This article is part of our NCAA Championship Preview series.
No. 3 Texas Tech Red Raiders
Matchup Overview: Let's get this out of the way: there are going to be complaints about the slow style of play in the National Championship game. Both Virginia and Texas Tech grind each possession out and were the top two teams in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. There is beauty in excellent defense. It is awesome to watch five players working together, often helping each other, to foil the opponent's offensive plans. Both teams play deliberately on offense and were below average in pace (with the Cavaliers being the slowest team in the nation). This will not be boring even if the score is low. This will be a taut game in which every possession matters and the tipping point may be the slightest thing.
Strength: Coach Chris Beard has crafted an incredible defense. The team somehow is able to guard both the paint and the three-point line excellently. There is no one player that is a defensive minus and each player can switch to almost any opponent without much difference. The Red Raiders help each other beautifully on defense as well with help coming along the baseline to help snuff out opponents who forge their way to the basket. Only Gonzaga and its top-ranked offensive efficiency has been able to crack the 60-point barrier in the NCAA tournament.
Weakness: In their losses this season, the Red Raiders were susceptible to teams that play up tempo. That won't be an issue against Virginia. Texas Tech can go through offensive droughts. For example, against Michigan State, the Red Raiders held a nine-point lead with seven minutes remaining. Texas Tech did not score for the next four and a half minutes before being rescued by Jarrett Culver in the very late stages of the game. Culver scored just four points in the first 37.5 minutes of the game and will need to be more effective against the Cavaliers.
Intangibles: Tariq Owens' health may be somewhat questionable coming into Monday's game. In the second half on Saturday, he came down from a rebounding attempt awkwardly and looked like he may have hyperextended his knee. The 6-10 St. John's transfer went to the locker room and returned later in the second half with what was deemed as an ankle injury. He also took two shots to the head in the first half of the win. After Owens returned, he did not look as effective. If he is in any way limited on Monday, the Red Raiders will not have their best shot blocker (2.5 bpg) and second-best rebounder (5.8 rpg).
Texas Tech will win IF: they knock down their three-pointers. Matt Mooney helped the team forge a 12-point lead in the second half of the win over the Spartans by knocking down a pair of NBA-range treys. Texas Tech does not depend on long-distance shooting as much as many teams (only 35.6 percent of their shots were threes, 255th in the nation, per KenPom), but the Cavaliers will not allow much scoring in the paint. Jarrett Culver will likely not have many successful forays to the rim. Starters Mooney and Davide Morretti as well as reserves Brandone Francis and Kyler Edwards will need to hit at least 40 percent of their three-pointers.
Prediction: I think Owens' health status is enormous. After returning to play from the ankle injury in the win over Michigan State, the 6-10 senior did not do much. The Red Raiders will still be excellent defensively, but Owens is very important to that defense. Norsense Odiase is a quality defender in the low post, but does not bring the intimidation of rejection like Owens. It could be just enough to help the Cavaliers win in a low-scoring (but not boring!) game in which neither team takes a lead of more than five points. Virginia win 58-55.
No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers
Matchup Overview: The Virginia Cavaliers advanced to the National Championship Game in dramatic fashion. Down two to Auburn, sharpshooter Kyle Guy was fouled attempting a three from the corner with less than a second left. He calmly sank all three free-throws, sending the Hoos to the Final. Not only was the foul call controversial, but the game officials may have also missed a double-dribble call on fellow Virginia guard Ty Jerome just prior to the last possession. Virginia escaped the low-scoring nail biter despite coughing up a 10-point lead with under five minutes to play.
Meanwhile, Texas Tech won its low-scoring affair by holding Michigan State to 51 points on 15 made field goals. The Red Raiders also caught fire late from the field, beginning the second half by shooting 11-of-14 to jump out to a lead they would never relinquish. On a night when leading scorer Jarrett Culver started 0-for-8 from the field, senior Matt Mooney exploded for a season-high 22 points to carry the Red Raiders to the victory. The Virginia-Texas Tech clash should be a physical defensive struggle. Whoever scores 60 points first may be crowned the winner. Whichever squad comes out victorious, it will be the first National Title for either program.
Strength: Defense. It's general and obvious, but that doesn't mean it isn't true for the Cavaliers. Auburn had averaged over 85 points per game heading into the National Semifinal against Virginia. The Hoos held the Tigers to just 62 points. Auburn was shooting over 40-percent from three-point range up until Saturday night. Virginia held the Tigers to 29-percent from beyond the arc. Auburn had only nine assists as the Virginia defense stymied what had previously been a streaking, potent offense. Virginia was No. 1 in the nation in points allowed during the regular season, and the Cavalier defense did not disappoint in their Final Four matchup.
Weakness: Lack of depth. Virginia played just seven players versus Auburn, which has not been uncommon throughout the tournament for coach Tony Bennett. All five starters played at least 34 minutes, but the game was nearly lost when Ty Jerome picked up his fourth foul and had to head to the bench. That was when Virginia saw its 10-point lead evaporate, perhaps not a coincidence. Not only is the Virginia bench short, but the Cavs are guard-heavy. Jack Salt is the only other big receiving minutes besides Mamadi Diakite; the latter has arguably been Virginia's best player in the tourney. Diakite blocked five shots versus the Tigers, and Virginia certainly needed every one of them. The interior of the Cavaliers will be tested by the likes of Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase.
Intangibles: Just one season after losing to a No. 16 seed, the Hoos are experienced and battle-tested. The same core is there from last year's demoralizing loss, and the Cavaliers have also won two heart-stoppers in a row. They are unlikely to be rattled by whatever Texas Tech throws their way. In fact, despite surrendering a 10-point lead late, Virginia was able to maintain its composure and somehow, some way, pull out the victory against Auburn,
Virginia Will Win If: they maintain the same level of offensive efficiency. The defense will always be there, but the Cavs dished out 15 assists Saturday night, shot 49 percent from the field and nearly 37 percent from three-point land. The trio of DeAndre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome shot over 52 percent from the floor and accounted for over 79 percent of Virginia's scoring against Auburn. Virginia plays at a snail's pace by design, looking to minimize possessions and maximize efficiency. The Hoos had arguably their best shooting game of the tourney in the National Semifinal, and a similar type of performance will be needed against the Red Raiders if they are to cut down the nets for the school's first title.
These teams are near mirror images of each other, defensive-minded and physical. It would appear Texas Tech has a slight advantage on the interior, while the Cavaliers have the advantage in terms of guard play. This game will definitely be low scoring, it will definitely be close, and it may depend on which player or players get hot on the offensive end. Texas Tech has won every game in the tournament by at least six points; meanwhile, Virginia essentially needed two miracles to advance to the Final. That may provide an advantage for Virginia, actually; the Cavaliers have played, and won, several close games this tournament. In a throwback matchup, the Cavaliers will have just enough offense to pull off another heart-stopping victory for the ages and punctuate a wild run in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.