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Who Didn’t Expect This Final Four?

gfoster (Geoff Foster, sports editor): Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s Final Four chat! After the chalk prevailed in the first weekend, the second weekend finally provided some upsets. In the Elite Eight, three of four underdogs won outright, and the fourth, Purdue, probably should have won — but Virginia’s last-second heroics and overtime win make the Cavs the lone No. 1 seed left in the tournament. What was the biggest surprise of the weekend?

jplanos (Josh Planos, contributor): I think we should just cede the floor to Neil, who can discuss his perfect Final Four choices:

jakelourim (Jake Lourim, contributor): If you look at last week’s chat, that makes Neil Captain Obvious, right?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sports writer): I wish I could say I had a fancy analytical model to make these picks, but I spent an entire podcast segment saying I was selectively ignoring stats and picking with my gut. The most anti-FiveThirtyEight way to get a perfect Final Four possible.

jplanos: I think the big winner is Under Armour getting two Final Four teams, but Duke (the top overall seed) falling probably takes the cake.

neil: Yeah, Duke losing before the Final Four has to be the headline surprise, I think.

Although one could make an easy case that the Blue Devils were lucky to even make it as far as they did…

gfoster: Were you that surprised by Duke losing? That game had the smallest spread of the last four, and Duke had aggressively flirted with death against Virginia Tech and UCF.

jplanos: I wasn’t because Michael Avenatti called it, but the Blue Devils were the Icarus of the tournament. It felt like they trailed at halftime of nearly every game.

neil: This Duke team was fascinating because, in terms of talent, nobody can match that group. And when Zion was taking over, it was difficult to envision how they could lose. Yet they did not consistently play to their abilities, particularly in this tournament. Even in those close wins, they left you wanting more.

jplanos: Shoutout to Alex O’Connell getting the start and finishing with three total minutes. When was the last time a starter finished with less than five minutes played and wasn’t injured or ejected?

gfoster: The story before the tournament was that Michigan State got handed an awful draw because the Spartans won the Big Ten tourney and still got put in Duke’s region. Now I wonder whether it was Duke that got the bad draw.

Can Cassius Winston one-man-army his way to a title? We’ve seen versatile point guards do this before in March Madness.

jplanos: He’s this season’s Kemba Walker. He started off pretty tepid against Duke and then exploded for 20 points and 10 assists, with four steals and one turnover, which, when you consider the ball is effectively always in his hands and he was lined up against an on-ball hound in Tre Jones, is absurd. I came away extremely impressed.

neil: Winston also got some help when he needed it late against Duke. Xavier Tillman had 19 in the game, and Kenny Goins overcame a horrendous shooting game to make a huge shot in the final minute.

jakelourim: Winston really can do it all. He’s had to do so much since Michigan State lost Joshua Langford in December, and through the Big Ten season, Big Ten tournament and then this weekend, I kept waiting for the Spartans to run out of magic. But they haven’t. It seemed throughout Sunday that Winston always knew the right play to make, and Duke didn’t. What was up with Zion not taking the last shot(s) in the final minute?

jplanos: The RJ Barrett Show seemed like a suboptimal approach down the stretch.

neil: People were really killing Barrett for taking so many of Duke’s final shots.

jakelourim: I did think that Michigan State had the best game plan (outside of Syracuse and the 2-3 zone, which is unique) for slowing down Zion. Tillman was outstanding on defense and made himself a lot of money on Sunday.

neil: Barrett also missed the free throw he was supposed to make, and made the one he was supposed to miss.


gfoster: MSU tends to struggle in the third weekend: eight Final Fours now but just one title for Tom Izzo. Is Michigan State essentially the 1990s Atlanta Braves? Loads of playoff success and the one token title to ward off Geoff making Buffalo Bills comparisons.

^ Third-person alert.

neil: I think Izzo was motivated to take back the “best performance vs. seed expectations” crown from Jim Boeheim.

Izzo’s teams have a long history of exceeding expectations en route to the Final Four, but maybe that’s why they don’t win titles. Overachieving can only get you so far.

jakelourim: It has always seemed to me that the talent differential has caught up to Michigan State in some of those Final Fours. I thought it was interesting that Tom Izzo said privately before the 2009 title game that if the Tyler Hansbrough/Ty Lawson UNC team played well, Michigan State would lose. “There’s just more talent there,” Izzo said. (And MSU did lose.) But if the talent didn’t catch up to the Spartans against Duke, when will it happen?

jplanos: Zion was clearly gassed, but he also was unquestionably the team’s best option on offense. And then he … stopped getting the ball. I was surprised that Coach K didn’t dial up any isolations for him over the final possessions or demand some sort of clear-out.

gfoster: At least Duke has Zion and Barrett for three more years where they can continue to grow as upperclassmen and take home multiple championships…….

neil: LOL

jplanos: My question is: Can we still get a Zion cam? Can we watch the kid ink his shoe deal during the Final Four?

gfoster: It is frustrating we don’t get more college Zion. He’s so entertaining.

jakelourim: It’s fair to wonder if/when we’ll ever see another college player like him again, right, with the NBA apparently set to change the one-and-done rule in 2022?

jplanos: I can’t remember seeing a team win an Elite Eight game (or any NCAA Tournament game) having made just two free throws, like Michigan State did. **cue Sports-Reference search**

neil: It’s actually astonishing when you look at the stats of that game in general that MSU won.

