(Tom Izzo/Cassius Winston photo courtesy Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)
Respect the grind.
That is how Michigan State has made its identity for the past two-plus decades under Tom Izzo, and it is how Texas Tech is forging its identity with Chris Beard. Two of the nation’s best defenses collide in the nightcap of the Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Sunday night for the right to play in the NCAA Tournament title game.
How Texas Tech got here
The Red Raiders (30-6) overachieved to a degree by claiming a share of the Big 12 regular-season title and had garnered talk as a potential dark horse Final Four team, but much of that chatter went away with a surprising loss to last-place West Virginia in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.
That loss, however, may have wound up doing more good than anyone could have realized at the time because it allowed Texas Tech to regroup ahead of the NCAA Tournament. Jarrett Culver had one of the best all-around games of his career in the first round when the third-seeded Red Raiders pulled away for a 72-57 victory over Northern Kentucky in the first round, totaling 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
The first half proved to be the rock fight everyone envisioned was going to take place, but Texas Tech got the better of the first 20 minutes and used a 9-4 run in the final 3:46 to grab a 24-16 halftime advantage. The Red Raiders then raised their level of play on both ends of the court, breaking the contest open with a 12-2 burst in the first 4:04 after intermission to double up the Wolverines 36-18 with 15:56 left.
Texas Tech was never threatened thereafter and sent the 2018 NCAA Tournament runner-up packing with a 63-44 victory in which Michigan shot just 1 for 19 from 3-point range and 32.7 percent overall.
Now in the regional final for the second straight year, the Red Raiders were arguably playing the NCAA Tournament’s best team for the second straight year in No. 1 seed Gonzaga after facing Villanova in 2018. Though not the overall No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs were far and away the best offensive team in the country in terms of offensive efficiency, one of the best when it came to scoring, and were a similar upperclassmen-led team with a dusting of high-end youthful talent.
Additionally, Gonzaga also had an underrated defense in the top 25 for both overall defensive field goal percentage and 3-point defensive field goal percentage. Though Texas Tech showed flashes of being an elite offense during the season and in the NCAA Tournament, it would need such play in addition to its trademark shut-down defense to reach the Final Four for the first time in school history.
Gonzaga looked completely unimpressed by Texas Tech’s defense in the opening 20 minutes, but the Red Raiders hung tough thanks to their offense. The Bulldogs shot 50 percent in the first half, but Texas Tech trailed 37-35 at halftime thanks to its active hands on defense.
Beard made a subtle switch to zone defense at the start of the second half to throw Gonzaga off-kilter, and it worked because there were fewer ball screens for Texas Tech to fight through against the forwards. It also slowed the pace in the Red Raiders’ favor.
Texas Tech then put together its most meaningful stretch of basketball together in a 3:21 span of the second half, holding Gonzaga to a pair of free throws in that span while Davide Moretti hit a pair of pivotal 3-pointers. The second one, coming with 1:46 to play, provided a six-point lead the Red Raiders protected until the end, which was a 75-69 final for their first trip to the Final Four.
“I thought (Culver) was going to pass me and I was ready for it. That’s the chemistry between us,” Moretti told The New York Times. “He knows when I want the ball, and I know when he’s going to pass it to me.”
The win was another high-point in an amazing three-year run at Texas Tech for Beard, a former assistant under Bobby Knight and Pat Knight. It was also a journey few thought the Red Raiders could make after losing five seniors to graduation and Zhaire Smith to the NBA Draft after his freshman season.
“We’re looking forward to playing on this stage,” Beard said at Thursday’s press conference in Minneapolis. “In our opinion, Michigan State is one of the best teams in college basketball. They have great players and a Hall of Fame coach. We have nothing but respect for their program the things they stand for. We’re in our third year building the program at Tech, and we’re striving to be in the conversation with the Michigan States of the world.
“Simply stated, we feel like we’ll have to play our best game of the year to have some success on Saturday night, but I don’t think that’s much difference than anybody else in this tournament. That’s our objective. We’re looking forward to the opportunity to play well on Saturday.”
Beard had made a stunning bolt to Lubbock from UNLV less than three weeks after taking the job in 2016 when Tubby Smith left for Memphis. Beard himself had been a hot coaching commodity after guiding Arkansas-Little Rock to 30 wins and an NCAA Tournament victory in his only season there in 2015-16 after a two-season stint at Division II Angelo State.
Texas Tech reached out to Beard shortly after Smith left, and it was an easy decision considering UNLV’s roster had been gutted due to players transferring out and being closer to his three daughters — two of whom were born in Lubbock.
“It’s something I’ve dreamed of,” Beard previously told The Athletic about reaching the Final Four. “I’ve always been a guy that went to the open practices at the Final Four and hung out in the lobbies. It’s special. I do feel like I’m representing a lot of people in our business — JUCO coaches, D-2 coaches, guys that never get the chance, that are really good coaches that work hard. I hope there are a lot of people out there supporting our program and kind of living through us.”
In addition to being named the West Region’s Most Outstanding Player, Culver was tabbed a second-team AP All-American on Tuesday. He is the fourth player in school history to receive the accolade and the second in as many seasons after Keenan Evans was also a second-team selection in 2018.
Texas Tech traveled to Minneapolis on Wednesday, getting a rousing send-off from Lubbock.
How Michigan State got here
While Beard and Texas Tech have been writing the first pages of what they hope to be a storied legacy, counterpart Tom Izzo and Michigan State (32-6) already have written multiple chapters of that similar book. Izzo is the only coach in this Final Four with previous experience on college basketball’s biggest stage and entered this March hoping to make an eighth appearance as Spartans coach.
“We feel fortunate to be here, and yet we think we’ve earned our way to be here,” Izzo said in his opening remarks Thursday. “Texas Tech is a — we kind of clone each other in some ways, and yet I think Chris has done a great job with his team. We’re both disciples with Bob Knight and Jud Heathcote. Those two guys were best friends. Chris and I are getting to know each other. But great respect for what he’s done and how he’s done it and, of course, for a couple of his players that are of the elite nature.
“Yet I’m really proud of what my team has accomplished, meaning the way we’ve reinvented ourselves a few times and kind of stuck to the task and found a way to get to a Final Four. No better thrill than this.”
The Spartans were given the No. 2 seed in the East, which surprised many and rankled Izzo — and with good reason. The biggest issue was Michigan State was paired with Duke, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, but the more legitimate gripe was the Spartans should have been a No. 2 seed in any other region considering they had just come off winning the Big Ten tournament and had defeated Michigan — itself a No. 2 seed — for the third time this season in the conference tournament final.
Michigan State began its NCAA Tournament adventure against 15th-seeded Bradley, which took the fight to Izzo’s team in the first 20 minutes and led 35-34 at halftime. After making two first-round exits the previous three years — including one as a No. 2 seed in 2016 — the Spartans composed themselves behind Big Ten player of the year Cassius Winston, who finished with 26 points and took control in the final six minutes.
The second round presented a familiar foe in 10th-seeded Minnesota, which marked the first time in NCAA Tournament history two Big Ten schools met before the regional semifinals. The Spartans had disposed of the Gophers with relative ease during the regular season, winning 79-55 at home, and the formula of grabbing a big first-half lead early and cruising to victory was followed again in Des Moines, Iowa, as they rolled to a 70-50 triumph.
Michigan State offset 22 turnovers with 57.1 percent shooting, but its defense was airtight, amassing a 45-19 edge in rebounds while holding Minnesota to 2-of-22 shooting from 3-point range and 30.5 percent overall in what looked like a typical Big Ten victory.
Whatever Izzo also demanded of them about starting strong following the first-round win over Bradley also took hold because Michigan State roared out of the blocks for a second straight contest and quickly built a double-digit lead it maintained throughout the first half.
The Tigers did have one charge in them to start the second half and came as close as four points, but freshmen Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry each hit 3-pointers in an 11-0 run that restored order and propelled Michigan State to an 80-63 victory and into the matchup everyone had wanted to see in the East Region final the moments the bracket came out:
Duke vs. Michigan State. Krzyzewski vs. Izzo. Williamson vs. Winston.
Izzo jokingly referred to Krzyzewski as his white whale a la Moby Dick in the press conference the day before the regional final, but there was plenty of truth in the belief it was a game that meant something to Izzo and meant something to help define his legacy as one of the sport’s best.
Despite his seven Final Fours, Krzyzewski had 12. Despite his 2000 NCAA Tournament title, Krzyzewski had cut down the nets five times. Izzo was 1-3 against Krzyzewski in the NCAA Tournament and 1-11 all-time against Duke. On paper, the Blue Devils had the better players courtesy their all-world freshman class led by sure-fire lottery picks Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett.
The question was whether Michigan State — led by the unflappable Winston and seniors Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid — could be the better team for one night.
Winston lived up to his status of Big Ten player of the year and more, totaling 20 points and 10 rebounds. More importantly, he kept Michigan State in the game when Duke had threatened to grab control of it in the first half when the teams traded haymakers in the form of runs.
