9:20 PM EST, CBS – Line: Virginia -1, Over/Under: 118
After three weeks of madness, it all comes down to one last game on Monday Night, as the Three Seed Texas Tech Red Raiders face off against the One Seed Virginia Cavaliers in the NCAA Tournament Final from U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The remarkable rise of Texas Tech (31-6, 14-4 in Big XII) continues on to the grandest of stages in College Basketball, with an opportunity to secure what would be the program’s first National Championship. In just his third season as Head Coach, Chris Beard has successfully rebuilt a formerly downtrodden program into a potential powerhouse. Let’s take a moment to reflect on the job that this guy has done in 2018-2019, shall we? After taking the Red Raiders to just their second NCAA Tournament appearance in eleven years, and not to mention picked to finish SEVENTH in their conference during the Preseason, all Beard & Co. did was end Kansas’ 14-year reign of dominance over the Big XII, earning the league’s Regular Season Title, en route to grabbing a Three Seed in the NCAA Tournament, and running through their competition like a buzz saw. Tech’s first three opponents, Northern Kentucky (72-57), Buffalo (78-58), and Michigan (63-44) were all handled with startling ease, before Gonzaga the top seed in the West Region, was laid low in a 75-69 victory. Relentless, dominant defense punched their ticket to their first ever Final Four, relegating the opposition to a scant 57.0 Points on 37.4% shooting from the field, including a mere 23.4% from beyond the arc, while permitting 11.5 Assists in comparison to forcing 15.0 Turnovers, 8.0 of which have been Steals, with 5.5 Blocks to boot. Of course, this should hardly come as a surprise, for the Raiders were one of the most staunch teams in the country on that end of the court, yielding 58.8 Points (3rd Overall) on a nation-leading 36.8% shooting from the floor (1st Overall), including 41.8% from inside the arc (2nd Overall) and 29.3% beyond it (9th Overall), while forcing 15.5 Turnovers (12th Overall), including 7.3 Steals (28th Overall) and 4.9 Blocks (7th Overall). Furthermore, their Overall Defensive Rating of 86.5 was tops in the country. Beard and his Staff haven’t built this group in the most conventional of ways, utilizing his international coaching experience in scouring the globe for talent. Sophomore Guard Davide Moretti (11.4 PTS, 49.8% FG, 45.8% 3FG, 2. REB, 2.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 17.0 PER) was imported from Bologna, Italy, while Senior Guard Brandone Francis (6.2 PTS, 36.1% FG, 32.8% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 9.0 PER) hails from the Dominican Republic. Fellow Senior Matt Mooney (11.3 PTS, 42.6% FG, 38.8% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.8 STL, 15.1 PER) is a two-time Transfer with previous stops at Air Force and South Dakota. And then there’s Big XII Player of the Year Jarrett Culver (18.6 PTS, 47.1% FG, 31.6% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.5 BLK, 25.5 PER), the unheralded Sophomore Guard who was also recently honored as a member of the NCAA Tournament’s All-Region Team. The common denominator is that with the exception of Francis, none of these players were Nationally Ranked Recruits, providing further proof that this Texas Tech has been built the old-fashioned way. So is it any wonder that Beard was awarded National Coach of the Year Honors last week?
When we last saw Texas Tech, they were securing their trip to this National Final on the strength of a convincing 61-51 victory over Second Seed Michigan State. As we mentioned earlier, the Red Raiders’ Defense continued to be their driving force, holding the Spartans to a miserable 31.9% shooting from the field, including a scant 8-of-23 from within the arc (34.8%) and 7-of-24 from beyond it (29.2%), with their opponent only able to climb back into the affair by getting to the Charity Stripe where they were 14-of-18 (77.8%). Furthermore, Beard’s charges completely halted their counterpart’s ball-movement, permitting only Six Assists on the night, while forcing them into Ten Turnovers, and holding practically even with them on the glass (30-32). Cassius Winston, who posted a virtuoso 20-point/10-assist performance in the Elite Eight against Duke, was pretty much a non-factor on Saturday Night, scoring a team-high Sixteen Points but did so on 4-of-16 shooting from the floor (25.0%), including 2-of-8 from downtown (25.0%), with more Turnovers (4) than Assists (2). On the flipside, the Big XII denizens proved that they can flex their muscles on the offensive end of the court when they need to, shooting 43.1% overall, including 9-of-23 from the perimeter (39.1%), despite a poor-shooting night from the aforementioned Culver, who managed just Ten Points on 3-of-12 shooting (25.0%), saddled with Foul Trouble. Fortunately, his teammates more than picked up the slack, particularly Mooney, who dropped a season-high Twenty-Two Points on 8-of-16 shooting (50.0%), including 4-of-8 from long-range (50.0%), with three of those treys coming in a crucial stretch midway through the Second Half in which Texas Tech extended their lead to Thirteen Points. Michigan State fought back and trimmed the deficit to just three inside of two minutes left to play, but ultimately went cold down the stretch.
