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BC-BKC--NCAA-Final Four Reset

April 1, 2019
AP Basketball Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Final Four features tough defenses, a surging team that hasn’t lost in five weeks and one Hall of Fame coach.

Virginia, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Auburn earned their trips to Minneapolis for this weekend’s national semifinals by emerging from regions filled with high seeds. The Cavaliers are the last top seed, while the Spartans, Red Raiders and Tigers ousted the other No. 1s in the regional rounds.

Here’s a look at each team:

VIRGINIA

The Cavaliers were in the top six of the AP Top 25 all year while winning a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title.

WHY THEY’LL WIN

Their defense tests even the best offenses by clogging the paint to turn away penetration. And while running a clock-controlling offense, the Cavaliers are more efficient (123 points per 100 possessions, according to KenPom) with their limited possessions than ever under Tony Bennett.

Veterans like Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome (or Mamadi Diakite, judging by his overtime-forcing shot in the Elite Eight against Purdue) can hit tough shots for a team that finally has its Final Four breakthrough.

WHY THEY WON’T

If the Cavaliers struggle for stops, the pressure increases on an offense prone to droughts, even on the best of nights.

They hit just enough outside shots to survive Purdue’s Carsen Edwards scoring 42 points Saturday. But in Virginia’s loss to Florida State in the ACC Tournament, the Cavaliers went six second-half minutes without a basket and couldn’t catch up as the hot-shooting Seminoles took control.

MICHIGAN STATE

The Spartans, a No. 2 NCAA seed after winning the Big Ten Tournament, pushed past No. 1 overall seed Duke in a tense regional final.

WHY THEY’LL WIN

The Spartans have veteran confidence from winning 14 of 15 games and join Virginia in the top 10 of KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency rankings.

Big Ten player of the year Cassius Winston is a masterful floor leader (20 points, 10 assists against Duke), and is complemented by Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman (19 points against Duke) inside.

Michigan State also has the experience edge on the sideline, too. This is Hall of Famer Tom Izzo’s eighth Final Four compared to the other three coaches making their debuts.

WHY THEY WON’T

While the Spartans took care of the ball in the regionals, they ranked among the nation’s worst in turnover margin this season.

Michigan State isn’t particularly deep after several injuries, notably losing guard Joshua Langford (season-ending foot injury). And Ward has yet to crack double figures since returning from a five-game absence following a hand injury.

TEXAS TECH

The Red Raiders went from unranked in the preseason to reaching their first Final Four as a No. 3 seed.

WHY THEY’LL WIN

Simply: Defense and Jarrett Culver.

The Red Raiders, who have won 13 of 14, lead KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings (84.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). They were dominant against Northern Kentucky, Buffalo and Michigan in the tournament, then held top-seeded Gonzaga — KenPom’s No. 1 offense — in check.

Texas Tech is allowing 37 percent shooting while averaging nearly 17 points off turnovers in the tournament.

As for Culver, the 6-foot-6 sophomore and Big 12 player of the year is averaging 21.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in the tournament, exceeding his season averages.

WHY THEY WON’T

Defenses will focus on Culver, who carries a big load by taking 176 more shots and 93 more free throws than the next-closest teammates.

The Red Raiders also aren’t great on the boards. They’ve largely navigated around that problem after being outrebounded in nearly half their games (17 of 36), though the problem surfaced in five of six losses.

AUBURN

The Tigers have had a wild ride from seventh nationally in December to unranked and now surging to their first Final Four. They’ve also had significant off-court issues, including a federal corruption case that led to a guilty plea for former assistant Chuck Person and the suspension of assistant Ira Bowman amid allegations he was involved in a bribery scheme during his time at Penn.

WHY THEY’LL WIN

The fifth-seeded Tigers are playing with free-flowing confidence after 12 straight wins, including against Tennessee (twice), Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky. And they can bury 3s in bunches behind upperclassmen Bryce Brown (16.0 points) and Jared Harper (15.4).

The Tigers are at their best when harassing opponents into mistakes, taking a 33-14 edge in points off turnovers in two regional wins.

WHY THEY WON’T

They lean on 3-pointers, with the romps against Kansas and UNC coming on difficult-to-sustain efficiency (30 of 67, 44.8 percent) that could make them particularly vulnerable on an off night.

Auburn also took a big hit with the loss of sophomore Chuma Okeke (12 points, 6.8 rebounds) to a serious knee injury. Okeke provided a lift by sitting behind the team bench Sunday against Kentucky. His production will be difficult to replace.

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

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