B/R Expert NCAA Bracket Picks 2019: Final Four Predictions

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B/R Expert NCAA Bracket Picks 2019: Final Four Predictions

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    Texas Tech's Davide Moretti

    Texas Tech’s Davide MorettiSean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    After a painfully long hiatus since the Elite Eight ended, the 2019 men’s Final Four will take place Saturday in Minneapolis.

    These aren’t the four teams most were expecting to see in the national semifinals, but this shouldn’t have been that unpredictable.

    Virginia was the best team in the country this season. Michigan State won the regular-season and conference-tournament titles in the best league. Texas Tech plays defense better than any other team ever has in the KenPom era. And we already knew from the first half of March that Auburn was hotter than the sun.

    At any rate, there’s no Loyola-Chicago that came out of absolutely nowhere. All four of these teams were in the top 13 of our pre-tournament power rankings, so these three games ought to be high-quality affairs.

    What happens from here, though?

    Bleacher Report’s college basketball experts—David Gardner, David Kenyon, Kerry Miller and Elliott Pohnl—have offered predictions on some of the biggest questions heading into Saturday. Questions such as:

  • Who is the MVP of each game?
  • Which under-the-radar player will have a breakout performance in the semifinals?
  • Which of these squads will be back in the Final Four one year from?

Our experts are on the case to let you know.

1 of 8

    Kyle Guy

    Kyle GuyMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    David Gardner

    Kyle Guy. Auburn is going to shoot threes. Threes make up 49.2 percent of the Tigers’ overall field-goal attempts. Also, Auburn is going to make threes. The Tigers shoot 37.9 percent from beyond the arc. Virginia’s defense will no doubt slow the Tigers down a touch, but the Cavaliers will need some deep shooting of their own. That’s where Guy comes in. After his incredible performance against Purdue, Guy will be the guy for Virginia again. (And I won’t stop making Guy/guy jokes either.)

           

    David Kenyon

    Ty Jerome is the MVP of the NCAA tournament for Virginia so far, and his defense will be crucial against Auburn. The Hoos must contain Jared Harper, who dished 11 assists opposite UNC in the Sweet 16 and shredded Kentucky for 26 points in the Elite Eight. Jerome has eight steals in four tourney games, and a couple of timely takeaways will propel UVA to a win.

            

    Kerry Miller

    Mamadi Diakite. He has been the unexpected MVP of Virginia’s run thus far, and that will continue in this matchup. With Chuma Okeke out for Auburn, this isn’t the same team in the post. PJ Washington had 28 points, 13 rebounds, two blocks and two steals against the Tigers in the Elite Eight. While Diakite won’t come particularly close to that scoring total—his career high is 18—a Washington-like output in the other three categories is within the realm of possibility. 

           

    Elliott Pohnl

    Virginia has shown it can play big or small during the tournament. Auburn’s style and personnel suggest the Cavaliers will go small Saturday night in Minneapolis. Purdue’s Carsen Edwards may have exposed a weakness in Tony Bennett‘s pack-line defense—room in it for a super-quick, ball-dominant guard to create. Enter Jared Harper, who is the engine that makes the Tigers go. While not the shooter Edwards is, Harper is jet quick and a strong finisher around the rim. Look for him to go off against Ty Jerome and Kihei Clark.

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    Cassius Winston and Tom Izzo

    Cassius Winston and Tom IzzoPat Semansky/Associated Press

    David Gardner

    Cassius Winston. In my mind, there are only two potential candidates for this spot—Jarrett Culver or Winston. Neither Michigan State nor Texas Tech is a one-man team, but unquestionably, Culver and Winston are the most important players on each squad. And I have the Spartans advancing, so that means I believe Winston will be the best player in the game.

           

    David Kenyon

    Winston is the no-brainer answer, right? He’s the leading scorer and averages 7.6 assists. When the Spartans deal with a cold stretch offensively, he’s typically the reason they break out of it. That could be via a steal, a three or creating an easy bucket at the rim. And against this stellar Texas Tech defense, he’ll definitely need to carry MSU at some point.

            

    Kerry Miller

    Jarrett Culver. The sophomore has scored at least 15 points in 12 consecutive games, but it’s the all-around impact that makes him so valuable. He averaged 6.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.6 steals in eight games in March, and I don’t expect that to stop just because the calendar now reads “April.” Culver contributes so much on both ends of the floor for one of the best teams, and he has run away with first place in the KenPom POY standings as a result.

           

    Elliott Pohnl

    One of the reasons to love Chris Beard is his ability to lead the Red Raiders to the Final Four with two bigs on the entire roster. The toughness of slender center Tariq Owens against Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura in the thrilling Elite Eight win on Saturday was impressive. Despite Michigan State having a size edge inside, I look for another big game from Owens. He won’t need to score big to influence the game in a major way.

