By King Jemison
The NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four is set, and almost everybody’s bracket is busted.
Only 0.02 percent of brackets on the NCAA Tournament Challenge contest correctly predicted the Final Four of Michigan State, Texas Tech, Virginia and Auburn. Now, that’s way up from the 0.003 percent of brackets that had the perfect Final Four in 2017 and 2018, but each of those Final Fours included at least one team seeded seventh or lower: seven-seed South Carolina in 2017 and 11-seed Loyola-Chicago in 2018.
In fact, the last six Final Fours have included at least one team seeded seventh or lower. This year, all four teams were top-five seeds: Michigan State earned a two-seed in the East Region, Texas Tech was the three-seed in the West, Virginia was the one-seed in the South and Auburn was the five-seed in the Midwest.
And yet, despite the relative lack of Cinderella stories, this year’s Final Four seems incredibly improbable. The origins for this strange (but I would argue, awesome) Final Four lie in the unusual college basketball landscape of this 2018-19 season.
The college basketball middle class was very weak this year. This led to one of the chalkiest Sweet 16s of all time, as every single top-three seed advanced to the second weekend. That had only happened once before, in 2009. Auburn “upset” four-seed Kansas to reach the Sweet 16, but the Tigers were actually a betting favorite in that game. Oregon was the only double-digit seed in the second weekend, but the 12th-seeded Ducks were no Cinderella, as they started the season ranked No. 14 in the country. Suffice it to say, the best teams in the country advanced to the Sweet 16 with relatively few exceptions.
That’s not usually the case in the predictably unpredictable NCAA Tournament. March Madness always has its Cinderellas (like Loyola-Chicago) as well as it victims (like number-one overall seed Virginia losing to 16-seed UMBC last season). However, the slipper didn’t fit for those Cinderellas this year — the good teams were just too good.
While the college basketball middle class was weak, the upper class was strong and deep. As mentioned above, the top 12 teams according to Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir’s selection committee reached the Sweet 16. Muir deserves plenty of credit for accurately seeding this year’s field, but that chalkiness can largely be attributed to the fact that the college basketball top tier has been significantly better than their competition all season.
The best teams from the preseason largely remained the best teams all season. Fourteen of this year’s Sweet 16 were ranked in the AP preseason Top 25. Only the Lone Star State contingent of Houston and Texas Tech were not ranked in the preseason, and both of those teams very quickly entered the rankings after hot starts to the season. What’s more, nine members of the preseason AP Top 10 were still ranked in the Top 10 on Feb. 4. That level of consistency among the top teams is nearly unprecedented.
Plus, the teams in the elite tier of college basketball rarely lost to teams outside that elite tier. One-seed Duke lost five times in the regular season, four to fellow top-four seeds that reached the Sweet 16. One-seed Virginia lost only to Duke (twice) and Florida State, both of whom also made the second weekend. Two of one-seed Gonzaga’s three losses came to Sweet Sixteen participants in Tennessee and North Carolina. The best teams could beat up on one another, but they were largely untouchable for the rest of the field.
However, the difference between those top teams was not very significant at all. According to efficiency guru Ken Pomeroy, Virginia is the best team in the country and Auburn is ranked 11th. But those two teams are separated by just six points on a neutral court, and the Tigers are obviously capable of upsetting the Cavaliers after consecutive wins over Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky, the three winningest programs in college basketball history.
(Side note: Check Ken Pomeroy’s rankings before you fill out your bracket next year. The Top 14 teams according to KenPom.com all made the Sweet 16, and Virginia, Michigan State and Texas Tech are all ranked inside the top five at KenPom.)
This parity among the elite teams existed all season. Two-seed Tennessee beat one-seed Gonzaga and two-seed Kentucky twice but lost to three-seed LSU and Auburn. One-seed Duke beat Virginia twice and crushed Kentucky by 34 points but lost to fellow one-seeds North Carolina and Gonzaga. The college basketball landscape seemed topsy-turvy this season, but it was really just a product of the best teams trading blows back and forth while the rest of the nation just sat back and watched.
That brings me to my main point. Michigan State, Texas Tech, Virginia and Auburn sounds like a pretty uninspiring and unusual Final Four field. After all, they’ve combined for two total National Championships, both won by Michigan State. For reference, if Duke and Kentucky had won their Elite Eight games to advance to the Final Four, they would have brought the tally to 13 National Championships between the two of them.
But despite the absence of traditional powers, every member of this year’s Final Four is a fantastic program led by a fantastic coach, and they’ve been good all season.
Michigan State started the season ranked 10th in the country. Outside of a three-game losing streak in late January and early February, they largely remained in the top 10 all year and won the Big 10 regular-season and tournament titles.
Texas Tech started the season unranked, but they reached the top 10 by January and stayed there most of the year before winning a Big 12 regular-season championship.
Virginia started the season ranked fifth in the AP poll and were the definition of consistent, as the Cavaliers never fell out of the top 10 and won the ACC regular-season title.
Auburn is really the only exception on this list, as they were unranked for a large portion of the season and only caught fire in March. But the Tigers began the year ranked 11th nationally, and KenPom.com had them in the Top 20 all season. It took awhile for Auburn to play up to its potential, but once it did, the Tigers became unstoppable. They’re riding a 12-game winning streak heading into Minneapolis, the longest of the Final Four field.
This year’s Final Four doesn’t include any traditional blue-bloods like Kentucky, Duke or Kansas. It doesn’t feature the most recognizable face in college basketball this season: Duke’s Zion Williamson. It includes two programs that have never before reached a Final Four in Texas Tech and Auburn, and it features three first-time Final Four head coaches (everybody but Michigan State’s Tom Izzo). But it would be unfair to say that this year’s Final Four participants are anything but elite, at least in the 2018-19 season. And this unique combination of teams converging on Minneapolis should lead to some epic games.
Virginia and Auburn get the action started at 3:09 p.m. PST on Saturday. That matchup features a fascinating contrast of styles. Virginia likes to slow down the pace and rely on their stout defense and offensive efficiency. Auburn wants to speed the game up by creating turnovers and launching threes at will. Whichever team is able to dictate the pace will probably win the game. The Cavaliers have the best three-point defense in the country, and Auburn relies on the three-ball to keep them in games. Give me Virginia.
Michigan State and Texas Tech will follow at approximately 5:49 p.m. PST. Unlike the first game, these two teams are remarkably similar. Both play at a fairly slow pace, employing a blend of physical defense and methodical offense. Both have an All-American on the roster: do-it-all point guard Cassius Winston for Michigan State and two-way star guard Jarrett Culver for Texas Tech. Winston and Culver will each get it done for their team, but I like the way the Red Raiders are completely stifling every opponent with their top-ranked defense. Texas Tech edges out Michigan State in a game that comes down to the final minute.
A Virginia-Texas Tech National Championship game might not generate the same buzz as Duke-Kentucky, but the matchup is every bit as exciting. Virginia coach Tony Bennett and Texas Tech coach Chris Beard are the two best defensive minds in the game. It would be awesome to see them go clipboard-to-clipboard. The Cavaliers have the better overall roster, though, and they’ve been the best team in college basketball all season. I’m picking Virginia to win the National Championship a year after becoming the first one-seed to lose to a 16-seed in college basketball history. What a remarkable turnaround that would be, from UMBC to One Shining Moment.
Regardless, this year’s weird Final Four should be awesome. Each team has every chance to cut down the nets on Monday night. Whichever team does get to climb those ladders on the final night of the season will have prevailed in a unique and remarkable season of college basketball.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu