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What to Expect From Michigan State, Texas Tech, Virginia, and Auburn in the Final Four

The NCAA tournament field has been whittled down from 68 teams to four. Here’s what each team has to do to cut down the nets in Minneapolis.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After two weeks and 64 games, the NCAA tournament’s field of contenders has been whittled down to four. On Saturday, Texas Tech stunned Gonzaga to reach its first national semifinal in school history, and Virginia outlasted Carsen Edwards and Purdue to return to the Final Four for the first time since 1984. A day later, Auburn extended its winning streak to 12 games, beating Kentucky, while Michigan State eliminated Zion Williamson and Duke.

On April 6, in Minneapolis, Virginia will play Auburn, and Michigan State will face Texas Tech, but before the games tip, here are a few things to know about each team in the Final Four.

No. 5 Seed Auburn (Winner of Midwest Region)

How They Got Here

The Tigers’ run to the Final Four is one of March Madness’s biggest surprises. They finished an up-and-down regular season with a 22-9 record overall (11-7 in conference play) before ripping off four consecutive wins in the SEC tournament, capped by an 84-64 drubbing of Tennessee in the championship game. Not unlike Connecticut in 2011, or Michigan last year, Auburn entered the Big Dance as the hottest team in the country.

After narrowly escaping their opening-round matchup against New Mexico State, the Tigers caught fire, shooting 43.3 percent from beyond the arc in an 89-75 victory against Kansas, and 45.9 percent in a 97-80 smackdown of North Carolina. The win against the Tar Heels came at a cost, though, as star forward Chuma Okeke suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the game. Auburn struggled without him in the Elite Eight against Kentucky, especially in defending PJ Washington, who scored 28 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, but timely performances by Jared Harper (26 points) and Bryce Brown (24 points) were enough to push Auburn past the Cats and into its first Final Four.

Why They’ll Win

Bruce Pearl knows what the Tigers are good at, and he makes sure they do it often. Auburn ranks 15th nationally in 3-point conversion rate and nails 38.3 percent of its attempts. Virginia connects at a slightly higher rate, 39.4 percent, but the Hoos don’t take nearly as many shots from deep. Almost half of Auburn’s field goal attempts this season came from beyond the arc, and its success from there has given it the sixth-most efficient offense in the country, per KenPom.

Brown and Harper give the Tigers a consistent threat on offense. The 6-foot-3 Brown is averaging 16 points per game on 41 percent shooting from 3, and the 5-foot-11 Harper adds 15.4 points on 37 percent, along with nearly six assists per contest. Virginia plays at a glacial pace to limit the number of possessions in a game. The Cavaliers are confident that no team can score as efficiently as they can, but a high-volume 3-point shooting team presents a challenge. In two of Virginia’s three losses this season—to Duke in February, and Florida State in the ACC tournament—its opponent hit at least 37 percent of its attempts from 3. Edwards kept Purdue close to the Cavs by making 10 3-pointers. If Auburn is firing on all cylinders from deep, it will be hard for any team, even Virginia, to keep pace with the Tigers.

Why They’ll Lose

Okeke’s injury is a devastating blow. He was one of Auburn’s better shooters and connected on 38.8 percent of his attempts from 3, but he was also an adept rebounder and collected 11 percent of Auburn’s misses. In his limited time against North Carolina, Okeke had 20 points and 11 rebounds, including four on the offensive glass. Auburn struggled against Kentucky without him, shooting just 30.4 percent from 3, and was outrebounded as a team, 38-33.

The Cavaliers have length at every position and play some of the most suffocating defense in college basketball. In Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite, the Hoos have two capable bodies down low, and De’Andre Hunter’s versatility and defensive prowess give Virginia the ability to get creative in its defensive matchups. At full strength, Auburn might be able to go punch-for-punch with the streaking Cavs. But without Okeke, the task is much more difficult.

No. 2 Seed Michigan State (Winner of East Region)

How They Got Here

The Spartans toppled Duke, 68-67, to reach their eighth Final Four under head coach Tom Izzo and third since 2010. After starting the season with a loss to Kansas in the Champions Classic, Michigan State rebounded by winning 18 of its next 19 games. Despite a three-game losing streak during the middle of Big Ten play, it still earned a share of the conference regular-season title and beat Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan en route to a Big Ten title.

Michigan State mowed through its first three opponents in the tourney, beating Bradley, Minnesota, and LSU by a combined 48 points. The most impressive victory, however, came in the Elite Eight against the Blue Devils, when the Spartans overcame a late deficit to beat the championship favorite. In 12 previous matchups against Mike Krzyzewski, Izzo went 1-11. Sunday’s victory avenged Michigan State’s loss to Duke in the 2015 Final Four.

Why They’ll Win

Michigan State doesn’t typically record many steals, but it tallied 11 against Duke and forced 17 turnovers. For the better part of the past two decades, MSU has been known for its defense, and this season is no different. The Spartans are ranked eighth in the country, per KenPom, and hold opponents to the fourth-lowest effective field goal percentage. Much of that has to do with the amount of time they force opponents to take on each possession. On average, teams spend 18.4 seconds before attempting a field goal, and the looks they get aren’t always clean.

