Previewing the road to the NCAA National Championship

The Cavaliers are just two wins away from the first National Championship in program history

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The Virginia Cavaliers are two wins away from winning the first National Championship in program history.

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

No. 1 seed Virginia has finally done it. After years of coming up short, Coach Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers (33-3) are headed to the elusive Final Four in Minneapolis, Minn., this weekend. Virginia did it in dramatic fashion, edging out No. 12 seed Oregon in a defensive battle in the Sweet Sixteen before taking down No. 3 seed Purdue in overtime Saturday night to cut down the nets in Louisville, Ky.

The Cavaliers overcame a 42-point night from Purdue junior guard Carsen Edwards to advance to their first Final Four since 1984. They are the only remaining No. 1 seed in the tournament after No. 1 seed Duke fell to No. 2 seed Michigan State Sunday night. Virginia will have to beat No. 5 seed Auburn Saturday night and the winner of Michigan State and No. 3 seed Texas Tech to win the program’s first ever National Championship.

This is what their road looks like.

No. 5 seed Auburn (30-9)

Auburn did not lose in the month of March. Since falling to Kentucky 80-53 Feb. 23, the Tigers have won 12 consecutive games. Most recently, they defeated No. 2 seed Kentucky to advance to the first Final Four in program history. The Tigers beat the Wildcats 77-71 in overtime, taking down the same team they lost to by almost 30 points a month earlier. Just like in the regular season, Auburn’s backcourt has been crucial in the Tigers’ tournament run. Junior guard Jared Harper is a lightning-quick floor general, and senior guard Bryce Brown is a great scorer adept at creating his own shot who shoots 41 percent from three. Harper and Brown combined for 50 points in Auburn’s win over Kentucky in the Elite Eight and have been forced to produce even more after sophomore forward Chuma Okeke — the Tigers’ leading rebounder — tore his ACL late in Auburn’s Sweet Sixteen victory over No. 1 seed North Carolina. Auburn relies on a fast pace and prolific three-point shooting to win. The Tigers lead the country in three-point field goals made this year, 445, and have already made 49 three-point field goals this tournament. Auburn will bring a frenetic pace and offensive fearlessness to Minneapolis, embodied by its deadly backcourt duo.

Player to watch:

While both Harper and Brown are crucial for the Tigers’ stellar offense — they rank No. 6 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency — Harper is its engine. Harper, who was named to the All-SEC second team, has averaged 17.5 points per game and 6.5 assists per game in the tournament. He initiates Auburn’s offensive attack with his penetration into the lane. His ability to drive and dish frees up Brown and other shooters like junior guards Samir Doughty and J’Von McCormick and junior forward Daniel Purifoy, all of whom shoot over 38 percent from three. Harper’s lightning quickness and finishing ability is reminiscent of N.C. State junior guard Markell Johnson, who Virginia has faced twice this year. Like other Tigers players, Harper can shoot it too. He is shooting 37.1 percent from three this year. Look for freshman guard Kihei Clark to lock up Harper — both guards are under 6 feet — and it should be a good matchup for Clark.

How to beat them:

While Virginia sets the tone through its defense, Auburn sets the tone through its offense. Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl is all about getting out and running, and the Tigers will do this from the tip. The key is to mitigate their three-point shooting success at the beginning of the game and dictate the pace of play. Auburn will take a lot of threes. The Cavaliers must contest three-point shooters, especially Brown, and apply the pressure on Harper to stop the Tigers’ offensive attack. Without Okeke, Auburn’s inside scoring is limited. Junior center Austin Wiley will try to step up to fill his void, but the Cavaliers’ main focus should be on stopping the Tigers’ backcourt. On offense, Virginia must limit turnovers and have good ball movement — against Auburn’s high pressure defense, the Cavaliers should be able to create open threes. They did that in the second half against N.C. State, and they must do the same Saturday against Auburn. Overall, the battle to control pace of play is critical in this one, and if the Cavaliers can maintain control, they will advance to their first ever National Championship game.

