4 key questions that will decide the 2019 Final Four

The 2019 Final Four is near. Virginia, Auburn, Michigan State and Texas Tech have descended on Minneapolis. The wait for March Madness’ annual culmination is almost over.

With Saturday’s games – No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 5 Auburn (6:09 ET, CBS), No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 3 Texas Tech (8:49 ET, CBS) – approaching, Yahoo Sports’ college basketball writers convened to answer the four most intriguing questions that will be posed this weekend – two per matchup.

1. Can Auburn speed up Virginia? (Or, will it even try?)

Saturday’s first matchup is a stylistic clash. Virginia is the slowest team in college basketball. Its games feature, on average, 60.6 possessions per team. Its standard offensive trip lasts almost 21 seconds. Those marks rank 353rd and 352nd, respectively, out of 353 Division I teams. Auburn, on the other hand, scored its biggest upset of the tournament with 97 points on 75 possessions against North Carolina. Its typical offensive jaunt is only 16.5 seconds. It has only played one game all season at a pace slower than the Cavs’ average.

So in theory, an up-tempo contest would suit Auburn. Attack Virginia’s stifling defense before it gets set, the thinking goes. Speed up the top seed’s methodical, precise offense. Push Virginia out of its comfort zone, into a track meet, where Jared Harper and Bryce Brown will thrive.

However ... there are equally compelling reasons why Auburn might be perfectly happy with a grind. First, the macro view: It’s a 5.5-point underdog. It’s the inferior team. The fewer opportunities it gives a superior foe to exert that superiority, the better off it’ll be.

That’s especially true without the injured Chuma Okeke. The Tigers are shorthanded. They might need 40 minutes apiece from Harper and Brown, who carried them to an Elite Eight victory over Kentucky. Head coach Bruce Pearl even admitted that his second-half strategy was to “get out of the way, get the ball to Jared or Bryce.” That’s probably his best bet again – if Harper and Brown have the legs. They scored 35 of Auburn’s 47 second-half and overtime points last round in a game played at a 62-possession pace in regulation. They also each needed six minutes of rest. Could they be as prolific without breathers, and/or at a quicker pace?

Related: Auburn knocks off No. 1 UNC: 

11 PHOTOS
No. 5 Auburn upsets No. 1 UNC in Sweet 16
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No. 5 Auburn upsets No. 1 UNC in Sweet 16
KANSAS CITY, MO - MARCH 29: Coby White #2 of the North Carolina Tar Heels defends against the Auburn Tigers in the third round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament held at Sprint Center on March 29, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - MARCH 29: Luke Maye #32 of the North Carolina Tar Heels handles the ball against the Auburn Tigers during the 2019 NCAA Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional at Sprint Center on March 29, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MO - MARCH 29: Garrison Brooks #15 of the North Carolina Tar Heels fights over the ball against Anfernee McLemore #24 of the Auburn Tigers in the third round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament held at Sprint Center on March 29, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - MARCH 29: J'Von McCormick #12 of the Auburn Tigers drives to the basket against the North Carolina Tar Heels during the 2019 NCAA Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional at Sprint Center on March 29, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - MARCH 29: Seventh Woods #0 of the North Carolina Tar Heels battles for a loose ball with Bryce Brown #2 of the Auburn Tigers during the 2019 NCAA Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional at Sprint Center on March 29, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - MARCH 29: Cameron Johnson #13 of the North Carolina Tar Heels battles for the ball against the Auburn Tigers during the 2019 NCAA Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional at Sprint Center on March 29, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Auburn's Chuma Okeke yells out in pain after being injured during the second half of a men's NCAA tournament college basketball Midwest Regional semifinal game against North Carolina Friday, March 29, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
North Carolina's Coby White (2) dunks as Auburn's Horace Spencer (0) defends during the second half of a men's NCAA tournament college basketball Midwest Regional semifinal game Friday, March 29, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Auburn's Samir Doughty celebrates during the second half of a men's NCAA tournament college basketball Midwest Regional semifinal game against North Carolina Friday, March 29, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
North Carolina head coach Roy Williams yells from the sidelines during the second half of a men's NCAA tournament college basketball Midwest Regional semifinal game against Auburn Friday, March 29, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Auburn's Bryce Brown applauds during the second half of a men's NCAA tournament college basketball Midwest Regional semifinal game against North Carolina Friday, March 29, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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Thus, the pace question morphs into: Can Auburn get the best of both worlds? Can it use tempo to occasionally manufacture space for Harper and Brown, but do so selectively to keep them fresh? Can it disrupt Virginia’s offense, but not get swept away by a feeling that it must unsettle the game to win?

