Ladies and gentlemen, grab your boulders.
"An obvious rock fight is about to occur," cracked one coach on Sunday morning when asked to preview Monday night's national title game. "These two teams, their full identity is their defense."
No. 1 Virginia and No. 3 Texas Tech play in the NCAA title game on Monday night with the winner delivering the school its first NCAA men's basketball championship. Both have similar DNA, as they prefer Saban-level defense, a deliberate pace on offense and care for the ball as if it's a cache of Amazon stock. While this won't be mistaken for the Showtime Lakers in pace and entertainment, the five coaches that Yahoo Sports anonymously polled on the game all expected it to be taut and close.
Here are the key strategic things to watch that will determine the winner, according to the coaches who've played and scouted them this season.
1. Will Virginia's De'Andre Hunter finally wake up?
Virginia's most talented player has nodded off for most of the NCAA tournament on the offensive end. A projected top-10 pick who has earned comparisons to Kawhi Leonard has averaged just 11.3 points in UVA's past four NCAA tournament games. He's shot 3-for-12 from 3-point range in those games and hasn't made a 3-pointer since he went 1-for-6 against Oregon in the Round of 16. Hunter hasn't played poorly necessarily as he's been valuable on defense, but he's just disappeared on offense for long stretches. Why? "He's a little bit in between positions for them," said an ACC assistant. "He's not quite a real 3-man. Especially in their system. I don't think he's entirely comfortable as a ball handler and decision maker for them."
After Hunter played 20 minutes and only managed four points and one rebound in the first half against Auburn, Virginia coach Tony Bennett ran the offense through him early in the second half to force-feed his involvement. Bennett does a good job getting Hunter isolated in the post, and it wouldn't be a surprise if Virginia attempted to do that earlier on Monday. Hunter hit all five of his second-half shots to finish with 14 points on 7-for-11 shooting. Another ACC assistant predicted that could carry over.
"I think it's Hunter, man," he said when asked the key for UVA. "He has to step up for those guys. It's better to evaluate him watching 10 games, as he has low turnover and always takes good shots. He's not going to pop the first time you see him." They'll need him to pop on Monday.
2. Will Texas Tech's Jarrett Culver play a full game?
Culver also woke up in the second half of the national semifinal, scoring seven points in the final three minutes after getting shut down much of the game. Culver is the Big 12 Player of the Year, a smooth wing who is expected to leave after his sophomore year and be a top-10 pick in the NBA draft. But he was middling for much of the game on Saturday until hitting a floater and the game's dagger 3-pointer in the final minutes. He finished 3-for-12 from the field with 10 points, well below his 18.6 average.
Coaches point to Culver as the key, as those who've have faced Virginia multiple times say it's a much better blueprint for a star like Culver to go off as opposed to counting on consistent and balanced excellence. That means Tech will need Culver to be an alpha.
"I'm not sure how much of a creator Culver is on his own, but that's what Virginia is susceptible to," said an ACC assistant. "They put you in a lot of late shot-clock situations, which means they're susceptible to great players like everyone is. The hardest thing is to defend a great player. The times we've beat them, it's because an individual went off and had a great game like Carsen Edwards for Purdue." Fifth-year senior Matt Mooney took that role against Michigan State, scoring 22 points and fueling the game's key second-half flurry with three 3-pointers.
3. What is the status of Texas Tech's Tariq Owens?
Owens is a springy 6-foot-10 redshirt senior who is a critical rim protector for the Red Raiders. He ranks No. 10 nationally in blocked-shot percentage, a remarkable 12.2 percent. Owens left the semifinal game with Michigan State in the second half on Saturday night after he came down hard on his right foot and his ankle appeared to bend in an unorthodox sideways position. He was helped off to the floor and limped all the way back to the locker room, which is located hundreds of yards from the floor. That injury came just over five minutes into the second half, and perhaps the biggest roar of that game came when he ran back to the bench about six game minutes later. He returned to the game and looked fine down the stretch.
Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said he expects him to play, but Owens wasn't available to the media on Sunday and was spotted in a walking boot. If he's available, will he maintain his elite quickness to the ball? It can't be overstated how important Owens is to Texas Tech defensively, as one coach explained that the Red Raiders' perimeter defenders aren't great athletes. But guards like Mooney defend well through the prism of what they're supposed to do — crowd and bully and pin guys to one side — because they have Owens as insurance.
"Owens is an elite-level shot blocker," one head coach who faced Texas Tech said. "If you have shooting bigs that can pull Owens away from the rim, that's key. Then he's not sitting there to send them back." In other words, a hobbled or missing Owens would compromise a lot of what Tech does defensively and be difficult to overcome.
4. What's the key for Texas Tech to win?
Spoiler alert: This will not a high-scoring game. Both teams rank in the top five in KenPom's defensive rankings. They both have efficient offenses, but they prefer a more meticulous pace. So made field goals are going to be at a premium. One head coach who faced Texas Tech this year said he feels like the game's key statistic will be the number of 3-pointers that Texas Tech can make. They shot 9-for-23 against Michigan State, which is 39.1 percent. He said Texas Tech should be able to win if they hit more than 10 3-pointers.
This isn't the most exciting aspect of the game, but multiple coaches pointed out that both teams are proficient in hitting contested jump shots late in the shot clock. One coach pointed to Ty Jerome's late floater against Auburn as an example. Virginia's Kyle Guy has hit plenty on this NCAA run as well.
"They have an ability to make difficult shots, which is important against a good defense,” said a coach.
The same can be said for Tech, which has enough proficient jump shooters with Matt Mooney, Jarrett Culver, Kyler Edwards and Davide Moretti to hit guarded shots late in the shot clock. If Tech can hit double-digit 3-pointers, expect a Red Raider victory.
5. What's the best prop bet?
I doubt that Vegas has this on the board. But the duration of the game projects to be quick, as the lengths of the offensive possessions combined with limited fouling will mean it's a safe bet the game unfolds in under two hours. For as vaunted as its defense is, Virginia ranks sixth in the country in fouls per game with only 14.2 on average. Texas Tech is No. 145 at 17.4. The game will likely be called loose, as officials are still haunted by the crew that hijacked the UNC-Gonzaga national title game two years ago. The refs have hopefully realized we're not tuning in to watch them, and they'll be sensitive to intruding into the game after all the controversy from the call on Auburn's Samir Doughty that allowed Kyle Guy and Virginia to come back and beat the Tigers on Saturday.
In the first half of the Auburn-UVA game, there were no stoppages in the final four minutes of the first half, which meant that CBS couldn't go to the regularly planned commercial timeout. No one thinks the game will be high scoring, but it is expected to fly by.
"I just think it may be the shortest timed game [in NCAA finals history]," joked one veteran head coach. "CBS should be worried about getting all the corporate sponsors in there."
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