8:49 EST, CBS – Line: Michigan State -3, Over/Under: 133
While nobody quite expected this to be the other matchup in the Final Four, it can certainly be expected that this second National Semifinal featuring the Third-Seeded Texas Tech Red Raiders and the Second-Seeded Michigan State Spartans will be a defensive war worthy of mythic lore. The most unlikely participant at this stage of the Big Dance, Texas Tech (30-6, 14-4 in Big XII) have nonetheless built quite the resume’ at this juncture, and a closer look at it will reveal a team that is every bit of worthy of their current standing in the tourney. In his third season in Lubbock, Chris Beard has guided the Red Raiders to their most successful season in school history, matching a program record with Thirty Victories, snapping Kansas’ fourteen-year reign over the Big XII and winning the league for the first time since joining it back in 1996, all the while advancing to their first Final Four. Winners of thirteen of their past fourteen outings, Beard’s charges have earned the lion’s share of their success on the defensive end of the floor, where they have become one of the staunchest teams in the country. On the season, Tech has relegated opponents to an average of 59.0 Points (3rd Overall) on 36.9% shooting from the field (2nd Overall), including 42.0% from within the arc (3rd Overall) and 29.3% beyond it (10th Overall), while permitting 9.8 Assists (19th Overall) and forcing 15.7 Turnovers (12th Overall). Furthermore, during their current four-game run through this NCAA Tournament they’ve cranked up the defensive pressure a few more notches, they’ve held the opposition to 57.0 Points on 37.4% shooting from the field, including 23.4% from downtown, and 11.0 Assists, while forcing 15.0 Turnovers per Game. The Raiders ran through their first two opponents, No. 14 Northern Kentucky (72-57) and No. 6 Buffalo (78-58) like a proverbial buzz-saw, but what they managed to do to Second-Seeded Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen opened the eyes of the world to this team’s quality. Simply put, the 63-44 drubbing of the Wolverines was a dissertation in defense. You’d have never known that Michigan was one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country after watching this particular matchup, for Beard’s troops suffocated the Big Ten denizens, rendering them largely inert throughout he First Half, permitting just Sixteen Points in the first twenty minutes of action. While they struggled to score themselves in the First Half (24 PTS), they had no trouble doing so in the Second, outscoring the Maize and Blue 39-28. On the night, they could only manage shooting a disastrous 32.7% from the field, including just 1-of-19 from beyond the arc (05.3%), and committed more Turnovers (14) than Assists (9). Big XII Player of the Year Jarrett Culver (18.9 PTS, 47.6% FG, 31.6% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.5 BLK, 26.1 PER) led the way with Twenty-Two Points on 9-of-19 shooting (47.4%), with Four rebounds, Four Assists, and Three Steals, while fellow Sophomore Guard Davide Moretti (11.6 PTS, 50.2% FG, 46.3% 3FG, 2.0 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 17.5 PER) added another Fifteen Points on 5-of-7 shooting (71.4%), including 3-of-4 from three (75.0%), with Four Assists of his own to boot.
When we last saw Texas Tech, their defensive juggernaut continued unabated as they eliminated the West Region’s Top Seed, Gonzaga, in a 75-69 war. After humiliating Michigan, the fact that they bested the most prolific offensive team in the country should come as hardly any surprise. Trailing 35-37 at Halftime, Beard’s troops simply grinded away in the Second Half, with the aforementioned Moretti knocking down back-to-back threes in the game’s waning moments, followed by a pair of crucial defensive plays that secured their late lead. Moretti himself came up with a huge steal, while Tariq Owens (8.9 PTS, 61.3% FG, 24.1% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 0.8 AST, 0.5 STL, 2.4 BLK, 22.8 PER) logged a monumental Block on the Zags’ Rui Hachimura with just Fifty-Six Seconds left to play. When it was all said and done, the Red Raiders’ Defense dropped another offensive machine, relegating the Bulldogs to 42.4% shooting from the field, including 7-of-26 from beyond the arc (26.9%), harassing them into Fifteen Turnovers in comparison to dishing out just Eight Assists, and collecting Nine Steals and Eight Blocks. Culver once again lead Tech ins coring with Nineteen Points, but overcame a largely disappointing shooting performance (5-of-19), only to make up for it from the Charity Stripe where he netted all but one of his Eight Free-Throws. Moretti added Twelve Points, while Matt Mooney (11.0 PTS, 42.2% FG, 38.1% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.9 STL, 14.8 PER) scored Seventeen Points on 6-of-12 shooting (50.0%), with the triumvirate of players providing swarming defense in racking up a combined Eight Steals.
