Final Four not what was projected

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And then there were four. Although not the four many expected, perhaps.

Duke and its fabulous freshman Zion Williamson are at home in Durham, N.C. This was not “Finally the year” for Gonzaga. Michigan did not have enough offense to go with its elite defense. Kentucky improved greatly after being embarrassed by the Blue Devils in the season opener but could not beat Auburn for a third time this season — ask North Carolina about the Tigers. And, for the first time since George W. Bush was president, Kansas did not win the Big 12 title.

Virginia is alive and the only No. 1 seed to make it to Minneapolis. Four wins in this tournament have surely made the Cavaliers’ four least-favorite letters, “UMBC,” a distant memory.

Tom Izzo and Michigan State are no strangers to Final Fours. The Spartans, strangely, couldn’t figure out a 16-loss Indiana team, but they’re 32-4 against everyone else on their schedule.

Auburn, a top-10 team in December slumped to 18-9 in February. The Tigers haven’t lost since.

Texas Tech, along with Iowa State, replaced the Jayhawks atop the Big 12 standings. Head coach Chris Beard managed the feat despite having to overhaul his lineup after last season’s run to the Elite Eight.

Two of these four will advance to Monday night’s title game and the chance to wield scissors. Here’s a breakdown of Saturday’s national semifinals:

Auburn vs. Virginia (-5, Total 131): The Cavaliers come into the first of the two semis as the nation’s No. 2 team on offense, No. 5 on defense and a 70 percent chance to advance to Monday’s national championship game, according to the numbers at KenPom.com.

In Saturday’s overtime win over third-seeded Purdue, most of that offense came from junior guards Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, who combined for 49 points and nine 3-pointers.

The Boilermakers, like Auburn, were a good, but not great, defensive team.

In their Sunday win — also in overtime — over Kentucky, the Tigers limited the Wildcats to 5-for-21 from long range. But Virginia is much better at shooting from deep (39.4 percent, eighth best in the country).

Auburn, which will once again be without 6-foot-8 forward Chuma Okeke, could struggle against Virginia’s size in 6-9 Mamadi Diakite and 6-10 reserve Jack Salt. The pair combined for 70 minutes and helped the Cavaliers to a 42.5 percent offensive rebound rate against Purdue. Salt had five offensive boards, and Diakite has four blocked shots.

Virginia’s Pack Line defense, devised by Dick Bennett (father of Cavaliers coach Tony), could invite the Tigers to fire away from deep (as if they need an invitation to shoot bombs), but the Cavaliers were the third-best team nationally in defending the 3 (opponents shot 28.7 percent).

Although they made just seven from long range in beating Kentucky, Auburn generally lives off the 3-point line. The Tigers attempt almost 50 percent of their field goals from beyond the arc and are No. 15 in the country with a 38.3 percent shooting percentage from deep.

Can Auburn coach Bruce Pearl find another emotional spark for his Tigers? Or, after last season’s ignominious first-round exit, is this Virginia’s year?

The pick: Virginia’s size advantage on the inside combined with its excellent 3-point defense should put an end to the Tigers’ magic. VIRGINIA

Texas Tech vs. Michigan State (-2.5, Total 133): If Michigan State is to be a tougher matchup for Texas Tech than Gonzaga was, it will be because of point guard Cassius Winston. The 6-foot-1 junior scored 20 points in the Spartans’ one-point win over Duke and has 27 assists in their four tournament wins.

Winston and the rest of the Spartans will have to limit their turnovers, an area in which they’ve been so-so this year.

The Zags were in the top 15 in turnover percentage, and they committed 16 against the Red Raiders. A few Bulldogs players called the Red Raiders “handsy” as they hustled everywhere on defense.

As 6-foot-10 Texas Tech senior Tariq Owens, a St. John’s graduate, put it after the win: “I mean, this whole locker room’s full of street dogs. Anytime there’s a loose ball, there’s not one person on this team who will not go get it.”

On offense, Texas Tech will need a more efficient game from star Jarrett Culver. Against Gonzaga, the sophomore swingman scored 19 points, but he made just 5 of 19 shots. Culver is 3-for-25 from deep in the Red Raiders’ past five losses.

The pick: Michigan State is a hard team to figure out. These Spartans, who have had injury problems (Nick Ward is not back to full strength), are not the most talented group coach Tom Izzo has had. What Texas Tech did to the more athletic Zags does not bode well for Michigan State.

On the other hand, Izzo’s team just knocked off Zion Williamson and Duke, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. Since being routed by Kansas in early February, Texas Tech is 12-2 against the spread; over the same time frame, the Spartans are a not-too-shabby 11-5. Tough call, but a slight lean to the Red Raiders. TEXAS TECH

Last week: 3-0

Season: 38-30-2 

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About the Author

Ched Whitney

Ched Whitney has been a journalist in Las Vegas since 1994. He worked for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for 18 years, where he was the paper’s art director for 12. Since becoming a freelancer in 2012, his work has appeared at ESPN.com, AOL, The Seattle Times and UNLV Magazine, among others. ​

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