Duke shot better on FGs, 3Ps and FTs and had more rebounds. The turnovers were the only main category where Duke lost, and they lost big.

jplanos: Full transparency: I was ready to call curtains when the Blue Devils had that 21-5 run in the opening half.

jakelourim: What was stunning to me was that Duke turned the ball over 17 times. (Back to the point of “If they play well, they’ll win” — they did not play well.) Michigan State is 342nd in defensive turnover rate at 15 percent, according to Ken Pomeroy, and that’s counting Sunday’s game.

neil: Which just lent more credence to the idea that the only team talented enough to beat Duke was … Duke.

gfoster: Let’s talk about what’s not as entertaining: Texas Tech’s defensive domination. The Red Raiders made Michigan shoot like my JV basketball team when the bench had been emptied in the final minutes. Then did a similar suffocation of Gonzaga, holding the Bulldogs and the nation’s most efficient offense to just 69 points.

jplanos: The Red Raiders indeed smothered Michigan and then turned the second half of their win over Gonzaga into a rock fight. To see the nation’s most efficient offense reduced to 32 second-half points and 16 total turnovers was really something.

neil: According to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, Texas Tech is the nation’s best defensive team. The Red Raiders certainly played like it.

jplanos: If you had told me that Texas Tech would advance to the Final Four on a terrible Jarrett Culver shooting performance (5-of-19 from the field, 2-of-8 from three), I would have laughed in your face.

neil: Or that they would win despite Rui Hachimura having a pretty good game (22 points).

jplanos: It really seemed like the Zags missed the part of the game plan detailing turnovers. Texas Tech ranks 11th in opponent turnover percentage, according to KenPom, and lives by the deflection, especially on entry passes. It seemed like there were 10 bounce passes into the post that were immediate turnovers. YOU CAN’T POCKET PASS THIS TEAM.

jakelourim: (Just finished that sports-reference search, Josh: No team has won an Elite Eight game with two free throws or fewer since at least 2011.)

jplanos: You know who didn’t show up for the Wolverines? Two upperclassmen: Charles Matthews and Zavier Simpson.

Simpson finished 0-5 against Texas Tech with one assist and four turnovers. Not exactly what you’re expecting from a second-team all-conference player. And in the final game of his college career, Matthews had a team-high five turnovers and finished 3-9 from the field and 0-4 from 3-point land.

gfoster: Let’s put it this way and move on: Michigan’s performance in the Sweet 16 was the worst I’ve ever seen a basketball team play.

jplanos: LOL

neil: And you watched that UConn-Butler final from a few years back.

gfoster: I generally don’t like to talk about blown calls. But the Tariq Owens block play against Gonzaga was a pretty bad one to miss at a key moment:

It was frustrating that it was never reviewed. Isn’t this exactly what replay in basketball is for?

jplanos: Not a great tournament across the board for officiating out-of-bounds calls.

jakelourim: Michigan’s loss to Texas Tech generated the Wolverines’ seventh-worst offensive efficiency rating of the KenPom era and fourth-worst under John Beilein.

jplanos: I don’t know what being put in a straightjacket feels like, but I imagine it’s similar to playing the Red Raiders.

gfoster: Virginia is now the betting favorite in the tournament at 3-2. Would you have guessed that the Hoos would be the lone ACC No. 1 seed to make it through? It wasn’t long ago when I was momentarily planning how FiveThirtyEight would react to a UVA loss to Gardner-Webb.

jplanos: I certainly wouldn’t have. If we get a Virginia-Texas Tech national title game, will next year’s NCAA Tournament even be televised? And will it set back college basketball 15 years?

gfoster: First one to 50 points wins!

neil: I think Virginia also benefited from a relatively easy path to Minneapolis. According to our power ratings, the rest of the South contained the eighth, 10th and 16th best teams in the Sweet 16.

jplanos: Considering the moment, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more impressive baseball-style pass than the one Kihei Clark (A FRESHMAN) beamed to Mamadi Diakite for Virginia’s buzzer-beater against Purdue. That was a rocket.

jakelourim: Virginia hasn’t been particularly impressive in any of its four games — not like the Hoos were during the regular season — but it does seem like experience and chemistry won out in the regionals after a chalk-filled first weekend. I keep thinking about the moment at the end of the Michigan State-Duke game when Xavier Tillman motioned for Cassius Winston to hurry down the floor and run out the clock. That’s a savvy move.

neil: (And we can really talk savvy when we discuss Auburn’s Jared Harper…)

jakelourim: Mike Krzyzewski talked all weekend about how minor injuries disrupted the continuity of his freshman-led team, and I could feel eyes rolling out of heads. But does a freshman core that’s only played a handful of games together have the ability to do that? I’m not sure.

neil: Right. It seems like a big legacy of this one-and-done era will be of mostly unmet expectations for these freshman-star-laden teams.

gfoster: We joke about how boring the Cavs are (and make no mistake, they are mostly drying paint basketball), but the Purdue-Virginia game might have been my favorite of the tournament. Before overtime, Carsen Edwards’s game was unreal. It must be discouraging to get that type of performance from your star in the Elite Eight and still lose.

jplanos: Edwards was a one-man wrecking ball the entire tourney and, frankly, it feels unfair that he had to lose. I think there’s a sound argument to be made that it’s less than optimal to have one player responsible for nearly all of your offensive production, but man was it entertaining.