The teams played within an eight-point band the final 17:14, with neither team able to extend a lead beyond four points. For every shot Winston or Xavier Tillman made, Duke countered with a bucket by Williamson or shot by unheralded forward Javin DeLaurier, who became a surprise X-factor for the Blue Devils with a double-double.
Duke appeared to seize control of the game with a 7-0 run that provided a 66-63 advantage with 1:41 to play after a layup by Williamson, but Michigan State did not panic. Izzo had a great ATO play in which Winston found Tillman for a layup to cut the deficit to one. Following a Blue Devils miss, Izzo called another timeout, and called up another set play that worked to perfection as Tillman found Kenny Goins on the left wing, where he drilled a go-ahead 3-pointer with 34 seconds left.
Michigan State then survived a missed 3-pointer by Barrett, but gave Duke a second chance when Tillman fouled him on a drive with five seconds left. Barrett, though, missed the first free throw and inadvertently made the second while trying to miss it. After a foul to stop the clock, Winston raced to catch an inbounds pass up the sideline and ran away from everyone as the Spartans escaped with a 68-67 victory and punched their ticket to Minneapolis.
“I do think we beat arguably the best team in the country. But there’s another game coming up,” Izzo said post-game. “There were a lot of teams and some pretty good upsets in this tournament, not early, but later on.
And you know now what I’ve got to do is refocus. We’ve been there. It’s the eighth Final Four. But we’ve only won one. I have to reassess how I handle it, what I do. … So it’s going to be grind city again. And we’ve got to figure out how we do things a little different because there are some good teams up there, and not get enamored with this win even though this is a big win for us and our program.”
Unsurprisingly, the accolades continued for Winston on Tuesday when he was named a first-team All-American by The Associated Press. He narrowly missed being a consensus first-team All-American, having been picked to the second team for both the NABC and U.S. Basketball Writers Association.
Like the Red Raiders, the Spartans took flight for Minneapolis on Wednesday after one final practice at the Breslin Center.
Texas Tech vs. Michigan State Matchups
Texas Tech’s three-guard set of Culver, Moretti and Matt Mooney is somewhat untraditional in the sense none of them are pure point guards. Culver leads the team with 135 assists, but Mooney had 122, and Moretti added 91. Moretti had the best assist-to-turnover ratio of the trio (1.94), but what also stands out is how active defensively all three are.
All of them averaged better than 1.0 steals per game, with Mooney the top pickpocket with 67. It is a key reason the Red Raiders had a plus-3.4 turnover margin per game, which is good for 20th in the country. That could loom large against a Spartans team that sometimes gets careless with the ball, evidenced by the 22 turnovers in the second round versus the Gophers.
Michigan State, though, did clean that up in the regionals and committed just 14 combined in beating LSU and Duke. The Spartans, though, should be wary since the Red Raiders forced opponents into turnovers on 23.1 percent of their possessions — good for 11th in the country.
Every team Texas Tech has defeated in its run to Minneapolis was held at least 18.6 points per game below its season average, and the Red Raiders faced three of the top 45 scoring teams in Division I in Gonzaga (1st), Buffalo (6th) and Northern Kentucky (45th), and it starts with that first level of defense with the three guards.
Offensively, Culver is the focal point. He is arguably the best all-around player on the court in this game — slightly edging out Winston — because of his size and his ability to break down defenders off the dribble and get into the paint. NBA scouts will be looking at both players, but Culver is the one many consider has the higher NBA upside should he choose to come out at season’s end.
“You know, I’ve been really impressed with him,” Izzo said of Culver. “I love guys — I had a kid named Gary Harris a couple of years ago who I thought was one of the best two-way players I’ve ever had. He could do it on the offensive end. He could do it on the defensive end. He could impact the game in both.
“I think Culver does that. I don’t know if he’s Scottie Pippen-ish like. I know there’s guys of that era I watched even more. I think he’s got versatility, and he’s a scorer that plays defense. Sometimes those are harder to come by, and I think that’s what makes him so special.”
Culver increased his scoring average nearly eight points from freshman to sophomore season, and while his 3-point shooting has fallen off substantially, he has compensated by getting to the line far more often and is averaging 5.5 free throw attempts per game. Moretti and Mooney’s perimeter marksmanship means defenders cannot slide off on the perimeter to pack the lane to stop his drives, and the 6-foot-6 Culver has the length to finish at the rim.
While Moretti is a lethal 3-point shooter at 46.3 percent, he also likes getting to the basket and shot 50.2 percent overall. He found his perimeter stroke in the regionals after going 0 for 7 from deep in the first two rounds and rarely gets in foul trouble — the sophomore averaged 31.1 minutes overall and 34 in the NCAA Tournament.
