There probably aren’t many people who correctly predicted the way this bracket played out here at the end. I doubt many have Texas Tech and Virginia playing in the National Title game, but aside from Virginia’s obvious struggles last year this matchup makes a lot of sense.
Basketball is about dictating the game, the pace, the style of play. The team that wins the battle usually wins the game. When everything else is the same it generally comes down who can make shots at the right moments.
Last night Virginia played Auburn. Auburn likes to play a faster pace and shoot a lot of three point shots. They thrive off of their offense with Jared Harper streaking down the court putting pressure on the defense and creating great space for his shooters and their bigs attacking the rim. The closer Auburn gets to 70 possessions the better they seem to play. The higher the score the more they feel they’re going to win.
Virginia doesn’t like to push the ball up the court. They want to pack the line on their defense and walk the ball up the court, maximizing each possession in search for the best shot available, until the clock reaches 5 seconds left and then they will shoot something and rely on their defense to get a stop.
So if I said that the final number of possessions in this game was going to be under 60 it’s easy to see who you think would be the winner right?
The next game reflected something of a styles make fights kind of game, when the super tough Michigan State Spartans faced off against the uber-tough Texas Tech Red Raiders. Both teams want to play a similar pace (67 poss vs 66.5 poss), both teams defend well but rely on effort and energy to win their games. However there was one major outstanding statistic I think it worth pointing out here: Texas Tech has far and away the best defensive basketball team in Adjusted Efficiency in the KenPom era. 83.3 is a ridiculous number to put up in that category.
The next closest was John Calipari’s 2009 Memphis team (ahem, Mizzou scored 102 points against that Defense) with 84.2. They were facing a lot of Conference USA opponents and playing a decent pace which likely inflated their defense a touch.
Tech’s defense is other worldly. They are precise in rotation, well prepared and scouted, with active hands and nearly perfect positionally. They have breakdowns just like everyone else but they’re more rare. And the energy the second line of the defense plays with causes a lot of bad shots, turnovers, and blocks. When the pace slowed (the game finished at just 60 possessions) the defense of the Red Raiders won, but they also needed a wide open miss from Matt McQuade which could have tied the game, and some huge shots from Jared Culver in the last few minutes to pull out the win.
The one thing both teams did was dictate how the game would be played. If you go back to the last few National Champions they’re usually very good on both sides of the ball. Villanova won last year because their efficient offense, forcing teams to cover shooters all over the court, was too good for Michigan and Kansas. Villanova won the style fight, and won both games. Two years ago UNC and Gonzaga featured two teams excellent on both sides of the ball, UNC made shots down the stretch. Three years ago it was Villanova, the #3 offense and #5 defense taking on UNC, with the #1 offense and #21 defense. UNC wanted to play a game in the 70 possession range, Nova wanted it in the mid-60s. A 64 possession game came down to the last shot and Nova made it.
I bring these things up because there are a lot of people on both sides of the basketball debate when it comes to what works best. No matter who wins tomorrow you’re seeing two very contrasting styles in consecutive years, and so liking offense or defense or fast play or slow play doesn’t matter. The team who wins is the team that wins the battle of style in that particular game.
Sometimes you’re able to win everything throughout the game and you just miss too many shots. But in general it doesn’t matter if you want to play fast or play slow, if you focus on defense or offense (though it’s ideal to be very good at both if you want to win at the highest level), what matters is can you dictate the play of the game to your opponent?
Texas Tech and Virginia are the two teams who did this the best in the tournament, and that’s why they’re playing for a championship on Monday.
And no matter who wins the story is cool. Chris Beard who is a journeyman coach finding a way to Arkansas Little Rock and winning big. Or Virginia, being the first 1-seed to ever lose to a 16 seed, and coming back the next year to win it all. Both great coaches who are brilliant at controlling the game with their team. Just who controls it more on Monday will make history.