The first team to book its spot in the 2019 Final Four set a fitting tone for the field. With its 75-69 win over Gonzaga, Texas Tech became one of two teams headed to Minneapolis that has never been to the Final Four.
Tech's run is a fascinating story not just for the program's relative lack of historic success. After a surprise Elite Eight run a season ago, the Red Raiders lost five of their six top scorers. After being a common pick to finish last in the Big 12 during the preseason, head coach Chris Beard oversaw a surprising reload, then it was Guns Up. With the emergence of Jarrett Culver as a surprise potential NBA lottery pick, and Tech embracing the most tenacious defense in college basketball, the Red Raiders rode to 30 wins and a national semifinal matchup with the only 2019 Final Four participant to have appeared in this round in the last 35 years.
Final Fours are nothing new for Michigan State, but after the Spartans reached their seventh Final Four since 1999 to cap the '15 campaign, Michigan State endured three straight first-weekend exits. This year's Michigan State squad, loaded with savvy veterans but lacking marquee NBA draft prospects like Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges, recaptured past Sparty magic.
Michigan State now sits two wins shy of the program's first national championship since 2000. With one of the most decorated coaches in the game (Tom Izzo), the Spartans have to solve a defense overseen by Beard, who just six years ago headed up a Div. III program.
Final Four: Texas Tech Red Raiders (30-6) vs. Michigan State Spartans (32-6)
Time: Approximately 8:49 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: U.S. Bank Stadium (Minneapolis)
Keys for Texas Tech
College basketball's best defense imposed its will on Buffalo's No. 20-ranked adjusted efficiency offense en route to a Round of 32 blowout; held Michigan to a modern-day NCAA Tournament record-low 44 points in the Sweet 16; then completed the program's first-ever Final Four run by holding the nation's No. 1 offense, Gonzaga, 20 points below its season-long scoring average.
It's a painful cliche to write "defense wins championships," but at this juncture, it's a difficult concept to argue. Indeed, Texas Tech thrives with defense, and it will need another exemplary effort against its fourth consecutive opponent with an offense ranked in the top 20 nationally of KenPom.com metrics for adjusted efficiency. The Spartans put forth one of their best performances on the offensive end to reach the Final Four; not necessarily in point totals, but rather with the aggressive manner in which it attacked Duke.
The Michigan State roster is diverse in how it can go at a defense. Combo guard Cassius Winston is dynamic off the dribble and can shoot the 3-pointer; Xavier Tillman attacks the rim effectively; Nick Ward is a presence inside; Aaron Henry is remarkably efficient. Texas Tech must come through with another all-around effective defensive game, particularly if it can generate some turnovers (the Red Raiders forced 16 against Gonzaga) and swat some shots. With Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase on the interior, Tech has an elite shot-blocking defense.
But beyond the obvious of its defensive intensity, Texas Tech has flourished in this NCAA Tournament with a well-rounded offense that perfectly complements the defensive intensity. Jarrett Culver is the driving force behind Tech's offense, employing a smooth perimeter game with fluid ball-handling and a quick first step. He's also an outstanding passer, setting up teammates for clean looks.
If Culver isn't hitting early, as was the case in the Elite Eight win over Gonzaga, Texas Tech needs Matt Mooney and Davide Morretti to connect on 3-point looks. Opponents haven't made many shots from beyond the arc with much consistency against Michigan State, which comes in allowing opponents to shoot just 31.4 percent (32nd in the nation) from 3-point range.
Keys for Michigan State
Michigan State's commitment to pushing fast break opportunities in situations it may not typically against Duke, like after missed shots or on the occasional make, could take Texas Tech's defense out of its comfort zone. It was an effective strategy for Gonzaga against the Red Raiders — to a point.
The Zags led at halftime and notched 37 points against Tech's stingy defense using an especially aggressive fast-break approach. What hamstrung Gonzaga, and the highest hurdle facing Michigan State's offense in the Final Four, is avoiding turnovers. Texas Tech garners takeaways on 23.1 percent of opponent possessions, 11th in the nation. That's a facet Michigan State has struggled with at times this season, coughing up the ball on 18.5 percent of its possessions. That ranks 147th in college basketball.
Cutting down on turnovers is critical because every possession must be maximized against an opponent with the grinding style of Texas Tech. Not only are the Red Raiders constantly harassing opponents on defense, but they deploy a No. 28-ranked offensive efficiency while sitting on the ball for an average of almost 19 seconds per possession. Longer possessions on the defensive end lead to increased urgency on offense, which feeds directly into Tech's turnover-creating style.
Getting Nick Ward looks in the post will be a challenge. Chris Beard said following the Elite Eight win that Tech excels at creating turnovers from would-be post-entry passes, or on kick-outs from the post back to the wing. Ward is responsible for 28.1 percent of all Michigan State shot attempts, and has a possession percentage of 29.4 percent — equal to that of Cassius Winston.
Winston's ability to create openings off the dribble will be crucial to opening the floor for the Spartans' offense.
Teams do not reach this point in the NCAA Tournament without either being fully invested in their philosophy, or getting hot at the right time. Texas Tech and Michigan State are cases of both. Michigan State caught fire during the Big Ten Tournament, culminating in a season sweep of Michigan, and has ridden it to four different, but all equally impressive, showings in the NCAA Tournament.
Texas Tech stumbled early in the Big 12 Tournament against last-place West Virginia, but if anything the momentary lapse in a stellar season ignited an even stronger passion in the Red Raiders to execute Beard's game plan. The team emphasizes a motto of "The Secret is in the Dirt," and Tech will gladly roll around in a proverbial street fight. But with Culver on the floor, the Red Raiders also play an effective offensive style that can keep pace with more explosive teams.
This is a tremendous matchup between two deep, veteran, and well-coached teams playing their best basketball at the perfect time. Keeping in the theme of the Elite Eight, this Final Four matchup could provide an instant classic. After Owens made a play reminiscent against Gonzaga of Hakim Warrick's championship-sealing block in the 2003 Final Four, the stage is set for Texas Tech's defense to again make the difference.