Mooney is closer to a pure point guard than either Moretti or Culver and had five or more assists in seven of his last 10 games. It would not be surprising to see him start as Winston’s primary defender, but Beard will likely rotate his two other starting guards and Brandone Francis on the Spartans point guard to try and wear him down some.
Winston, though, is the heart and soul of this Spartans team and will not go down without a fight. Of his team-high seven double-doubles — all in points and assists — three of them were 20-10 games. He moves as well off the dribble as he does off the ball. Beard will undoubtedly drill his team they cannot go underneath screens because Winston can and will shoot the 3 — he’s connected at a 40.4 percent clip.
Where Winston was lethal against Duke, though, was in the mid-range game. He did not have to post counterpart Tre Jones to get those shots, he simply worked into the top of the lane, shook off arguably the best defensive point guard in the country — and hit an array of mid-range shots to keep the Spartans offensive humming.
The X-factor for Michigan State is getting McQuaid going offensively. He has not played all that badly in the four NCAA Tournament wins — averaging 8.5 points — but more was expected after his breakout Big Ten final in which he scored a career-high 27 and hit seven 3-pointers. McQuaid has gone 5 for 16 from 3-point range en route to Minneapolis, and more will be needed given the expected defensive slugfest this game will be.
When looking at the Red Raiders’ defense, there is a second component to why they are so good, and it involves Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase. Owens’ decision to transfer from St. John’s and be immediately eligible as a graduate transfer for Texas Tech directly altered the trajectory of both schools when one considers how sorely he was missed by the Red Storm during their play-in flameout against Arizona State.
“Tariq was totally committed to Tennessee. He had a coaching change. And then at St. John’s he’d earned his degree and was looking for another opportunity,” Beard said Thursday when asked about Owens’ off-beat path to arrive in Lubbock. “So I think each story is completely different. I don’t think you can say too many guys are transferring, this and that. Each situation is different. For Tariq, I’ll tell you this, he showed a lot of loyalty.
“Al Pinkins had coached Tariq at Tennessee, and Al was our connection to get Tariq once he declared he wanted to be a grad transfer. After Tariq had made his decision to come to Tech or in the process, Al went to the University of Florida. We hated to lose Al, but we understood the move for his own reasons.
“So the first time I talked to Tariq, I said, Tariq, this is a relationship-based business. I understand if you want to follow Al, if you want to open it back up, and Tariq said, no, I made a commitment to the program, and I’m going to come to Texas Tech. So that’s one example of many of Tariq’s commitment.”
The 6-10 Owens has been an excellent rim protector, averaging 2.4 blocks, and also found a fit in Texas Tech’s offense by being the guy who runs the pick-and-roll with his guards. Owens shot 61.3 percent this season, nearly 11 points higher than he did in 2017-18 at St. John’s, and also grabbed 50 percent more offensive rebounds this season than last.
Odiase is the guy who gets his points as the scraps underneath the basket on offensive boards, as he averages 4.2 points. Odiase, Owens and Culver all crash the defensive boards hard — they combine to average 47.2 percent of Texas Tech’s defensive rebounds and 50.7 percent of the overall caroms.
And they will have their hands full against Michigan State’s traditional forwards, featuring the 6-8, 245-pound Tillman, the 6-7, 230-pound Goins and the 6-9, 245-pound Nick Ward, who is still playing through a fractured non-shooting hand.
Where the Spartans may be able to find an advantage in this matchup is with Goins being able to drag either Owens or Odiase to the perimeter because his 3-point shot must be respected. Goins hit 35.2 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, a credible number considering he had taken only 15 in his first three seasons before earning Izzo’s trust.
How Izzo deals with Culver on the defensive end will be one to watch. Aaron Henry will likely draw the assignment first, but it is also one of those assignments where the freshman cannot let his play on one end of the court affect the other, good or bad.
Henry followed up his 20-point game against LSU with just four against Duke on 2-of-7 shooting, but to be fair, that is also closer to his expected contributions since he has averaged 5.9 points and was thrust into a starter’s role following the season-ending injury to Joshua Langford.
Tillman is the closest person who qualifies as a rim protector for the Spartans, but Goins and Ward do their fair share of rejecting shots. The identity and strength of Michigan State, though, has always been about defending and rebounding misses as opposed to blocking shots. The Spartans are again one of the best teams in Division I in rebound margin — checking in fifth this season at plus-8.9 per game — and they are also sixth in defensive rebounds with 29.8 per game.
How they keep Owens and Odiase off the boards will be critical — Texas Tech is a solid 2-point shooting team, but Michigan State is an excellent 2-point defensive team.
Something that has served Texas Tech well throughout the season is its well-defined rotation. The Red Raiders usually run eight deep, with Francis, Kyler Edwards, and Deshawn Corprew providing the bulk of the minutes off the bench.
Francis and Corprew are both 6-5, which means they likely will be matched up against McQuaid and Henry. Francis actually logs more minutes than Odiase per game, but that may not be feasible given Michigan State’s love of pounding the ball inside. Of course, everyone thought Gonzaga would pound the ball inside on the Red Raiders, and that contributed to 16 Bulldogs turnovers that led to 17 points.
Edwards, a 6-3 freshman, could be Beard’s wild card. After failing to score against Northern Kentucky, Edwards has totaled 17 points in the last three games and taken all but one of his seven shots from beyond the arc and gone 5 for 6 there. He has made 43.8 percent of his 3-point shots and also sticks his nose in defensively — Edwards had three boards versus Gonzaga after totaling four in his previous seven games combined.
Michigan State’s rotation has been altered and re-altered due to the injuries to Langford and Ward, with the latter coming off the bench since his return at the start of the Big Ten tournament. Ward has been a steady contributor with 5.9 points and 4.1 rebounds per game in the seven since his return, but the fractured hand is limiting what he can do considering he is averaging 13.2 points overall.
Right now, Izzo’s bench is essentially Ward out of want and Brown out of necessity, but the good news for this game is they will have had five days off to recover from the intense victory over Duke, and depth may not be a big concern if everyone stays out of foul trouble.
In terms of coaching, Izzo and Beard are slightly alike yet vastly different. Izzo is old-school yet still fiery, while Beard’s fire comes in relentless preparation on the defensive end for his opponents. Odiase offered an interesting take on how Beard’s work ethic — honed over his multiple stops as a coaching vagabond before finally coming back to Lubbock — filters through his team.
“I mean, he’s the hardest worker,” Odiase said before the regional final. “Seriously. He’s in there all night, after every game, the next morning, he’s in there prepping, prepping, prepping, trying to make it as easy as possible for us to understand. Their game-planning is unique.
“Defensive-wise, they have tendencies on each guy that we can key on, and it makes it easier for the players. So just knowing that we have a coach that works hard like that and makes it easy on the players to key on different things, the only thing is follow.”
The common thread of both coaches is the two-way street of loyalty created and treasured with their players. While Izzo’s chewing out of Henry went viral and started a round of hand-wringing about coaching methods, no one has ever questioned that either coach wants nothing more than to get the best out of their players.
“You know, like Coach said, people just, sometimes they only see the yelling, they see the screaming, you know what I’m saying,” Winston said after beating Duke. “They don’t see how much he cares for us, how much he’s there for us, how much he’s pulling for us, rooting for us, on the same guy, giving that emotion when it’s time to win games. It’s all out of emotion and out of love and all out of care. And that’s all it is. That’s our relationship.
“When you care for somebody so much and they mess up, of course you’re going to get mad at them and yell at them. But we do a good job of responding, you know what I’m saying? He got after Kenny a lot this game; tell him, when are you going to hit a shot? When you are you going to hit a shot? Kenny said I’m going to hit the next one, I’m going to hit a next one. And that’s what he did.”
Izzo made an interesting remark after beating Duke about having to “reassess” how he handles the Final Four given he has only won one title in his seven previous appearances. Of course, that is also seven more appearances than the other three coaches joining him in Minneapolis have, and there is something to be said for Final Four experience regardless of level.
The flip side is his players — save Goins — have no Final Four experience, and Goins was a redshirt that season who watched everything unfold. This is definitely not one of Izzo’s more talented teams — something he freely admitted after beating Duke — but it is definitely one of his better teams in terms of cohesion and connectivity, something that is clearly evident as the two sides feed off each other.
Texas Tech has a young team to a degree, but there are also players who stepped up to take the next step in a natural progression after a senior-laden team finished one win shy of this stage. The Red Raiders clearly proved they belong at this level with each progressive victory, and the biggest thing to worry about is the whole “happy to be here” mentality that sometimes takes hold after such a new monumental achievement.
With both teams so stout defensively, something to note for the actual run-up to the game is how quickly the teams adjust to playing in a football stadium in terms of depth perception behind the backboard. For the past few years, Final Four and title games have been played “in the round” compared to years past when they would cut off half the stadium. The practice time the teams get is equally rationed, so making the most of that — more so for Texas Tech with its 3-point shooters — will be something to watch.