Monday’s NCAA men’s final between Virginia and Texas Tech will be a matchup of similarly defensive-minded teams that are each making the first national championship game appearance in program history. And in the age of big programs chasing one-and-done recruits, neither the Red Raiders nor the Cavaliers are a recruiting powerhouse: In the Final Four, the two stronger recruiting teams — Michigan State and Auburn — fell to the two weaker ones. While some of that was luck (looking at you, Virginia), it was also a testament to the coaching jobs that Chris Beard and Tony Bennett have done to build these championship contenders.
From 2013 to 2018, Texas Tech and Virginia each made only one appearance in ESPN’s Top 40 recruiting-class rankings — the Wahoos in 2016 (No. 8) and the Red Raiders in 2018 (No. 33). (By contrast, Michigan State appeared five times and Auburn three times.) Over the same span, Virginia has had only five commits who ranked among the Top 100 in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI) ranking — which combines multiple sources to create a “master” recruiting ranking — and Texas Tech has had just one:1
|Virginia||Year signed||Rank||2018-19 Win Shares|
|Texas Tech||Year signed||Rank||2018-19 Win Shares|
Virginia’s only huge recruiting splash under Bennett came with that 2016 class, when the Cavs brought in four Top-100 high school players: Kyle Guy (No. 32), Ty Jerome (No. 46), Jay Huff (No. 61) and De’Andre Hunter (No. 74). Huff has played sparingly during this Final Four run, but Hunter, Jerome and Guy have been essential members of Bennett’s squad. Against Auburn, the trio scored 50 of the Cavs’ 63 points, including the three crucial free throws that Guy calmly sank after drawing a foul on a dramatic, final-second 3-point attempt. Although Hunter has emerged as a top NBA draft prospect — he ranks sixth on ESPN’s big board of 2019 draftees — neither he nor his classmates were regarded as such in high school.
Texas Tech’s team was built from an even more humble foundation. Its lone RSCI-ranked recruit of the decade was Khavon Moore (tied for No. 45 last year), who played only two minutes this season while rehabbing a broken leg suffered in high school. It’s hard to believe now that dynamic 6-foot-5 sophomore guard Jarrett Culver, who is averaging nearly 19 points and 6 rebounds per game, wasn’t considered more than a three-star recruit coming out of Coronado High School in Lubbock. The local product is now ranked fifth — higher even than Hunter — on ESPN’s NBA draft board.
But a program’s recruiting history isn’t its destiny, as this season continues to prove. Duke signed the most impressive class in recent history last summer, only to fall short of the Final Four entirely. Even among teams that made at least one appearance in the ESPN Top 40 over a four-year span going back to 2013, a team’s recent recruiting-class rankings2 explain only about 10 percent of its KenPom.com adjusted efficiency rating. Talent can take a team only so far; the rest depends on coaching and player development.
And both of these championship game contestants play a particular style that makes the most of what talent they do have. According to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, Texas Tech has the best defense in the country, while Virginia ranks fifth. UVA has the better offense (No. 3 in KenPom vs. No. 28 for the Red Raiders), but both teams grind things out at a below-average pace and hold their typical opponent to somewhere between 15 and 20 fewer points than the NCAA average. Texas Tech’s defense is more predicated on forcing turnovers; Virginia focuses on disciplined rotations that limit 3-point chances and seldom commit fouls. Each defense makes life a living hell for opposing scorers.
Needless to say, this might not lead to the most entertaining national title game. (Cue up that 2011 UConn-Butler final to inoculate yourself against the potentially unwatchable basketball to come.) It certainly won’t be as talent-laden as, say, Duke-Kentucky or even Michigan State-Auburn would have been. But these are the last two teams left standing for a reason. Through clutch playmaking and steady coaching, Virginia and Texas Tech each made it here the hard way.
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