A friend told me recently that he would not trade Bruce Pearl for any college basketball coach in America. Based on Auburn’s performance the past week or so, I would be hard pressed to disagree with him.
On the way to its first-ever Final Four, Auburn beat the three winningest basketball programs of all time in Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky — the bluest of the blue bloods. Auburn extended its winning streak to 12 games with the Kentucky victory, a streak that included a 10-0 record in March, the month of “March Madness” when tournaments are played.
Now, the team faces Virginia, regular season champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference, probably the best college basketball conference in the nation. Virginia (33-3) has the best record of any team in the nation over the past two seasons, while playing the likes of Duke and North Carolina in the ACC.
Auburn has done this mainly because of the way Pearl coaches — building confidence in a group of young men, most of whom were not even recruited by the teams they have been beating, and giving them the “green light” to shoot if they are open even temporarily.
Virginia will be trying to mitigate memories of last year’s NCAA tournament when it became the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a No. 16 — University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) — in the first round. Winning the tournament this year is about the only way Virginia can do that.
Virginia will be the taller team (so what is new?) with two players over 7 feet tall on its roster. Auburn and Virginia have met four times in basketball, with each winning twice. Auburn won the last contest by a single point in 2009.
This year, the two teams like to play totally different styles (so what is new?). Virginia likes to slow it down and play a half-court game. Auburn wants to play at break-neck speed — shooting three-point shots in transition.
One thing I like about Pearl’s coaching is his up-beat style of play — forcing turnovers and scoring points off a hovering, ball-pressure defense.
Never would I have thought this team would be in the Final Four. I do not have a vote, but if I did, I would cast it for coach Pearl for national coach of the year. Who else has taken a group of apparently outstanding young men of high character but with less than five-star talent to the heights Pearl has Auburn this season?
Another mountain to climb to get by a very good Virginia team Saturday to play for the national championship on Monday. But this team has proven that it can climb mountains with the best of them.