Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Credit: Brian Curski
For the second time in as many years, the nation will watch one of its greatest sporting events take place at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis with the local team not participating. Of course, fans still bristle when they think about the 2017-18 Minnesota Vikings that came one game short of hosting a Super Bowl.
The difference between Super Bowl LII and the upcoming Final Four is that most fans placed their hope in Duke’s Tre Jones, Gonzaga’s Geno Crandall and Kentucky’s Reid Travis in order to get some local flavor at U.S. Bank Stadium over the weekend rather than investing in the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Minnesota’s first-round tournament victory, frankly, caught many off guard, while their second-round exit wasn’t a surprise.
The drought is now 22 years since the Gophers made the Final Four — a since-vacated accomplishment that remains Minnesota’s finest postseason run as a college basketball program.
Maybe Saturday’s Final Four field can give Minnesota hope, however. Two programs are making their first-ever appearance, injecting fresh blood into an event usually reserved for the blue bloods. Another of the representatives has never won a title.
Let’s look at how all four of these teams built their programs and whether the Gophers could follow their lead.
We start with the most unlikely comparison because it will be a long time before Richard Pitino can recruit like Tom Izzo and give Minnesota the same clout as Michigan State.
The team that ousted the Gophers from the tournament put on a master class in depth and defense in that game, beating Minnesota 70-50 to move to the regional portion of the bracket. Unlike Minnesota, Michigan State handled injuries to key players with aplomb. With super junior Josh Langford (ankle) and role player Kyle Ahrens (ankle) out for the year and Nick Ward (hand) battling injury, the Spartans didn’t missed a beat. Michigan State got more from Xavier Tillman, more from freshman Aaron Henry and was able to delve into a bench capable of going 10 deep.
And having the talent to do that is what separates the Spartans. Their roster consists of eight Top 100 recruits, per College Basketball Reference, that turned Michigan State into one of the most efficient offenses in college basketball (18th in field goal percentage, 27th in 3-point percentage, first in assists).
To Izzo’s credit, he’s done a good job of finding multi-year talent instead of succumbing to the one-and-done influence at powerhouses like Duke and Kentucky. Aside from Jaren Jackson Jr., in the 2018 Draft, Izzo hasn’t had a freshman leave after one year and become a lottery pick in his career (Miles Bridges and Gary Harris left after their sophomore seasons).
The core of Izzo’s current group consists of seniors Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins, along with juniors Cassius Winston, Ward and, before his injury, Langford.
One would think that Tony Bennett could be cleaning up in the local recruiting game, but he’s actually looked far outside his state’s borders to construct the Cavaliers’ first Final Four team in over 30 years.
Bennett brought in talent from New Zealand, Australia, California and Texas to be a part of this group. There’s also a strong East Coast presence on the roster with De’Andre Hunter with Pennsylvania, Ty Jerome from New York and Braxton Key (a transfer) and Jay Huff from North Carolina.
The Cavaliers have five Top 75 recruits and are stacked for another run in 2019-20 with only one senior on this year’s roster, Jack Salt (New Zealand) who averages 3.9 points per game.
And just like his father’s teams at Wisconsin, Bennett has the Cavaliers defending ferociously. Opponents have the fifth-worst field-goal percentage and fourth-worst 3-point percentage against Virginia, while attempting the 20th-fewest free throws. Their offense is hyper-efficient (No. 2 per KenPom) while operating at the slowest adjusted-tempo in the nation, 353rd in possessions per 40 minutes. They’ve done this in 2018-19 without much size — only Salt, their starting big man, is over 235 pounds.
The Virginia system seems all too simple to emulate — play defense and play slowly. But it requires talented athletes to hold athletic ACC opponents down on the defensive end while staying poised on offense. This would be a 180-degree change stylistically for the Gophers, who like to run the floor when possible and pound the ball in the paint in the half-court. Plus, defense has not been their strong suit. And unlike the Cavaliers, they’ll need to be more successful in local recruiting without the luxury Virginia has of assembling elite teams with largely out-of-state talent.
The key for Bruce Pearl at Auburn? Get old, get old, get old.
Hey, the Gophers can do that!
This year’s Tigers team has just one player younger than a junior amongst their top 10 scorers: sophomore Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL earlier in the tournament. They returned six of their top eight scorers from last year’s group that made it to the Round of 32.
The other key for Pearl at Auburn? Shoot 3s, shoot 3s, shoot 3s.
That seems more daunting for the Gophers, who were one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the nation this year, but personnel can change that quickly.
The Tigers make more 3s than any other Division I team, attempt over 30 a game, play at one of the fastest tempos and simply outgun their opponents.
Pearl did a great job of recruiting the southeastern United States to fill out his roster with athletes — nabbing three out of their four Top 100 recruits from in-state or nearby. They also brought in one valuable transfer, Samir Doughty from VCU.
Sure, having the Pearl name helps after his long-term success at Tennessee, but Auburn was on a 14-year NCAA Tournament drought before last season, and except for a great five-year stretch in the 1980s, had arguably less historical success as a program than Minnesota. Developing a seasoned roster, recruiting well locally and playing a style essentially devoted to high-volume 3-point shooting are all attainable goals for a program like the Gophers’ that is not going to nab transformative blue-chip freshmen.
Then there’s the other side of the coin. If you’re not an old team, you manufacture more experience. Chris Beard led the Red Raiders to an Elite Eight appearance in 2017-18, which made Texas Tech quickly more desirable to grad transfers.
Beard brought in Matt Mooney from South Dakota and Tariq Owens from St. John’s to up the team’s senior count from two to four. He also got sophomore Deshawn Corprew from junior college, and senior Brandone Francis had joined the team the previous season via transfer from Florida.
The Red Raiders play more Virginia-like than Auburn-like. Their M.O. is defense, ranking first in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, holding teams to the second-lowest field-goal percentage in the nation. Three of their players led the Big 12 conference in individual defensive rating, per Basketball Reference. And opponents scored the third-fewest points against.
Beard also has four in-state Texas recruits, including sophomore star Jarrett Culver, but only two Top 100 recruits — one of whom plays minutes regularly (Francis).
Texas Tech lost six of their top eight scorers from their 27-10 team in 2017-18, but Beard restocked savvily and kept the team’s defensive identity intact. With a combination of young players that made a postseason run a year ago and veterans joining for one final shot at glory, the Red Raiders made the most of a seemingly depleted roster while not having a big-name coach or program.
Playing a distinct style with veteran players like Auburn or creatively constructing a roster like Texas Tech are ways the Gophers can compete without the aid of big recruits that may go the way of Michigan State or Virginia.
Minnesota hopes the insertion of transfers Marcus Carr and Payton Willis can enhance next year’s roster and soften the blow of losing four-star sophomore Isaiah Washington to transfer. Pitino has four scholarships remaining for 2019-20. How he uses them is yet to be determined.