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Marching through March Madness

The bell rung on Sunday’s Elite Eight action. The fat lady sung. Charles Barkley was in tears on television.

“This is the greatest day in Auburn history,” Barkley said.

Entering this week’s Elite Eight matchups, this year’s NCAA tournament felt like another generic run. Duke was sure to dance last. Watching this year’s Madness unwind has been different than last year’s Loyola shock-campaign. Most of the teams in the Eight Eight and now the Final Four are all within the top-five seeds.

But over the weekend, several brackets across the country were flipped, kicked and knocked permanently unconscious. Thanks to a weekend of carnage cast straight from the fingertips of the college basketball gods, Kentucky and Duke are done for the year. Only Texas Tech, Michigan State, Virginia, and Auburn have survived.

A Final Four berth is a first for Texas Tech and Auburn. Virginia last made the Final Four in 1984, when the Cavaliers lost to the Akeem Olajuwon-led Houston Cougars. Michigan State made the Final Four last back in 2000. They defeated the Florida Gators for the title.

Any way you shake it, one of the teams in this year’s championship game will be there for the very first time.

History is an incredible weight to bear on any young man’s shoulders. Which of these four teams make it out of next weekend’s matchups alive?

TEXAS TECH RED RAIDERS

Record: 30-6, No. 3 Seed in West Regional

Tournament Victims: 1st round-No. 14 Northern Kentucky; 2nd round-No. 6 Buffalo; Sweet Sixteen-No. 2 Michigan; Elite 8-No. 1 Gonzaga

The Red Raiders cruised through the first three rounds. It wasn’t until they took down Michigan that heads began to turn. A 75-69 victory over the Wolverines wasn’t telling of a lopsided defensive demonstration.

Texas Tech drew Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. The Raiders lock-down defense shut down the wildly efficient Gonzaga offense.The Bulldogs were held to only 0.9 points-per-possession Saturday. The opening 10 minutes of Saturday’s second half were dominated entirely by Tech’s length.

If anyone has a case to make for favorites to win it all, it may be the Raiders. Their 84.0 defensive efficiency rating is the best in college basketball since Memphis’ 2009 tournament run. They’re the Pittsburgh Steelers of college basketball. Michigan State will look to take advantage of the Raider’s weakness at the boards next weekend. Texas Tech enters Final Four play with a slim rebound margin of only -1.4.

Player To Watch: Davide Moretti

Stats: 12.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.5 APG, 33.3% 3PT.

A blowout in the Final Four is a rarity. Expect no exceptions when the Raiders square off against Michigan State. It may very well come down to perimeter looks in the closing minutes next weekend, and Moretti’s been a sniper all season. He went 5-for-8 against Gonzaga, and hit a pair of late threes to dagger the Bulldogs back home.

VIRGINIA CAVALIERS

Record: 33-3, No. 1 seed in South Regional

Tournament Victims: First round-Gardner-Webb; Second round-Oklahoma; Sweet Sixteen-Oregon; Elite Eight-Purdue

The Cavaliers have had to earn it. Nothing has been easy for Virginia this March. The Cavaliers were nearly upset by Gardner-Webb in the opening round and squeaked away from Oregon.

With the seconds spilling away in Sunday’s game against Purdue, it looked like the Boilermakers were going to upset Virginia. A lay-in by Mamandi Diakite at the buzzer forced overtime. Virginia barely escaped the extra period, holding on for an 80-75 win. They’ve been bounced early from the tournament the last couple years, after being seeded high. The Cavaliers finally look to be utilizing their abilities for the final two games.

Player to Watch: Kyle Guy

Stats: 11.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.3 APG, 21.1% 3PT

Sunday’s match almost ended early for the Virginia guard. Guy twisted his ankle near the end of the first half against Purdue. The senior sprung back, hitting five threes and scoring 21 points the rest of the game. Virginia’s becoming accustomed to tough games, and if next weekend is no different, the Cavaliers may have to rely on Guy’s hot hand to hang on ‘till the end.

AUBURN TIGERS

Record: 30-9, No. 5 seed in Midwest Regional

Tournament Victims: First round-New Mexico State; Second round- Kansas; Sweet Sixteen-North Carolina; Elite Eight-Kentucky

Ask how the Auburn Tigers made it this far, and you’ll get a pretty simple answer. Steals, blocks, and conversions. Auburn’s become the feisty upstart of the tournament. They’re scrappy, they’re young and they’re hungry, entering their first-ever Final Four berth.

No ones forced more turnovers this season. Against Kentucky, the Tigers recorded at least 10 steals for the 18th time this year. The Tigers are 27-2 when they record at least eight steals, and they’ve done just that for the last 12 games.

Steals mean nothing if the offender can’t convert on the other end. The Tigers have shot 42-of-98 from three-point range throughout March. They struggled from the perimeter against Kentucky, but were still able to notch 10 steals and seven blocks on their way to a 77-71 Elite Eight victory.

Auburn has a different feel than Cinderella’s of March’s past. They’ve gone through the three winningest programs in NCAA history in one tournament. Like Texas Tech, they struggle on the boards. The Tigers will need to create as many offensive opportunities off turnovers as they can next weekend.

Player to Watch: Jared Harper

Stats: 17.5 PPG, 6.5 APG, 30.8% 3PT

Auburn’s been lights-out from the three all year. Their best player has struggled to find his stroke in the tournament. He hit four threes in the opening round, and has been quiet from beyond the arch ever since. Harper has found his worth in other ways. He recorded his first two blocks of the season Sunday, and the sophomore is regarded as the emotional heart and center of the young Tiger team.

MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS

Record: 32-6, No. 2 Seed in East Regional

Tournament Victims: First round-Bradley; Second round-Minnesota; Sweet Sixteen-LSU; Elite Eight-Duke

Michigan State was having a hard time stealing the ball. The Spartans have ranked No. 342 in defensive turnover percentage on the season.

But that all changed Sunday. The Spartans needed a miracle to overcome the top-seeded Duke, and that miracle came in the defensive statline. For the first time in 72 games, Michigan State managed 11 steals in a single contest. Duke won the game in every other statistical category. Michigan State’s biggest weakness became their biggest strength. The Spartans finished plus-10 in turnover margin, going up against one of the best turnover-forcing defenses in the country.

Next weekend, the outcome may come down to a single stat all over again. From the free throw line, the Spartans have been one of the most consistent teams in the country. They have a date with Texas Tech, a defensive team notorious for sending opponents to the line.

Player to Watch: Cassius Winston

Stats: 19.0 PPG, 7.8 APG, 1.5 SPG, 40.0% 3PT

Winston’s not a flashy player by any means. He’s a steady contributor on both ends of the floor. In his three seasons as a Spartan, Winston’s ranked second in the country in assist rates. He is a career 43 percent three-point shooter and 84 percent free-throw shooter. Texas Tech’s defense may be able to nullify the other Spartans, but look for Michigan State to rely on the consistent hand of Cassius Winston.

The matchups are set. The four teams have plenty of time to celebrate, as Final Four play kicks off next weekend, April 6, in Minneapolis. At 5:09, Auburn tips off against Virginia. The Texas Tech Red Raiders go up against Tom Izzo’s Spartans at 7:49.

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