No. 2 seed Michigan State (32-6)

Michigan State has been one of the best basketball teams in the nation throughout this year. Despite several glaring upset losses — particularly against Indiana and Illinois — the Spartans have also picked up numerous big wins and have significant experience playing against the best in the Big Ten conference. Their experience showed against No. 1 seed Duke Sunday night as they managed to narrowly defeat the Blue Devils to advance to the program’s 10th Final Four. Coach Tom Izzo has coached at Michigan State since 1995 and has developed a winning culture in East Lansing, Mich. He has coached the Spartans to eight Final Four appearances. Beyond a legendary coach, Michigan State has another great team, led by junior guard Cassius Winston. Besides Winston, sophomore forward Xavier Tillman has emerged as a great inside scorer, and senior guard Matt McQuaid and senior forward Kenny Goins have the experience to deliver in clutch time. The Spartans are always dangerous in March Madness, and this team is no different.

Player to watch:

Winston, the Big Ten Player of the Year, is a great point guard and leader. He is averaging 19 points per game and 7.8 assists per game in the tournament and had a double-double to lead Michigan State over Duke in the Elite Eight. He has overcome limited athleticism to become one of the best players in the country. Winston can score in multiple ways — he is adept at drawing fouls, finishing in traffic and is shooting the three at 40.4 percent. Beyond that, he has excellent court vision.

How to beat them:

The Spartans are difficult to stop. But they can be beat — upsets to inferior teams shows this. Even No. 15 seed Bradley gave Michigan State some problems. Forcing the ball out of Winston’s hands is key, in addition to stopping Tillman’s bruising inside. Virginia’s pack line defense should go a long way in stopping Winston’s penetration, and Texas Tech’s defense could create the havoc needed to disrupt Michigan State’s offense. The size of Tillman, Goins, junior forward Nick Ward and freshman forward Aaron Henry makes penetration difficult against the Spartans. If the Cavaliers face them in the National Championship, they will need to shoot the three-pointer well.

No. 3 seed Texas Tech (30-6)

Texas Tech came out of nowhere to emerge as one of the best teams in college basketball this year, and like Virginia, relies on great defense as its trademark. The Red Raiders have had a powerful run in March so far, dominating No. 2 seed Michigan 63-44 — the Wolverines’ lowest scoring output of the year — and taking down No. 1 seed Gonzaga 75-69 to advance to the first Final Four appearance in program history. On defense — the best in the nation, per KenPom — Texas Tech’s athleticism and help defense make penetration notoriously difficult. On offense, sophomore guard Jarrett Culver is the key. Culver can score in a variety of ways, and sophomore guard Davide Moretti and senior guard Matt Mooney are great three-point shooters. The Red Raiders’ defensive swarm leads to turnovers and much like the Cavaliers, frustrates offense, which Culver and company convert into points.

Player to watch:

Culver is long, athletic and a prolific scorer. He is averaging 21.5 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game, 4.5 assists per game and 2.3 steals per game in the tournament. While his three-pointer isn’t great, his mid-range jumper is lethal and his ability to get to the basket and finish through contact is outstanding. Culver likes to get out and run on the break and helps convert the Red Raiders’ steals into easy baskets. Hunter will likely tasked with guarding him if Virginia meets Texas Tech in the National Championship — he must keep Culver in front of him, move his feet and stay out of foul trouble.

How to beat them:

The key to beating Texas Tech is keeping calm on offense and limiting Culver. Hunter and Key have the length and lateral quickness to shut Culver down, and the Cavaliers’ patient, selfless offense is set up to beat great defenses. Virginia thrives late in the shot clock, with many of its points coming at the end of the clock. The Red Raiders’ limitations rebounding can also turn into an opportunity for Virginia to break down a great defense. Key has been especially adept at crashing the offensive glass, and junior forward Mamadi Diakite can also come up with easy putback baskets.

The road to the National Championship

The road to the National Championship will not be easy for the only remaining No. 1 seed in the tournament. But Virginia has what it takes to come out on top — a highly efficient offense and defense, with multiple difference-makers that can step up in clutch time.

Virginia will first have to get past red-hot Auburn Saturday night to get to the program’s first ever National Championship game. Tip-off is set for 6:09 p.m. in Minneapolis, Minn. The game will be aired on CBS.

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