Looking back at original predictions and revised predictions, it is clear some of this year’s edition of March Madness went as thought—while plenty of it did not. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee itself batted just .250 with its No. 1 seeds, and that almost didn’t even happen, considering Purdue’s six-second mental vacation at the end of regulation against Virginia.
Our initial projections nailed 13 of the 16 teams to advanced to the regionals; our revised projections got just two of the teams that reached the Final Four. Originally, we also picked Gonzaga and Houston to play in the final. Doh!
Where to go from here? Virginia and MSU are the favorite on paper, thanks to the numbers on trends for past champions. Auburn and Texas Tech are not balanced enough in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency to be “favorites”: Still, either could win, because we saw a team like the 2014 Connecticut Huskies somehow pull it off.
But the Cavaliers are second in offensive efficiency and fifth in defensive efficiency this year. Those are excellent numbers compiled against a decent schedule (30th overall). Virginia might also be on an emotional mission, after last year’s historic first-round upset. The Cavaliers showed tremendous resolve in beating the Boilermakers when faced with a near-impossible situation.
As for Auburn, we will not discuss Head Coach Bruce Pearl and his all-too-frequent NCAA violations. But the Tigers may have been playing on pure emotion in the Elite 8, overcompensating for a fallen teammate. The program has never reached a Final Four until now, and by the time the ball tips on Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis against Virginia, this Auburn group may be spent, all things considered.
The Tigers are better than Virginia in no facet of the game, ranked sixth in offensive efficiency and just 39th on defense. Yes, they have won 12 games in a row, and that is an impressive run, but just getting to the Final Four is this team’s reward. Look for the Cavaliers to register a relatively easy win in the first national semifinal on Saturday.
Michigan State is ranked fifth on offense and eighth on defense. The Spartans have won 14 of their last 15 games, and they were the only team in the Final Four to win both their regular-season league title and the conference tournament championship. And MSU did that in the Big Ten, the highest-ranked conference this year according to KenPom. Overall, the Spartans have played the second-toughest schedule in the country.
Texas Tech has the top defense in the nation, and the offense has been better lately, but it still rates out as just the 30th-best unit in terms of efficiency. Head Coach Chris Beard has done an amazing coaching job here. There will be a lot of focus this week on the Red Raiders’ defense, which has held tourney opponents to just 57 points per game.
Texas Tech also defeated Gonzaga and its No. 1-ranked offense in the Elite 8, although the Bulldogs were certainly crippled by a horrible out-of-bounds missed call by the officials with the game on the line that resulted in a potential five-point swing—when the final margin ended up being six points.
Here’s the rub, though: Yes, Texas Tech just beat Gonzaga, but the Bulldogs’ overall SOS was just 75th this year. Michigan State’s offensive efficiency ranking has come against the second-best schedule in the nation, and the Spartans also beat the Michigan Wolverines—owners of the second-best defense this season—three times this year, although each game was relatively close and sort of a grind for MSU to win.
Expect that kind of game again between MSU and Texas Tech. Look for the Spartans to win a close one, as the team has been able to do that all year. Of Michigan State’s six losses, only one came by more than five points (a ten-point road loss at Purdue). The Spartans thrive in close games, and while Texas Tech is hot right now, MSU is still the better overall team on paper.
If that leaves us with a MSU-Virginia final, no one will feel cheated. The two teams have been among the best in the country all year, and they also have a tournament history: As a No. 7 seed in 2015, the Spartans took out the No. 2 seed Cavaliers in the second round, 60-54. And in 2014, the No. 4 seed Spartans beat the No. 1 seed Cavaliers in the Sweet 16, 61-59. In fact, Virginia has never beaten MSU, having also lost a Big Ten/ACC Challenge game to the Spartans in the 2002-2003 season, when MSU eventually went to the Elite 8.
Does that matter? Maybe not, but Izzo might have the measure of Virginia Head Coach Tony Bennett, just like MSU Head Coach Tom Izzo sort of had the measure of Tony’s dad, Dick Bennett. Remember that MSU beat the Dick Bennett-led Wisconsin Badgers four times in the 1999-2000 season on its way to the NCAA title.
The Cavaliers are the better team on paper, but the Spartans are more tested and savvy, perhaps. Virginia would probably be a two-point favorite in the title game matchup against MSU, and that still qualifies as a coin flip.
Minneapolis is closer to East Lansing than it is to Charlottesville, although we all know college sports fans in the South like to travel anywhere to see their teams play. Would MSU have an advantage due to proximity? Hard to say. The Spartans have a short bench, and the grind against Texas Tech may leave them tired, while the Cavaliers should be better rested after cruising against the Tigers.
Either way, we feel the redemption arc for Virginia is greater than that of MSU, which was eliminated early in the March Madness twice recently (2016 and 2018) despite being one of the best teams in the country both seasons. In fact, that 2016 first-round loss to Middle Tennessee State was considered, at the time, to be the greatest upset in NCAA Tournament history—until the Cavaliers crashed and burned in the 2018 first round.
Who gets redemption? Can it just be a tie? That would be poetic justice for both squads. But we think it is time that the Bennett family reaches the top, and this will go down as another missed opportunity for Izzo to win a second title (along with 2001, 2010, 2012, 2016, and 2018). Look for Virginia to win the game by four points on Monday night to claim its first national championship in basketball.