March Madness finally lived up to its name during the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. A chalk-filled first weekend with few upsets and no real Cinderella gave way to an entertaining Sweet 16 and bonkers Elite Eight that included a brain-melting buzzer-beater, an overtime upset, and the elimination of the two biggest favorites in the field.
The Final Four will not have Zion Williamson, but it will have a group of four teams that all feel about equally capable of winning it all. This is the Final Four, ranked.
The Tigers are the giant killers of March Madness. Auburn took out Kansas in the round of 32, North Carolina in the Sweet 16, and Kentucky in the Elite Eight to break into the Final Four for the first time in program history. Auburn hasn’t lost since Feb. 23 and heads to Minneapolis on a 13-game winning streak that included winning four games in four days to claim the SEC tournament title. The Tigers have a great case to be the most impressive team of March Madness so far. It feels wrong putting them last, but a) someone has to be last, b) Auburn is by far the lowest rated team left standing by efficiency metrics, and c) they have to play without star forward Chuma Okeke, who suffered a torn ACL against UNC.
With that said, Auburn still absolutely has a chance to win the whole thing. Guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown are brilliant, with Harper acting as a speedy and heady point guard who gets the offense going and Brown asserting himself the primary scoring option on the perimeter. Bruce Pearl has great depth at his disposal, playing 10 guys at least 12 minutes in the Elite Eight win over Kentucky. The roster is also full of tough role players who defend and rebound. Virginia will get run off the floor if they don’t come prepared.
3. Texas Tech
The Red Raiders want to put you in a straightjacket on every possession. Texas Tech reached the first Final Four in program history off the strength of its defense, which enters the final weekend of the season at No. 1 in the country by a landslide. Head coach Chris Beard built a scheme designed to keep opposing ball handlers out of the middle of the floor. Few college teams switch as often as Texas Tech. When someone does get free, there’s a rim protector in Tariq Owens ready to challenge the shot.
We had Gonzaga at No. 1 overall in our Sweet 16 and Elite Eight power rankings, but the Red Raiders shut down them down in a way no one has all season. The offense has come alive, too, with Jarrett Culver (a possible top-five NBA draft pick) doing most of the heavy lifting. When his supporting cast — led by Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney — hits spot-up jumpers, Texas Tech turns into a behemoth. There’s nothing fun or cute about the way Beard’s team plays basketball, but there’s no denying it’s effectiveness.
2. Michigan State
The Spartans are starting to feel like a team of destiny. Michigan State did what UCF and Virginia Tech couldn’t by finishing off Duke in crunch-time, eliminating the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed and making the Final Four field wide open in the process. Sparty pummeled Minnesota and LSU before that, and before that beat rival Michigan three times, once for the Big Ten tournament title. This MSU squad might not have a player drafted if everyone declared this year, but like so many of Tom Izzo’s best teams, these Spartans are smart, disciplined, and confident in their shot-making ability.
Michigan State has a wizard at point guard in Cassius Winston, not only the best facilitator in the country but also a threat to score 20 points on any given night. Xavier Tillman is Izzo’s secret weapon, an active defender and efficient finisher who gives an edge to the front line. Matt McQuaid might be a legend after what he did against Duke. The rest of the team hits shots, rebounds, and rarely makes mental errors. The Spartans are much less talented on-paper than they’ve been the last two years, but this is the type of team Izzo always thrives with. If he’s ever going to get a second national title, this might be the year.
Virginia has been as consistently great as any program in the country over the last six years, just without the NCAA tournament results to show for it. Finally, the ‘Hoos have the monkey off their back. It hasn’t always been pretty, but UVA was the only No. 1 seed to survive the second weekend thanks to an elite defense and one incredible buzzer-beater that shot Tony Bennett into the Final Four for the first time in his career.
The sequence that led to Mamadi Diakite’s shot to force overtime against Purdue is one of the most amazing plays in college basketball’s recent history given the stakes. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome took it from there. The fearless backcourt combined for 49 points and nine three-pointers to carry UVA to the biggest stage in the sport a year after becoming the first top seed to ever lose to a No. 16 seed. The Cavaliers aren’t just the narrative favorite, they’re also the only team in the country to finish top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. With great balance and a terrific head coach, this national championship is UVA’s to lose.
Still, Virginia is by no means an overwhelming favorite. This Final Four feels completely up for grabs, with all four teams entering Minneapolis with a real chance at winning it all. The second weekend of the tournament was phenomenal. We’re so lucky to have one more left.