When the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend ended last Sunday, many grumbled that this year’s edition had been too predictable and drama-free.
Those complaints sure melted away in a hurry, didn’t they?
A dizzying, upset-laden Elite Eight has produced a Final Four hardly any prognosticators saw coming. There are no blue bloods. There’s only one No. 1 seed. Two of the teams left standing have never been to a Final Four and a third hasn’t made it in 35 years.
Virginia, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Auburn may not be a TV executive’s dream Final Four, but they are evenly matched. Three of the four are among the top five in the KenPom rankings and lone outsider Auburn has beaten three teams ranked ahead of it in the past few weeks.
Below is a case for and against each of the Final Four teams as potential national champions. As a reminder, Auburn will face Virginia in Saturday’s first national semifinal with Texas Tech and Michigan State meeting in the second one.
The case for Texas Tech
Have you seen teams try to score on the Red Raiders? Their top-rated defense held Michigan to 16 first-half points in the Sweet 16 and bottled up Gonzaga down the stretch in the Elite Eight. Disruptive, quick-handed Texas Tech guards force turnovers in bunches, while long-armed big men Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase block or alter shots at the rim. Smothering defense is Texas Tech’s trademark, but the Red Raiders can score too. An offense ranked outside the top 100 nationally entering February has now cracked the top 30 thanks to Jarrett Culver’s emergence and the development of his supporting cast.
The case against Texas Tech
While Texas Tech’s offense has improved, it still isn’t elite. The Red Raiders are only a decent 3-point shooting team, they turn it over a little too often and they don’t get a ton of free points at the foul line or via the offensive glass. Culver, a 6-foot-5 future NBA lottery pick, can get his own shot at any time, but he’s erratic from the perimeter. Besides Culver, only point guard Matt Mooney is capable of consistently creating for himself or others off the dribble.
The case for Virginia
Only one team in college basketball ranks in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency. That’s Virginia, the lone No. 1 seed still standing in the NCAA tournament and the new title favorite now that Duke has been eliminated. Virginia’s airtight pack-line defense is nearly as formidable as it has been in years past and its methodical, disciplined offense might be its strongest yet under Tony Bennett. Point guard Ty Jerome is a ball-screen wizard, Kyle Guy is among the best catch-and-shoot specialists in the country and versatile forward De’Andre Hunter can create his own shot in a multitude of ways. Virginia also limits turnovers and transition opportunities as well as any team in the nation, which could be crucial in its Final Four matchup against fast-paced, ball-hawking Auburn.
The case against Virginia
Virginia is the lone No. 1 seed left and the title favorite according to oddsmakers, which in some ways makes it harder to be confident in the Cavaliers. They haven’t exactly thrived in the role of favorite during NCAA tournaments past. Virginia avoided a UMBC-esque meltdown the past two weeks, but there were shaky moments. The Cavaliers trailed 16th-seeded Gardner-Webb by 14 in the first half, needed a late surge to survive 12th-seeded Oregon and then forced overtime on a brilliant but miraculous last-second play against third-seeded Purdue. The key to beating the pack-line defense is to either score before it’s set or loosen it up by shooting over the top of it. Auburn has the capability to do both those things.
The case for Auburn
If Jared Harper and Bryce Brown aren’t the best backcourt duo in college basketball, the Auburn tandem is certainly high on the list. They average more than 30 points per game combined and fuel a top-10 offense that thrives on fast-breaks and 3-pointers. In Sunday’s Elite Eight victory over Kentucky, they tallied a total of 50 points between them, Brown bombing away from the perimeter and Harper carving up the Wildcats off the dribble. Kentucky was the fourth elite team Auburn has beaten in the past three weeks, joining a list that includes North Carolina, Kansas and Tennessee.
The case against Auburn
While upsetting Kentucky without Chuma Okeke suggests Auburn is still a title threat, it’s fair to question whether the Tigers can sustain that level of play. What happens when the emotion of playing for an injured teammate wears off? Will the absence of Auburn’s best interior scorer and rebounder be too much to overcome? Auburn’s aggressive defense feeds into its offense’s transition prowess by forcing a higher percentage of turnovers per possession than any team in college basketball, but the Tigers are far from elite at that end. If you control tempo and take care of the ball against them — two things Final Four opponent Virginia does exceptionally well — you can score against them in the paint and beat them up on the offensive glass.
The case for Michigan State
Having swept the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles, throttled LSU in the Sweet 16 and outlasted overall No. 1 seed Duke in the Elite Eight, Michigan State has as strong a résumé as any team in Minneapolis. The Spartans are the only team besides Virginia in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. While Michigan State is deep, experienced and solid defensively, it’s point guard Cassius Winston that makes the Spartans special. The junior is the catalyst for Michigan State’s offense and tallied 20 points, 10 assists and just one turnover in his team’s upset victory over Duke on Sunday. Whereas the other coaches at the Final Four are all making their first appearance, this is Tom Izzo’s eighth trip. That can only help the Spartans as they prepare this week.
The case against Michigan State
History suggests you need NBA talent to win the national title, and Michigan State is lacking that. There are no surefire first-round picks on the roster, though there are a couple guys with a chance to play their way onto the NBA’s radar. An Achilles heel for Michigan State in most of its losses and even a few of its wins is turnovers. The Spartans commit too many and force too few, meaning opponents often have many more possessions than they do. That could be a big problem against a Texas Tech team that thrives on takeaways.
More from Yahoo Sports: