A magical season has come down to this. One game, one opponent, one chance. The Virginia Cavaliers basketball team has 34 wins this year and 65 over the past two years. All that is required is one more to be national champions. I can’t believe I’m writing that sentence.
Texas Tech, of course, is also having a magical season. The Red Raiders are 31-6 and they helped end Kansas’ 14-year Big 12 title streak. Just like Virginia, they tied for the regular season crown, though in their case they actually lost the tie-breaker. They lost their opening game in the Big-12 tournament to 10th seeded West Virginia. Obviously, they haven’t lost since.
Like Virginia, the Red Raiders are known for defense. In fact, they took the crown this year as the top defense via KenPom’s ratings (Virginia is 5th). Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard is a disciple of Bob Knight and preaches the same defensive principles that Knight did. The defense is based on pressure. Not full-court pressure like Virginia has seen at times, but just tight pressure man-to-man defense. They won’t give you any room to breath.
That’s not all that different from what we see from Virginia’s defense. But Virginia’s Pack Line defense does differ in several ways. The biggest difference is that Texas Tech ranked 11th this year in forcing turnovers (Virginia ranks 235th). They will gamble for the steal, while Virginia really will not. Here’s the rest of the same play from above.
Brandone Francis (#1) gambles a bit for the steal, putting him out of position and giving Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke an easy bucket. There’s actually quite a bit of this. Most likely, this is not exactly what Chris Beard wants to see. His guys do not have quite as much experience playing his defense.
Of the seven players who see extensive minutes, just one was around for Beard’s first year, just three years ago. That is senior big man Norense Odiase. He has 36 starts, but averages under 20 minutes and just four points per game. Against Michigan State on Saturday, he scored two points in 24 minutes but had nine rebounds. He’s not a guy who will create a shot from the post or take a jumper. But he can finish inside and he’s very good on the glass. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Jack Salt get some more run in this game, as he’s the best matchup Virginia has against Odiase.
There are three other seniors on the TTU roster: Francis, Tariq Owens and Matt Mooney. Owens is a graduate transfer from St. Johns (after beginning his career at Tennessee), Mooney is a grad transfer from South Dakota (after beginning at Air Force), and Francis began his career at Florida. The trio are the third, fourth and fifth leading scorers for the Red Raiders.
Their leading scorer is Jarrett Culver, the Big-12 player of the year. He actually leads the team in scoring, rebounding and assists, averaging 18, 6 and almost 4. He can shoot, though he’s only about 31% from downtown. He made 38% last year, but his usage rate was much higher this year. He’s long and strong and does his best work going to the rim. Culver struggled against Michigan State, scoring just 10 points on 3/12 FG. However, eight of those points came in the final two minutes to put away the Spartans. He and DeAndre Hunter will battle all game long, and it’ll be a good one. Hunter has length and strength on Culver, but the TTU wing probably has more quickness. Culver also has a the ball in his hands a lot more than Hunter does. Prior to Saturday, Culver was averaging over 21 points per game in the tourney. It’s a good sign for TTU that they were able to stay with the Spartans without Culver getting going. But it’s not something they want to see again. If Hunter can shut down Culver, Texas Tech is going to have trouble getting anything going offensively against Virginia.
The main reason the Red Raiders were able to stay with MSU without Culver was Mooney. He scored 21 points on 8/16 from the field. That included a stretch in the middle of the second half when Mooney simply couldn’t miss. He made three straight from downtown, including this one from way downtown.
That’s what Virginia fans call a Carsen Edwards shot. There simply isn’t much you can do if he’s going to make that.It looks like MSU was in a zone on this play, and Mooney has a lot of space. Mooney won’t find that much space against Virginia, no matter how far back he is.
Mooney, on paper at least, is the PG. He’s quick enough to get inside and he’s big enough to finish inside.
He’s 6’3” 200, whereas Kihei Clark is 5’9” 155. That’s a big size advantage for Mooney. Mooney isn’t going to go by Clark like he does above, but he can shoot over. Beard may also use Mooney in the post, where his size advantage could pay dividends. At the very least, it probably causes Virginia to bring a post trap. That could help open up shooters.
Mooney and Culver were the only Red Raiders in double figures against MSU. Francis had nine and Owens had seven. Owens might’ve had more, but played just 22 minutes. He left the game midway through the second half after coming down awkwardly on a shot block. He returned, but looked out of sorts. Owens has never been a big-time scorer. He averaged just under nine per game this year. But he’s one of the best shot blockers in the nation.
Owens also hits the boards and he’s 8/31 from downtown this year. That’s not great, but if you leave him space, he’ll knock it down.
This shot came off an offensive board, but there’s no close out against Owens and he has all day to line up his shot. Owens and Mamadi Diakite will likely be battling for much of the night. Diakite isn’t often the lesser athlete in his matchup, but he might be in this one. However, right now nobody knows what Owens will be able to provide after spraining his ankle on Saturday. If Owens is less than 100%, that changes what TTU does defensively. One of the reasons they can gamble for steals is having Owens defending the rim.
Odiase played very well with Owens out. He’s a vastly different player, but he’s also a good shot blocker and is probably better on the boards. Owens’ status, and the matchup of Odiase against Diakite or Salt will be big part of the outcome of this game.
The final member of TTU’s starting five is Italian Davide Moretti. At 6’2” 175, he’s the smallest player the Red Raiders have. He’s also their second leading scorer, and their leading three point shooting, at 46%. He’s also over 90% from the free throw line. Moretti had just five points against MSU, but he’s been in double-digits in each other NCAAT game. At this point, Moretti is mostly just a spot-up shooter. That said, he’s a good passer and handles the ball well too. He’ll probably be a bigger part of the TTU offense over the next couple of years.
Another guy who excels as a spot-up shooter is freshman Kyler Edwards. He’s not quite as good a shooter at Moretti, but he’s a better all around player. He’s also a solid defender and could end up spending time guarding Kyle Guy.
That is a big question for the Red Raiders. Who do they put on Guy? Guy, of course, was the hero on Saturday. But he’s struggled for much of this tournament, shooting under 23% from three, after making 46% prior to the tournament. Moretti is the obvious answer but he’s not really a good individual defender, though he’s a smart player. Most of the rest of Beard’s options are bigger guys who might struggle chasing guy around screens all night.
This game is going to be a battle. These are two tough, defensive minded teams. It won’t always be pretty. Both teams are defensive minded. However, both teams have talented offensive players. Texas Tech is better defensively, but Virginia is better offensively. This is especially true from behind the arc. Virginia has more shooters, better shooters, and shoots more threes. That’s where Guy comes in. Virginia has gotten this far without really getting the best out of Guy. Virginia’s leading scorer has struggled for most of the past five games. But he brought us back against Auburn and hit the three biggest free throws in Virginia Basketball history. It certainly seems appropriate for Guy to finally come out firing on all cylinders and lead Virginia to the national title.