It took the Elite Eight to bring a little madness to March.
Now, April arrives with four teams heading to Minneapolis, including two first-time Final Four participants, a lone remaining No. 1 seed, and just one team that has won a national championship.
For all the chalk talk and seemingly invincible favorites, this Final Four wound up featuring a 3-seed that was picked to finish seventh in its conference and a 5-seed that struggled through a 5-7 stretch in January and February.
Duke, Virginia and Gonzaga spent most of the season trading the top three spots in most advanced analytics evaluations of college basketball. Those three were joined as No. 1 seeds by North Carolina, which beat Duke twice and finished the regular season with seven straight wins. That foursome comprised the only teams given double-digit percentage chances of winning it all.
Now, only Virginia remains — and the Cavaliers almost joined the other No. 1’s at home.
The Cavaliers’ Final Four opponent, Auburn, ran away from North Carolina in the Sweet 16 and then outdueled second-seeded Kentucky in the Elite Eight (the Tigers had already dispatched another blue blood, Kansas, in the round of 32). The Tigers’ Sunday win was even more impressive given that they were without their best player, 6-foot-8 sophomore Chuma Okeke, who was injured against North Carolina.
But the Tigers, who were ranked as high as seventh in December, tumbled out of the Top 25 after a 27-point loss to Kentucky in February.
Like Auburn, Texas Tech also advanced to its first Final Four. The Red Raiders did it with a second-half defensive effort that stifled Gonzaga’s high-powered offense — the Zags scored just three points during a 6½-minute stretch.
Texas Tech coach Chris Beard, who spent a few minutes at UNLV before being lured home by the Red Raiders, lost most of his 2018 Elite Eight team to graduation. No one saw a Big 12 regular season title looming.
Duke played with fire, surviving final-minute upset bids by UCF and Virginia Tech in the first two rounds. The Blue Devils were not so lucky against Michigan State.
The Spartans advanced to their seventh Final Four under head coach Tom Izzo by playing tougher and smarter than the more athletic Blue Devils. Izzo’s team won the 2000 national title.
Virginia made it to the national semifinals for the first time in 35 years and arguably removed the title “best coach to never make a Final Four” from Tony Bennett’s resume.
Facing Purdue and guard Carsen Edwards, the MVP of the tournament’s first three rounds, the Cavaliers needed a last-second shot from Mamadi Diakite to force overtime. Virginia outlasted Purdue in the extra period for an 80-75 win and covering as 4.5-point favorites.
Edwards scored 42 points and had 10 3-pointers for the Boilermakers who shot 56.5 percent from the floor. But the Cavaliers got some much-needed offense when their leading scorer broke out of a tournament-long slump.
It looked like more of the same for Kyle Guy during the first half on Saturday. The 6-foot-2 junior, who managed just 22 points and was 3-for-26 from deep in wins over Gardner-Webb, Oklahoma and Oregon, missed his first three 3-point attempts.
But you know what they say about shooters.
“It’s just understood, he’s going to keep shooting,” forward Braxton Key said. “That’s what shooters do. We would just try to keep his head up. But even when he wasn’t making shots — even when he wasn’t making shots in practice — his head doesn’t really get down. He is that confident.”
Guy’s first long-range attempt in the second half, gave Virginia its first lead. He finished with five 3’s and 25 points.
Auburn hit 30 3-pointers in beating Kansas and North Carolina. Virginia is one of the best teams in the nation at defending the arc, but the Tigers beat Kentucky despite making just 7 of 23 attempts from deep, while Okeke, who was diagnosed on Saturday with an ACL tear, watched the biggest win in Auburn basketball history from a wheelchair behind the bench.
Against Virginia, the Tigers, who allowed Kentucky to shoot 55 percent from 2-point range, will have to do a better job on the inside against the 6-foot-9 Diakite, 6-10 Jack Salt and 6-7 sophomore De’Andre Hunter. The Cavaliers had a 42.5 percent offensive rebound rate against Purdue.
In the West Region, Texas Tech won two showdowns, besting Gonzaga and its No. 1 offense after beating Michigan and its No. 2 defense, something Michigan State did three times this season.
Texas Tech’s defense has been elite all season. The other side of the court has taken more work.
When the Red Raiders lost 79-63 at Kansas on Feb. 2, they had the 99th-ranked offense, according to KenPom.com. Since then they’ve won 13 of 14 and are now No. 30 on offense.
While there are a few highly recruited young stars — Virginia’s Hunter, Texas Tech sophomore Jarrett Culver, Michigan State freshman Aaron Henry — these Final Four teams are powered by upperclassmen.
Spartans point guard Cassius Winston, No. 4 on KenPom’s player of the year list, is a junior. Senior starter Kenny Goins was originally a walk-on. Texas guard Matt Mooney, who played at Air Force and South Dakota before arriving in Lubbock, and 6-10 rim protector Tariq Owens are seniors. Auburn will start five upperclassmen against Virginia and juniors Guy and Diakite.
While that’s not necessarily an indictment of Duke and Kentucky, who’ve won national titles with freshmen-led teams, experience has ruled for this year’s final quartet.
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