The answer will come from a tug-of-war between the nation’s best turnover defense and one of its most secure offenses. Auburn’s selective tempo-pushing depends on its live-ball turnover-forcing. The Tigers turn opponents over on 24.9 percent of their possessions. The Cavs only cough up the ball on 14.7 percent of theirs. That differential will be the widest of any D-I game all season. Something has to give. Whichever side doesn’t will likely be playing again Monday night. Henry Bushnell

2. Will Virginia match Auburn’s strength or attack its weakness?

In the aftermath of Auburn’s Elite Eight triumph, Okeke’s sideline presence was celebrated as an emotional catalyst. Had Kentucky won, though, his on-court absence would have been the story. P.J. Washington and Reid Travis combined for 37 points on 23 field goal attempts (and seven missed free throws to boot).

Without Okeke, Auburn is undermanned up front. And while Virginia’s frontcourt doesn’t have a low-post scorer with Washington’s skill, it has the size to overpower the Tigers. The question is whether Tony Bennett will allow it to.

Bennett’s rotation has fluctuated situationally. His three-man core (Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter) will rarely sit. For the rest, there is little certainty. Here are their minutes against Gardner-Webb, Oklahoma, Oregon and Purdue (OT*), respectively:

  • Mamadi Diakite (6-foot-9 F/C): 27, 28, 35, 42*

  • Kihei Clark (5-foot-9 G): 36, 33, 37, 24*

  • Jack Salt (6-foot-10 C): 5, 2, 3, 34*

  • Braxton Key (6-foot-8 F): 11, 21, 7, 2*

  • Jay Huff (7-foot-1 C): 5, 9, 1, 0*

Bennett can play a no-true-big lineup that goes 5-9, 6-2, 6-5, 6-7, 6-8. He can also roll out a two-big lineup that goes 6-2, 6-5, 6-7, 6-9, 6-10.

Diakite has played himself into near-40-minute territory over the past two weeks. But Salt, a senior with brute strength, is the eye-opening example. He barely saw the floor through three rounds, then was excellent in his supporting role against Purdue.

If Bennett goes back to that Hunter-Diakite-Salt lineup against Auburn, the Tigers don’t really have a counter. They’re already a poor defensive rebounding team. As long as Virginia can get first shots up, the underdogs will be in trouble.

See each remaining team's odds of winning it all: 

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Championship odds for Final Four March Madness teams
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Championship odds for Final Four March Madness teams

No. 5 Auburn: 7/1 odds

Via Vegas Insider

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

No. 3 Texas Tech: 4/1 odds

Via Vegas Insider

 (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

No. 2 Michigan State: 7/4 odds

Via Vegas Insider

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

No. 1 Virginia: 8/5 odds

Via Vegas Insider

(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
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But does Bennett trust that big lineup to contain Harper and Brown? Clark is probably the most suitable matchup for Harper. And the Purdue game was a Carsen Edwards-related anomaly. Only opponents with big guards have driven Clark to the bench recently. He should fit seamlessly into Saturday’s game.

If Clark is on the court, though, Salt probably won’t be.

Auburn’s best hope is another Brown-Harper explosion. Bennett will likely mix and match lineups chiefly to prevent that explosion. Which might mean Virginia can’t take full advantage of Auburn’s weakened front line. It’ll be up to Bennett to manage the give-and-take. Henry Bushnell

3. Can Michigan State take care of the ball against Texas Tech?

There’s one issue that has popped up in many of Michigan State’s losses the past few years. Too often, the Spartans struggle to take care of the basketball.