Meanwhile, the Hollywood story is nearly complete, as Virginia (34-3, 16-2 in ACC) is just one win away from winning their first National Championship in school history. Their trek began in March of 2018, in which the Cavaliers unfortunately became the first No. One Seed in NCAA tournament History to fall in the First Round to a Sixteen Seed, getting utterly humiliated in a 20-point trouncing at the hands of Maryland-Baltimore County. From that very moment, it appears that Tony Bennett’s charges have been on a crusade with their proverbial Holy Grail being the National Title. That bitter disappointment has served as their fuel throughout the campaign, securing a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference Regular Season Title, their fourth in the last six years, alongside landing their second consecutive One Seed in the NCAA Tournament. With the pressure of that past defeat weighing heavily on them in their First Round meeting with Sixteen Seed Gardner-Webb, the Cavs overcame a disappointing First Half in which they trailed by as many as Fourteen Points to rally towards a comfortable 71-56 victory, followed by a 63-51 beating of Nine Seed Oklahoma that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would lead you to believe. However, the following weekend’s pair of games would be rather different, though the outcomes would remain the same. Red-hot Oregon provided a stiff challenge in a 53-49 defensive slugfest, while Three Seed Purdue very nearly eliminated them from the Dance altogether in an 80-75 affair that required Overtime to name a victor. Like their counterpart tonight, Virginia has ascended to this stage largely due to their play on the defensive end of the court. Unlike Texas Tech, who relies upon their size, length, and athleticism to oftentimes overwhelm their opposition, the Cavaliers employ a disciplined, pack-line Defense which builds upon challenging attempts without bringing outright pressure. On the season, no team in the country has allowed fewer points than these guys, relegating opponents to a mere 55.5 Points per Game (1st Overall) on 38.4% shooting from the field (5th Overall), including 45.5% from within the arc (23rd Overall) and 28.7% beyond it (4th Overall), while yielding just 8.8 Assists (6th Overall). Ironically, arguably their greatest ally has been their ability to absolutely control the pace in which the game is being played at, and when it comes to these guys, that pace is typically SLOW. Virginia averages the fewest Possessions per 40 Minutes, and it’s not even close (57.3), which obviously places a heavy emphasis on efficiency for both sides involved. With that said, few teams in the country are better equipped and more acquainted with playing in this manner than the Cavs, who are right at home when it comes to a tightly-contested 50-50 game, in which you’re only likely to get one look per possession. Of course, it also helps having a number of experienced players who are well-versed in this system, including Junior Guards Ty Jerome (13.5 PTS, 43.8% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.6 STL, 22.9 PER) and Kyle Guy (15.2 PTS, 44.6% FG, 42.5% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.7 STL, 20.4 PER), alongside Sophomore Wing De’Andre Hunter (14.9 PTS, 52.1% FG, 42.0% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 24.2 PER), who each bare the scars of that shocking upset to UMBC and have thus been integral parts of their run to redemption. Be that as it may, they haven’t been quite as effective in their first four games of the NCAA Tournament, allowing 57.8 Points on 42.1% shooting from the floor, including a disappointing 39.2% from downtown, though they’ve managed to own the glass (Plus-8.2 REB) and permit just 9.0 Assists.
When we last saw Virginia, they proved once again that their will to survive was greater than that of their opponent, as they once again came from behind to advance in the NCAA Tournament, earning a somewhat controversial 63-62 victory over Five Seed Auburn in Saturday’s National Semifinal. After establishing a 10-point lead midway through the Second Half, the Wahoos were overtaken by the Tigers, who stormed back and took a 4-point lead with less than five minutes to play. However, Bennett’s charges continued to shed that dreaded label as chokers, as Guy drilled a Three-Pointer to cut the deficit to one-point with 7.6 seconds left, snapping a nearly five-minute scoreless streak for the ACC denizens. The Cavaliers immediately sent their opponent to the Charity Stripe to savor what was left on the clock, and after Jared Harper made just one of his Free-Throws and the score 62-60 in favor of Auburn, there was still life left in Virginia. That’s when things got bizarre, folks… The SEC Tournament Champions had two fouls to give, and attempted to use both; the first was utilized on the aforementioned Jerome, who clearly appeared to have double-dribbled upon being fouled, the Referee called the Personal Foul, and the second with 1.5 seconds remaining as Guy quickly took an inbound in the corner to attempt a game-winning Three, only to fall short, though he was apparently bumped in the act of shooting by his defender. Now it has been debated at nauseam as to whether or not he was actually fouled, particularly given that defender went straight up with the shooter and neither his hands or arms made contact, but the contact from his body was apparently enough to draw the whistle, sending Virginia to the Charity Stripe for three crucial Free-Throws. Guy made all three of them, and that was all she wrote, folks. On the night, the Cavaliers shot 49.0% from the field, including 56.3% inside the arc and 7-of-19 from beyond it (36.8%), while dishing out Fifteen Assists in comparison to committing just Six Turnovers. By and large, they were able to stymie the Tigers’ explosive attack, limiting them to just 38.2% shooting overall, and a miserable 9-of-31 from downtown (29.0%). Jerome led the way with Twenty-One Points on 8-of-16 shooting (50.0%), including 4-of-9 from Three (44.4%), with Nine Rebounds and Six Assists, while Guy and Hunter combined for Twenty-Nine Points on a cumulative 12-of-22 shooting (54.5%), Eight Rebounds, and Six Assists.