On offense, more than two-thirds of Michigan State’s made field goals come via an assist, the highest rate in the nation, many of which are thanks to the slick passing of Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston. The adage that a ball-dominant point guard is essential to a deep tourney run may not stack up empirically, but anecdotally, Winston is the latest in a long line of superhero ball handlers. He leads the team in assists with 7.6 per game and in scoring with 18.9 points. Michigan State will need Winston to continue to be at his best to win it all.

Why They’ll Lose

Despite relatively sure-handed outings in their past two contests against Duke and LSU, Michigan State turns the ball over on 18.5 percent of its possessions, which ranks 176th in the country. The Spartans also rank 342nd of 353 Division I teams in opponent turnover rate. That might be a problem against a Texas Tech team that forces turnovers on 23 percent of its opponents’ possessions. The Red Raiders aren’t just the best defense Michigan State has played all season—they’re the best in the country, ranked first in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.

No. 3 Seed Texas Tech (Winner of West Region)

How They Got Here

Texas Tech won 15 of its first 16 games this season (the only loss was to Duke). It struggled early in Big 12 play, losing four of six games during a two-week stretch, but closed the regular season on a nine-game winning streak and secured a share of the Big 12 regular-season championship. The Red Raiders dispatched Northern Kentucky and Buffalo in the opening two rounds and held a dangerous Michigan team to just 44 points in a 19-point victory in the Sweet 16. Tech’s win against Gonzaga in the Elite Eight on Saturday was the most complete game the Red Raiders played all season. Jarrett Culver and guard Matt Mooney combined for 36 points, seven assists, and six steals.

Why They’ll Win

It’s hard to win a game if you can’t score—a thought that’s surely crossed the minds of every team that’s played against Texas Tech’s menacing defense this season. The Red Raiders block shots at the sixth-highest rate in the nation and hold opponents to impressively low shooting percentages both inside and outside of the arc.

The Red Raiders are well suited to minimize the effectiveness of Michigan State’s guards. They tend to run smaller lineups and Culver, who is 6-foot-5, is the most skilled player remaining in the tournament and can play and defend almost any position on the court. Texas Tech held Gonzaga guards Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr. to 39 percent shooting from the field.

Why They’ll Lose

Since 2002, the earliest year KenPom data is available, only one team (2014 Connecticut) has won the national championship with an offense ranked outside the top 20. The Red Raiders are ranked 30th. Culver is a potential top-five pick in June’s NBA draft, but his decision-making on offense is occasionally suspect. As The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor pointed out, he tends to take unforced and misguided midrange jumpers early in the shot clock and often telegraphs his passes. His backcourt partners Mooney and Davide Moretti are serviceable, but combine to score only about four more points per game than Culver does on his own. If Culver struggles, so will Tech.

And though their defense is fearsome, the Red Raiders foul opponents at a high rate, which doesn’t bode well against a Michigan State team that hits 75.2 percent of its free throws.

No. 1 Seed Virginia (Winner of South Region)

How They Got Here

After a year of listening to UMBC jokes, the Cavaliers finally showed their potential and reached their first Final Four under Tony Bennett and the program’s first since 1984. Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before: Virginia plays at the slowest pace in the country. It shoots with a deadeye from beyond the arc. Its lineup consists of interchangeable playmakers with names that sound like they were auto-generated by NBA 2K (Jack Salt, Jay Huff, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy), and this is the year they’re going to break through and use that lauded defense to win a national title.

The Cavaliers might make good on that promise this season. Virginia has lost three times, twice to Duke, and won a share of the ACC regular-season title, its fourth in six years. The Hoos haven’t thoroughly decimated an opponent in the NCAA tournament. They struggled early against Gardner-Webb and looked shaky in subsequent victories against Oklahoma, Oregon, and Purdue. But they are the last remaining top seed in the field and the favorites to cut down the nets in Minneapolis.

Why They’ll Win

The biggest advantage the Hoos have this year is something they were missing last March: De’Andre Hunter. The sophomore wing, who sat out last year’s loss to 16-seed UMBC with a wrist injury, might be the most highly regarded draft prospect Tony Bennett has ever coached. The 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward can defend multiple positions, shoots 42.4 percent from 3, and is the linchpin to one of the most impressive defenses in college basketball.

That defense—once the architect of Virginia’s demise—has at times looked impenetrable this season, and the Cavaliers balance it out with the second-most efficient offense in the country. It’s a thing of beauty to watch Virginia defend: players moving in unison and filling open spaces with precision. It’s college basketball’s version of the Spanish soccer team Atlético Madrid, which similarly relies on closely coordinated movement and active defending to stifle attacks.

Why They’ll Lose

Playing at a tortoise’s pace gives Virginia total control of almost every situation. But when the Cavaliers fall behind and have to push the tempo, they become slightly uncomfortable, as was the case against Purdue in the Elite Eight, when Edwards scored 42 points and hit almost 53 percent of his attempts from deep. Keeping up with hot-shooting teams has been an issue for Virginia all season. The Cavaliers are more than capable of filling it up—their offensive efficiency this season would rank in the top four of any season since KenPom starting tracking the metric in 2002. But if Auburn can catch fire the way it did against Kansas and North Carolina, and the Hoos have to abandon their tried-and-tested methods, Virginia’s first trip to the Final Four in decades could end with a loss.