Bracket challenge, commentary as we head into Final Four

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Updated standings:

1. Mikayla Kennaugh 46

2. Justin Wood 45

3. Tori Fantozzi 44

3. Matt Miracle 44

5. Kyrsten Kennaugh 42

6. Karin Sullivan 41

6. Mike Kennaugh 41

6. Ryan McDonald 41

9. Linda Kennaugh 40

9. Lori Bunde 40

That was fun! Where weekend 1 lacked drama, weekend 2 saw the drama come in droves once the Elite 8 began.

Although half of the Sweet 16 games were relatively competitive, the investment just wasn’t there at times, but all of that would go away once Saturday rolled around.

A total of 18 points were the difference in the four games played on Saturday and Sunday.

First it was Texas Tech, fresh off the tournament’s most dominant defensive performance (holding Michigan to 44 points) putting the defensive screws to Gonzaga.

Gonzaga, suddenly in a tight game (for the first time in a while) made several late game errors that gave the Red Raiders extra opportunities and they parlayed that into their first-ever trip to the Final Four.

Then Virginia continued to exorcise their tournament demons, knocking off a lethal Purdue team that was playing in its second consecutive overtime game.

The first two Elite 8 games saw scoring margins of a combined 11 points — and the games only got tighter on Sunday.

Auburn’s magical run roared on as they knocked off SEC rival Kentucky in overtime to get to their first Final Four, making them just one of two teams to beat Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in the same tournament (the 1997 national champion Arizona Wildcats were the first).

Then came the heavyweights …

Duke and Michigan State, two storied programs, the champions from America’s best conferences (the ACC and Big 10 respectively).

In a game that didn’t disappoint, both teams went on multiple runs to trade the lead, but it was Sparty who would get the last laugh as senior Kenny Goins buried the game-winning triple over the outstretched hands on freshman phenom Zion Williamson and sent the Green and White to their 10th Final Four.

This Final Four has a little bit of everything: a perennial powerhouse in Michigan State, an ACC power in Virginia, the up-and-comer Texas Tech, and the plucky underdog Auburn.

• • •

Last week we used a panel discussion to talk about what we thought about the first two rounds; this week we are going to discuss similar topics and give our predictions for the possible outcome.

Joining Caleb, Matt, and myself is former Kellogg basketball player Trevor Bumgardner.

Question 1: Who was the top performer of the second weekend?

CALEB: Purdue's Carsen Edwards made great plays in the win over Tennessee and had 29 points in that game. He also had that big 42 point game against Virginia but came up short in a great game.

MATT: I think Auburn’s backcourt comprised of Bryce Brown and Justin Harper deserve equal praise. They’ve combined for 131 points over the last three games, games that were basically a “Who’s Who” of college basketball elites in Kansas, UNC and Kentucky. They’ve also shown a championship level of poise when closing out games.

JOSH: Zion Williamson just finished the second most dominant freshman run in tournament history (after Anthony Davis in 2012) with a 24 point, 14 rebound game. And, despite playing in two less games, he was the first freshman since Derrick Rose to score more than 100 points in a single tournament.

TREVOR: Top performer of Sweet 16 was Purdue’s Carsen Edwards. He was great passing shooting and was very clutch when it came down to the wire. Top performer of Elite 8 was Jared Harper. Single handedly took down Kentucky in overtime. He is crazy fast and hustles everywhere he goes.

Question 2: Top team performance.

MATT: I’m going to have to be a bit of a “homer” here. MSU to me had the best team performance. They were able to spread the ball around and have guys step up to keep Duke guessing on defense. The high screen and rolls caused issues for Duke all game and it caused Duke’s inexperience to show.

TREVOR: Top team performance was Auburn by far. A #5 seed taking down both #1 and #2 seed in back-to-back games, beating two elite squads is a great accomplishment and their whole team has been on point the whole tournament.

CALEB: Texas Tech with their wins over Gonzaga and Michigan. The Red Raiders played some of the best defense I have ever seen, especially against a #1 and #2 seed in back to back games.