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    Danjel Purifoy

    Danjel PurifoyCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    David Gardner

    Xavier Tillman. Tillman has been one of the most under-the-radar players in college basketball for the past month. He does the dirty work for Michigan State: setting screens, getting offensive rebounds and hitting his free throws at an impressive rate for a big man. In Michigan State’s win over Duke, he was one of the best defenders against Zion Williamson of the entire season. He’ll be a quiet difference-maker against Texas Tech on Saturday.

           

    David Kenyon

    I’m curious if Tillman will defend Jarrett Culver. If you can (in relative terms, of course) contain Zion Williamson, you’re capable of matching up with nearly anyone, right? I’ll be watching for that matchup, but I don’t know it’ll happen. Virginia guard Kihei Clark has been an essential part of smaller lineups, and he’ll defend slippery guards in Harper and J’Von McCormick throughout the game. Clark’s impact will be valuable, though likely quiet.

            

    Kerry Miller

    Danjel Purifoy. It has been a long, hard road for this former top-75 recruit. Eligibility issues led him to redshirt in 2015-16, and he was one of the casualties of college basketball’s FBI mess, forced to sit out the 2017-18 season and the first nine games of this campaign. But Purifoy has had an increased role in March, and he got another boost in playing time following Chuma Okeke’s injury. It won’t be enough to get Auburn the win, but he’ll be a bigger factor than usual.

           

    Elliott Pohnl

    After Okeke went down with a torn ACL, Auburn needed another forward to step up, and Purifoy answered the bell with a quietly effective game against Kentucky. His numbers dipped dramatically this season, and he didn’t even score in the blowout win over Kansas in the round of 32, but Purifoy logged 32 minutes against the Wildcats and tallied six points and seven rebounds. He gives the Tigers another three-point shooting weapon on the perimeter against Virginia’s tough D.

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    Bryce Brown

    Bryce BrownCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    David Gardner

    Ten. Through four games of the NCAA tournament, the Tigers are averaging 12.3 made threes on 30.3 attempts per game. Against Virginia—a team that holds opponents to a 28.7 percent mark from beyond the arc—I see Auburn slowing down only slightly.

           

    David Kenyon

    Eight. Perimeter defense was rarely an issue for the Wahoos entering the tournament. Suddenly, four of their eight highest three-point percentages allowed this season have happened during March Madness. But I think UVA squashes this trend. Given Auburn’s top-10 three-point attempt rate nationally, it won’t be for a lack of volume, though.

            

    Kerry Miller

    Ten. The pack-line defense encourages opponents to take tough three-pointers. During the regular season, it was a great winning formula for Virginia. In the tournament, however, teams have been hitting more of those tough threes—and Auburn is no stranger to draining deep shots. Though Auburn has made 11.4 threes per game this season, the pace of play in this one will keep the Tigers a bit below their average.

           

    Elliott Pohnl

    It’s easy to get lulled into settling against Virginia’s defense, and Auburn wants to shoot from the outside. More than half of the Tigers’ shot attempts in the Sweet 16 win over North Carolina came from behind the arc, and they are averaging a whopping 30 attempts per game from distance. With high volume comes higher makes, so I will go with 10 threes.

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    Jarrett Culver

    Jarrett CulverHarry How/Getty Images

    David Gardner

    Fifteen. Texas Tech’s ability to force turnovers consistently is kind of uncanny. On the season, the Red Raiders turned opponents over an average of 15.7 times per game. In the NCAA tournament they’ve been doing the same at an average of 15.8. Michigan State has been a little more careful with the ball during the tournament (11.3 turnovers per game) compared to the regular season (13.0), so let’s spot the Spartans a fraction of a turnover here.

           

    David Kenyon

    Fourteen. Michigan State has finished with fewer than 10 turnovers in three of its four tourney games―and had 20 giveaways in the other. So, uh, which offense is going to show up? Texas Tech does such a tremendous job deflecting passes that MSU is likely to crack double digits. But if the Spartans win, it’s probably under 15.

            

    Kerry Miller

    Sixteen. Aside from the game against Minnesota, Michigan State’s ball security has been impeccable lately. The Spartans only coughed the ball up six times each against the aggressive defenses of LSU and Duke. However, those teams are elite at getting steals, but not so much in terms of overall turnover percentage. Texas Tech is great in both departments, capable of flustering even the most veteran teams. That will be the difference in this game.

           

    Elliott Pohnl

    The Cassius Winston effect in Sparty’s thrilling win against Duke cannot be overstated. His timely buckets overshadowed his 10-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. But look for Matt Mooney to bully Winston a bit and force a handful of turnovers. I will say 12 is the magic number in what should be a slow-paced slug-fest. Anything beyond that would spell doom for Michigan State.

