Virginia is the lone No. 1 seed remaining in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, and Auburn is the long shot, coming out of the Midwest Region as a No. 5 seed.
Tom Izzo is back for the eighth time with Michigan State, and Chris Beard guided Texas Tech into the national semifinals for the first time ever.
The teams converge on Minneapolis on Thursday, two days before games begin Saturday night at US Bank Stadium.
“I think it’s a great city,” Izzo said Monday. “The facility is off the charts. This is going to be a tremendous setting. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Beard spent plenty of time on the horn on Monday, talking to anyone he felt could help his team get an edge, from Dick Vitale to common opponents. He also decided to reach out to Izzo to make sure their first conversation wasn’t an informal intro in the hallway this week.
“Coach Izzo is one of my idols,” Beard said. “He’s someone I look up to. He’s been great to coaches. We have terminology in our program — Tom Izzo rebounding — so it’s a little bit surreal. I did have a chance to talk to him one time, at Peach Jam when recruiting started, and he was really nice to me.
“I reached out to him this morning just to congratulate him on another Final Four.”
The road to the program’s first ever Final Four was unexpected for Auburn.
The Tigers ousted North Carolina in the regional semifinal, sandwiched by wins over Kansas and Kentucky. In the win over the Tar Heels, most valuable player Chuma Okeke was lost to a season-ending knee injury.
“We said this is all for Chuma,” Auburn junior Jared Harper said. “Going to the Final Four and trying to compete for a national championship is all for Chuma. He put so much on the line for us this year.’’
Tigers coach Bruce Pearl knows Virginia’s Tony Bennett well. When he was head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Pearl said he first bought a Dick Bennett defense video focused on not allowing ball reversals — well before he established the pack-line defense.
“He taught me a lot about how we try to guard even to this day,” Pearl said.
To that end, Tony Bennett said he has chastised his father for being “an open book,” but noted Dick Bennett has openly influenced a lot of people in the game.
Virginia is in the Final Four for the third time, the first since 1984. Tony Bennett said he will reach out to his father, plus former Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan and others to be as prepared as possible.
“It still always comes down to preparing well with the right kind of focus and enjoying it,” Bennett said. “That’s the advice I’ve always gotten from those people and I think would be common sense in these situations.”
In the era of one-and-done, Pearl is in Minneapolis with a backcourt featuring senior Bryce Brown, who Pearl recalled was ranked in the 300s on most recruiting services. Brown agreed to wait for a scholarship to open — Pearl offered it to Jacob Evans, who went to Cincinnati — and his patience eventually paid off. Another small guard, Harper, was not offered scholarships by bigger schools.
“The biggest impact as far as our roster is concerned, before Chuma went down we were playing 10 guys double-digit minutes,” Pearl said. “When Chuma went down — he was and still is our most valuable player — we went down to nine. I’ve always played 10 guys double-digit guys. ... If Bryce Brown and Jared Harper don’t step up and have two great games, we don’t have a chance to get by a really good Kentucky team. Their experience.
“Last year, when we got down to seven scholarship players, we got destroyed by Clemson in the second round. ... From that moment forward, our motive was unfinished business. The reason the freshmen and a lot of these teams (don’t make) the Final Four is they don’t have the experience of having not gotten there.”
Izzo agreed Monday with that sentiment. He also said he’s rooting for Bennett because of their history together. Izzo worked at camps run by Dick Bennett, and has known Tony for decades. Izzo said he became an even bigger fan of Tony Bennett last season when the Cavaliers were the first team ever to lose to a No. 16 seed as a No. 1.
“It teaches you that it’s not just about being really good,” Izzo said. “I kind of have that feeling. We were really good in, I don’t know, ‘13 or ‘14 with that team and didn’t make it. We were really good in ‘16 and didn’t make it. We were really good in ‘18 and didn’t make it. So I kind of have that feeling, and yet when you go a four-year stretch, you thought you would in ‘16. You thought you might in ‘18, and you didn’t even get close. You’ve got to be good and you’ve got to be lucky. With that being said, I know one thing, I look at it now as ‘who knows if you’ll ever get back.’”
Beard and Texas Tech lost to Villanova in the Elite Eight last year and said the plan as a coach is to “stay old,” referencing the fact that his lineup led by four seniors was very much by design.
He also credited the Big 12 schedule for prepping the Red Raiders for this moment.
“The coaching is great in this league. Everybody has NBA players,” Beard said. “For sure, no doubt about it, I’ve always grown up studying this stuff and a student of the game. You always hear about the grind helping you. And it does. ... As good as Michigan State is, we’ve played Kansas, Kansas State, we played Duke in the nonconference.”
Izzo said he shared with Beard earlier Monday one piece of advice: Get your tickets set today.
“I’m going to hope experience helps me on the (peripheral) things,” Izzo said, noting his seven previous trips to the Final Four. “The experience helps. We’re going to have a big meeting on hotels and tickets ... that’s pressure that builds on these kids as the week goes.”
The celebratory lather from advancing to the Final Four by beating Kentucky will soon rinse clean, but Pearl didn’t want to put players on the spot so soon after that overtime victory.
“We just had a little time this morning to begin to look at Virginia,” Pearl said, noting his team’s reliance on the 3-point shot (14 made per game this season). “They allow just 29 percent shooting from 3. They’ve got big guards, they’re able to extend enough defensively to challenge shots.”
Bennett said he was into film watching Monday and getting a feel for the Tigers.
“Seeing the years he’s had at Auburn, you understand their quickness, how scrappy they are,” Bennett said. “Because of their depth, they can really absorb different types of things — foul trouble — they have a different range of guys.”
Temperatures are expected to be in the 60s this weekend outdoors, but coaches are spending the early part of the week unpacking as much game film as possible of their on-court opponents.
Pearl noted Virginia is second nationally in offensive efficiency, and the Cavaliers average fewer than 10 turnovers per game.
Pearl’s team thrives on causing havoc, and turnovers, with pressure defense and had plenty of praise for Bennett’s bunch on Monday.
“They’ve got some great balance. They have a number of guys that can and will shoot the 3-ball at great percentages,” Pearl said. “They do a really good job of getting to the free throw line, they value possessions. We are a defense, or a team, that relies on being able to turn our opponents over to get some offense out of our defense.”
Pearl said the team will attempt to maintain a routine this week while admitting Auburn knows the schedule at the Final Four is a major grind, as has been the case since the team arrived in Utah for the first round. After winning in the opening round, Pearl described his team and staff as “tired.”
Pearl gave the team a day off Monday and won’t bring up Virginia until Tuesday.
“We don’t play until Saturday,” Pearl said. “If I tried to give them anything on Virginia today, it’d be lost by Saturday.”
Bennett said his team is working quickly to reset for Minneapolis.
“It is the same formula — try to balance both, get your rest and prepare well,” Bennett said. “When you have a thankful heart with things and a strong desire to do well — they’re passionately wanting to do well in this setting.”
Beard said he goes to the Final Four every year, but this year gets to coach in it. Among those he’s leaning on this week are his own assistants, including Sean Sutton, and his Big 12 peers.
“The Big 12 family. I’ve gotten a text from probably every coach in the league. I’ve had a chance to talk to coach (Bill) Self and coach (Bruce) Weber,” Beard said. “Just trying to give my guys all the information they need.”
—By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media