The second matchup of the Final Four pits Michigan State against Texas Tech. The Red Raiders had themselves quite the year, breaking Kansas’ 140-year streak of Big 12 regular season titles. Their recent history probably doesn’t bring much to mind - would you believe me if I told you Tubby Smith coached there for 4 seasons this decade? No, really! - but TTU actually has a bit of historical success, as this year’s title was their 12th Big 12 banner. It was also, however, their first since 1996, and last year’s trip to the Elite Eight was the school’s first. Ipso facto, TTU, like Auburn, is a first-time Final Four participant.
This year’s success also comes with a remade roster, as lottery pick Zhaire Smith and a number of others left Lubbock, only to see Jarrett Culver step into the spotlight with a largely new cast around him and reach even greater heights. Both of those guys were consensus 3* recruits. Oh, and this is Chris Beard’s third year at the school, which really screws things up for coaches pleading for patience in year (3 + x) where the solution is the time the bum in charge has been schlepping around with your favorite program.
As we’ve alluded to before, Texas Tech basketball, bucking their school’s athletic tradition, is a defense-first outfit, unparalleled in the land according to KenPom. Their offense can sag a bit sometimes, but still rates out as KenPom #30. Their defense is so superlative, however, to get them the #5 overall KenPom spot. They play at a leisurely pace, as most capable defensive teams do, but not painfully so (#229, 66.6 possessions/game). Their tournament road to this point included a beatdown of popular Cinderella pick Buffalo, followed by impressive smotherings of Michigan and Gonzaga. The Gonzaga game in particular showed what TTU’s defense is capable of, as they held the #1 KenPom offense 21 points under their season scoring average.
Michigan State, meanwhile, is riding high off of a dream bounceback season - and that that can be said after a Big Ten regular season title in 2018 might be proof of how bound to the tournament this program’s self-image is. Notwithstanding that conference title, MSU endured its first three-year streak of first-weekend tournament exits in the Izzo era and sent lottery picks Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. off to the league.
MSU had its usual losses in the nonconference thanks to its typically brutal schedule (#2 in difficulty per KenPom), but even after losing Josh Langford before the new year, started conference play on a roll nonetheless, winning 9 straight before a 3-game swoon. They rebounded, though, with three wins over competitor Michigan in the last three weeks of the season to secure both regular season and conference tournament titles. Even with their depth whittled down to nothing after injuries to Kyle Ahrens and Nick Ward (who has since returned), there is clearly chemistry here that just didn’t exist with last year’s more talented squad. Cassius Winston makes everything go, but the way every last guy in the rotation meshes is impressive given the roster churn from last year.
At #3 in KenPom, statistics like the Spartans quite a bit on both sides of the ball, putting them at #5 on offense and #8 on defense. Their tempo averages out a bit slower than the median team, but (although this is just based on my observation) they do look for transition opportunities very aggressively. The tempo likely comes out that way because if they don’t fling the ball ahead and shoot within the first few seconds of the possession, they usually consume the entire shot clock.
As with the Virginia/Auburn matchup, this game is likely to be played at a slower pace than some of you might like, though neither team here will object to that much. TTU’s defense invites outside shots; although I’d like to think they’ve learned something from it, Syracuse did the same last year and let MSU brick its way into oblivion. To score enough points to be secure, MSU is going to have to find some way to crack the safe of the TTU interior to make its shots better than the Red Raiders normally allow.
Michigan State (2) vs Texas Tech (3)
Saturday, April 6
8:49 pm EST // CBS // MSU -3.5 // O/U 132.5
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TTU straight up
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