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    Mamadi Diakite

    Mamadi DiakiteKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    David Gardner

    No. This isn’t just about the defenses. These teams will be playing basketball in a football stadium. While the evidence isn’t overwhelming, cavernous arenas do tend to have a small effect on shooting. Nerves plus great defenses plus a bad shooting environment equal some low-scoringbut potentially still close and excitingmatchups.

           

    David Kenyon

    Nobody cracks 70, but Michigan State comes closest. Although the Spartans have been known to push the ball in the right opportunity, Texas Tech prefers to decrease the tempo as much as possible. MSU is comfortable in half-court offense, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Virginia has the nation’s absolute slowest pace and surrendered 70-plus just four times―twice to Duke and once to a nuclear-infused Carsen Edwards for Purdue. I’ll stick with the trends.

            

    Kerry Miller

    Yes. Defense is the name of the game at this year’s Final Four, but somebody is going to put points on the board. My guess is Virginia gets the job done. The Cavaliers didn’t score well in the first three rounds, but that’s largely because Kyle Guy was ice cold from the floor but kept shooting anyway. If his second-half performance against Purdue translates into this matchup with Auburn, Virginia’s offense is more than efficient enough to put up 70 points in a 60-possession affair.

           

    Elliott Pohnl

    It would be easy to look at the numbers and say there is absolutely no chance. Factor in nerves, playing in a massive stadium with a presumably weird shooting background and I get even more skeptical. But I will go with my gut here and say that Auburn catches fire from behind the arc and just barely gets above 70, with Jared Harper and Bryce Brown leading the way.

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    Tony Bennett

    Tony BennettKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    David Gardner

    Michigan State vs. Virginia. Texas Tech and Auburn, especially, have outperformed expectations to get here. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either of them play on into Monday. Ultimately, though, the Spartans and the Cavaliers have the more experienced coaches and the more talented rosters.

           

    David Kenyon

    Michigan State vs. Virginia. Given my MVP choices, that shouldn’t be a surprise. MSU’s interior size with Nick Ward, Tillman and Kenny Goins will be immensely valuable against a pesky Texas Tech perimeter unit. And I’m trusting Virginia’s defense to regain its season-long form opposite a slightly short-handed Auburn team.

            

    Kerry Miller

    Virginia vs. Texas Tech. I don’t feel confident in either pick, as I suspect we’re headed for a repeat of the Elite Eight in which each game came down to the final 15 seconds. But Virginia’s three-point percentages (both offense and defense) should regress to the norm, giving the Cavaliers the edge over Auburn. And I have to believe this is where Michigan State’s turnover woes become too problematic to overcome.

           

    Elliott Pohnl

    I like Auburn outlasting Virginia in a close contest with the frenetic pace of the Tigers rising above the Cavaliers’ deliberate style. If you like offense, Michigan State-Texas Tech is not the game for you. But I like Winston as the maestro willing Sparty to a close win in an ugly struggle.

8 of 8

    Tom Izzo

    Tom IzzoRob Carr/Getty Images

    David Gardner

    Michigan State. The Spartans should return an excellent and experienced roster next season. If Cassius Winston decides to return for his senior season, they could be one of the top teams in the country from the jump. Even if he doesn’t, Michigan State will only have two significant contributors—Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid—graduate. Meanwhile, young players like freshman Aaron Henry and sophomore Xavier Tillman have benefited from stepping up for injured players and getting significant postseason experience.

           

    David Kenyon

    Michigan State. This should be the unanimous answer unless Winston heads for the NBA, right? Theoretically, MSU only loses Goins and sharpshooter McQuaid, and 15-point scorer Joshua Langford will return from an ankle injury. As long as Winston is around, Sparty may be going to Atlanta.

            

    Kerry Miller

    Michigan State. I’ll give an honorable mention to Virginia, which is probably only going to lose De’Andre Hunter and Jack Salt. But Michigan State should be the way-too-early favorite to win it all next season. Winston, Langford, Nick Ward and Tillman will probably all come back, which is one hell of a core. The Spartans will also still have Kyle Ahrens, Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown, and they’re adding a pair of top-60 recruits in Rocket Watts and Malik Hall. That is a formidable arsenal.

           

    Elliott Pohnl

    With a chance to cement a spot in Sparty PG legend lore, I look for Winston to return for his senior season. Talented swing man Langford has been sidelined since early in the season, and Ward’s junior season was also tarnished by injury. If three of the four players from MSU’s heralded 2016 recruiting classthat ranked third nationally, according to 247 Sportsreturn for their senior campaigns, I expect Tom Izzo to be back in the Final Four for the ninth time.

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