This national championship game is going to be a clinic on defense.
Virginia and Texas Tech are the last two teams alive in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and they’re here because they barely let their opponents breathe with the ball.
Two of the three best defenses in the nation will meet for the championship on Monday night, the first appearance in the final for each program. So after surviving a low-scoring semifinal on Saturday, here come the Cavaliers and the Red Raiders for another clash of the paint packers, ball hawkers and board crashers.
Virginia stunned Auburn 63-62 when Kyle Guy sank three free throws with 0.6 seconds left after a late foul call. Then Texas Tech grinded past Michigan State 61-51, buoyed by 22 points from Matt Mooney and bolstered by coach Chris Beard’s smothering defensive approach.
No matter the number of shots made, the trophy will be lifted and the confetti will be dropped either way at U.S. Bank Stadium, where 72,711 fans packed the 3-year-old football facility for the semifinal games. The last time the national title was awarded in Minneapolis was in 2001 when Duke beat Arizona at the Metrodome.
“Hopefully we won’t have to have a close game like that on Monday, but if we do, we have experienced it and I feel like we’re going to be ready,” said Virginia guard De’Andre Hunter, who had two of the Cavaliers’ nine blocks to go with 14 points on the other end.
The last big-time sporting event held in this building was the Super Bowl just 14 months ago when the Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots 41-33 in the second-highest-scoring NFL title game in league history.
The chance of Virginia and Texas Tech establishing a similar feat will be slim at best, considering the all-time record for combined points in an NCAA championship game is 182, when Kentucky beat Duke 94-88 in 1978. The Cavaliers (55.4) and Red Raiders (59.0) entered the Final Four ranked first and third, respectively, in the country in average points allowed per game.
To no surprise, gamblers seized on the under.
The projected scoring total for this NCAA final opened at 121 and bettors quickly drove it down to 117½ within an hour. Virginia opened as a 2-point favorite, and early action tightened the spread to 1 over Texas Tech.
“We just want to continue to be the underdog,” Red Raiders backup guard Brandone Francis said. “That’s what we embrace.”
Virginia has been a fixture in the top 10 of basketball data expert Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency rankings since the team’s breakout 2014 season under coach Tony Bennett. The Cavaliers entered the weekend fifth nationally with 88.7 points per 100 possessions, a metric factoring out their slower offensive pace and offering a sharper measure of performance than scoring averages depressed by low-possession games.
Texas Tech has made a rapid rise in three seasons under Beard, entering the Final Four with the best defensive efficiency rating (84.0) ever recorded in the KenPom ratings that date back to the 2002 season.
The Red Raiders had a 23-21 halftime edge on the Spartans, with the 44 combined first-half points marking the second fewest in a national semifinal in the shot-clock era that started in the 1985-86 season. Michigan State and Wisconsin totaled 36 first-half points in their Final Four game in 2000 when the Spartans topped a Badgers team coached by Dick Bennett, the father of Tony Bennett and originator of the pack line scheme the Cavaliers have perfected.
Against Virginia, the Tigers shot only 9-for-26 from the field in the second half. Leading scorer Bryce Brown finished 4-for-12 from the floor, but he was 1-for-7 until the final 4½ minutes.
A few hours later, the Spartans trudged off the court after making only 8 of 24 shots from the floor after halftime against Texas Tech. Cassius Winston, Michigan State’s first team All-America point guard, had 16 points but made just 4 of 16 from the field. That was his third-worst percentage of the season, the lowest in 13 games.
Virginia, the No. 1 seed from the South Region, gives the Atlantic Coast Conference a representative in the championship game for the fourth time in five years.
Even with this six-year run as one of the best teams in the country, the Cavaliers don’t have that Duke-North Carolina cachet. They’re best remembered for losing to UMBC last season, the only No. 1 seed to ever be beaten by a No. 16 seed. They’re also the program guilty of one of the biggest regular season upsets in history, when the Cavs lost to tiny Chaminade in 1982 as the No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll with all-time great Ralph Sampson in the paint.
Bennett beamed next to guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome at the podium afterward, recalling the pain of one year ago.
“Now to sit with them here brings great joy to my heart, it really does, because it’s good. That’s all I can say, and I’m so thankful,” Bennett said.
Texas Tech, the No. 3 seed in the West Region, has even less of a hoops history.
“Why not us? We’ve got good players. We’ve got a great university. We play in arguably the best league in the country,” Beard said, making the argument that, of course, coaches from three or four other conferences would dispute. “We won the Big 12 regular-season title. We’re a good team.”