Michigan State turns the ball over on 18.5 percent of its possessions this year, an improvement over the last two seasons but still a tick below the national average. In the Spartans’ six losses this season, they’ve committed 15.8 turnovers per game, compared to 10.4 per game in their 32 victories.

Taking care of the ball should be especially important against an aggressive Texas Tech defense that thrives on producing takeaways. The Red Raiders force turnovers thanks to the quick hands of ball-hawking guard Matt Mooney, the long arms of perimeter stopper Jarrett Culver and the instincts and timing of shot blockers Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase.

Three keys for any Texas Tech opponent are limiting turnovers, scoring in transition before the Red Raiders’ vaunted defense is set and generating extra possessions via the offensive glass when help defenders take themselves out of rebounding position. Michigan State’s track record is strong in the latter two of those areas, but how the Spartans adjust to Texas Tech’s hands always being around the ball will be key. Jeff Eisenberg

36 PHOTOS
The best photos and moments from March Madness 2019
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The best photos and moments from March Madness 2019
Buffalo's Jeremy Harris chases after a loose ball during the second half of a first round men's college basketball game against Arizona State in the NCAA Tournament Friday, March 22, 2019, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Wisconsin guard D'Mitrik Trice, bottom, holds onto the ball under Oregon guard Ehab Amin during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, Friday, March 22, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Buffalo's Dontay Caruthers celebrates a teammates basket during the first half of a first round men's college basketball game against Arizona State in the NCAA Tournament Friday, March 22, 2019, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
DES MOINES, IOWA - MARCH 21: Head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans glares at Aaron Henry #11 after a play during their game in the First Round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament against the Bradley Braves at Wells Fargo Arena on March 21, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - MARCH 21: Jared Harper #1 of the Auburn Tigers falls after driving to the basket during the first half against the New Mexico State Aggies in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 21, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Kansas State guard Shaun Neal-Williams (1) loses the ball between UC Irvine guard Spencer Rivers, left, and guard Evan Leonard during the first half of a first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament Friday, March 22, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman (23) grabs a rebound over Bradley guard Ja'Shon Henry (22) during a first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Belmont 's Dylan Windler, center, goes to the basket between Maryland 's Bruno Fernando, left, and Darryl Morsell (11) during the second half of the first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla. Thursday, March 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Wisconsin guard Khalil Iverson, left, shoots against Oregon forward Paul White during the first half of a first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 22, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Houston's DeJon Jarreau dunks the ball during the first half of a first round men's college basketball game against Georgia State in the NCAA Tournament Friday, March 22, 2019, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Mississippi State guard Lamar Peters watches during the second half of the team's game against Liberty in the first round of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Friday, March 22, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
LSU players celebrate after defeating Maryland 69-67 in a second-round game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., Saturday, March 23, 2019. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Gonzaga's Josh Perkins (13) reaches for Corey Kispert (24) after Kispert's 3-pointer against Baylor during the second half of a second-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Saturday, March 23, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert, left, looks to pass as Baylor guard Mario Kegler defends during the second half of a second-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Saturday, March 23, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Jeff Swinger)
Texas Tech's Jarrett Culver (23) shoots past Buffalo's Nick Perkins (33) during the second half of a second round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Tulsa, Okla. Texas Tech won 78-58. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Oregon forward Louis King celebrates after scoring against UC Irvine during the second half of a second-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Sunday, March 24, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Florida State guard Trent Forrest, left, blocks a shot by Gonzaga guard Zach Norvell Jr. during the second half an NCAA men's college basketball tournament West Region semifinal Thursday, March 28, 2019, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY - MARCH 28: Matt Haarms #32 of the Purdue Boilermakers reacts against the Tennessee Volunteers during the second half of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at the KFC YUM! Center on March 28, 2019 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Texas guard Matt Coleman III (2) screams after taking a charge by a Colorado player during an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the NIT on Wednesday, March 27, 2019, in Austin, Texas. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)
