Tom Izzo drew up the perfect play at the perfect moment, sending Michigan State past mighty Duke for a spot in the Final Four.
The trip is always emotional, but Izzo has done it before. This will be his eighth Final Four and a chance for a second national championship.
The other three Final Four coaches all will be the new kids at the dance.
Chris Beard’s nomadic journey struck a vein of gold in his 12th coaching stop at Texas Tech, with a gritty pack of ball-hawking players grasping the program’s first Final Four. Their opponent next Saturday in Minneapolis: Izzo’s Spartans.
Virginia’s Tony Bennett finally got over the hump in his 10th season with the Cavaliers, putting them in position for a different kind of history after last year’s historic first-round flameout against No. 16 UMBC.
And Bruce Pearl found some gems at Auburn after an acrimonious split with Tennessee, guiding the Tigers to Minneapolis where they’ll face Virginia despite the cloud of a federal investigation hanging over the program.
“I’m so happy for the people at Auburn who have been waiting forever to get their first Final Four,” Pearl said.
Pearl was fired by Tennessee in 2011 and hit with a “show-cause” penalty by the NCAA for a string of violations and lying to investigators.
He landed at Auburn 2014 and the dark clouds followed.
Tigers assistant Chuck Person pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and two players, Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, were ruled ineligible last season as a result of the federal investigation. Just before this year’s SEC Tournament, assistant coach Ira Bowman was suspended indefinitely amid bribery allegations during his time at Pennsylvania.
Despite the off-court issues, The Tigers (30-9) shot their way into the Final Four for the first time by taking down blue bloods Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in succession.
“No matter how low we got this season, no matter how much adversity went through, we always believed this is where we could get to,” said Auburn’s Bryce Brown, who had 24 points in the Elite Eight win over Kentucky.
Beard was at Division II Angelo State just four years ago, the ABA’s South Carolina Warriors three years before that. He took over a middling Texas Tech program in 2016 and turned it around by getting non-five-star players to buy into his defensive philosophies.
Texas Tech reached the Elite Eight for the first time in Beard’s second season a year ago, but not much was expected from the Red Raiders this season after losing five of their top six scorers.
Picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll, Texas Tech was one of college basketball’s biggest surprises, sharing the conference regular-season championship with Kansas State to end Kansas’ 14-year reign. After a hiccup against West Virginia in the conference tournament, Texas Tech (30-6) and the nation’s most efficient defense shut down four straight NCAA Tournament opponents to reach the program’s first Final Four.
“It is real. That defense is real,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after the Red Raiders bounced the Zags from the Elite Eight.
So is Virginia’s.
Using the same principles his father, Dick, ran at Wisconsin and Washington State, Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett runs a “pack line” defense that forces teams to the perimeter. As the name suggests, Virginia packs its defense into the paint, clogging driving lanes with help defenders already in place to fill the gaps in the defense.
Bennett needed a few years to cement the foundation of his defensive principles, but once he did, Virginia became one of the nation’s top defenses.
The Cavaliers led the nation in scoring defense at 55 points per game this season and are fifth in KenPom’s defensive efficiency. Virginia (33-3) shut down its first three opponents and survived an offensive onslaught by Purdue’s Carsen Edwards to earn its first Final Four since 1984.
Bounced in a historic loss a year ago, the Cavaliers finally got Bennett one piece missing from his resume.
“There was a burning desire to get these guys and our program to a Final Four and hopefully beyond,” Tony Bennett said.
The master of March may have pulled off the greatest coaching job of his career in the Elite Eight on Sunday, pulling the strings to knock top overall seed Duke and its fantastic freshmen from the bracket.
Izzo’s game plan frustrated Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and the rest of the Blue Devils most of the day in Washington, D.C.
With the game on the line, Izzo drew up a play to free Kenny Goins for a wide-open 3-pointer. The senior guard knocked it down with 34 seconds left, the Spartans clamped down on defense and Cassius Winston broke free to dribble out the clock, practically running all the way to Minneapolis with the ball.