closer to the brink Saturday evening: down 61-57 with 17 seconds left, barely clinging to life, and even worse when down 62-60 with 1.5 left and a sideline inbound coming. But Kyle Guy’s late heroics (and Ty Jerome’s early shot-making) pushed Virginia into its first ever hoops national title game.
Important note: I’m not here to litigate the officiating, throughout the game or in the final 10 seconds – it just sucks that the game ended with fierce debate, rather than allowing the focus to be on the iron testicles that Guy showed with his three consecutive FT makes. What matters is that Virginia is now 40 minutes away from making the following stat 100% bulletproof: every team that’s lost to a 16 seed has won the national title the subsequent season. We wholeheartedly expect to see a rash of 1 seeds tanking their NCAA openers in the future, because that’s clearly an ironclad path to postseason success.
Virginia will meet Texas Tech, who survived a grinding defensive slugfest with Michigan State to continue the best season in the history of the program, topping the one from a whole one season ago. Chris Beard’s brilliant game-planning and the Red Raiders’ clutch shooting throughout the second half outlasted one of Tom Izzo’s best coaching jobs, and we are now guaranteed to see a school raise its first ever national championship trophy on Monday night.
Plenty of folks will make raise a racket about how this game is going to be a low-scoring brawl, and, well…they’re right, I’m sorry. The total is already down to 117.5 (I believe I read that it opened at 120, send hateful words to @3MW_CBB if I’m wrong), and both teams’ propensities to play half court games and muck things up with elite defenses could make this one a slog. For the discerning eye, though, there’s beauty in the slog, as Bennett and Beard will be playing an epic chess match with epic ramifications…
Virginia on Offense: The primary question with Tony Bennett’s offense in this one will be the mix of mover-blocker vs. continuity ball screen. As Matt noted, Virginia ran a ton of mover-blocker against Auburn, focused on wearing down the aggressive Tiger defenders with off-ball screening and motion. However, that hasn’t been the consistent Cavalier identity this year, as Bennett has recognized the strengths of his backcourt and often run more of a pick-and-roll-heavy offense, particularly when the matchup favors such a switch.
Ball screen action against Texas Tech’s defensive scheme is a fool’s errand, though. The Red Raiders deftly switch everything 1 through 5 (helped by Tariq Owens’s miraculous recovery from what initially appeared to be a gruesome knee/ankle injury), never missing a beat thanks to phenomenal communication and a deeply instilled understanding of the goals of Beard’s scheme (namely: take away the middle). Expect to see a steady dose of mover-blocker in this one, then, as the off ball action and pinching of gaps via curls will put more pressure on a Texas Tech team manically devoted to keeping the ball out of the paint. Bennett will also likely have a few wrinkles up his sleeve:
Whether Guy is on or not from the perimeter will have a profound effect on how Tech is forced to defend, because if he can hit a couple threes early, Beard may have to bend his scheme even more to Guy than he’d prefer. That could also open up the possibility of slips for Mamadi Diakite and Jack Salt when their defenders hedge hard to Guy’s curls near the elbow, often a highly beneficial effect of the system.
Additionally, because of how well Tech communicates and moves as a unit, it’s often almost easier to attack a specific matchup. To that end, DeAndre Hunter’s second-half emergence from a multiple game haze could prove massive. He’s a unique combination of skill and size, and while he doesn’t have an explosive first step by any means, he scores methodically and through contact. Scoring off isolation or post ups is a root canal in itself against Texas Tech, but Hunter has shown throughout the year that he can provide needed baskets when the rest of the offense stalls (see: OT against Purdue).
One other wrinkle to watch: Kihei Clark’s quickness has added a speed element to the otherwise-methodical UVA attack, and his ability to jet baseline and find cutters could be a difference-maker against a Tech team that doesn’t really have a one-for-one match for him, quickness-wise:
Texas Tech on Offense: If Chris Beard wants to keep it simple, he should just run the “have Matt Mooney go nuclear from deep” offense again, because it seemed to work in staking Tech to a 13-point lead midway through the second stanza on Saturday night. More realistically, though, the Red Raiders will need more from their own future lottery pick, as Jarrett Culver struggled mightily until the final three minutes.
Culver is a difficult cover thanks to his blend of length and driving ability, often able to score over guards and blow by bigger opponents with his potency off the bounce. Hunter likely draws that assignment, giving NBA scouts and college hoop fans alike a matchup to salivate over. Culver’s brand of scoring faces a steep challenge against Hunter and the UVA pack line, though. Virginia will wall off driving gaps, forcing Culver to choose between difficult pull-ups and simply kicking the ball out to shooters.
Although the Cavs do consistently challenge shots, Tony Bennett’s pack line can be vulnerable against prolific shooting performances. Mooney has been streaky this year, but if he’s on again, he and Davide Moretti could open things up more for drives from Culver and Brandone Francis:
Neither Moretti nor Mooney has the same kind of flashing neon green light that Bryce Brown and Jared Harper had for Auburn (few players in the entire country have that), but if left too open, they can torch the nets.
Key Factor(s): In the press conference following Texas Tech’s win, Beard spoke openly about how proud he was with his team’s toughness against the Spartans, as he had asked them to match the legendary physicality of Izzo’s teams. Izzo concurred in his own presser, mentioning how rarely his teams had been beaten in that department on such a large stage. Virginia, then, needs to match Texas Tech, which makes me wonder what kind of lineup choices Bennett will go with. He’s altered his rotation throughout the NCAA Tournament, sometimes going with far more Jack Salt (34 minutes against Purdue) or Braxton Key (21 minutes against Oklahoma). This one strikes me as a Salt type of battle, where his immense frame and fierce mentality can grind against the likes of Norense Odiase and Tariq Owens. Bear in mind, this is more of an intrinsic, “feel” kind of battle – Michigan State actually outrebounded the Red Raiders, but as both coaches will tell you, Texas Tech owned the paint. If that continues against UVA, Lubbock may be having Monday’s wildest party.
Also, from the “sometimes the obvious things are true” department: Virginia needs to make free throws. Tech’s one flaw defensively is a proclivity for fouling, and if UVA shoots like they did Saturday night (3/9 from the line before Guy’s massive game-enders), they may not be in range to pull off another shocker.
Final Predictions: From a narrative sense, this one boils down to Virginia as the “team of destiny” against Texas Tech’s steamrolling greatness. The spread opened at UVA -1.5, but Texas Tech money quickly came in, and it’s now sitting at UVA -1. Given the escapes Virginia has needed along with the Red Raiders’ steel curtain defense (it’s now the best-ranked unit in KenPom’s 18-year history), I would argue that Tech is playing better basketball right now, and seeing them as the Vegas underdog (for a fourth straight game…) sparks my interest.
In a basketball sense, I don’t have much of an appetite to bet against this Red Raider defense, either. Virginia has a few avenues to offense, but nothing comes easy against Beard’s bunch. I think we’re destined to get the slugfest that every casual fan will make fun of, and although the Hoos have had the magic edge in those situations, I’ll take Beard to reach the sport’s pinnacle. 60-54, Tech.