Michigan guard Charles Matthews, left, and guard Jordan Poole leave the court after the team's loss to Texas Tech during an NCAA men's college basketball tournament West Region semifinal Thursday, March 28, 2019, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 30: Brandon Clarke #15 and Rui Hachimura #21 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs compete for the ball against Norense Odiase #32 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders during the first half of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament West Regional at Honda Center on March 30, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Texas Tech forward Tariq Owens celebrates after scoring against Michigan during the second half an NCAA men's college basketball tournament West Region semifinal Thursday, March 28, 2019, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Auburn's Chuma Okeke (5) grabs his leg as he loses control of the ball on his way to the basket as North Carolina's Cameron Johnson (13) and North Carolina's Brandon Robinson, left, defend during the second half of a men's NCAA tournament college basketball Midwest Regional semifinal game Friday, March 29, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. Okeke was injured on the play. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman (23) beats out LSU forward Darius Days (22) for the loose ball during the first half of an East Regional semifinal in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Friday, March 29, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
North Carolina's Seventh Woods, left, and Kenny Williams pause near the end of a men's NCAA tournament college basketball Midwest Regional semifinal game against Auburn Friday, March 29, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: Ahmed Hill #13 of the Virginia Tech Hokies reacts after missing a layup against the Duke Blue Devils late in the second half in the East Regional game of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Capital One Arena on March 29, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Duke guard Tre Jones (3) reacts after scoring against Virginia Tech during the second half of an NCAA men's college basketball tournament East Region semifinal in Washington, Friday, March 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura scores against Texas Tech during the first half of a men's NCAA Tournament college basketball West Regional final game Saturday, March 30, 2019, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Virginia's De'Andre Hunter dribbles past Purdue's Grady Eifert (24) during the first half of the men's NCAA Tournament college basketball South Regional final game, Saturday, March 30, 2019, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Purdue's Trevion Williams (50) puts up a shot against Virginia's Jack Salt (33) during the second half of the men's NCAA Tournament college basketball South Regional final game, Saturday, March 30, 2019, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Virginia's Mamadi Diakite, center, reacts with teammates Kyle Guy and Jack Salt (33) after hitting a shot to send the game into overtime in the men's NCAA Tournament college basketball South Regional final game against Purdue, Saturday, March 30, 2019, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Auburn's Anfernee McLemore (24) and Kentucky's Reid Travis (22) reach for a rebound during the first half of the Midwest Regional final game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Sunday, March 31, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Auburn's Jared Harper, left, drives to the basket past Kentucky's Reid Travis during the first half of the Midwest Regional final game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Sunday, March 31, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 31: Tre Jones #3 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after his teams 68-67 loss to the Michigan State Spartans in the East Regional game of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Capital One Arena on March 31, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Michigan State guard Cassius Winston, right, celebrates with teammates Matt McQuaid (20), Nick Ward (44) and Gabe Brown (13) after defeating Duke in an NCAA men's East Regional final college basketball game in Washington, Sunday, March 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 31: Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts in the locker room after his teams 68-67 loss to the Michigan State Spartans in the East Regional game of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Capital One Arena on March 31, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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4. Can Texas Tech score enough to keep Michigan State out of transition?

Airtight defense has been Texas Tech’s trademark this season, but the Red Raiders’ late-season jump from very good to elite coincided with their offense improving. They went from outside the top 100 in adjusted offensive efficiency entering February to cracking the top 30 just two months later.

While Culver has blossomed from role player to All-American because of his ability to generate his own shot off the dribble, Texas Tech’s offense only became explosive when his supporting cast started to ease the burden on him. Mooney creates scoring chances for himself and his teammates off the dribble, Davide Moretti is an elite spot-up shooter and Brandone Francis, Deshawn Corprew and Kyler Edwards can all make shots too.

Michigan State’s top-10 defense will be one of the best Texas Tech has encountered, though the Spartans aren’t aggressive enough to take advantage of the Red Raiders’ lack of a true point guard. Texas Tech has scored at least 1 point per possession in each of its past 14 games, but Michigan State will play positionally solid defense, force contested shots and surrender few second-chance opportunities.

For Texas Tech, making baskets will be key for more than just the obvious reasons. The Red Raiders need to score to keep Michigan State out of transition and force the Spartans to have to attack a set defense. Jeff Eisenberg

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