In arguably the two biggest games of his life, Edwards put up 71 points on 47 percent shooting from the field and went 15-33 from 3-point land. The degree of difficulty on most of those shots was superhuman.

Also, long live Ryan Cline. That performance against Tennessee will get washed over because of Carsen and the excitement of the Elite Eight slate, but man…

jakelourim: It really was unfortunate that one of those teams had to lose. Because on the other side, you have Tony Bennett trying to exorcise his Final Four demons and erase the memory of last year. He has made a tremendously successful career out of coaching the pack-line defense and forcing opponents to take shots like the ones Purdue took Saturday night. And then Carsen Edwards goes and does that.

gfoster: Kyle Guy stepped up. If he doesn’t repeatedly answer Edwards’s threes with ones of his own, UVA is gone.

neil: It was unfortunate that Edwards started to run out of gas at the end of OT. He missed a heat check late — which he’d earned the right to take, given the previous bombs — and had a tough turnover on a pass out of bounds in the final seconds. He’d been so brilliant that you expected him to keep making the superhuman look routine.

jplanos: I usually abide by a never-trust-a-man-with-two-first-names mantra, but I’m willing to make an exception for Kyle Guy.

No other Boilermaker had more than 7 points in that game. Yikes.

jakelourim: Good point, Josh. Nobody else even took more than seven shots! And that’s including five extra OT minutes.

neil: Edwards personally scored 56 percent of Purdue’s total — which was the second-most points UVA gave up in a game all season.

jakelourim: He also scored more points than Coppin State and William & Mary did as TEAMS against Virginia.

gfoster: The last team in the Final Four is Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers, who are the lowest remaining seed. A lot of people wrote off their chances of beating UK when Chuma Okeke when down. How do you think they will fare against UVA?

jplanos: I’d like to take this time to apologize for openly scoffing at Geoff picking Auburn to advance out of the Sweet 16. I even wrote it down in my diary and laughed!

jakelourim: This thought stuck in my head all of Friday night and Sunday afternoon: Remember how much of a spectacular mess Auburn was in the final seconds of its first-round game against New Mexico State? I did not watch that team and think, “Yeah, they’ll probably get to the Final Four.”

jplanos: This weekend was a big one for the EVERYBODY COUNTED US OUT crowd. I count all four teams citing it, which means, yep, that slogan remains undefeated.

jakelourim: Yes, we’re deep into “Why Not Us?” season.

neil: To your question Geoff, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper are going to have to keep scoring! The backcourt duo combined for 50 points against UK, with each taking turns taking over the game.

Special props to Auburn, btw, for avenging its 27-point loss at Kentucky from a few weeks earlier.

jplanos: I love that Virginia has to go through Auburn, a team with a style that must be anathema to the Hoos.

gfoster: Also this game served as a PSA against making banners where you openly mock injuries.

jplanos: If only we had known beforehand that Kentucky’s fan base has no limits…

jakelourim: Enjoyed that Bruce Pearl actually admitted to the popular strategy of “We’re going to get the ball to Jared and Bryce, and everyone else get the fuck out of the way.”

neil: It made sense. I am totally enamored with Harper in particular. He just has a sense of where everyone is on the court and what is the right play to make. Such a smart player.

jplanos: I think I fell in love with Auburn’s style this weekend. There was a slow-motion replay in the second half that captured an Auburn player swatting a Kentucky player’s shot at the rim while clearly mouthing “GIVE ME THAT SHIT,” and it was wonderful and emblematic of how the Tigers approach the game on both ends. Every play is a highlight to be made.

jakelourim: I also think this draw continues to favor Virginia. I don’t think Auburn is going to be the team to speed up Virginia in the semifinals, and in the final, neither Michigan State nor Texas Tech is going to bombard Virginia with unmatched athleticism, as Duke did in both of their regular-season meetings.

gfoster: So is that your prediction Jake?

jakelourim: Yes, my champion pick is still alive, so I’m sticking with Virginia.

jplanos: I like Virginia to advance and play Texas Tech, which will be … a game of basketball.

neil: I must keep my original predictions, so I’m taking UVA and MSU, with the Cavs winning it all.

gfoster: I’m riding Auburn!!!!! … for one more game. I think they do shoot their way past Virginia’s defense. And then lose to Michigan State in the final. And we all get our dream fulfilled of seeing more Tom Izzo dancing videos like this:

Check out our latest March Madness predictions.

From ABC News:

Duke upset leads to many bracket busts ahead of Final Four

Geoff Foster is the former sports editor of FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Jake Lourim is a freelance writer in Washington. He most recently worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal.