(1) Virginia vs. (5) Auburn
Initial Thoughts: As my colleague Jim pointed out Sunday night immediately following the conclusion of the Duke / Michigan State thriller, there’s just something about this Final Four field that feels a little bit off…
Yet, even in the absence of those blue-bloods, there’s no shortage of juicy storylines hovering over Minneapolis this weekend. The first of Saturday night’s double-header will feature ‘The Redemption Tour’ (played by Auburn and Bruce Pearl) versus ‘The Revenge Tour’ (played by Virginia and Tony Bennett).
For Bruce Pearl, it’s about scrubbing away the residue that still plagues his reputation in the eyes of many, which stems from the 3-year show-cause penalty slapped on him during his first SEC pit stop at Tennessee. They say winning is the cure to everything – so, what better way to bury the stench of those 2011 infractions than by burying three of the nation’s most prominent brand names, Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky, in back to back to back games and raising the first Final Four banner in Auburn basketball history. It’s amazing how quickly Pearl’s public perception has transformed from a ‘dishonest car salesman’ to a ‘fiercely passionate leader of men’ over the past few seasons.
For Tony Bennett and Virginia, it’s about silencing the critics who spent all season poking fun at last year’s opening round catastrophe against UMBC. Even after laying waste to a loaded ACC field [again], it seemed as if the Cavaliers’ still needed a deep run in March to validate the legitimacy of their unique brand of basketball. And after Saturday’s instant classic in Louisville, which felt like a semi-road game in front of a Black and Gold infested crowd in Louisville, the Hoos’ will return to college basketball’s most coveted stage for the first time in over three decades.
The common denominator between Bruce Pearl and Tony Bennett is, ironically, Tony’s dad and Wisconsin coaching legend Dick Bennett. In Monday’s coaching teleconference, Pearl took a stroll down memory lane from his time at Wisconsin Milwaukee and highlighted his admiration of Dick Bennett’s blueprint to success at nearby Wisconsin Madison. Pearl admitted that many of the denial-heavy defensive principles that are instilled in his teams today are rooted in those early teachings from Dick Bennett, which pre-date his invention of the pack-line defense – the same defense that’s vaulted his son Tony all the way to the top of the national coaching totem pole at Virginia.
Thus, in essence, ‘Dick Bennett 1.0’ (pre pack-line) is one of Pearl’s greatest influencers, while ‘Dick Bennett 2.0’ (post pack-line) is one of Tony’s greatest influencers. It’s this dichotomy in coaching styles that sets the stage for what should be a fascinating chess match Saturday evening in Minneapolis.
Auburn on Offense: In many ways, Virginia’s first-hand experience of watching Carsen Edwards nearly burn down the KFC Yum! Center on Saturday was a perfect primer for the impending matchup with Auburn. Edwards might be a slight cut above Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, but in terms of off-the-dribble explosiveness and NBA-level shooting range, only a handful of guards in the country can match Brown and Harper in those two domains – Kentucky fans, please proceed with caution before watching:
Even against two stout perimeter defenders in Ashton Hagans and Tyler Herro, Brown and Harper still knifed through the Wildcats defense almost at will. What I loved most about Harper’s overtime performance in which he single-handedly willed the Tigers to victory, was his refusal to settle for contested outside jumpers. As dominant as Edwards was against Virginia, there were a few occasions where he had an advantage against his defender going downhill, but opted to pull-up for a tough, step-back jumper. Granted, it’s hard to blame him when everything he threw up found the bottom of the net, but Harper’s persistence in getting to the rack was nearly impossible for Kentucky to contain, especially with the plethora of shooters dotting the arc on the perimeter.
It all comes down to how consistently Harper and Brown are able to break down Virginia’s first line of defense and force early off-ball help, at the risk of leaving Auburn’s 3-point snipers unmarked. Harper and Brown are in-range the moment they step across half-court and it’s this gravitational pull that leaves their respective defenders no choice but to step up well-beyond the 3-point arc. The Tigers’ dynamic duo is simply too quick to corral without significant off-ball support, but this is a defining point of emphasis in Bennett’s pack-line defensive scheme. As a result, this should put the onus on Auburn’s supporting cast - Malik Dunbar, Samir Doughty, Anfernee McLemore and Danjel Purifoy - to cash in on the drive-and-kick, spot-up looks from downtown that Brown and Harper will inevitably create for them.
That said, while an accurate shooting night will obviously increase Auburn’s chances of pulling off the upset, as mentioned in our Midwest regional Sweet-16 preview, the Tigers are not EXCLUSIVELY leveraged on being hot from deep. Look no further than Sunday against Kentucky - thanks to Harper’s relentless pursuit of the rim, along with Brown’s assortment of tough midrange pull-ups, Auburn squeaked past the Wildcats despite converting just 7 of 23 (30%) from long distance.
The difference against Virginia is that those open driving lanes will almost surely be closed off once Harper and Brown get to about 20-feet and in. Harper and Brown will either need to do their best Carsen Edwards impersonation and catch fire on deep pull-ups or spray it around to their teammates for spot-up threes. Keep in mind that with Chuma Okeke sidelined for the second straight game, that means we’ll see more possessions with either Austin Wiley or Horace Spencer on the floor, neither of whom is a long-range shooting threat.
Virginia on Offense: At some point during each of Virginia’s four tournament wins, I’ve pulled out my phone, navigated to kenpom.com’s Virginia team page and thought to myself, “How in the world is Virginia the 2nd best offense in the country? Is there a glitch in Ken’s model?”
Virginia has endured multiple scoring droughts over the past two weekends, in large part due to an ill-timed shooting slump that’s cursed the Cavs since the tournament’s inception two weeks ago. The same team that knocked down 40% of its treys during the year seems to have caught a cold – in the four tournament games so far, UVA is 32 of 107 from the land of plenty (30%), a 10% downtick from its season-long average on 40%.
Yet, here are the Hoos, just two wins away from climbing the nets in Minneapolis, all because of a versatile offensive attack that mitigates the harm of extended shooting slumps by putting points on the board in other ways. So far this tournament, one of these alternative routes has been through the offensive glass. Virginia has snagged 48 of its own misses over the past four games, including a whopping 17 offensive rebounds against a physical Purdue frontline.
At face value, this would appear to be an overwhelming advantage for Virginia. Auburn’s defensive rebounding rate graded out in the bottom-50 in all of college basketball during the course season, but during the Tigers’ run to the Final Four, Bruce Pearl’s array of position-less forwards has actually fended off three of the most devastating grass clashing units in the nation: New Mexico State, North Carolina and Kentucky. Per the chart below, Auburn managed to hold each opponent to right around its season average in offensive rebounding rate, preventing a major blood bath on the boards inside:
While the season long data would lead you to believe Virginia should eat in the paint, I wouldn’t put all my eggs in this basket if I were a Cavs fan, especially with Austin Wiley, Auburn’s lone prototypical post presence and best rebounder on a per minute basis, slated to see his minutes spike with Okeke out of the picture.
However, here’s where I do think the Hoos will find some holes in Auburn’s hyper-extended defense. Against Kentucky, Ashton Hagans and Tyler Herro were erratic for most of the game offensively, but they did reveal where some of the cracks can be found in Auburn’s defense, which shifts back and forth between a standard man-to-man and a funky 1-1-3 zone. As you can see from the two clips below, the backend of the defense is often where the soft spots emerge:
This could be problematic against Virginia, especially if the Cavs can bend the initial defensive structure and force disjointed off-ball rotations. If they can, there’s not a set of guards in America more adept at pinpointing cutters and finding the open man along the baseline than Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and Kihei Clark.
Two more matchup wrinkles to keep an eye on when Virginia has the ball:
Against Kentucky, Auburn was able to sag off of Hagans and keep an extra body near the paint at all times, as they essentially dared Hagans to shoot it from the perimeter (think of a less pronounced version of the ‘Tre Jones treatment’). While Pearl may explore a similar approach with Kihei Clark on Saturday, Clark has proven he’s more than capable of knocking down open looks with time and space, so I don’t envision this being a major inhibitor Virginia’s offensive spacing.
Harper and Brown are lightning quick ball pests who often spearhead the Tigers’ perimeter pressure, but they are prone to being exploited inside by bigger opposing guards in the mid and low-post areas. This season in SEC play, Alabama utilized this strategy by isolating their bigger, longer guards against Harper and Brown from 10-feet and in. Guy and Jerome are far from seasoned post-up players, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bennett get creative and weaponize the Cavs’ superior size at the guard position by inverting them inside to exploit the smaller Harper and Brown.
Key Factor(s): There’s a laundry list of ‘X-factors’ in this game, but I honed in on Deandre Hunter and Braxton Key as potential game-changers against the rangy and bouncy Auburn wings and forwards.
As I alluded to in my Sweet-16 South regional preview, Virginia has yet to play a complete offensive game for a full 40 minutes in this tournament, a big part of which has been because of Hunter’s mysterious disappearance over the last three games. After a strong opening outing against Gardner-Webb, Hunter has been a shell of himself since the stakes have risen against more formidable competition. He finally reappeared when it mattered most down the stretch against Purdue with two enormous drives in the final two minutes of overtime, which set up a pair of game-tying free throws and the eventual go-ahead bucket in the bonus period. Perhaps those two huge plays in crunch time will unlock the inner confidence Hunter needs to come out assertive on Saturday night, but another lackluster showing will continue to put an excessive amount of pressure on Ty Jerome to initiate offense in the half-court.
While Hunter will almost surely play major minutes, a potential sleeping giant in this matchup is Braxton Key, who has been effectively put in timeout by Bennett during this tournament. Key’s sharp decline in minutes is mostly a byproduct of Mamadi Diakite’s brilliant play this postseason, but Auburn’s dangerous crop of mobile forwards could prompt Bennett to set the former Alabama transfer free on Saturday night. Upon scanning Virginia’s schedule this season, Florida State sticks out as the closest comparison to Auburn from both a personnel and stylistic perspective. In the first meeting between the ‘Noles and the Cavs in the regular season, Key had a monster game off the bench and was instrumental in neutralizing some of Florida State’s athletic advantages. Outside of Hunter, Key is the only player on UVA’s roster that mirrors the athletic and versatile forwards of Auburns’ DNA. Bennett has parked his caboose on the bench all tournament, but with how fluidly he’s shuffled his forward rotations this tournament, don’t be surprised to see Key be, well, exactly that – one of the ‘key’s against Auburn.
Final Predictions: Yes, I will in fact be going back to the Virginia well once again in this one. I’ll concede I might be stubbornly clinging to what I saw the Cavaliers do all season long, but this where I think the timer runs out on Auburn’s March-long magic carpet ride. As we referenced on the podcast Monday night, over the last 10 years, favorites have typically taken care of their business in the Final Four. While ‘higher seed’ does not always coincide with ‘favorite’ by the oddsmakers’ standards, it’s worth noting that the higher seeded team is 19-9-1 against-the-spread and 24-5 outright during that span (research courtesy of Action Network).