Meanwhile, stop us if you’ve heard this headline before: “Tom Izzo leads a tough, veteran-laden Michigan State (32-6,16-4 in Big Ten) to a Final Four”. Granted, this is their seventh trip to the National Semifinal in the twenty-four years that Izzo has been in charge at East Lansing, and their first since 2015. Now, they’ll be looking to get past this hurdle, for over his esteemed career, the veteran Head Coach is just 2-4 at this stage of the NCAA Tournament, with his lone National Championship coming nineteen years ago. It’s been another solid campaign for the Spartans, who despite going 79-26 over the course of the previous three seasons, have struggled to advance past the First Weekend of the Tournament, flaming out in the Second Round of each of the last two Big Dances. It seems that the disappointment and failure in the previous tourneys has served as fuel for the upperclassmen, who have played a huge role in their road to this point. After a dismal three-game losing streak in midseason, Michigan State has won fourteen of their past fifteen contests, claiming both the Big Ten Regular Season Championship and the Big Ten Tournament Title in the process, with the opportunity for a rare trifecta in their grasp. Overshadowed by some of the other powerhouses in the Tournament, or more particularly their own Region (which we’ll get into shortly), the Spartans have made relatively quick work of just about all of their opponents in route to the Final Four, dismantling Fifteen Seed Bradley (76-65), Ten Seed Minnesota (70-50), and Three Seed LSU (80-63) by a cumulative average of 16.0 Points per Game, shooting a healthy 48.5% from the field, including 36.4% from beyond the arc, and dishing out 15.7 Assists in comparison to committing 11.7 Turnovers, while relegating the opposition to 37.2% shooting overall, including 26.6% from downtown, and 9.0 Assists opposed to 7.3 Turnovers. Oh, and as they typically do under Izzo, they have absolutely bludgeoned their opponents on the glass, outrebounding them by a whopping 15.3 Rebounds. Even against a bigger, athletic unit like Louisiana State, the Big Ten Champions proved to be the far superior side, racing out to a huge early lead before entering Halftime with a 40-28 advantage. The Tigers managed to shoot just 39.3% from the floor, including 6-of-21 from three (28.6%), handed out juts Eight Assists, ad were outrebounded 36-28. Michigan State on the other hand, bombed away with reckless abandon from the perimeter, knocking down a scorching 13-of-32 Three-Pointers (40.6%), outscoring their counterpart by a decisive Twenty-One Points, and assisting on Twenty-Two of their Thirty-One Field Goals. Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston (18.9 PTS, 46.7% FG, 40.4% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 7.6 AST, 1.0 STL, 25.5 PER) had Seventeen Points on 7-of-16 shooting (43.8%), including 3-of-7 from the perimeter (42.9%), along with Eight Assists, while Aaron Henry (5.9 PTS, 48.4% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.5 BLK, 12.9 PER) scored a game-high Twenty Points on 9-of-14 shooting (64.3%), with Eight Rebounds, Six Assists, a Steal and Block. Seldom used fellow Freshman Forward, Gabe Brown (2.3 PTS, 41.1% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 1.1 REB, 12.8 PER) came off the Bench to score Fifteen Points, drilling 4-of-6 attempts from three (66.7%).
When we last saw Michigan State, it was a different kind of affair altogether as they matchup with the No One Overall Seed in the NCAA Tournament, Duke in a titanic Elite Eight battle, featuring two of the sport’s most successful and high-profile Coaches, and college basketball’s most electrifying talent, Blue Devils’ Freshman Zion Williamson. Despite barely surviving each of their previous two outings, the Devils were still thought to be the heavy favorites, for Mike Krzyzewski’s program has proven to be a nightmare for Izzo’s, besting him four times out of five meetings in the Big Dance, and eleven out of twelve overall. And it was with that said, that the Spartans proceeded to take the game directly to their opponent, grinding their way to a seismic 68-67 victory, upsetting the favorite to cut the down the nets in Minneapolis. Offensively, their efficient ways continued in the East Regional Final, overcoming 42.9% shooting, including a disappointing 6-of-19 from downtown (31.6%), by assisting on Eighteen of their Thirty Field Goals, and taking excellent care of the basketball committing just Six Turnovers. They also battled Duke on the glass, and despite getting outrebounded 3-41, they held their own on the offensive end where they secured a slew of second-chance opportunities with Eleven Offensive Rebounds opposed to their counterpart’s Twelve. And then there was Winston, who personified this team’s mentality, scoring Twenty Points and dishing out Ten Assists, making or assisting on all but eleven of the Spartan’s Field Goals. After hitting collecting an Offensive Rebound via his own miss and drilling a Three, Winston found Fifth-Year Senior Kenny Goins (8.1 PTS, 41.1% FG, 35.2% 3FG, 9.0 REB, 2.3 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.3 BLK, 16.6 PER), who previously missed his first four attempts from the perimeter, only to drain the go-ahead triple to take a 68-66 lead with 34.3 seconds remaining on the clock. Duke had a chance to possibly send the game to Overtime, but one of their other star Freshman, R.J. Barrett missed one of his two Free-Throws, and with just Four Team Fouls on their ledger, were unable to stop the clock and Send Michigan State to the Charity Stripe, effectively ending the game.