Sometimes in sports a group becomes greater than the sum total of its individual parts through teamwork, coaching, chemistry and a burning desire to be successful. Auburn fans have been watching that happen for more than a month now as their Tigers are two wins away from the first basketball national championship AU history.
On Saturday evening in Minneapolis, the SEC Tournament champs will take on co-ACC champion Virginia, with the winner advancing to Monday night’s national championship game. Auburn has already whipped the ACC’s other co-champion, dominating the North Carolina Tar Heels last Friday in Kansas City.
I have no doubt that Auburn is good enough to get past Virginia, but that will be a major challenge, especially with the Tigers having to do it without injured Chuma Okeke, their best rebounder, a relentless defender and a skilled offensive player who is a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches.
However, Auburn’s coach, Bruce Pearl, has put together a deep, talented and hard-working roster. Even without Okeke, the Tigers will be able to go with a nine-man rotation with each of those guys playing with a high level of confidence, which is a big deal going onto the biggest stage in their sport.
The Tigers seemed to have no doubt going into their NCAA Tournament games vs. New Mexico State, Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky that they were going to find ways to win. The players have been “all in,” both mentally and physically, and that is why they have won 12 consecutive games.
Saturday’s matchup vs. Virginia will be a clash of contrasting styles. The Tigers are going to try to make the pace as up-tempo as possible while Virginia prefers a slow and methodical style.
Pearl’s Tigers can play effectively in a slower, half-court style of game, but are at their best when going very fast, which North Carolina found out the hard way when the Tar Heels tried to out-run the Tigers during their Sweet 16 matchup in Kansas City.
The two other teams that have advanced to Minneapolis, Michigan State and Texas Tech, have played a lot of good basketball leading up to the Final Four, but neither the Spartans, Red Raiders or Virginia Cavaliers have been as impressive in the NCAA Tournament as the Tigers, who haven’t lost a game since a setback at Kentucky in February.
If Okeke was healthy, I would really like Auburn’s chances of bringing home the national championship trophy. Without him the Tigers still have a chance to cut down the nets on Monday night with Bryce Brown and Jared Harper leading the way, but it will likely take strong performances from those two guards plus four or five of their teammates to make it happen.
When Auburn is on from three-point range the Tigers are tough to beat. When Pearl’s team takes the opponent out of its comfort zone with defensive pressure that creates a lot of points off turnovers, they become especially tough to handle. Coming through with big performances in both of those areas will be the formula for success in Minneapolis.
Mark Murphy is the editor of Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine and newsletter