DimeMag

Here’s Why This Year’s NCAA Championship Remains Intriguing And Definitely Worth Watching


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MINNEAPOLIS — On Saturday evening, Virginia topped Auburn in memorable (and perhaps controversial) fashion. Later in the night, Texas Tech outlasted Michigan State in a game that was genuinely competitive for the vast majority of 40 minutes. When the dust settled and a battle between the Cavaliers and Red Raiders came into view on Monday evening, an interesting phenomenon emerged.

Many were bothered, to the point of full-fledged recommendations for the public to “shield your eyes and look away.”

On one hand, that view is defensible, simply due to the optics. Virginia plays a legendarily glacial style that isn’t always aesthetically pleasing and, after all, Tony Bennett’s team essentially needed back-to-back miracles to make it to Monday night. Texas Tech enjoyed a more conventional path to the title game but, in saying that, Chris Beard’s bunch deploys an utterly suffocating defense that wouldn’t be the top-line item in an NCAA Tournament promotional packet.

Zion Williamson isn’t walking through that door. There isn’t a “Blue Blood” in play. The Las Vegas over/under total is the lowest since at least 2005.

We get it.

Hear me out, however, in saying that there is plenty to be intrigued by when two (very) good basketball teams meet for a championship at U.S. Bank Stadium.

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For the NBA-focused crowd, the absence of Duke (or even Gonzaga) is noticeable, but at the end of the line, both Virginia and Texas Tech deploy future top-10 picks. Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver wasn’t fantastic on Saturday but he put together a flurry in the final moments to secure victory and it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if the talented wing was selected within the top five picks in June. In opposition, Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter fittingly appeals to a different sensibility on the floor, with an impressive defensive profile and a versatile game that is tailored for the modern NBA to the point where it would be stunning if he fell out of the lottery.

Their professional prospects are certainly important when the final result is secured on Monday evening. Until then, Culver provided quite an endorsement of the contest after pulling off the win over Michigan State.

“It means everything,” Culver said when prompted about what it means to reach Monday evening. “This is what you started your summer for. This is what you worked for all year. Just knowing you’re the last two teams playing on Monday night is just so special.”

If the NBA isn’t your focus, storylines are present on the college level in a way that would be jarring if you simply accepted the public perception of a potentially unwatchable product. Both teams are entering their first National Championship Game and the same can be said for the two coaches, both of whom are considered to be legitimately elite in their field of employment. In a sport largely driven by coaching narrative, it is almost jarring how little attention that is receiving. To put it plainly, though, one of these two programs (and coaches) will have an entirely different resume after Monday evening.

Texas Tech’s story is also impressive even outside of the context of program history, with the Red Raiders returning (very) little from an impressive 2017-18 squad. Beard’s team was unranked in the preseason and, while that isn’t completely unique, it speaks to the uphill battle and the impressiveness of a run that is being undervalued nationally.

Virginia has an even easier story to embrace, with the Cavaliers suffering the catastrophic (and lopsided) loss to UMBC during the 2018 NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers were the first team to lose as a No. 1 seed in the first round and, with that loss as the backdrop, Bennett and his program faced widespread skepticism of their ability to make a dent in the tournament, much less cut the nets down at the end of the line.

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From an on-court standpoint, offense is more appealing (at least to the casual fan) than defense, but defensively these two teams are spectacular. Texas Tech currently boasts the best defense in the history of KenPom’s efficiency metrics and their upside on that end of the floor has been on full display during the tournament, particularly in the dismantling of Michigan and their second-half dominance against the nation’s best offense in Gonzaga. For a change, Virginia is considered the team with the lesser defense (and rightly so), but the Cavaliers are reliable on that end, with a top-five mark nationally on that end of the floor.

Given the hideously low projected point total (119 on KenPom and in that range from a Las Vegas perspective), offense will be at a premium. That won’t be for a lack of efficiency. Virginia ranks third in the country in points per possession despite their comically slow pace and, while offense isn’t an immense strength for Texas Tech, this is still a top-30 unit in the country when it comes to scoring.

Make no mistake, the potential is there for a game that some casual fans dismiss out of hand, simply due to the supremely unlikely notion that either team reaches even 75 points without the benefit of overtime. That narrative, while often exercised too flippantly, is one that exists for a reason.

In the same breath, it takes only a small dip below the surface to realize that, while the game would have more “buzz” with Duke, North Carolina or Kentucky involved, two of the best teams in college basketball will square off under the brightest lights on Monday and there are myriad reasons to be excited about the match-up.

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