Texas Tech vs Virginia : For the first time in 40 years, the national championship game will feature two schools that have never been this far before. That’s the first of at least a dozen notable and compelling storylines that set the table for Monday’s 9:20 p.m. ET tip, when college basketball will crown a champion and either Virginia or Texas Tech will win its first title in school history.
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UVA vs. TTU isn’t glitzy — it’s feisty. It’s an unprecedented defensive battle that will probably be decided in the 50s. The backward-thinking idea that a low-scoring game can’t be a rewarding, entertaining or worthwhile is one deserving of a Mamadi Diakate block (he had five of them vs. Auburn, you’ll recall).
“I didn’t get much sleep and I’m very tired but I’m very excited,” Diakite said Sunday, in essence speaking for all of us on the ground who are a part of this Final Four and eager to see how this fantastic 2019 bracket will cinch to its end.
Since the game will most likely only have 58-62 possessions, it’s also highly probable that we get a close contest. That, at least for me, is most important. You can ask for stars and huge programs and blue bloods, but what do we really want the final Monday night of every season? We want a close game. We want the national championship to be in doubt with a minute to go.
We also want great teams. We have that! It might not be the teams you thought, a month ago, would be here — Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Michigan, Michigan State or Tennessee — but it is the two teams that deserve it. And so we’ve got a great chance at a great game when UVA and TTU take the court at U.S. Bank Stadium.
And there’s even a little mystery. Tariq Owens’ ankle injury vs. Michigan State made for a dramatic moment, only amplified, literally, when he ran back to the bench in the second half. Beard didn’t give any update one way or the other on Owens’ status on Saturday. Hard to imagine how he doesn’t do everything in his power to play in the game, though.
Thanks to the evenness in coaching, personnel, at least three surefire NBA players, defense and a lot more, Wahoos vs. Red Raiders should deliver. Rock fight? Eh, I don’t think that’s fair. Rock fight indicates bad offense. UVA is third in the nation in offensive efficiency and TTU is top-30. The two national semifinal games weren’t high-scoring but they were riveting. Virginia and Texas Tech both proved in victory that you can win the low 60s and still provide drama, plus entertainment.
“I have so much respect for Virginia,” Red Raiders coach Chris Beard said Sunday. “I’ve never seen a more mentally-tough team. You think about how their season ended last year, and then to be right back here a year later, that’s incredible mental toughness. They’ve had the two games in this year’s tournament run. You’ve got to give yourselves a chance all the way to the end, that’s mental toughness. When you have these grind-out, long possessions, that’s mental toughness, the discipline they play with”.
That UMBC ending Beard alluded to is one of a dozen compelling storylines attached to this game. It’s the one that’s front and center, the one that UVA’s players haven’t dodged, roller their eyes at or dismissed as easy media fodder for the past five months.
“I think we started believing in ourselves since the loss last year, in a way that’s different than any other team I’ve been a part of,” Kyle Guy, the savior of Saturday night, said on Sunday. “Obviously last year we thought that we could win it all. We were 31-3, best team in the country, and we had a chance. I don’t know if that was hope, or belief. I know this year that there was a belief, as soon as that buzzer sounded last year, that we were going to do something special this year.”
This has become the most unexpectedly predictable title game in a long time. Think about it: Virginia’s been the best team most of the season. Heading into the national title game, the No. 1-rated team at KenPom has been one of the two final teams standing in 10 of the past 18 seasons. That’s a pretty good hit rate, considering the NCAA Tournament can be a volatile random results generator.
But Virginia’s played its part and has gotten this far thanks to Tony Bennett’s coaching, some absurd/unprecedented luck and by owning the third-best points-per-possession offense in the sport. Virginia’s offensive rating is 122.6, only behind Gonzaga and Tennessee.
“It’s as good as advertised,” Beard said. “I’ve watched a lot of Virginia games this year just as a fan, and then from time to time we’ll come in the office in the morning, and somebody will be like, man, did you see that game? 11 points in the first half last night. We’ll run to the film room and watch a little tape. So I’ve been following this since coach was at Washington State, just as a fan.”
It’s going to be pivotal that UVA’s offense shows up against TTU. Its defense ranks fifth — elite yet again — and because Virginia’s long established itself as one of the top teams on that end of the ball, it might prove vital when facing Tech’s swarm of athletes, length and suffocating D.
“When you try to play hard defense, you understand the value of offensively how mentally tough you have to be, how sound you have to be, and you have to take what the defense gives you,” Bennett said. “But it’s a challenge. When our defense is at its best, it really makes people work to get contested shots.Obviously, Texas Tech, in their own way, they make people work, and they swarm. So understanding that and not just saying, oh, they haven’t seen our offense, they’ve seen offenses before. That would be false confidence. But understand and, hey, it takes hard, tough offense, and you work to get quality shots, and then you turn around and play the same way against them.”
Virginia being here is no surprise.
“They’re really special defensively. I have the utmost respect for how they play, but it is a different system.” Virginia coach Tony Bennett on Texas Tech
And neither is Texas Tech. It’s had the top-rated defense in college basketball for most of the second half of the season. When adjusting for competition, KenPom’s has the Red Raiders allowing only 83.3 points per possession. That’s not only great, it’s historic. No team in the metric’s history comes close to that.
“Defensively, Texas Tech — no, they’re different than us,” Bennett said. “They’re really special defensively. I have the utmost respect for how they play, but it is a different system. I think someone said, statistically, we’re two of the top five teams defensively. You can see it. They’re very physical. Their ability to take your ball, and some of the — just look at the games in the tournament and what they’ve done to some of the great offensive teams has been so impressive”
Preseason expectations missed wildly on Texas Tech (which lost five of its top seven players), but this is a No. 3 seed that still, until it lost to West Virginia in its first game of the Big 12 Tournament, was supposed to be a 2 seed.
A No. 1 vs. a No. 3. Virginia with a school-record 34 wins, Texas Tech with a program-best 31.
The teams playing on the last day of the season may seem weird to casual fans, but this is not some ridiculous turn of events. Bennett and Beard have coached themselves — indisputably, I think — to top-10 status in their profession.
How about this: Texas Tech went 8-16 in the NCAA Tournament for the first 79 years of its existence. The past two years: 8-1.
As many wins in two years as the previous 79.
This is not only validation or Beard and Bennett, but an official arrival — potentially a longterm residence to come — for these schools as modern powers in college basketball. A coaching success story will play out, ideally under close-game circumstances, in Minneapolis on Monday evening. Either Chris Beard wins a national title at Texas Tech (!) in just his fourth season as a Division I head coach, or Tony Bennett gets UVA a title and wraps up a one-of-a-kind redemption arc for his school, his team, himself.
The stage is set for something legendary, no matter who wins or how it ends.