Warren’s Watchlist: Final Four face-offs to bring tournament to frenetic finale


Sam Warren

Warren’s Watchlist is a weekly predictions column written by senior Sports Editor Sam Warren on everything associated with the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball tournament throughout the month of March.

After the first two rounds of NCAA Tournament somehow caused the most exciting month in sports to become rather boring, the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight matchups made up for the prior games’ shortcomings and put the madness back in March Madness. In the South Region, Virginia, who historically lost in the first round last year as the top overall seed against No. 16 seed UMBC, came out on top, but had to scratch and claw for wins against the scrappy Oregon Ducks in the Elite Eight and fight off 42 points from Carsen Edwards in a barn-burning win over Purdue to send the Cavaliers to the Final Four.

While all No. 1 seeds made it to the Sweet Sixteen, Virginia was the only one to push on, as North Carolina lost to Midwest Region champ No. 5 Auburn in the third round and Gonzaga couldn’t pull out a win over West Region champ No. 3 Texas Tech in the Elite Eight. While those games may have surprised some, no game caught people more off guard than No. 2 Michigan State’s statement victory over top overall seed Duke, as the Blue Devils were the odds-on favorite to beat the Spartans and win the entire tournament. Instead, the Spartans played David, taking down Goliath 68-67 and sending them to their seventh Final Four since Y2K. While these past rounds have invigorated the formerly snooze-worthy tournament, the excitement is just beginning. With a new champion to be crowned this wild weekend, here’s the inside scoop for who will ultimately come out on top.

No. 5 Auburn vs. No. 1 Virginia

While many may have predicted Virginia to outlast the South Region, it wasn’t without adversity. The Cavaliers started their tournament with a rough first half against Gardner-Webb, arousing the possibility of another 16-seed upset before ultimately putting them away, then having incredibly close games against No. 12 Oregon and No. 3 Purdue before getting the Final Four. With regular season leading scorer Kyle Guy being incredibly inconsistent during the tournament, it has been Virginia’s defense that has earned them a one in four chance at the trophy, holding their opponents to under 58 points per game during the tournament.

Opposite the top seed is the No. 5 Auburn Tigers, fueled by the endless energy of head coach Bruce Pearl, who stunned everyone by making it out of the tough Midwest Region by upsetting No. 4 Kansas, No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Kentucky to make it to the Final Four. While their opponent may rely on unrelenting defense, the Tigers pose a significant threat on the offensive end, averaging over 85 points per game during the tournament. In their matchup against North Carolina, Auburn posted 97 points on the scoreboard, a Sweet Sixteen record, with six players reaching double digits in points as well. Unfortunately for the Tigers, during this statement win, they lost their stud, big man Chuma Okeke, to a torn ACL, removing him from the tournament. While the Tigers pulled out a win for Okeke in the next round, they did it with significantly less points, 77, and lower shooting percentages, 40 percent from the field and 30.4 percent from three compared to 54.5 percent and 45.9 percent against North Carolina. While the Tigers may have been streaking, the loss of Okeke is gut-wrenching, and with a match-up against the best defense in the country looming, look for Virginia’s “tenacious d” to end Auburn’s run as “The Pick of Destiny.”

No. 3 Texas Tech vs. No. 2 Michigan State

On the other side of the bracket, two giant killers will face off in another battle between a ferocious defense and a potent offense. Texas Tech, led by AP Coach of the Year Chris Beard, has been the stalwart of the tournament, letting up only 57 points per game to their opponents during March Madness so far. Included in that number is their 75-69 victory over top-seeded Gonzaga, who had the top scoring offense in all of college basketball, averaging 87.6 points per game during the regular season, and was held under 70 points by the Red Raiders for only the fourth time this season. On the offensive side, Texas Tech was led by projected lottery-pick Jarett Culver in points (18.5), rebounds (6.3) and assists (3.7) this season, with viable scoring threats Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney leading the back court as well. While the Red Raider offense is underwhelming in points, scoring just 63 points in their Sweet Sixteen win over No. 2 Michigan, their defense is a force to be reckoned with, striking fear into offensively dominated gameplans.

The Red Raiders will look to shut down formidable Michigan State attack, led by head coach Tom Izzo, who laid waste to many brackets after their win against Duke in the Elite Eight. Behind 20 points and 10 assists from leading scorer Cassius Winston, the Spartans managed to handle the three-headed monster of Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish to advance to the Final Four, holding off 20 point games from Williamson and Barrett to shut down the favorite’s title dreams. Winston, who averaged 18.9 points and 7.6 assists during the season, is the vocal leader of the squad, focusing greatly on the full team effort and not just individual success, prompting the team to lead college basketball in assists and have five double-digit scorers on the roster. Because of the Spartan’s momentus victory over the Blue Devils and ability to rely on a multitude of scorers, look for Sparty to pull out a gritty win over the Red Raiders.

National Championship Game: No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Virginia

In a battle of the titans, the face-off will once again feature top offense against a top defense. The Spartans, a top-50 scoring offense, will look to put up points on the Cavaliers’ No. 1 scoring defense in the nation. While the two teams heavily rely on different sides of the ball, their gameplans and rosters are actually very similar. Both rely on upperclassmen for the majority of their minutes and scoring. Both rosters are mostly made up of underrated national recruits, smaller names that only become popular when the lights shine brighter. Both teams have made the tournament since at least 2014. Finally, both play team basketball, not relying on one player as a spark plug or to produce all of their scoring or defense. With a relatively equal matchup, the game will most likely come down to who has the most momentum. For Virginia, they have squeaked into the Final Four, winning their last two matchups by five points and four points respectively. Meanwhile, the Spartans took out a hot team in LSU by 17 points in the Sweet Sixteen, then snuffed Duke’s Dream Team title hopes to make their final push. As a result, Sparty will party on, defeating the Cavaliers to win their first title since the year 2000.