Final Four 2019: Full Breakdown, Predictions and Stars to Watch

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystApril 1, 2019

Final Four 2019: Full Breakdown, Predictions and Stars to Watch

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    Michigan State's Cassius Winston (5) and Xavier Tillman (23)
    Michigan State's Cassius Winston (5) and Xavier Tillman (23)Rob Carr/Getty Images

    The once chalk-heavy 2019 NCAA men's basketball tournament took a 90-degree turn on Friday night, with several Sweet 16 and Elite Eight upsets giving us a Final Four of No. 5 Auburn, No. 3 Texas Tech, No. 2 Michigan State and No. 1 Virginia.

    It's not as hopelessly unpredictable as Loyola-Chicago getting this far as a No. 11 seed last year, but there can't be more than a handful of people left in the world who picked this in their brackets.

    That's the beauty of this chaotic tournament, though.

    By the time the field was whittled down to the Sweet 16, it was impossible to dream up a Final Four scenario that would be lacking in intrigue. And as it turns out, we have three programs that have never played in a national championship game before and a fourth (Michigan State) from a major conference that hasn't won it all since 2000.

    As those teams prepare to make history in Minneapolis next weekend, here's your full breakdown of the Final Four. How they got here, how they can keep winning, biggest storylines, brightest stars, X-factors and, of course, predictions for how it'll all play out.

Texas Tech Red Raiders

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    Matt Mooney (13), Jarrett Culver and Davide Moretti (25)
    Matt Mooney (13), Jarrett Culver and Davide Moretti (25)Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Record: 30-6, No. 3 seed in West Regional

    Path to Minneapolis: 72-57 over No. 14 Northern Kentucky; 78-58 over No. 6 Buffalo; 63-44 over No. 2 Michigan; 75-69 over No. 1 Gonzaga

    Biggest Strength: Ranked No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency

    Achilles' Heel: Not great on the glass at either end—average rebound margin of plus-1.4 per game

                    

    How They Got Here

    Texas Tech steamrolled through the first three rounds, winning each game by at least a 15-point margin. That was to be expected in the opener against Northern Kentucky, but no one was anticipating the Red Raiders breezing through Buffalo and Michigan like they did.

    In the Elite Eight, they held Gonzaga's wildly efficient offense to 0.972 points per possession. Aside from the disastrous showing against Saint Mary's in the WCC championship, it was Gonzaga's worst offensive output of the season. Texas Tech already had sensational defensive numbers before that game, but the Red Raiders currently have the best adjusted defensive efficiency rating (84.0) in KenPom history. (Memphis had a mark of 84.2 in 2008-09.)

    In addition to the defense, Texas Tech dominated the first 10 minutes of the second half of each gamea testament to how great Chris Beard is at this coaching profession. Texas Tech outscored its four opponents 91-48 in those first 10 minutes after halftime.

                       

    Biggest Regular-Season "What If?"

    What if Tariq Owens hadn't graduate-transferred from St. John's?

    This might be the biggest "What If?" of the entire 2018-19 college basketball season. Not only did the addition of Owens give Texas Tech a shot-blocking anchor to its defense and an efficient scorer and rebounder on the offensive end, but his departure from St. John's left the Red Storm terribly undersized in the paint.

    Had Owens stayed with the Johnnies, they might have won the Big East. At the very least, they likely would have done better than just barely sneaking into the tournament to lose in the First Four. And though Texas Tech would still have Norense Odiase to eat up space in the paint, the Red Raiders simply would not have been the same.

    At the time, it wasn't anywhere near as noteworthy as Reid Travis going to Kentucky or even Braxton Key going to Virginia. After the fact, though, Owens might have been the most important veteran acquisition that any team made this past summer.

Virginia Cavaliers

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    Kyle Guy (5), Ty Jerome (11) and De'Andre Hunter (12)
    Kyle Guy (5), Ty Jerome (11) and De'Andre Hunter (12)Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

    Record: 33-3, No. 1 seed in South Regional

    Path to Minneapolis: 71-56 over No. 16 Gardner-Webb; 63-51 over No. 9 Oklahoma; 53-49 over No. 12 Oregon; 80-75 (OT) over No. 3 Purdue

    Biggest Strength: Ranked No. 2 in adjusted offensive efficiency

    Achilles' Heel: Ranked No. 286 in defensive three-point rate

                    

    How They Got Here

    Nothing has come easily during Virginia's first two weeks of the tournament. The Cavaliers were down 28-14 in the first half against Gardner-Webb, barely survived a defensive grind against Oregon and needed a last-second miracle to force overtime against Purdue. Even in the 12-point win over Oklahoma, Kyle Guy shot 0-of-10 from three-point range and it didn't feel like the Sooners were out of it until the final eight minutes.

