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Best Bets: Previewing the Final Four games

Purdue v Virginia

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY - MARCH 30: The Virginia Cavaliers raise the trophy after defeating the Purdue Boilermakers 80-75 in overtime of the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament South Regional to advance to the Final Four at KFC YUM! Center on March 30, 2019 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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No. 1 VIRGINIA vs. No. 5 AUBURN, 6:09 p.m.

  • LINE: Virginia (-5.5)
  • TOTAL: 131
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Virginia 68.75, Auburn 63.25
  • KENPOM: Virginia 70, Auburn 64

What’s fascinating about the way that this matchup is going to play out is that the things that Auburn does well are the things that Virginia’s roster is specifically built to take away.

Specifically, the transition game.

So much of what Auburn does offensively is a direct result of their ability to turn defense into offense, whether it is grabbing a defensive rebound and getting out in transition or forcing turnovers and turning those into layups. The thing about Virginia is that everything they do is specifically designed to take that away. They send two guys to the offensive glass at the most. They are one of the nation’s very best when it comes to avoiding turnovers. One of the keys for Auburn in this game is creating ways to be able to beat Virginia’s defense down the floor and score before they get set, but that is very much easier said than done.

The other part of this is that Virginia will not have to deal with finding a way to stop Chuma Okeke. Talk to coaches who have played Auburn and what they will tell you is that Bryce Brown is their most dangerous player, Jared Harper is their most important player and Okeke is their best player. He is the guy that makes it so that you get punished when you switch defensively. He is the guy that can beat up a smaller defender and pull a bigger defender away from the rim. He is one of the keys to their ability to get out in transition. Without him on the floor, it will be that much easier for Virginia to key in on Auburn’s two best players -- Harper and Brown.

The great equalizer here is that Auburn loves to shoot threes and Virginia’s defensive is more or less designed to force someone into shooting threes. If you are going to beat Virginia, you are going to have to make a whole bunch of tough jumpers. That’s precisely what Purdue did when they took Virginia to overtime in the Elite Eight. And not only does Auburn like to shoot threes, but they can make a lot of them on any given night. Danjel Purifoy hit four in a row in the second half against North Carolina. Bryce Brown is capable of reeling off six or seven threes in a half. Jared Harper can get it going from deep. J’Von McCormick and Malik Dunbar can make threes.

Auburn is really, really dangerous, and the thing that they do best is the thing that Virginia’s defense is designed to give up. Put another way, Tony Bennett can live with his opponents taking contested jumpers, but Auburn is good enough that they can beat just about anyone with contested jumpers.

PICK: I lean towards Virginia here, but I think I like the over more than either side.

No. 2 MICHIGAN STATE vs. No. 3 TEXAS TECH, 8:49 p.m.

  • LINE: Michigan State (-2.5)
  • TOTAL: 132.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Michigan State 67.5, Texas Tech 65
  • KENPOM: Michigan State 67, Texas Tech 66

This is another fascinating matchup of strength on strength.

There may not be an offense in the country that is better at getting a star point guard into a ball-screen. There may not be a team in the country that runs more ball-screens or has a more elaborate system of set plays to create those ball-screen actions.

Texas Tech?

Their entire premise defensively is doing what they can to take you out of what you want to do. They are going to keep your entire offense on one side of the floor if they can. They do not want to allow a ball reversal.

Where this becomes interesting is that Michigan State’s offense is exactly the kind of offense that you want to run against a defense that Texas Tech plays. They run a lot of weakside action. They reverse the ball. They have good screeners and execute their offense. This will be a fascinating battle of strength of strength.

PICK: I think Texas Tech is the side that you want to be on. I think that, picking straight up, I tend to lean slightly towards Michigan State because of their transition game. Cassius Winston is the best in the country at those hit-ahead passes, and if I was forced to pick a winner outright, I think that Michigan State’s ability to beat Texas Tech’s defense down the floor is the difference-maker.

That said, we aren’t picking outright. Texas Tech is getting 2.5 points, and if I can get 2.5 points in a game that is, more or less, a pick-em, then I’ll take the 2.5 points.