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Final Four roundtable: Key storylines in Minneapolis

The Cavalier Daily sports staff takes a look at key storylines for Virginia in the Final Four in the last men’s basketball roundtable of the year

The Virginia men's basketball team is going to their first Final Four since 1984.
The Virginia men's basketball team is going to their first Final Four since 1984.

No. 1 seed Virginia is in the Final Four this weekend in Minneapolis, Minn., for the first time since 1984.

The Cavaliers (33-3, 16-2 ACC) are two games from winning their first ever national championship. Their first game against No. 5 seed Auburn is set for Saturday at 6:09 p.m. It will be aired on CBS.

The Cavalier Daily sports staff takes a look at some key storylines for Virginia in Minneapolis.

What are your predictions for the Virginia-Auburn game?

Christian Guynn, columnist: I am choosing the Cavaliers to win their first Final Four game Saturday night in Minneapolis. It will be an interesting match-up between two very different teams. As we all know, the Cavaliers’ game is slow and methodical with efficiency as its focus. This years’ Virginia team is the most balanced and efficient team Coach Tony Bennett has ever trained, with both our offense and defense in the top five according to the College Basketball Power Index. On the other side of the court, Auburn tries to dominate pace and possessions, the antithesis to the Cavaliers. The Tigers’ offense is ranked No. 8 in the country, but is going into the Final Four missing their dangerous senior Chuma Okeke due to a torn ACL. After grinding out a win against Kentucky, Auburn will be hungry for an upset in their first Final Four ever. Ultimately, we should all look forward to the Cavaliers dominating the pace in a decisive victory.

Lucas Beasey, columnist: Coach Bruce Pearl has transformed Auburn into a bruising SEC powerhouse that wants to run and apply pressure in transition. In many ways, this team is a dangerous matchup for the Cavaliers. The Tigers are known for the outside shooting provided by their veteran guards, and deservingly so, but Auburn will play every bit as physically as the referees allow them to. Even without Okeke on the court, I keep finding myself impressed with the explosiveness of senior forward Malik Dunbar and the toughness of senior forward Horace Spencer. Virginia’s duo of senior center Jack Salt and junior forward Mamadi Diakite will likely have their hands full winning contested boards and defending the post. The game may be billed as a battle between two of the best backcourts in the country, but expect an absolute war underneath the basket.

What changes, if any, do the Cavaliers need to make to come out on top in Minneapolis?

Colin Cantwell, sports editor: Purdue junior point guard Carsen Edwards may have had a record-setting run, scoring the most points of anyone in the first four rounds of the tournament ever and dropping 42 points on Virginia Saturday night, but Auburn is a team capable of putting up a similar three-point shooting performance. Senior guard Bryce Brown and junior guards Jared Harper and Samir Doughty are all capable shooters from three. Harper can spread the ball around, averaging 5.8 assists per game, and Brown and Doughty each shoot over 40 percent from three-point range. Virginia guards freshman Kihei Clark and juniors Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome are going to need to contain Auburn’s explosive shooters behind the arc and force them into tough shots.

Zach Zamoff, sports editor: There are three changes that would make Virginia more dangerous in Minneapolis. First, Virginia has a great system on offense and defense but needs to have the flexibility to make in-game adjustments that go beyond personnel. Specifically, Bennett must be willing to double-team on defense and run isolation plays for sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter. Edwards lit up Virginia in the Elite Eight without being double-teamed, and Harper and Brown have the potential to do the same. If one of them gets hot, Bennett should be willing to consider making that adjustment. Michigan State junior guard Cassius Winston and Texas Tech sophomore guard Jarrett Culver could pose the same threat in the National Championship game. Bennett needs to get Hunter going. Running isolation plays outside of the mover-blocker can do this. Matchups look especially good for Hunter against Auburn, and he needs to be given the freedom to attack. At the same time, Hunter needs to be more aggressive looking for his shot for the entire game. He rode the bench towards the end of the Purdue game and then came in to make the basket to give the Cavaliers the lead in overtime. He needs to attack more against Auburn and should have the confidence to do this — he is a great player. Finally, junior transfer guard Braxton Key needs more minutes. Even though he played poorly in the few minutes he played against Purdue, Bennett needs to have confidence in Key. His ability to defend multiple positions, rebound and shoot the ball well from the perimeter make him crucial.

Who is going to be the key player if Virginia is going to win it all?

Luke Stievater, columnist: Clark. Being one of the Cavaliers’ best defenders, Clark will likely be tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best guard, starting in the Final Four game with Harper. Harper has reached double digits in three of the Tigers’ four NCAA Tournament games and is the team’s most dangerous scorer. If Virginia can get past Auburn, Clark could have an even tougher matchup in the National Championship. I believe Michigan State will win the other semifinal game, leading Clark to draw a matchup with Winston. Winston is one of the best players in the country and the Spartans’ go-to player. Clark will likely guard him throughout that game, and it would be of the utmost importance to lock him down.

CG: The key player coming into this weekend’s Final Four matchup is Guy. When he gets going, the whole team players better, and that is exactly what Virginia needs this weekend in Minneapolis. Often times, when Virginia’s back was against the wall while playing Purdue, it was Guy’s shooting that saved them and kept the game close. When teams have to worry about his three-point shot, it leaves driving lanes and our other elite guards open for shots. I doubt an Auburn team — or the winner of Michigan State versus Texas Tech — will be as forgiving as Oklahoma was if Guy is shooting poorly. With a solid two games to finish the tournament, Guy’s draft stock will increase dramatically, and we may have a third declare for the draft. If Virginia is going to finish their redemption story, they need Guy to be hot and lead the team.

What storyline are you most looking forward to following in the Final Four?

LS: Virginia looking to go from nightmare scenario to dream scenario. The end to last season was as bad as it could possibly be. It would have been easy to listen to all of the doubt and hate that lingered with these Cavaliers since that dreadful March night in 2018, but they refused to do so. This team has battled all season long and has the opportunity of a lifetime in front of them. Winning a national championship for the first time in program history would put to bed all of the jokes and ridicule from last season and would cement this team into eternal glory. Plus, it would make for one of the best ESPN “30 for 30” episodes of all time.

LB: Of the four teams still alive, only Michigan State has won a National Championship. The other contenders are all on rarefied ground. This is Virginia’s first Final Four since 1984, and Texas Tech and Auburn will make their debut appearances on Saturday. In the notoriously stratified world of college basketball, only 16 schools have won a national championship since the Tournament expanded in 1985. The last team to win its first championship was Florida in 2006 under Coach Billy Donovan. With the blue bloods eliminated — thanks Auburn — each of this Final Four’s unusual suspects has a generational chance to ascend to the rank of NCAA Tournament champion.

CC: If Virginia beats Auburn Saturday night, a victory in the title game over Michigan State would be the cherry on top of the Cavaliers’ redemption story. The Spartans knocked Virginia out of the NCAA Tournament in 2014 and 2015, both times as the lower seed, as is the case again this year. Though no current Cavalier played in either game, for Virginia to beat Michigan State in order to win the first national title in program history would be the ultimate proof that a Bennett team can win in March over one of the nation’s elite coaches in Tom Izzo.