    Credit to Virginia for battling through all those challenges, though. It could not have been easy to stave off the "here we go again" thoughts from the past several years of early tournament exits, but the Wahoos got the job done—and finally saved us from the questions about whether Tony Bennett's slow-paced, defense-first approach can work in March.

    We'll have more to say about Mamadi Diakite shortly, but he has been the unexpected hero for this team. Diakite was a non-factor for most of the season. Even in the ACC tournament, he played just 20 minutes and tallied five points, five fouls and no rebounds. But he has been huge for the Cavaliers in all four tournament games.

                       

    Biggest Regular-Season "What If?"

    What if Virginia had entered the tournament undefeated?

    Outlasting Michigan by about six hours, Virginia was the final team to suffer a loss during the regular season, making it into mid-January before a two-point loss at Duke. The Cavaliers also lost the home game against Duke three weeks later, but those were the only L's they took prior to the ACC tournament.

    But if the Blue Devils hadn't eked out the first win before shooting an unconscious 13-of-21 from three-point range in the second game, how much different would this narrative have been? Would we still have made the UMBC jokes all year if Virginia had gotten to the ACC tournament with a 30-0 record? Would there have actually been more of those jokes since Virginia would've been under a much more intense spotlight?

    It's hard enough to deal with the pressure of being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Doing it while constantly being reminded of last year's historic failure is even tougher. Add in trying to become the first undefeated national champions since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers, and who knows if they would have thrived or imploded.

Auburn Tigers

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    Bryce Brown (2) and Jared Harper (1)
    Bryce Brown (2) and Jared Harper (1)Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Record: 30-9, No. 5 seed in Midwest Regional

    Path to Minneapolis: 78-77 over No. 12 New Mexico State; 89-75 over No. 4 Kansas; 97-80 over No. 1 North Carolina; 77-71 (OT) over No. 2 Kentucky

    Biggest Strength: Ranked No. 1 in defensive turnover percentage

    Achilles' Heel: Ranked No. 334 in defensive rebound percentage

                    

    How They Got Here

    Steals, threes and blocks, of course.

    Auburn forced turnovers better than any team this season. In the Elite Eight win over Kentucky, the Tigers recorded at least 10 steals for the 18th time. They are now 27-2 when they have at least eight stealsa mark they have hit in each contest during their current 12-game winning streak.

    In their first three tournament wins, the Tigers shot 42-of-98 from three-point range. They were especially lethal against North Carolina (17-of-37). Auburn struggled in that department against Kentucky (7-of-23), but the 10 steals and seven blocks were enough to get the W in overtime.

    However, the real surprise was Auburn's rebounding in Kansas City. The Tigers struggled to rebound all season, finished minus-26 on the glass in the first two rounds and had to go through two of the best rebounding teams in the country in North Carolina and Kentucky. Worse yet, they had to play the Kentucky game without leading rebounder Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL in the previous round. But they somehow held their own on the glass against those two blue bloods.

    As a result, Auburn has already gone through the three winningest programs in NCAA history. More on that shortly.

                       

    Biggest Regular-Season "What If?"

    What if Auburn hadn't gotten embarrassed by Kentucky in late February?

    In the preseason, this was supposed to be one of the better teams in the country, projected to battle Kentucky and Tennessee for the SEC title. But after three-and-a-half months, it was starting to feel like the Tigers would never tap into that potential. They have a few impressive efforts in close losses, but there were no great wins on the resume.

    Losing to Kentucky in an 80-53 laugher sparked something, though. It was the kick in the teeth that the Tigers needed to realize things weren't working and that the best approach was to take more and smarter three-point shots. Rather than dribbling around before jacking up a bad shot, they started playing with more rhythm and swagger—and it has worked beautifully.

