Michigan State is a 2-seed; Texas Tech a three; and both entered the NCAA Tournament firmly inside the top-10 of the national polls.
Yet, somehow, it feels improbable that they are the two teams playing in the Final Four, with a chance to represent either the Big Ten or the Big-12 in the National Championship.
The Spartans struggled to dispatch 15-seeded Bradley in the first round two weeks ago. Then they rolled Minnesota and LSU before slaying the dragon and taking down the No. 1 overall seed, Duke.
A chunk of so-called bracketologists had Texas Tech pinned as vulnerable in the first round against Northern Kentucky. They said the Red Raiders wouldn’t have enough offense to navigate through a tough West Region that included Gonzaga and Michigan, as well as the Buffalo Bulls in their direct path. Well, Tech killed the Bulls, out-defended Michigan, and then stormed past Gonzaga in the second half.
MSU has overcome injuries most, even Tom Izzo at one time, thought to be insurmountable, at least in terms of winning a National Title. Texas Tech is basic, vanilla, unspectacular. But both teams are playing incredibly together team basketball with a single identity and immense will to win. It’s almost hard to believe one is going to have to beat the other on Saturday night.
The oddsmakers have tabbed the Spartans as 3-point favorites with a total in the low-130s, as of Tuesday.
Cassius Winston has been the MVP of college basketball this season. He’s started every game for Michigan State, played over 33 minutes per game, and has carried the scoring load for most of the grueling Big Ten schedule.
It’s only been of late, after Nick Ward went down and Xavier Tillman became a permanent member of the starting rotation, that it has felt like Winston hasn’t had to do nearly as much to will his team to victory. Michigan State hasn’t discovered a big-time scorer that was buried on its bench, it’s simply moving the ball better, getting better efforts from guys like Tillman, Gabe Brown, and Aaron Henry, who just weren’t ready to the role they were thrust into when the injuries started piling up, and turning defense into offense.
On a day Duke force-fed Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, MSU used its offensive unpredictability to its advantage. Winston had 20; Tillman scored 19; and Kenny Goins turned in 10. All of them had big baskets down the stretch as Duke failed to get the ball to Williamson and Barrett in spots on the floor because the Spartans simply knew what was coming.
Defending Texas Tech will be a different story because the Red Raiders are a lot more like Michigan State than any other team the Spartans have faced lately, perhaps even at all this season. Jarrett Culver was underrated before breaking onto the scene in this NCAA Tournament. He does for Tech what Winston does for MSU, which is just score the ball and get difficult buckets. Winston does a little more than that with his playmaking but Culver has bumped his assist numbers up in March, while taking care of the ball just as well. He’s played himself into the conversation to be a top-3 pick in this summer’s NBA Draft.
The similarities don’t just stop with personnel, though it does go all the way down the line, through the rotation players and down the bench. Neither team depends on freshmen but both coaches do play a couple. Each team has a few key seniors but isn’t loaded with them, either.
It’s the identities of both teams that have me convinced this one is going under a relatively small total. Both defenses like to muck it up a bit and both coaches stress limiting the opponent to one shot and extinguishing fastbreaks. It all adds up to very few easy baskets.
So I’m thinking it’ll be a game to 60. If not, 65 points should do it. Given the way things have gone in this year’s Tournament, I’m more worried about overtime than anything else. More so than Virginia/Auburn on the other side, this game feels like a lock to go down to the final minutes. I just don’t see either team pushing 70 in what will be a nervy, hard-nosed Final Four affair.
Play: Under 132.5