A Final Four-cast

Elissa Lerner
Apr 6, 2019 · 6 min read

Authored by: Steve Sandmeyer

For the next few days, US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis will be the epicenter of the college basketball world. Fans will be treated to quite a diverse Final Four in 2019, in seed, conference, and style. Number 1-seed in Virginia, 2-seed in Michigan State, 3-seed in Texas Tech, and 5-seed in Auburn represent the ACC, Big 10, Big 12 and SEC conferences in the Big Dance. So let’s take a look at the Final Four matchups with a unique spin as we continue our analysis of college basketball with Google Cloud.

(1) Virginia vs (5) Auburn

Both teams have played very well, of course. But they’ve also benefited from some serious good fortune (or clutchness, depending on your point of view!) in advancing to this year’s Final Four. Beyond that though, we can get more nuanced information about the matchup using our schedule adjusted metrics. The first thing to note is that Virginia playing at the slowest pace in all of NCAA basketball (353rd out of 353 teams).

Screenshot of schedule adjusted metrics dashboard

Believe it or not, at a pedestrian rank of #145 in pace, Auburn is still the fastest team among the Final Four participants (Michigan State 187th, Texas Tech 249th, Virginia 353rd — last).

Virginia’s strength lies in their offensive efficiency (ranked second-highest in the NCAA with a rating of 122.1) and their score control ability. The Cavaliers’ average in-game point differential on the season is a robust +8.3, which ranks third-highest out of 353 NCAA Division-I teams.

Screenshot of score control dashboard

Auburn, meanwhile, despite losing one of their best players to injury still outlasted Kentucky during the Regional Final (77–71 in OT) and advanced to their first Final Four in school history. The Tigers are also a highly ranked offensive team, sitting eighth-highest in the league with an offensive efficiency rating of 118.9.

Screenshot of efficiency and pace dashboard

So now that we’ve established that both teams have efficient offensive squads, what other stat makes for an interesting matchup between these teams?

Turnovers.

Turnovers are always important in a basketball game — but it’s worth taking a closer look at Virginia and Auburn in this regard. Going back to our schedule adjusted metrics dashboard, we see a showdown looming on the horizon — especially when Virginia has the ball and Auburn is defending.

Auburn has feasted defensively on their opposition with a forced turnover rate of 24.6% — second-highest in the NCAA, and highest among Final Four teams (Texas Tech comes in at number 7, the rest aren’t in the top ten).

Screenshot of Four Factors dashboard

On the other hand, Virginia, besides being the masters of score control, has relied on avoiding turnovers as a function of earning the second-highest offensive efficiency rating in the NCAA (122.1; this makes sense if you think about it — since they play the slowest game in the league, if they were turning the ball over, there’s no way they could have such a high offensive efficiency). Virginia turns over the ball at a very low rate, to the tune of just 13.8%, which ranks fourth lowest out of 353 NCAA Division-I teams.

Screenshot of Four Factors dashboard

Auburn forces turnovers at an extremely high rate; Virginia turns the ball over at a very low rate — which skill will matter more? Taking care of the basketball is paramount in any setting, but for the Virginia/Auburn matchup, this area of emphasis will go a long way in determining who will play for the National Championship on Monday night.

(3) Texas Tech vs (2) Michigan State

We’re about to find out if there’s any truth to the old adage “defense wins championships.” Simply put, Texas Tech far outclasses any Final Four team (or any team for that matter) on the defensive side of the basketball. Don’t believe us? Well for starters, Texas Tech beat one of the most prolific offensive teams (Gonzaga) in the regional final (75–69) to advance to the school’s first-ever Final Four.

In that game, the Red Raiders held the Bulldogs to just 42% shooting from the field and fewer than 70 points — only the fourth time that happened to Gonzaga all season. Texas Tech stifled Gonzaga’s powerful offense, limiting them to just 26.9% shooting from three-point range (7 of 26 attempts) and took advantage of their an uncharacteristically high 16 turnovers. So take the losing coach’s word for it: “It’s real. That defense is real,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “It impacted us tonight. They took a lot of balls tonight.”

We can use those schedule adjusted metrics to quantify the defensive prowess of Texas Tech even further. Their defensive efficiency ranks #1 in the NCAA at 83.1, which means Gonzaga’s isn’t the only offense Texas Tech has shut down this season.

Screenshot of Efficiency and Pace dashboard

It’s not just defensive efficiency though — Texas Tech has made a habit out of forcing opponent miscues. They rank seventh in the NCAA in forced turnover rate, at 23.5%. Gonzaga found that out the hard way.

Screenshot of Four Factors dashboard

But the defense hits keep coming: perhaps the most impressive number is the minuscule effective field goal percentage Texas Tech holds its opponents to. At just 41.3%, yes, you guessed it, Texas Tech is the best in the NCAA.

Screenshot of Four Factors dashboard

Now that we’ve named Texas Tech as the “Secretary of Defense,” what does the Michigan State bring to the table? In a word: balance. The Spartans boast top ten rankings for the entire NCAA field in both offense and defensive efficiency. Not too shabby.

Michigan State owns the fourth most efficient offense:

Screenshot of Efficiency and Pace dashboard

And they also own the ninth most efficient defense:

Screenshot of Efficiency and Pace dashboard

Pretty incredible if you think about it. This kind of balance is tough to come by. As a result, Michigan State has dominated score control during their NCAA tournament run. In their four tournament wins, the Spartans led the score 59.7% of time vs. Bradley, 96.9% vs. Minnesota, 98.3% vs. LSU, and 55.1% of the time vs. Duke. That’s a significant amount of minutes played with a lead on the scoreboard.

Screenshot of Game In-Game Score Metrics dashboard

The showdown is heading in a pretty clear direction: on the one hand, you’ve got the most efficient defensive team in the country in Texas Tech (with a rating of 83.1). On the other, you have in Michigan State a team that is fourth best in offensive efficiency (with a rating of 121.8). So this story will be all about effective field goal percentage, and the rankings make this crystal clear:

  • Michigan State offense has the second highest effective FG percentage (58.8%) in the NCAA
  • Texas Tech defense has the lowest effective FG percentage allowed (41.3%) in the NCAA

One more thing to note, consider the following: we’ve mentioned Michigan State’s score control prowess during the tournament so far. But keep in mind, Texas Tech’s biggest deficit on the scoreboard — in any game, throughout the tournament (which means wins over Gonzaga, Michigan, Buffalo and Northern Kentucky) — has been a grand total of four points. Yes. Four.

Diversity is key in any situation, and we’ve certainly have a diverse Final Four field in terms of team identities. From slow to fast(er), lock-down defense to uber-efficient offense, score-control mastery to turnover-churning machinery, there will be no shortage of narratives on Saturday. As always, keep an eye on Google Cloud’s insights and predictions throughout the Madness — including to and through the Final Four!

Analyzing NCAA Basketball with GCP

Insights, predictions, and analysis of NCAA College Basketball

Elissa Lerner

Written by

Writer. Editor. Googler. New Yorker.

Analyzing NCAA Basketball with GCP

Insights, predictions, and analysis of NCAA College Basketball

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