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This is not your typical Final Four

Texas Tech reached the Final Four behind its relentless defense.SEAN M. HAFFEY/GETTY IMAGES/Getty Images

To the casual sports fan, this must seem like a weird Final Four.

No Duke. No Kansas. No North Carolina. No Kentucky.

There is Michigan State, as coach Tom Izzo is taking the Spartans to the Final Four for the eighth time, but the other three — Texas Tech, Auburn, and Virginia — aren’t exactly fertile ground for college basketball.

Texas Tech has zero tradition. It’s best known as Bobby Knight’s island of Elba. He was exiled to Lubbock, Texas, after getting fired at Indiana. One of his assistants was an unknown guy named Chris Beard, who joined Knight’s staff from Seminole Junior College in Oklahoma. No one could have predicted that one day Beard would transform Tech into a Final Four team. Even Knight couldn’t do it.


Auburn’s tradition is no better. The school has had some great individuals, especially Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, but there has never been team success like this. Interestingly, another Auburn great, Chuck Person, who was an assistant coach at the school, recently pleaded guilty to bribery after a nationwide investigation of college basketball by the FBI.

Somehow, coach Bruce Pearl, who was fired at Tennessee for violating NCAA rules, survived all this. His huge personality and demonstrative sideline demeanor will be front and center this weekend. Make sure you check for sweat stains when the camera finds him.

Virginia once had one of the best college basketball players ever, three-time national player of the year Ralph Sampson, who took the Cavaliers to their first Final Four in 1981. They made their second in 1984, the year after he graduated. Prior to this year, that was the last time they had been there.

Besides the anonymous nature of three of the teams involved, the other aspect that may make some people cringe is the defensive emphasis of Texas Tech, Virginia, and Michigan State.


Texas Tech holds opponents to 36.9 percent shooting. That’s second in the nation. Michigan State (37.9) is third and Virginia (38.4) is fifth. All the hard-nosed guarding these teams do can sometimes be difficult to watch.

Michigan State has something to offer offensively — the Spartans average 78.3 points per game — but Texas Tech and Virginia will look to play half-court games and limit possessions.

Auburn is the outlier; the Tigers are ready to start flinging up threes right from opening tip. No team made more than the Tigers’ 445 this season. Guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper launch most of them.

Auburn will be faced with Virginia, fourth in the nation in limiting 3-pointers, holding teams to a 28.7 percentage.

Auburn’s usual winning strategy, outshooting teams from the arc, will be difficult to accomplish against Virginia. The Tigers have to use their quickness, and Harper is one of the quickest players in the tournament, to get good 2-point looks first, and then hopefully that will transfer into open 3-point attempts later in the game.

Pearl will have to find a way to speed up the game, but it’s easier said than done. Virginia coach Tony Bennett and his players are highly skilled at controlling the pace. They make the most of their possessions on offense, and they play good enough defense so the opponent can’t do the same.

It’s not hard to imagine Auburn getting caught in the Virginia defensive vise and not being able to produce enough points.


In the second game, it will be fascinating to see if Izzo, a Hall of Famer, can find a way to free up his shooters from Texas Tech’s martial-arts-style defense. For Tech, defense is hand-to-hand combat. Earlier in the tournament, the Red Raiders embarrassed an excellent Michigan team. They also held high-powered Gonzaga to fewer than 70 points (only the fourth time it had happened to the Zags this season).

Buffalo coach Nate Oates, whose team lost to Texas Tech in the second round, 78-58, knows what makes the Raiders so good on defense.

“One of the biggest things is they’re so tough,’’ Oates told the East Lansing (Mich.) Journal. “We had 36 games. We were probably the tougher team in 30-plus games. Almost every game out we were the toughest team. They completely manhandled us. They were way tougher than us that night. They will take charges, they get deflections, they get into the ball. They’re physical and while they don’t have high-level, Olympic-level athletes at every position, at the ones they don’t, they trust their help so much.’’

Texas Tech has one outstanding player, forward Jarrett Culver. The rest are basically role players. So, Michigan State has a big talent advantage, but then again, so did Michigan and Gonzaga.

Beard has no illusions about what his team is facing. “They’re a typical Izzo team,’’ he told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “They’re tough, really tough. Not sometimes tough. For 40 minutes, they’re going to make tough plays.’’


OK, it’s going to be a tough game.

Texas Tech’s relentless commitment to defense will probably keep this close for a while, but eventually Michigan State’s talent should prevail.

If you’re looking to be an NBA/Celtics scout for the weekend, the only two players projected for the draft are Culver, who’s a sophomore; and athletic Virginia sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter. Perhaps Virginia’s sharp-shooting, high basketball IQ guards, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, might eventually find themselves in the NBA too. Both are juniors.

However, don’t expect to see any NBA-style basketball this weekend.