Michigan State Spartans

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    Cassius Winston
    Cassius WinstonRob Carr/Getty Images

    Record: 32-6, No. 2 Seed in East Regional

    Path to Minneapolis: 76-65 over No. 15 Bradley; 70-50 over No. 10 Minnesota; 80-63 over No. 3 LSU; 68-67 over No. 1 Duke

    Biggest Strength: Ranked No. 1 in assist rate and No. 2 in two-point field-goal defense

    Achilles' Heel: Ranked No. 342 in defensive turnover percentage

                    

    How They Got Here

    That Achilles' heel listed above? It wasn't one in the Elite Eight win over Duke.

    For the first time in 72 games dating back to the 2017-18 season opener, Michigan State recorded at least 11 steals in a single contest. In every other facet of the game, Duke was the superior team. The Blue Devils even got a completely unexpected double-double out of Javin DeLaurier. But it was Michigan State's biggest weakness that inexplicably became its biggest strength, finishing plus-10 in turnover margin against one of the best turnover-forcing defenses in the country.

    Lack of turnovers was also critical in the Sweet 16 win over LSU, as the Spartans only coughed up the ball six times against an aggressive Tigers defense.

    As a trade-off, Michigan State's normally excellent free-throw shooting was a problem in Washington, D.C. The Spartans shot just 7-of-14 from the charity stripe in their last two games. It didn't matter, but it's something to watch out for in the Final Four against a Texas Tech defense that frequently sends opponents to the line.

                       

    Biggest Regular-Season "What If?"

    What if this team had stayed anything close to healthy?

    Michigan State is clearly one of the best teams in the country. It won both the regular-season and conference-tournament titles in the best conference, beating Michigan three times along the way. And yet, the Spartans played most of the season at less than full strength, often significantly so.

    They lost Joshua Langford for the year after 13 games. Matt McQuaid missed three early games with a thigh bruise. Nick Ward missed five late games with a broken hand. Kyle Ahrens was banged up all year and hasn't played yet in the tournament. Just a litany of health concerns for Michigan State, as has been the case several times in recent years.

    The Spartans didn't let it become an issue, though, in part because savvy, veteran leader Cassius Winston hasn't missed any time. But if they are this good at, let's call it 78 percent strength, imagine what kind of No. 1 seed freight train they might have been with a full arsenal.

Biggest Storylines

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    Tariq Owens
    Tariq OwensHarry How/Getty Images

    Defense Wins Championships?

    In each of the previous 17 seasons of KenPom history, the national champion finished the NCAA tournament ranked in the top 18 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Defense has always been a key piece of the puzzle in the Big Dance.

    However, the best defense rarely wins. While the champ always ranks in the top 18, it's usually outside the top four. The only exceptions were 2008 Kansas and 2013 Louisville, each of which was No. 1 in AdjDE that year.

    Virginia (No. 5) and Michigan State (No. 8) are in that sweet spot, but Texas Techafter blowing out Michigan in the Sweet 16is far and away the most efficient defense in the country. As previously mentioned, the Red Raiders now have the most efficient D in KenPom history.

    Can they ride that to a title or will they flame out in the Final Four like the top-ranked defenses of 2017 Gonzaga, 2015 Kentucky and 2012 Louisville did? If it's Texas Tech vs. Virginia for all the marbles, will either team score 45 points? And would that pairing change college basketball as we know it, turning team defense into the No. 1 priority for every coach?

                   

    Best Run Ever?

    Just to get to this point, Auburn had to go through Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in succession. Those teams have 6,830 wins, 52 Final Fours and 17 national championships between them. (For Auburn, this is the first Final Four in school history and also the first season with at least 30 wins.)

    Even the opener against 30-4 New Mexico State was never expected to be a gimme for the Tigers. One could easily make the case this has already been the most impressive run to the Final Four that we have ever seen. Maybe George Mason going through Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut as a No. 11 seed in 2006 was better, but that's probably it.

    So if Auburn goes on to win it alladding a victory over No. 1 Virginia and either No. 2 Michigan State or No. 3 Texas Tech to its list of accomplishmentsthat has to be the best championship run ever, right?

    Save your 1997 Arizona arguments. I know that's the only team to beat three No. 1 seeds in the same tournament, but the Wildcats' other three games were against teams seeded No. 10, No. 12 and No. 13. That is probably the best title run of the 64/65/68-team era, and it wouldn't even compare to what Auburn could boast with two more victories.

            

    First Championship Ever?

    Neither Auburn nor Texas Tech has ever been to the Final Four before this year. Virginia hasn't been there since 1984, and it didn't play in the championship game in either of its trips to the Final Four.

    Both Auburn and Texas Tech are attempting to do the nearly impossible, as 51 of the last 52 national champions had played in at least one Final Four before winning it all.

    The only one to buck that trend was Connecticut in 1999, and those Huskies didn't exactly come out of nowhere. In the nine seasons before breaking through, they made it to the Sweet 16 six times and got to the Elite Eight three times. Auburn (in 1986) and Texas Tech (last year) had each only been to the Elite Eight once before this year.

    Still, if we assume these teams are equals at this point, there's a 75 percent chance some team is going to be winning its first men's basketball championship. And even if it's the other team (Michigan State) that gets the job done, it'll be the first time since 2000 that the Big Ten has won it all. Either way, some long slump is about to end.

                

    From Worst to Best?

    Virginia made infamous history last year by becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the men's NCAA tournament. Tony Bennett's pack-line D was already getting a stigma as a system that couldn't produce a national championship, and that loss raised the doubts to the umpteenth power.

    But now Virginia is in the Final Four and is the remaining favorite to win it all. If the Cavalierswith largely the same rostercan go from losing to UMBC in one tournament to losing to nobody in the next one, it would be one of the most incredible rebounds in any sport ever. I can't even think of a comparable one-year transition from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs.

Stars to Watch

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    Kyle Guy
    Kyle GuyKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Kyle Guy, Virginia
    Tournament Stats: 11.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.3 APG, 21.1% 3PT

    The first 3.5 games of the tournament were a nightmare for Guy. Through 44 field-goal attempts, he had just 26 points. He was 3-of-29 from three-point range, and he rolled his ankle near the end of the first half of the Elite Eight game against Purdue. Out of nowhere, though, he drained five threes and scored 21 points between the second half and overtime.

    Guy entered the Big Dance shooting 46.3 percent from three-point range and had games in the first half of March in which he shot 7-of-9 and 8-of-10 from downtown. It was a brutal start, but better late than never. If he can shoot in Minneapolis like he did during the regular season, Virginia should win it all.

                     

    Ty Jerome, Virginia
    Tournament Stats: 15.5 PPG, 5.5 APG, 4.0 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 40.7% 3PT

    Jerome is one of those combo guards who is so good that we take him for granted until he has a rare off night and then wonder what went wrong. There's nothing flashy about his game, but he delivers with high-efficiency offense and great perimeter defense. Even though Guy and Kihei Clark are both more than capable of running the offense, Jerome has played all but four minutes of this tournament. That's how important he is to this cause.

                  

    Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech
    Tournament Stats: 21.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 4.5 APG, 2.3 SPG, 1.3 BPG

    Culver had an off night in the Elite Eight win over Gonzaga, but he still racked up 19 points, five rebounds and three steals. That's what makes him so valuable. He's not the best shooter by any means, but Culver is a scorer who stuffs the stat sheet with rebounds, assists and steals, too. So on nights when he is hitting three-pointers, he's deadlier than a cobra.

                    

    Jared Harper, Auburn
    Tournament Stats: 17.5 PPG, 6.5 APG, 30.8% 3PT

    For as great as Auburn has been from three-point range, Harper has struggled to find his stroke lately. He hit four treys in the first game and is just 4-of-18 (22.2 percent) since then. That hasn't slowed him down, though, nor has it stopped him from hitting 17 consecutive free throws. Harper was all over the box score in the win over Kentucky, including recording his first two blocked shots of the season. He is at the heart of everything this team does.

                    

    Cassius Winston, Michigan State
    Tournament Stats: 19.0 PPG, 7.8 APG, 1.5 SPG, 40.0% 3PT

    Just like Virginia's Ty Jerome, there's next to no sizzle in Winston's game, but he's one of the most valuable players on any roster. He has ranked second in the country in assist rate in all three of his seasons at Michigan State, and he is a career 43 percent three-point shooter and 84 percent free-throw shooter. Tough to say if he'll ever get much of a shot at the NBA, but he is going to be destroying guys in pickup basketball for the next several decades.

                     

    Xavier Tillman, Michigan State
    Tournament Stats: 15.3 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 1.5 APG, 1.0 SPG

    Tillman wasn't even a starter until late February, let alone a star. However, the sophomore power forward has become a gigantic asset for the Spartans. He's an excellent rebounder and the main reason Michigan State's interior defense is so difficult to score against. Even though Zion Williamson racked up 24 points and 14 rebounds, there's no question that Tillman was instrumental in keeping him from getting at least a dozen more of each. The infamous shoe was the only person, place or thing to do a better job of slowing down Williamson than Tillman did.

Underrated Players to Watch

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    J'Von McCormick
    J'Von McCormickOrlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Norense Odiase, Texas Tech
    Tournament Stats: 5.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG

    Odiase might be the biggest X-Factor in the Final Four. The fifth-year senior has vanished more often than not, especially as of late. In eight games this March, he only has one game with more than four points or more than five rebounds. That lone outlier was a 14-point, 15-rebound beatdown of Buffalo, though. He's good for a huge day on the glass or a few blocked shots every now and then, and it could completely change the trajectory of the national championship if he has one of those games in the Final Four.

                     

    Davide Moretti, Texas Tech
    Tournament Stats: 12.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.5 APG, 33.3% 3PT

    From December 28 through March 14, Moretti shot 53.1 percent from three-point range. In all 21 of those contests, he shot at least 37.5 percent from distance. So it was downright bizarre to see him go 0-of-7 from deep in the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament.

    The sniper got back on track in Anaheim, though, going 5-of-8, including a pair of late daggers in the win over Gonzaga. He doesn't do a whole lot else for the Red Raiders, but he's such a good three-point (and free-throw) shooter that he's still the second-most valuable player on the roster.

              

    Mamadi Diakite, Virginia
    Tournament Stats: 13.0 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 2.3 BPG

    Who is this dude and what did he do with the Diakite we had seen for the past three seasons? He averaged 12.3 minutes, 3.0 points, 2.7 fouls and 0.3 rebounds in his final three games before the NCAA tournament.

    There were occasional impressive performances during the regular season, but nothing to indicate he could nearly average a double-double in the tournament while owning the paint on defense and hitting clutch buckets late in games. Diakite was Virginia's most important player through the first four rounds.

                      

    Samir Doughty, Auburn
    Tournament Stats: 5.3 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.8 SPG, 50.0% 3PT

    Doughty hasn't been a huge factor yet in the tournament for Auburn, but he can be. The Tigers' sixth man shoots 43 percent from three-point range and averages better than two steals per 40 minutes. He had two steals against Kansas, 10 points against North Carolina and seven rebounds against Kentucky.

                    

    J'Von McCormick, Auburn
    Tournament Stats: 8.5 PPG, 1.3 APG, 1.0 SPG

    McCormick scored a season-high 16 points in the opener against New Mexico State and was arguably the most valuable player in that heart-stopping win. He also had 10 points in the Sweet 16 victory over North Carolina. The backup point guard is a bit of an afterthought on the Auburn depth chart, but he is a testament to how many dangerous players there are on this roster.

                     

    Gabe Brown, Michigan State
    Tournament Stats: 4.5 PPG, 1.8 RPG

    Brown only played three minutes in the Elite Eight and only had seven games all season with 10 or more minutes played. He might be so underrated that he doesn't even make an appearance in the Final Four. But based on the Grayson Allen / Marcus Lee type of out-of-nowhere breakout that he had in the Sweet 16, we have to at least throw him on this list. Brown played 16 minutes against LSU and scored 15 points. He's a 40 percent three-point shooter on the season and might have a 2013 Spike Albrecht type of trick up his sleeve.

Texas Tech's Blueprint to a Title

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    Chris Beard
    Chris BeardMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    If all goes according to plan, these three things will happen and Texas Tech will win its first national championship in program history.

                       

    1. Keep digging in those heels on defense.

    Texas Tech's first three tournament opponents averaged 53.0 points per game, and the Red Raiders did an excellent job of stifling Gonzaga's efficient offense in the second half of that Elite Eight battle. Over the last two seasons, Texas Tech is 41-2 when holding its opponent to 65 points or fewer, but it is 16-15 when allowing more than 65. Part of that is a byproduct of limited offensive options, but there's no question that defense comes first for this squad.

