April 5, 2019, 8:38 pm
Well, this is what it’s all about. The road to the Final Four has passed the “no outlet” sign and it’s well on its way to the final game. Believe it or not, we only have three games left in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Yes, only three left. What started with excitement and hype moved to chalk and favorites which then led to upsets when they mattered most.
According to NCAA.com, only 0.02% of brackets had the Final Four picked correctly. From FiveThirtyEight’s pre-tournament projections, this year’s Final Four had about a .166% chance of occurring (for reference, all four 1-seeds making the final four had about a 4.37% chance of occurring, the highest of any combination).
NCAA.com also provided a few more statistical nuggets. The percentage of all brackets to have each of the four remaining teams win the championship is:
Virginia – 5.93%
Michigan State – 4.72%
Texas Tech – 0.68%
Auburn – 0.47%
And, going back to 2013, the percent of brackets to correctly pick the final four is as follows:
2013 – 0%
2014 – 0.006%
2015 – 1.61%
2016 – 0.09%
2017 – 0.003%
2018 – 0.003%
2019 – 0.02%
So clearly, picking the Final Four correctly is a difficult task. It’s an anomaly when over 1% of people get all four teams correct but it’s likely enough to win you your pool on its own. But, since it’s so rare, and so few people have their champion alive, even having one or two of the final four, and maybe one of the teams in the championship game, is enough to keep your bracket in contention.
The Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games last weekend finally gave us some of the madness that was missing in the first weekend. In the Sweet Sixteen, Kentucky against Houston had a game excitement index of 7.5 and went down to the wire, while Auburn upset North Carolina, the first 1-seed to fall.
Then in the Elite Eight, our second 1-seed, Gonzaga, fell to Texas Tech in a big upset. And to follow that up, Purdue and Virginia had a phenomenal game – Game Excitement Index of 8.3 – with a crazy ending to regulation and a heroic performance by Carsen Edwards that ultimately was not enough. Then on Sunday, Auburn got revenge against SEC-rival Kentucky and Michigan State vs. Duke went down to the wire with a GEI of 7.1 and our third 1-seed falling.
After so much chalk in the round of 64 and 32, top seeds started dropping like flies last weekend, and ultimately, we’re left with the Final Four.
Auburn 5 vs. Virginia 1 (-5.5) – 6:09 PM Eastern
For those that read my first preview, Auburn was one of the teams I chose to focus on. Of any team in the original field of 68, they had the highest percentage of their points come off of 3-pointers. 43.4% of their points, heading into the tournament, came off 3-pointers, good for seventh highest in the nation. This was a team that got hot at the right time and shocked people in their conference tournament, and have carried that momentum all the way until the final weekend. They absolutely handled Kansas and North Carolina after surviving a Round of 64 scare against New Mexico State. With a combined margin of victory against 4-seed Kansas and 1-seed North Carolina of +31, Auburn faced their in-conference rival without one of their best players. Sophomore Chuma Okeke, the 6’8″ and 230 lb forward, suffered a torn ACL against North Carolina. Despite the loss, Auburn found a way to beat Kentucky in overtime and will go on to face their toughest matchup yet.
Virginia has been one of the best defensive teams in the nation yet again this year, and they’ve built a truly elite defensive program over the past half-decade or so. On the season, they rank 8th nationally with an opponent effective field-goal percentage of 44.4% and third nationally with an opponent 3-point percentage of 28.7%. As we know, Auburn loves to shoot and rely on the 3-ball. So far this tournament they’re shooting 40.5% of their 3-point attempts and have scored 43.1% of their points on 3-pointers, right in line with their full-season mark.
We saw Virginia be the first team to lose to a 16-seed just last season thanks to 3-point shooting. While the UMBC Retrievers shot a clean 12-for-24 from beyond the arc, Virginia only mustered 4-for-22 for 18.2% from deep. Not only did Virginia lose to a 16-seed, they lost by 20.
In this year’s tournament, all four of Virginia’s opponents have shot 36% or better and collectively Virginia’s opponents have shot 39.2% on 3-point looks. Virginia also should not have escaped the Elite Eight victorious, but an improbable comeback and overtime win against Purdue allowed them to be here. Purdue was the first team better than a 9-seed that Virginia has played this tournament, and gave the Cavaliers trouble. Even 12-seed Oregon gave Virginia a scare, as they only won that game by four points.
Just look at the Win Probability for the Purdue vs. Virginia game! You can’t even see the line where regulation ends due to the swing in probability right as the fourth quarter came to a close.
So, while FiveThirtyEight has Virginia with a 73% chance to win this game, if Auburn continue to shoot the way they have been, and Virginia continues to give up 3-pointers the way they have been, this game could easily go either way.
Texas Tech 3 vs. Michigan State 2 (-2.5) – 8:49 PM Eastern
Michigan State, like Auburn, is a team that I have already brought up once this tournament. In the Round of 64 preview, I was intrigued at how Sparty would play after once again being poorly seeded by the committee. Specifically, I wanted to see how a depleted, banged up MSU team would fare against a Bradley team that had momentum from winning their conference tournament and was playing with nothing to lose. And looking at the game flow chart, Bradley gave the Spartans a scare until the very end.
We can see that Bradley hung with Michigan State until the very end, and was even leading with under seven minutes to play. But, despite the close call in their first game, Michigan State has risen to the occasion to find themselves in the final four once again. They even took down a vulnerable, but historically good Duke team to get here. Tom Izzo has been questioned on his coaching tactics during this tournament, especially with how he absolutely went off on Aaron Henry, but the team has responded well.
Led by the school’s third Big Ten Player of the Year in the last eight seasons, Cassius Winston, Michigan State hasn’t lost in over a month. They’ve endured multiple injuries and close games to get here and have no intention of stopping. However, they’re now going up against a hot Texas Tech team coached by the AP Coach of the Year Chris Beard.
Texas Tech has flown a bit under the radar during March Madness. They lost early on in their conference tournament to West Virginia. Then, they coasted for their first two wins of the tournament against Northern Kentucky and Buffalo, winning those games by a combined 35 points. Then, as they faced off against 2-seed Michigan, a game that FiveThirtyEight had the lower seeded TTU as the favorites in, they coasted yet again. They held Michigan to a paltry 16 points at halftime and ended up beating the Wolverines by 19. Coach Beard and the Red Raiders continued their success against possibly the toughest test they would have to face all tournament by defeating Gonzaga in the Elite Eight.
While Gonzaga may have been a better team overall, Michigan State does provide some intriguing matchups to look for against Texas Tech. According to TeamRankings.com, Texas Tech is 156th in the nation in turnover percentage on offense, but Michigan State has been 341st in opponent turnover percentage, which could help neutralize a main weak point for Texas Tech. On the flip side, TTU also has an advantage as they are 13th in the nation in opponent turnover percentage while Michigan State is 145th in turnover percentage on offense.
However, it’s not all positive for TTU. They’re going to need to hit their shots against Michigan State. MSU is 45th in opponent offensive rebound percentage and 40th in opponent free throw attempts per field goal attempt, while Texas Tech is 155th in offensive rebound percentage and 176th in free throw attempts per field goal attempt. If Texas Tech won’t be getting to the line or getting offensive rebounds very much, they’re going to need to get good, efficient first looks in order to keep up with Michigan State’s 13th ranked offense in points per possession – TTU ranks 77th in that stat.
It should be an entertaining game between two teams that match up very well against each other.