JOSH: Virginia probably has my top team performance vote despite struggling the most on the road into the Final 4. Oregon proved to be a worthy opponent, and the Hoos had to force OT against Purdue, but these struggles in the face of last year’s humiliation are added weight that coach Tony Bennett and his roster are carrying. They are playing for more than just a championship right now.

Question 3: Keys to victory for each team.

JOSH: Texas Tech is going to have to continue to defend at the high rate they did against Michigan and Gonzaga and let Jarrett Culver guide the offense. Auburn basically just needs to keep their hearts beating and they will be right where they need to be. Michigan State is led by one man, Cassius Winston, and he will need to continue to be the man if MSU is to get their national championship. Virginia is the country’s best 3-point shooting team — if they hit at the 40 percent clip they did all season it is going to hard to beat them.

MATT: Texas Tech needs to stay true to who they are. The matchup zone they play is a game changer and as long as they can use this to turn transition teams like MSU into half-court teams they stand a solid chance. Michigan State goes as Cassius goes. If Cassius is on they’re extremely hard to beat. The blueprint for Izzo teams has always been solid guard play and winning the boards. The bench here could also become an X factor as it showed in the LSU game. Auburn will win if they can continue to drive to open up their outside shooting. They take a lot of 3s and by giving the best looks possible to their shooters they increase their percentage and help their cause. I don’t see the poise from the guards faltering here so stay the course and Auburn wins it’s 1st National Title. Virginia has been the most crazy anomaly in terms of tourney success or lack thereof. They play a tough regular season schedule and have been ranked high in recent years (rightfully so) however when they get to the tourney it’s a toss up. Virginia needs to continue to rely on its defense. With the best defense in the nation they can seemingly lockdown the best offensive teams however Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome have to be on when it comes to the offensive end or this team goes belly up.

TREVOR: Keys for Michigan State: playing smart defense, using bigs and shooting to their advantage. Have to run most plays through Cassius Winston.

Keys for Texas Tech: play as good of defense as they have all tournament. Holding #1 and #2 seeds well under their average scoring was their key to get to the final four.

Keys for Virginia: Play as big as they are. They need to be focused on stopping one player if the time comes against Auburn. They’ve been letting too many teams have that one player that scores too many points and makes the game a lot more closer than it needs to be.

Keys for Auburn: Keep the same intensity that they have been playing with on the offensive end. Be smarter on defense. Too many bigs getting in foul trouble and they need them to play smart to beat Virginia.

CALEB: Auburn has to play their game and push the tempo against Virginia who is a slow paced team. Let the 3s fly cause Virginia cannot guard the three.

Virginia has to run Auburn off the 3-point line which they didn't do against Purdue and barely got out with a win. So defense defense defense.

Michigan State has to go fast on the offensive side, push the ball, and don’t let Texas Tech get their defense set up. Cassius Winston has to play big like he played against Duke.

Texas Tech, like I said they have to play their defense and they have to get Mooney and Moretti going. They also have to attack the bigs of MSU. Get them out quick.

Question 4: Championship predictions

TREVOR: The final game will see a match up between Auburn and Texas Tech. That game sounds like it’d be too intense for any team to win but I believe Texas Tech will come out with the win over Auburn.

CALEB: I think it is going to be Michigan State vs. Auburn with Auburn getting the win.

MATT: My prediction moving forward is that we get an Michigan State/Auburn final. I feel MSU will win the matchup battles against a tough Texas Tech team due to their ability to get production at all positions. For Auburn, Bruce Pearl has this team playing at an inspirational level. They’re achieving program firsts almost every game and shown that they won’t lose a step with Okeke going down. As much as it kills me, I think Auburn will win that matchup.

JOSH: My heart wants Auburn vs. Texas Tech, like Trevor said, the game would be an intensity-laden affair that could go any way. But I think we will see Michigan State and Virginia.

Both squads are led by experienced rosters, top notch coaches, and should be familiar in big game situations.

Unlike the Duke game, Michigan State won’t be able to let Virginia shoot 3’s at will, so unless their 3-point defense improves, Virginia should get their first national championship.

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