                        

    2. Feed Davide Moretti early and often.

    Why is this guy not shooting more? Moretti has been a better than 50 percent three-point shooter since Christmas, but he has only averaged 4.5 attempts per game during that stretch. Also, he shoots better than 90 percent from the free-throw line, so you would think Texas Tech would be getting the ball into his hands as often as possible. Jarrett Culver is the No. 1 option in this offense, but a more assertive Moretti would be a game-changer.

                          

    3. Keep the turnovers under control.

    Texas Tech's defense gets a lot of steals, but its offense also has a tendency to serve them up on a silver platter. Eight times an opponent had at least 10 steals against Texas Tech this season, including Duke's mark of 15 in December. The Red Raiders have done an OK job in that department in the tournament, as they've averaged 10.8 turnovers per game. 

Virginia's Blueprint to a Title

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    Tony Bennett
    Tony BennettMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    If all goes according to plan, these three things will happen and Virginia will win its first national championship in program history.

                       

    1. Three-point defense regresses to the mean.

    During the regular season, Virginia led the nation in three-point field-goal defense. Through 31 games, opponents were shooting a paltry 26.9 percent and averaging 5.8 makes per game. Over the past five contests, though, those numbers have ballooned to 39.0 and 9.2, respectively. Every year in the tournament, we're reminded that three-point defense is one of the worst possible predictors of future success/failure, but this is quite the extreme. Getting that percentage back down into the low 30s in Minneapolis would be huge.

                        

    2. Continue winning the rebound battle.

    The Cavaliers are plus-33 (plus-8.3 per game) on the glass in the tournament, which is usually not a big strength of theirs. (They can thank the emergence of Mamadi Diakite for that newfound prowess.) In the ACC tournament loss to Florida State, Virginia was minus-15 in rebound margin. As long as they break even in this category, the Cavaliers should be OK.

                          

    3. Hope Kyle Guy carries that Elite Eight momentum into next weekend.

    Virginia has a much more diversified scoring portfolio than it did in years pastespecially with Diakite pouring in 13 points per tournament game. But Guy is the leading scorer and the one who can catch fire at a moment's notice to completely shift the momentum of any game. Over the past three seasons, Virginia is 28-1 when Guy scores at least 17 points.

Auburn's Blueprint to a Title

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    Bruce Pearl
    Bruce PearlJamie Squire/Getty Images

    If all goes according to plan, these three things will happen and Auburn will win its first national championship in program history.

                       

    1. Hit a bunch of threes.

    Auburn somehow got past Kentucky while only making seven triples, but the Tigers lead the nation in made threes by a ridiculous margin. With 445, they are now 51 ahead of the next-closest team (Presbyterian 394). They were averaging 12.6 makes during the first 11 games of this winning streak, and they'll need to get back to that to get past Virginia's pack-line defense.

                        

    2. Record a bunch of steals.

    As previously mentioned, Auburn is 27-2 this season when recording at least eight steals. The flip side of that coin is the Tigers are 3-7 when they don't get at least eight steals. Those momentum-shifting plays are such an indispensable part of their winning DNA, especially when those steals turn into transition three-point buckets. That's going to be the toughest part to make happen in the next game, since Virginia is one of the most sure-handed teams in the country.

                          

    3. Stay within shouting distance in rebounding.

    Auburn only won the rebounding battle in one of its nine losses, but it shot 5-of-25 (20.0 percent) from three-point range in that loss to NC State. In several of the lossesand in the close wins over New Mexico State, Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi StateAuburn got smashed on the glass. If the Tigers can keep that margin under control, their threes, steals and blocks should take care of the rest.

Michigan State's Blueprint to a Title

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    Tom Izzo
    Tom IzzoPatrick Semansky/Associated Press

    If all goes according to plan, these three things will happen and Michigan State will win its first national championship since 2000.

                       

    1. Own the Paint.

    Michigan State is a solid three-point-shooting team that also defends the arc at a high level, but the Spartans bake their bread down low. They are outstanding on the offensive glass, and they block a lot of shots, force a lot of misses that aren't blocked and score quite a few buckets off Cassius Winston entry passes. What they did in the paint against the likes of Naz Reid, Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett was incredible.

                        

    2. Snap Matt McQuaid out of his funk.

    The senior shooting guard was Michigan State's best three-point weapon during the regular season. Moreover, it seemed like he was heating up at just the right time, shooting 7-of-13 from downtown for a career-high 27 points against Michigan in the Big Ten championship. He previously set a career high of 22 points earlier in the month. But he is just 5-of-16 (31.3 percent) from distance in the tournament and has been a non-factor outside of that ridiculous 360 layup against Duke. The Spartans are probably going to need at least a couple of treys out of McQuaid to get by Texas Tech.

                          

    3. Trust in Winston.

    The junior had 20 points, 10 assists and four steals in the win over Duke, and it wasn't that out of the ordinary. It took him more shots (23) to get those 20 points than it usually does, but it was the 21st game in his college career with at least 15 points and seven assists. It's just what this guy does. And if the Spartans put their faith in Winston and let him control the flow of the game, everything else will come much easier.

Predictions

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    Kyle Guy (5), Mamadi Diakite (25) and Jack Salt (33)
    Kyle Guy (5), Mamadi Diakite (25) and Jack Salt (33)Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 5 Auburn

    Saturday at 6:09 p.m. ET (CBS)

    Will Virginia's three-point defense resurface?

    Carsen Edwards played out of his mind in the Elite Eight, draining 10 three-pointers over the top of this pack-line defense—each one seeming to come from further away than the last. And if there's any team with multiple players capable of replicating that type of performance, it's Auburn, as the Tigers have made at least a dozen threes in nine of their last 11 games.

    Perhaps the bigger question is: Will Virginia's ball security be as good as it usually is when facing this aggressive defense? Duke, Syracuse and Virginia Tech—aka the ACC's three best turnover-forcing defenseswere able to record at least nine steals in games against the Cavaliers. But they have allowed just 3.1 steals per game (and 2.6 blocks) over the last seven.

    If that trend continues, Auburn would need to make about 18 threes to be able to beat Virginia. And I think this Cavaliers offense will be able to avoid those mistakes just well enough to pull out the victory. Auburn got an emotional win in the first game without Chuma Okeke, but the Tigers will miss his presence on the court in this game.

    Prediction: Virginia 68-65

               

    No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 3 Texas Tech

    Saturday at approx. 8:49 p.m. ET (CBS)

    If you like games in which neither team can find an inch of space in the key, buddy, this one's for you. Michigan State and Texas Tech rank Nos. 2 and 3 in the nation in two-point field-goal defense. MSU's Xavier Tillman and Nick Ward and TTU's Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase are going to be huge factors in this matchup, both literally and figuratively.

    While these defenses share that trait, one major difference is the ability to force turnovers. Texas Tech is among the best while Michigan State—even after getting 11 steals against Duke—is among the worst. Prior to the Elite Eight, Michigan State's last 11 opponents averaged just 7.9 turnovers, 3.8 of which were steals. If the Spartans revert to their normal ways and only force a handful of turnovers, they could in trouble.

    Cassius Winston and Jarrett Culver are the stars, but the key to this game will be whether Matt McQuaid or Davide Moretti can do more from three-point range. Given his play over the past three months, I trust Moretti more, so give me the Red Raiders.

    Prediction: Texas Tech 64-61

       

    No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 3 Texas Tech

    Monday at 9:23 p.m. ET (CBS)

    Listen, I'm going to enjoy the hell out of this game if we get it, but this is a ratings nightmare for CBS. It's bad enough that Duke and Kentucky got knocked out of the tournament on Sunday, but at least a game involving either Michigan State or red-hot Auburn would be a must-watch affair.

    This race to 50 points? Not so much. This has the potential to be as offensively offensive as the 53-41 national championship between Connecticut and Butler in 2011. At least in this case, though, it would be because of elite defenses instead of inept offenses. Texas Tech has the best defense this season, and Virginia always has a top-10 D under Tony Bennett.

    So who wins the rock fight for all the marbles?

    I like Virginia for several reasons: better three-point shooting, better ball security, cleaner (foul-free) defense and a wider variety of scoring options. The Cavaliers have gotten over the mental hurdle of finally getting into a Final Four, and now they finish the job.

    Prediction: Virginia 58-57

                   

    Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.